Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Scandal of Grace

If you could sum up the very core of Christianity in one word, it would be grace. Grace is what sets Christianity apart from any other belief system. It has been the central theme of the Christian message for the past 2000 years. Grace is good news. It is the Good News. It defines who we are as Christians.


It’s a sad fact that we Christians haven’t done a very good job lately of communicating grace to the world around us. That’s actually a huge understatement. Let’s be blunt: collectively Christians in this country have done a terrible job of communicating grace to our fellow citizens.

What is grace? Grace is showering blessings on those who don’t deserve them. Grace is a kind word to those who speak harshly. Grace is giving to those who don’t give back. Grace is forgiving without waiting for an apology. Grace is caring more for another person’s needs than for your own.

Why is grace the one word that defines Christianity, that sets it apart from every other religion? Because Christianity began with the greatest act of grace that can ever be conceived: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Christianity has always been a good news/bad news story. The bad news is that nothing you can ever do will make up for the sins you have committed. There is no way you can make yourself good enough to be acceptable to God. The good news is that no matter what you have done or how bad you have been, God has provided a way for you to be forgiven. Jesus took the punishment you deserve so that you can have peace with God. And that’s Grace – with a capital G.

Somehow we haven’t gotten the message across. I have rarely met a non-Christian who understands this aspect of Christianity. Somehow what people hear is, “You are a bad person because you do lots of bad things. You better straighten up or God will send you to hell. We Christians are better than you so God is going to let us go to heaven.”

What a horrible distortion of the Gospel! How can we have been so misunderstood? I know this is not the message that is preached from the pulpits of America every Sunday. A Christian is not someone who is better than everyone else. Christians are simply people who have realized what terrible sinners they are and have accepted God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

Alas, I think I know one reason our message has been so misunderstood. Over the past few decades we have become defined in the national consciousness primarily by what we disapprove of. As the nation has moved away from a Christian moral consensus, Christian groups have risen in protest. We protest abortion. We protest gay rights. We protest handing out birth control pills to middle schoolers. We protest Harry Potter. Before you know it everyone thinks of Christians as people who spend their lives following a long list of rules. But we aren’t content with that. We want everybody else to follow those rules, too. We have become the national nags.

My Christian friends will ask, “Is that wrong? Isn’t it important that we take a stand for what’s right?” I’m not sure I know the answer. As citizens of a democracy we have a right for our voices to be heard. And we have an obligation to protect the young and innocent in our society, born and unborn. But by focusing on the behavior of others instead of the condition of their hearts we have sent the wrong message. We seem to be saying that the most important thing is following the rules. But we know that’s not true, because just trying to follow the rules didn’t save us and it will never save anyone else, either.

Theologians talk about the “scandal of grace.” From the earliest days of Christianity people were afraid that God’s grace might be misunderstood. When people find out that salvation is by faith in Christ alone, and not by living a holy life, they may be tempted to give lip service to God and keep right on sinning. That’s certainly possible. The Gospel might indeed be misunderstood as giving license to sinful living. But the greater danger today is that people will never hear about God’s grace at all. This is the true scandal of grace in our generation.

If you are not a Christian, please hear this from me today: God loves you, right now, regardless of what you’ve done or what you’re doing. Maybe there are some things you think are good and he thinks are bad, but there’s time later to work that out. You know deep in your heart you’re not the person you ought to be. God knows that, too, but he still loves you. He wants to cleanse your heart and make peace with you. There’s no price for you to pay because Jesus has already paid it by dying for you on the cross. Now God is waiting for you with open arms.


Paradiggm said...

This is an excellent essay. I might not agree with you on everythng, but this is a fine message.

May I ask you two questions? Firstly, between faith, hope, and love- to which is grace most closely tied?

Secondly, between faith, hope and love, if you could wish but one of these be in everyones hearts even at the expense of losing the other two, which would it be?

Bill Hensley said...


Thanks for your comments.

Those are interesting questions. I wonder why you would ask them. Regarding the first, I would say that grace is a direct expression of love, so they are closely tied in that way. Regarding the second question, are you looking for something beyond what Paul said in I Corinthians? And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (I Cor 13:13)

Rob said...

Grace is mostly beyond us. We can only understand fairness and insist on fixing people instead of loving them. At our very best we grasp that by forgiving those who have harmed us we mainly help ourselves. Self-centered grace?