A Question of Grace: Is it Amazing or Appalling?

By Regis Nicoll12/19/2008

Is It Amazing or Appalling?

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11)

AMAZED BY GRACE I have a habit—a rebellious streak, I’ve been told—of not stopping for stop signs. Oh, I’ll slow down to give a quick glance in both directions and, if necessary, come to a rolling stop; but unless oncoming traffic forces me to do otherwise, I’ll breeze through the intersection without a second thought. It hasn’t helped that in 40 years of driving I’ve had only one traffic ticket, and that was for speeding.

So when I was pulled over the other day, I knew that the long-overdue arm of justice had fallen. This time I had rolled (rather briskly) past a stop sign, right in front of a police car—driven by the county sheriff no less.

The sheriff strolled up to my car window, looked at me, then back at the intersection, and asked with a smile, “Sir, did you know that was a stop sign back there.” With head hung low, I glanced in his direction, nodding sheepishly, “Yessir, guilty as charged.”

Looking me over one more time, he replied, “Wwwell . . . I’m gonna give ya a warning this time.”

I lifted my head and exhaled, “I guess I’m receiving grace.”

“Yeah, well, with the price of gas these days, I hate to cost folks any more money. Just remember to stop for those stop signs.”

“Yes, Officer.”

Instead of the fine I rightly deserved for this and untold numbers of other uncited infractions, I received a gentle reminder. It might have had some bearing in my treatment that the sheriff is up for re-election this November. But I didn’t care—it was amazing grace to me.

When I’ve told this story to others, I get some version of “Well, when I slip up, there’s always a policeman around who delights in issuing tickets, not warnings.” What was amazing grace to me is appalling to them. It was no different in Jesus’ time.

UNWELCOME GRACE The religion professor asked the class, “Why do you think Jesus was persecuted by the religious establishment of his day?” The students answered: “He healed on the Sabbath,” “He dissed the Jewish leaders,” “He hung out with sinners and tax collectors.”

Finally, the daughter of a personal friend replied, “No. It was because of grace. The Jews believed that God’s favor was a matter of ethnicity and works. But Jesus came along offering salvation to all men as a gift, not as a Jewish entitlement or divine obligation.”

That was well said. The good news of Jesus was bad news for the religious establishment. Grace nullified their privileged exclusivity and merit-based religiosity. Instead of self-appointed gatekeepers of righteousness, there was one, true Gate accessible to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, or social standing.

No message could have been more unwelcome to the Jewish elite. Grace was a threat to their sociopolitical leverage that, if left to feed the human imagination, could trigger a leadership vacuum that the erstwhile, hands-off Roman occupiers would step in to fill with the iron fist. What should have been received as a gift leading to eternal life was rejected as a danger leading to ethnic cleansing. Thus, in a closed-door meeting, the Sanhedrin ruled it better “for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish.”

But despite their efforts to suppress the Gospel and save their nation, they accomplished neither. After the Resurrection, the spread of the Gospel led to explosive growth in the Church. And, within 40 years of the Sanhedrin ruling, Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was razed, and the Jewish state was dissolved, with the Israelites driven out of home they had inhibited for over a millennium. It was the consequence of attitudes formed centuries earlier, as reflected in the story of a prophet who was similarly appalled by grace.

THE RELUCTANT MISSIONARY Discussions about the Book of Jonah often gravitate on whether it is a “tale of a whale” or a “whale of a tale.” That is regrettable, because the important lessons from the story have more to do with Jonah’s attitudes and motivations than with his giant fish encounter.

Of all the prophets in Israel, Jonah was directed by God to go to Nineveh—a great city in the heart of the Assyrian empire—and “preach against it.” Yet no sooner does he receive his commission, than he turns tail and boards a ship going the opposite direction.

Was this an act of cowardice? Could be. After all, the Assyrians, notorious for their brutality, would be expected to have little tolerance for a tongue-wagging by a foreign, unknown Elmer Gantry archetype. More likely, Jonah was incensed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would withhold the rod of punishment from a people who were not only wicked, but thoroughly pagan.

Nevertheless, a storm at sea and a three-day stint in the belly of a whale gave the runaway missionary a much-needed attitude adjustment. When God re-issued His command, the reeking, freshly-beached prophet obeyed, delivering the terse warning to the Ninevites: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4).

Curiously, the warning included nothing about Yahweh, His commandments, or the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, it was astonishingly effective, sparking a city-wide—perhaps nation-wide—repentance that moved God to compassion, sparing the city from destruction. But just when Jonah should have been praising God for mission-accomplished, he became absolutely livid at God’s response.

Presumably, Jonah expected his message to be roundly ignored or ridiculed, and the Ninevites wiped out—a chastisement that would serve as a warning to his own country that had fallen into pagan idolatry and apostasy.

Never did he imagine that these intransigent, and hopelessly lost, heathens would actually respond in repentance. When they did, and God relented, Jonah fumed at the extravagance of God’s grace. Jonah was so galled that he desired death. A world in which a pagan nation (one that had been the neighborhood bully for years) could escape God’s punishment was, in Jonah’s way of thinking, a world turned upside down.

The sparing of Nineveh should have inspired Israel to its own great awakening. Instead, Israel continued its moral decline until the Assyrians sacked the northern kingdom and took its inhabitants captive, 40 years after Jonah’s ministry. The Diaspora would continue until it was completed with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, 40 years after Jesus’ ministry.

SO UNFAIR Like Jonah, we tend to find grace unsettling because it’s so unfair; we humans, it will be noted, have a thing about fairness. A few minutes at a playground are sufficient to convince any skeptic that the concept of fair play is intrinsic to our nature. Just look for the child who spends too long on a swing or cuts in line for the slide, and listen for howls of “That’s not fair” from those patiently waiting their turn.

Fair is about what is due me, either by my merit or another’s obligation. Grace, on the other hand, is not about what I deserve; it’s about what I need. And what I need, what I really need, I have no rightful claim to, nor can I earn. It is a gift I can either accept or reject. That’s a hard message made all the harder in the realization that Mother Teresa was no more deserving of grace than was Jeffery Dahmer. For some, that’s downright appalling.

We imagine grace as a heavenly lifeline that follows a “grace plus works equals eternal life” formula, such that the further we climb the spiritual cable by our own effort, the shorter the rope God needs to cut us. Against that notion Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) And if that doesn’t settle the matter, Paul wrote elsewhere that if God’s favor could be earned by human effort, “Christ died for nothing.” (Galatians 2:21)

In the divine economy, there is no grace-works formula, only a Cross extending the full span to earth, not for us to climb, but for God to descend and meet us at its foot. It is there, in that holy meeting, that we gain what we cannot earn, including extreme resources to partner with Him in His kingdom-building work. Can there be anything more amazing?

By the way, I’ve been doing much better at those stop signs lately.

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution