Too Good To Be True
Having concluded a fourteen week sermon series on the book of James the week before (you can access that entire series for free here), I began a new six-week sermon series this past Sunday entitled “Pictures of Grace.” We’re going back to the Gospels and looking at various events in the life and ministry of Jesus where the shocking, counter-intuitive nature of amazing grace is on display. Each week we’ll look intently at how Jesus wrecks people with his grace, turning everything that makes sense in our conditional world upside-down.
I began the series by pointing out that there’s nothing more difficult for us to get our minds around than the unconditional grace of God; it offends our deepest sensibilities. A conditional world is much safer than an unconditional world because a conditional world keeps us in control, it’s formulaic–do certain things and certain things are guaranteed to happen. We understand conditions. Conditionality makes sense. Unconditionality on the other hand is incomprehensible to us. We are so conditioned against unconditionality–we are told in a thousand different ways that accomplishment precedes acceptance; that achievement precedes approval.
Society demands two way love. Everything’s conditional: if you achieve only then will you receive meaning, security, respect, love and so on. But grace, as Paul Zahl points out, is one way love: “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable.”
Like Job’s friends, we naturally conclude that good people get good stuff and bad people get bad stuff. The idea that bad people get good stuff is thickly counter-intuitive. It seems terribly unfair. It offends our sense of justice. Even those of us who have tasted the radical saving grace of God find it intuitively difficult not to put conditions on grace– “don’t take it too far; keep it balanced.” The truth is, however, that a “yes grace but” posture is the kind of posture that perpetuates slavery in our lives and in the church. Grace is radically unbalanced. It has no “but”: it’s unconditional, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and undomesticated. As Doug Wilson put it recently, “Grace is wild. Grace unsettles everything. Grace overflows the banks. Grace messes up your hair. Grace is not tame. In fact, unless we are making the devout nervous, we are not preaching grace as we ought.”
With this in mind I decided to begin with Luke 7:36-50. This is the famous account of the sinful woman (most likely a prostitute) barging into a party of religious leaders and washing the feet of Jesus with her tears of repentance. I pointed out that two rescues are happening in this passage: the obvious rescue of the immoral person but also the rescue of the moral person.
Normally when we think of people in need of God’s rescuing grace, we think of the unrighteous and the immoral. But what’s fascinating to me is that throughout the Bible, it’s the immoral person that gets the Gospel before the moral person; it’s the prostitute who gets grace; it’s the Pharisee who doesn’t. What we see in this story is that God’s grace wrecks and then rescues, not only the promiscuous but the pious. The Pharisee in this story can’t understand what Jesus is doing by allowing this woman to touch him because he assumes that God is for the clean and competent. But Jesus here shows him that God is for the unclean and incompetent and that when measured against God’s perfect holiness we’re all unclean and incompetent. Jesus shows him that the gospel isn’t for winners, but losers: it’s for the weak and messed up person, not the strong and mighty person. It’s not for the well-behaved, but the dead.
Remember: Jesus came not to effect a moral reformation but a mortal resurrection (moral reformations can, and have, taken place throughout history without Jesus. But only Jesus can raise the dead, over and over and over again). As Gerhard Forde put it, “Christianity is not the move from vice to virtue, but rather the move from virtue to grace.”
Wrecking every religious category he had, Jesus tells the Pharisee that he has a lot to learn from the prostitute, not the other way around.
The prostitute on the other hand walks into a party of religious people and falls at the feet of Jesus without any care as to what others are thinking and saying. She’s at the end of herself. More than wanting to avoid an uncomfortable situation, she wanted to be clean–she needed to be forgiven. She was acutely aware of her guilt and shame. She knew she needed help. She understood at a profound level that God’s grace doesn’t demand that you get clean before you come to Jesus. Rather, our only hope for getting clean is to come to Jesus. Only in the Gospel does love precede loveliness. Everywhere else loveliness precedes love.
I closed the sermon by recalling a story that Rod Rosenbladt told me when we were together at the recent Gospel Coalition conference in Chicago. It’s a story about a middle-aged woman who needed help from her pastor.
She went to her pastor and said, “Pastor, you know that I had an abortion a number of years ago?” “Yes,” the Pastor replied. “Well, I need to talk to you about the man I’ve since met.” “Alright,” replied the Pastor.
“Well, we met a while back, and started dating and I thought, I need to tell him about the abortion. But I just couldn’t. Then things got more serious between us and I thought, I need to tell him about the abortion. But I just couldn’t. A while later we got engaged and I thought, I need to tell him about the abortion. But I just couldn’t. Then we got married and I thought, I really need to tell him about the abortion. But I just couldn’t. So I needed to talk to someone, Pastor, and you’re it.”
The Pastor replied, “You know, we have a service for this. Let’s go through that together.” So they did – a service of confession and absolution.
When they were finished, she said to him, “Now I think I have the courage to tell my new husband about my abortion. Thanks, Pastor.”
And the Pastor replied to her, “What abortion?”
What the Pharisee, the prostitute, and all of us need to remember every day is that Christ offers forgiveness full and free from both our self-righteous goodness and our unrighteous badness. This is the hardest thing for us to believe as Christians. We think it’s a mark of spiritual maturity to hang onto our guilt and shame. We’ve sickly concluded that the worse we feel, the better we actually are. The declaration of Psalm 103:12 is the most difficult for us to grasp and embrace: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Or, as Corrie ten Boom once said, “God takes our sins—the past, present, and future—and dumps them in the sea and puts up a sign that says ‘No Fishing allowed.’”
I know this seems too good to be true, but it’s true. No strings attached. No but’s. No conditions. No need for balance. If you are a Christian, you are right now under the completely sufficient imputed righteousness of Christ. Your pardon is full and final. In Christ, you’re forgiven. You’re clean. It is finished.