Cheapening Grace, Part One
There was a British conference on comparative religions that brought together experts from all over the world to debate what was unique, if anything, about the Christian faith in relation to other religions.
Was it the idea that a god became a man? Was it the resurrection? Was it heaven, life after death, or an eternal soul? Was it love for your neighbor, good works, care for the poor or homeless? Was it sin or hell or judgment?
The debate went on for some time, until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. Lewis himself had journeyed from atheism to agnosticism, and then eventually to Christianity. And after that, became one of the most famous of all Christian writers and thinkers from his positions at Oxford and later Cambridge.
Lewis asked what all of the debate was about, and found out that his colleagues were discussing what Christianity's unique contribution was among world religions. Lewis said, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace."
And after they thought about it, they had to agree.
Grace is the most distinctive idea within the Christian faith, but it is also the most controversial. It is what attracts people the most, but is also the stumbling block over which many fall. It drew thousands to Jesus during his life, but also nailed Him to the cross.
And it’s important to get grace right; to really understand it.
Grace is God’s gift of forgiveness and restored relationship in the face of our sin. It is freely given and totally undeserved. It’s not something we earn or work for – it’s not about what we do for ourselves, but what’s been done for us by another.
And we are to not just receive that gift of grace at the start of our relationship with Christ, but continue to live under that grace for our lives, and to give it freely to others. Every day of our life, in the midst of our sin and failure, the well of God’s grace is bottomless and because of that, we should show it to others every day of our life.
Grace truly is amazing.
But sadly, we can take that amazing grace and ruin it. We can throw it on the ground and trample it, making a mockery of it, and making it no grace at all.
One of the clearest examples of grace in the Bible is found in John’s biography of Jesus in the New Testament:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
He straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her....” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time,... until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus... asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:3-11, NIV)
That is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible and it’s a remarkable story of grace. The woman in the story clearly needed it. The Bible is very clear that she was, indeed, caught in the act. They had the evidence needed to convict her.
Here’s what that meant in the ancient near eastern culture of that day:
So that suspicious husbands couldn’t accuse their wives without reason, the law required testimony from two witnesses who saw the couple together. And not just together, but lying together, and clearly having sex. Not only that, the two witnesses had to see this at the same time and place. They had these witnesses, so there was no doubt she was guilty. But here’s where it gets even more repugnant.
Because the penalty being asked for was stoning, that tells us she was probably engaged to be married and was having sex with someone who was not her fiancé. Stoning was the penalty for an engaged person who was unfaithful to their fiancé.
Unfaithful wives could also be sentenced to death, but the law did not specify how she should die. That here we read they said she had to be stoned tells us she was engaged. So there was a pretty nasty betrayal going on behind the scenes as well.
So what did Jesus do? What did He say? His words have become almost legendary:
“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her....” (John 8:7, NIV)
And no one did because no one was without sin. Jesus rejected a judgmental, condemnatory spirit and replaced it with grace. He didn’t see her through the lens of her sin. He saw her in a different way. Everyone but Jesus saw a woman caught in adultery. A moral failure. Someone deserving of condemnation and death.
But through the extension of grace, Jesus saw a precious child of God. Someone who was a struggling in life, and who had made many, many mistakes - just like everyone else. But he also saw someone who could get past the struggles, and grow toward the person God intended.
So after telling everyone else that they have no basis for condemning her, He added these words:
“Then neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11, NIV)
But there was one more thing He said that is critical to focus on. He also said words that made the entire grace transaction a contingent affair; words that you have to get down, or you don’t “get” grace. And they were the final words He said to her in verse 11:
“Go now, and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11, NIV)
Was that in any way unclear? I don’t think so.
He said, “Turn from the life that led you to this moment – because you are not innocent. Turn from it; see it for what it is. You have been rescued from the penalty of your sin; live like it.”
You see, to get grace right, it’s not just about grace.
It’s about grace and truth.
James Emery White
Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan Publishing House)
Adapted from the third installment of “Getting Grace Right,” a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.