Grace is Outrageous!

We can’t cope with grace. We find it offensive. It seems unfair to us. We want rules; we want obedience to the rules to bring reward; we want disobedience to bring punishment. To us, that’s ‘fair’ and how, in our transactional mindset, we feel that the world should work…

It’s the way we try to make the world work - with our ideas of working for a living; being paid for what we do - and in the words of the Lord High Executioner’s song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time -
To let the punishment fit the crime…

Indeed, most of our theology is set up this way - those who are ‘good Christians’ - those who ‘accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour’ and who then lead squeaky-clean lives of service to the church - ‘go to heaven’ whilst all the rest ‘go to hell’. This seems natural and right to us.

And then we come across scriptures we can’t deal with. The parable of the workers in the vineyard, where everyone receives the same wage, regardless of whether they worked all day or just for an hour at the end of the day, is bad enough, but then we get to things like this:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (all good so far, we can agree with this),

and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Boo! Hiss!)

This can’t be right! Everyone who sins is justified? Without even the merest hint of repentance or penance or payment or… Well, anything really? Where does this come from? Is this right, or fair, or just?

No, of course it isn’t right, or fair, or just! It isn’t because it’s outrageous, radical, grace! Nobody, least of all God, said anything about grace being fair. Grace goes against nature - that, surely, is part of the point of it being grace.

It’s grace. It’s a gift, freely given by a God who chooses to give it…

To everyone.

But even when it’s this clear, we try to reinterpret it. We try to say that grace is actually transactional.

We try to distort the message of grace by saying that, actually, God does require ‘payment’ - that sin must be punished - and that either we get punished (by being sent to hell for eternity - and I’m not sure then, that the punishment does fit the crime), or else Jesus is punished (by God) on our behalf - this is the basis of the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is an attempt to disguise grace as a transaction. Sadly, it’s been successful in hoodwinking a large part of the Christian population for most of the last five hundred years, and has resulted in the church managing to put off countless millions of people from wanting to have anything to do with ‘God’.

Anyway, back to Grace. I think the perfect illustration comes, unsurprisingly, from Jesus himself. In Matthew’s gospel - from late in chapter 19 through the first part of chapter 20, Jesus tells the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, in response to the disciples’ questioning about rewards.

“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

What that is saying is that if God chooses to be generous, and chooses to reward everyone the same, however ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ we may think they are, that is His business, not ours. We should be grateful for what we have been given, not envious of those who may receive the same as us for doing far less - or even nothing.

Grace seems scandalous to us - that’s because we can’t comprehend the unbelievable goodness of God. We can look at a lifetime of service and sacrifice and feel cheated because someone who comes to the cross late receives the same reward we do. But that’s the wrong way to look at it.

When we begin to recognise how truly lavish God’s grace and mercy is, we can stop focussing on what’s fair or unfair, and instead humbly begin to appreciate God’s munificent benevolence.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022