Growing In Godliness Blog
“Finding Grace in a World Full of Ungrace – Part I”Categories: Author: Tom Rose, Faith, Grace, Jesus
Finding Grace in a World Full of Ungrace – Part I
By Tom Rose
[Note: The article that follows draws heavily from two books by Philip Yancey which are referenced at the end. In an effort to help describe grace, this author uses a new word to contrast everything that is not grace, which he simply terms ungrace.]
We speak of grace often as if we fully understood it, but do we? More importantly, do we believe in it and do our lives proclaim it? Most of us have grown up with many values based on what sociologists call the “Protestant Ethic.” It can be described in phrases like: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; the early bird gets the worm; no pain, no gain; there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and stand up for yourself! However, each of these are examples of “ungrace”. Indeed, most institutions run on ungrace and their insistence that we earn our way. Over time, we build up a resistance to grace – partly because it is unearned (and doesn’t seem fair) and partly because it is shockingly personal to the individual who receives it.
Aware of our inbuilt confusion about grace as well as our difficultly to explain it, Jesus chose to teach about it frequently – most often in the form of parables. The three stories in Luke 15 (about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) seem to make the same point. Each underscores the loser’s sense of loss, tells the thrill of discovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation. It is only when we pause and allow their meaning to filter through our minds that we are confronted with their astonishing message and begin to realize how thickly our veil of ungrace obscures our view of God.
For example, can you image a housewife jumping up and down in glee over the discovery of a lost coin (Lk 15:8-10). Now that image is not exactly what comes to one’s mind when we think of God. Yet that is exactly the picture Jesus insisted upon. In effect He is asking us, “Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? Well, when one of my creatures pays attention to Me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost.” The message is clear: God will go to any length to bring us home. How far will He go? All the way to Calvary. God gave us His Son as proof that He has not given up on us. That’s grace!
Grace is unmerited, undeserved, unconditional love of God toward man. Grace is what every sinner needs, but none deserve (see Rom 5:8). Unconditional love is a difficult concept to grasp. By grace, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Truly, God’s goodness toward us was not based on any thing we had done – or would do in the future. He acted freely and without expectation of receiving anything of equitable value in return. It was unearned kindness. Indeed, grace is the essence of the gospel as it puts the “good” in the Good News. It provides healing to those who hurt, help to those who struggle, and hope to those who despair.
Here is an important concept, though: while salvation is by the “riches of His grace” (see Eph 1:7), it is not by grace alone. Paul, in Eph 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” The giver and gift are so involved that the gift cannot be handed over unless the recipient is involved. Grace is God’s part; faith is man’s part.
Read the The Parable of the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), then pause to notice the role of each character. God is the master of the house, Christ is the foreman, the laborers are the disciples, the vineyard is the church, and a denarius was the ordinary pay for a day laborer. Whereas the first group of workers agreed to a set wage, the others merely trusted the master to give them “whatever is right” (see v. 4). Now at the close of day, the early hires were dirt covered, sweat drenched, energy depleted, hands throbbing, back aching, and denarius deserving – everything the latecomers were not! The foreman was told by the master to pay the wages beginning with those hired last. As each worker stood before the foreman they each were given a denarius – regardless of the time they started work. Predictably, the story has those who get more than they deserve, those who think they deserve more than they get, and a jealous reaction arises. However, no one received less than he initially expected, and some received more. The master had not made the early hires equal to the latecomers; rather he made the latecomers equal to the early hires.
Many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day’s work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, and the employer’s strange behavior baffles us. However, unless we step outside the world of ungrace we risk missing the story’s point. God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell! Grace cannot be reduced to generally accepted accounting principles. In the bottom-line reality of ungrace, some workers deserve more than others; in the realm of grace the word deserve does not even apply.
Jesus did not want His followers to be haughty, nor did He want them to have an employee mentality. It is not so much for so much. Rather, they should focus on work, not wages; service, not seniority; production, not position; trusting in God’s goodness at the end of the day and not comparing themselves to other workers. From our Protestant Ethic background, we reach a troublesome dilemma as few things seem more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals! But this is the ‘New Math’ of grace. The master did not give the latecomers what they deserved; he gave them what they needed. It was not based on merit, but mercy. Moreover, if we care to listen, there is a loud whisper from the gospel that we, as believers, did not get what we deserved. For each of us as His children deserved punishment and got forgiveness. We deserved wrath and got love. We deserved a debtor’s prison and got instead a clean credit history. We deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance, but He left our world to return to His and set the table of grace, beckoning us to come to His banquet feast.
It should be noted, however, there is one aspect of the Protestant Ethic that is affirmed by the scriptures. Phil. 2:12-13 admonishes us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling…for it is God who is at work in you. No one is too bad to be saved, but some are “too good” to be saved because they have a self-righteous attitude. They tend to look down on others, think too highly of themselves, and feel that God owes them something. Then there are others who are unwilling to make the effort to change their lives and to put in the work to grow in Christ. Nevertheless, God will always do His part to make you into the person He wants you to be, if you will work, too.
In summary, grace remains the last and best word to describe what God has done for each of us. First, grace is free only because the Giver Himself has borne the cost. Second, grace makes its appearance in so many forms that it is difficult to define. However, something like a definition of grace in relation to God would be: grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. Yet, grace alone does not save us; grace is God’s means by which – if we choose to obey His commands - we may be saved. Third, grace alone melts ungrace. Finally, Christians are saved by grace in order to serve by grace.
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own;
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart;
Then, Lord, shall I fully know –
Not till then – how much I owe!
For the above article, ideas and phrases were selected from: Grace, by Aaron Erhardt, Louisville, KY: Erhardt Publications, 2015; God’s Amazing Grace: The Sweetest Sound of All by Wilson Adams, Murfreesboro, TN: Courageous Living Books, 2015; What’s So Amazing About Grace” by Philip Yancey, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997; Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.