But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:8, NKJV)
Well then, no judgement stands now against those who live in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1, Knox)
Nothing stirs up dust in these Sunday morning visits like the topic of grace. Getting something for nothing is just so unAmerican. It makes us feel as if we are getting away with, well, murder. And yet we cannot escape it if we are honest. God’s grace is not a topic of creation. It is THE topic of creation. The blood of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world covers our sins past, present and future whether we like it or not. That is the Good News. There is no other Good News but the Good News of the grace of our marvelous Lord.
Still, I seem to not be able to communicate it well, as I continually get stopped after the service to be told how I am missing it. You all constantly tell me that we have a role to play in all of this as well, that we need to do A, B or C in order to be made righteous in Christ. I’m often asked, “Are you saying all we have to do is believe Jesus’ death on the cross forgives our sins and it doesn’t matter how we act?” When I say, “Precisely!” I know I won’t be invited out to lunch anytime soon. So today I have asked priest, author and cook Robert Capon to share some thoughts on the topic of grace with us. Perhaps his words will present the idea of God’s Good News better than mine can.
I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.
But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.
But all the while, there was one thing we most needed even from the start, and certainly will need from here on out into the New Jerusalem: the ability to take our freedom seriously and act on it, to live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home. My repentance, accordingly, is not so much for my failings but for the two-bit attitude toward them by which I made them more sovereign than grace. Grace – the imperative to hear the music, not just listen for errors – makes all infirmities occasions of glory.”
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.
“The ultimate New Testament point is that God isn’t going to count your action one way or the other; it’s not going to make you any trouble with God. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.’ We are accepted in the Beloved, because of Jesus only, not because of anything we do.”
She frowned. “I guess I know all that. But it’s hard to believe.”
“Correction,” I said. “Nobody knows all that. Not you, not me, not anybody. And nobody can feel all that, either. Out knowledge and our feelings are all on the side of the nasty old bookkeeping gods–the divine little CPAs, the ones we think are really respectable gods–the ones who know how to keep everybody honest, or else. But the God we believe in is not a bookkeeper, and he’s not respectable. As a matter of fact, he’s a crook, and he dies as one to prove it. Which is exactly why he’s Good News for badly bent types like you and me. Do you see what that means? It means that if he’s as weird as the Gospel says he is, we’d be well advised to stop trying to draw some neat little intellectual or emotional bead on what we think he’s like, and just shut up and believe in him–trust in him–as he actually reveals himself in Jesus.”
In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole test-passing, brownie-point-earning rigmarole of the human race has been canceled for lack of interest on God’s part. All he needs from us is a simple Yes or No, and off to work he goes. If we say Yes to something wrong or No to something right, he will reconcile it all by himself. Not only can he handle it, he’s already handled it: he has all our messes fixed in Jesus–right now, even before we make them. All we have to do is trust his assurance that losers are his cup of tea. In fact, it’s precisely our attempts to be winners that he warns us about: ‘He who saves his life will lost it; he who loses his life for my sake the Gospel’s will save it.’
I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as ‘moral failure’ and then go on to think if they commit ‘sins’ they’ll cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense, of course: ‘sinners’ are the very thing God gives his grace to–lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together; it’s faith in the grace that takes away all of the sins of the world. Paul says, ‘All that is not of faith is sin.’ And Jesus says, ‘The one who believes is not judged.’ We’re not on trial. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’
…there is therefore now no condemnation for two reasons: you are dead now; and God, as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, has been dead all along. The blame game was over before it started. It really was. All Jesus did was announce that truth and tell you it would make you free. It was admittedly a dangerous thing to do. You are a menace. Be he did it; and therefore, menace or not, here you stand: uncondemned, forever, now. What are you going to do with your freedom?
Let us pray.