Don: In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke there are about 31 parables of Jesus. (Altogether, there are over 50, many of them overlap, leaving about 31 that are unique.) Of these, 20 (fully two thirds) deal with the topic of grace and justice. Many of the other stories Jesus told also deal with the subject. Clearly, it was a key topic and clearly Jesus knew it was a difficult topic to get across to people.
The amazing thing about grace is that even though it is free, one can hardly give it away. The absence of any charge makes it suspicious and almost unbelievable to us. Despite the attention Jesus lavished on it in his teaching, a majority of Christians don’t believe it, as we discussed in recent classes. They would call it “cheap” grace—lavish but unearned kindness and mercy. Grace supersedes cause and effect. It replaces “If this, then that” with “that, no matter what.” It is a radical and disturbing concept.
Jesus told the prostitute who anointed him with perfume and washed his feet with her hair and tears: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” What is the relationship between grace and faith? Grace of course is what God gives. Some might say that grace is God’s love, as seen from our human perspective. But is faith necessary to see grace, to understand grace, to live under grace? Is grace so radical, irrational, unbelievable, other-worldly, un-teachable, and un-learnable that it can only be accepted by faith?
The Bible has two stories that might point us toward an answer to this question. In the first, the central concept is the actuation of grace by faith:
When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum.
And a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. When they came to Jesus, they earnestly implored Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue.” Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:1-10)
The Jewish elders approached Jesus with a need linked, in their minds, to worthiness. The centurion was worthy of grace because of his efforts—his work—to help the Jews. This was cause and effect: “If you are worthy (cause), then you deserve grace (effect).” But the centurion had a better view of grace: “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” He knew he was unworthy, yet had faith in the grace of Jesus—no matter what. He knew that grace is not linked to merit, not even the merit from building a synagogue—a house for God.
The centurion knew, by faith, more about grace than the religious elders. It seems that faith is the vehicle that helps us to comprehend the concept of grace. A second story, about a “good Samaritan” (but not the Good Samaritan of the well-known parable), accentuates this point:
While He [Jesus] was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)
Leprosy was a common disease in the time of Jesus. It affects the nervous system so that the afflicted feel no pain, which then results in injuries and tissue loss. Lepers were isolated from society and required to shout “Unclean!” to alert any non-lepers to their presence. In Scripture, leprosy was seen as a metaphor for sin. Sin, like leprosy, isolates us and makes us unclean.
The lepers’ request of Jesus was for mercy. In other stories of people in physical distress, Jesus touches them to heal them, but not in this case. He simply tells them to go the priests, highlighting the metaphorical link between leprosy and sin. It requires treatment by priests, who are the ones qualified to cleanse people of sin.
People often belittle the faith of the nine lepers who did not return to thank Jesus. Yet they had faith enough to go to the priests as Jesus instructed them, and as they went they were all healed. The “good Samaritan” turned back with the express purpose of glorifying God. Gratitude is the least we can give in return for God’s grace.
The eyes of faith allow even a foreigner (a Samaritan) to see grace. The message is clear: Grace is for everyone. But there seems to be a qualitative difference between the healing of the Samaritan and the other nine lepers. They all received grace, yet in expressing his thanks, the Samaritan signaled not just his appreciation but also his understanding of grace. To name the source of grace is to see grace through the eyes of faith. What makes grace operational is to recognize that grace is about God, not about oneself. We all benefit from grace, we are all healed by it, but ultimately faith shows us that grace is about God. It brings glory to Him when we recognize that He is the source of grace.
Is it possible to lack faith yet understand grace?
David: It would seem contradictory for a non-believer to understand grace as coming from God, but everyone can surely understand grace given (or “passed on,” if you are a believer) from one human being to another. Everyone, faithful or not, can recognize the grace given by the Good Samaritan to the robbery victim on the road to Jerusalem. So it’s not a matter of recognizing grace; it’s a matter of acknowledging the ultimate source of grace.
Donna: We don’t deserve grace, but we receive it every minute of every day. and when we pass it on, we have to give it to others who may not deserve it, either. That can be a challenge to us.
Donald: But some believe that they have earned it by leading a pious life. Judgment, one way or the other, is deserved, whereas grace is not.
Dave: Maybe God’s grace is actuated more by our own passing on of grace than it is actuated by faith. It is such a foreign concept us us that we tend to see it only when we are able to deliver it, and we can only deliver it when we have fully internalized it.
Donna: We cannot do enough to earn the grace God gives us.
Don: It is not enough even to build God a house to live in!
Donna: The end result of working hard to earn grace is thankfulness for it. But it is there already anyway. And it is wasted if we hoard it rather than pass it on.
Dave: James said that faith without works is dead. So faith actuates grace, and works actuates faith. But I think it takes both faith and works to actuate grace. It’s symbolic and a manifestation that one has received that grace, that one has actually internalized it.
Anonymous: It seems to me that nothing can actuate grace. God gives grace to sinners, foreigners… to everyone, whether they deserve it or not. Faith arises when people recognize the source of grace. But even when we are faithful, our good deeds are not of us—they are the fruit of the Spirit. We have nothing to give, because everything comes from God, who made everything. The one thing we can do is to recognize God as the source of all grace, whether it comes directly from God or indirectly from God through other people.
Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Bible says:
By this undeserved kindness you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; rather, it is God’s gift. (Ephesians 2:8)
For if by grace you have been saved through faith, it is not from yourself or anything you have done, but from the gift of God. Salvation therefore is a free gift of grace from God.
Don: So we seem to be agreeing that faith does not actuate grace—nothing we do can actuate it—but faith allows us to recognize it as a gift of God.
David: The next verse (still in the NWT) says:
No, it is not a result of works, so that no one should have grounds for boasting. (Ephesians 2:9)
That’s about as clear as it can be; that there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve grace.
Dave: Works are a sort-of barometer of faith. If we are not doing works, if we are not delivering a smidgen of the grace that God gave us to other people, our faith is not really alive. Our works are a measure of our gratitude for the grace we receive.
Donald: A patient about to undergo major surgery is at the mercy of the surgeon. Whether the patient deserves surgery, or can afford it, is irrelevant. When one is completely at the mercy of someone—a doctor, a priest—one has to place one’s faith in that person. But at all other times we want to be in control, and we want to earn our way through life.
Donna: We can’t earn it. Sometimes our faith comes through prayer, not through works. It comes through your personal relationship with God, which is not visible to others. It’s time spent but it is not physical action.
Donald: We say of the actions of others: “Who am I to judge? It’s not for me to judge.” But we do it anyway, all the time.
Jay: Judgment always intrudes into discussions of faith and grace. We want to know what is going to happen in the end. It seems that judgment and grace play by different sets of rules. Judgment is a quid pro quo, or an accounting of good works and bad works. Grace isn’t like that at all. There’s no accounting for grace. The two are contradictory. So have we misunderstood grace, or have we misunderstood judgment? I suspect the latter. They certainly seem to be linked, but it seems to me our view of judgment skews our view of grace and faith.
David: Judgment seems clear enough from the judgment passage (Matthew 25:31-46), and grace is also abundantly clear from Ephesians 2:8-9, as quoted earlier. I think what causes the confusion is what comes between judgment and grace; i.e., the sentence and immediate annulment of it. Judgment leads to a sentence of punishment—consignment to outer darkness, eternal fire, etc.,—but the judge immediately revokes the sentence having delivered His judgment. He gives judgment and grace practically simultaneously.
Donna: To me, it is not judgment that goes along with grace. Rather, it is faith and trust. Trust is prerequisite for faith. It’s clear that grace is given freely and cannot be earned. To earn grace is to pass it on, sharing the gift. You then have to trust that the grace you will get (whether you have faith or not) comes from the Lord. As humans, when we have successes, we want to boast about it and not give God the glory. So it is trust, not judgment, that goes hand in hand with faith and grace.
Donald: Once upon a time in the Adventist church we used to record our good deeds in writing, on a weekly basis. I can’t recall why the practice stopped. It focused on us, not on giving mercy to others. What if the Bible did not have the 10 Commandments?
Dave: That practice was to help us assess how well we were doing. It wouldn’t change grace, but it was a good habit to get into. It was not a bad idea.
Donald: Tallying the responses enabled the corporate church to boast how well it was doing!
David: It would pump up piety. It seems to me Catholic confession does the opposite by requiring Catholics to tally their sins over the week. I am sure it must be intended to foster humility, perhaps among other things.
Don: A Catholic friend told me that he used to lie at confession. He confessed to more sins than he actually committed; otherwise, he felt, he would have had too little to say! 🙂
Donald: We seem to have made things more complicated than they need be. A simple set of rules—like the Ten Commandments—make life easier in telling us how to behave.
Don: Jesus certainly recognized that grace was a difficult concept for us to understand. It is so counter-intuitive to human instinct. In life, we seldom get something for nothing, unless there’s a catch. We order our lives around cause and effect, but Jesus said forget about that. It is troubling, too, that grace is a uniquely Christian concept. No other religion has it, though most or perhaps all religions have the concepts of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus knew how radical and disruptive and troubling the concept would be for us, which might be why He spent so much time trying to get it across to us. How do we operationalize it so that we can live not only a proper spiritual life but also a reasonable physical life on this Earth?
David: I am starting to wonder whether passing on the grace is the requirement we think it is. I am not sure we understand grace itself at all. We recognize mercy and forgiveness as components of grace, which implies that grace is more than these, yet when we talk about passing it on we are thinking only about passing on mercy or forgiveness—passing on some component of grace, but not grace itself.
I think the blessed people in the Beatitudes of whom Jesus said “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” are recipients of true grace. They are people at the very end of their tether to life itself. The analogy of a patient about to undergo major surgery does not hold because a patient has not reached the end of his or her tether. If s/he had, s/he would not be a candidate for surgery. S/he wants and has a chance to continue to live a mortal life. The surgeon can delay the patient’s death by conferring temporal and temporary physical salvation and life, but cannot confer eternal spiritual salvation and life.
All of us can pass on grace components such as mercy, kindness, love, and so on, just as the Good Samaritan did; but none of us, I believe, can pass on the true grace that is God’s alone to give. Perhaps it is no wonder that even Jesus can apparently not make us understand it.
Donna: I think that we do pass on grace. A surgeon is a tool of grace that God uses to pass on His grace. He also uses people to pray over people who then come back to life. I’ve seen that.
David: But is a surgeon able to admit a patient to the kingdom of heaven, regardless of how much sin they have committed?
Donald: I want to understand what mercy is. If I am at the end of my tether, I look for mercy.
David: I think there is a very significant difference between knowing you are in imminent danger of death, but could be saved by surgery or some other act of mercy, on the one hand; and knowing beyond doubt that you are about to die, on the other. True grace arrives at the point where your only hope is of entry to the kingdom of heaven, yet you realize, like the thief on the cross, that your sin will be judged and the judgment will go against you. Jesus was there to restore hope in the thief and in all of us that despite the judgment, we will have eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
Dave: Can we view love as grace? The wellspring is from God. What we do with grace on Earth is just a part of the stream of grace that comes from God. So it is with love: We pass on the love from the river of love that God sends down to us. We are not the source of love and grace, but we are required to pass it on.
Donna: When there is a grace action like a surgeon’s operation on a patient then God is in control, and will save the patient or not. But the surgeon is in any case God’s tool for passing on grace.
Don: It is confounding, but wonderfully so! There is more to do.