The Toxic Gift of Grace

Don: A 2017 Pew poll of American belief found that 52 percent of Protestants believe that both good deeds and faith are needed for salvation. Two core principles of the 500-year-old Reformation seem to be eroding. Protestants, including Martin Luther, thought that salvation was obtained through faith alone—sola fide—and that Scripture alone had the authority to govern faith and practice—sola scriptura.

Only 30 percent of US Protestants believe in both sole fide and sola scriptura. 35 percent believe in one or the other, but not both. 36 percent believe in nether.

Among US Catholics, 81 percent believe that good deeds and faith are necessary for faith and salvation. 75 percent believe that Christians need the Bible and church tradition to know about God.

Teachings that once divided Protestants from Catholics and defined their beliefs no longer do so, at least not so much as before. Although 44 percent of white evangelicals (Baptists and so on) believe in both principles, only 20 percent of white and 19 percent of black mainstream Protestants (Methodists, Lutherans, etc.) do so.

As Jesus implied over and over in His parables, grace is a very tough commodity—it is hard to give it away for free. Why is that? Why are Protestants abandoning key principles underlying their movement?

Grace is presented very clearly in the Parable of the Wedding Feast:

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

“For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)

The king sent out his invitations three times. It wasn’t an invitation to McDonald’s—it was to a lavish feast of specially prepared food. Yet the first invitation—directed at powerful, privileged, and therefore presumably worthy, people—was dismissed by them out of hand; the second was not just dismissed: It led to murder and mayhem. It was only the third invitation, which was directed at anybody and everybody, which had some success in getting “the bad as well as the good” as well, we can assume, as the powerless and oppressed, to attend.

Why did God’s offer of grace (for that is what the king’s banquet stood for in the parable) elicit such a violent response? Why did Jesus, whose ministry was an offering of grace, end up being crucified? Why was it those who were supposed worthy of grace the very ones who instigated violence against the grace-giver? God judged them for their response to his invitation to grace. In the parable, the judgment merited the death penalty. Essentially, to reject the invitation is to invite destruction—it is self-destructive.

The heavenly banquet is not an option: It is a necessity. In refusing the invitation, one turns to the sword; and he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. The first invitees (who end up being destroyed) are themselves destroyers. They live by the sword. The last invitees are those at the receiving end of the sword: The lost, the lonely, the poor, the dispossessed, and the common, ordinary, everyday people who have no sword to stand between them and grace, not even those who do evil. By the time they reach the banquet hall, the king has effectively smothered their evil under the wedding garment. There is no other preparation for the banquet—for the kingdom of heaven—than to put on the garment.

There is no other action required on the part of the recipient of the grace in this parable. Like the thief on the cross who received grace at the last moment, there is no requirement to pass it on to others (a principle we shall discuss further in a future class). And at the point of grace—at the door to the banquet hall—there is no attempt to discriminate among those dressed (or not) appropriately. God does not discriminate between the good and the evil in those invited to His grace. The concept that the good and evil in us are equivalent in the eyes of God—is a recurrent theme in the parables of grace and judgment. In the Parable of the Seed, the seed produces both good and bad results. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, good seed contaminated by bad seed is taken into God’s barn anyway. In the Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-14:12), good fish are intermingled with bad fish. The stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Pharisee and the Publican,… all show the concept of good and evil coexisting and God working with both.

The losers in this life are the heroes in God’s kingdom. Sinners are welcome where He is because he has made provision with His covering robe of righteousness. Note that even though the robe is free, one man refuses it. The point again is that it is difficult to give away something that is free. 52 percent of Protestants and 81 percent of Catholics won’t take the free gift. All are invited to the wedding supper of the lamb. All are deemed by the king to be worthy of the feast. The difference in judgment is the response to the invitation. No-one is outside the king’s favor. Everyone receives an invitation. No-one is excluded who wasn’t already included in the first place. Everyone is invited to the feast. Everyone is the recipient of grace. Destruction and outer darkness is the lot only of those who refuse the invitation or refuse to put on the robe of righteousness.

Why is grace such a difficult subject to embrace? Why is grace not enough—why must we always seem to want to augment it with something else we feel we need to do? What are the conditions that lead us to accept the free gift of grace or refuse it as an inadequate substitute for our works toward salvation?

Donald: We hold common notions such as “Nothing is for free” and “There is no free lunch.” That alone is enough to cause us to suspect “free” grace.

What are the consequences of not accepting it? Eternal death? If the losers in this life are the winners in the next life, then should we aim to be losers? That doesn’t sound right, somehow!

David: To me, the grace described in this parable is grace at the end of mortal life, at the transition between this world and the next. At that point there is nothing that can be done except to accept or reject the gift—there is no time left for works. This is different from the grace we think of as being delivered to us when we reach a crisis during life.

Jay: We are indeed sceptical of free gifts, and tend not to value them. We assume they must be cheap. It is puzzling that children don’t question the love they receive freely from their parents. We have no problem accepting that a mother’s love, even for a naughty child, is unconditional, and we value it highly. Yet we have a problem accepting that God’s love is unconditional.

Robin: God supplies not only grace but also our good works:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Donald: We are in a sense creations of our mother, and of course we are creations of God, so why can’t we value their love equally?

Eb: Some children grow up without mothers, or with bad mothers.

Jay: True, but a mother’s love is generally held to be superlative. No matter how heinous the acts of her child, it is difficult to sever its mother’s love, grace, and ability to forgive. If we can accept that (as most of us surely do) then why do we have to add conditions (works) regarding God’s love and grace for His children? Perhaps we should view works as the natural result of accepting free grace rather than as a way to earn grace.

Don: I must admit to being shocked at the finding that a majority of Protestants believes that works are necessary for salvation—not grace alone.

Donald: What is the value of a wedding vow if the groom starts eyeing the bridesmaids as he walks down the aisle? Vows alone are not enough for a good marriage; it takes good behavior, as well.

Jay: As individual human beings and as organized religions, we tend to focus on behavior, on works. But if good works are a natural outcome of grace, perhaps we should focus more on how to accept the invitation to grace than on how to do good works.

David: God gave Jonah good works to do, but Jonah fled from them. It was only when he faced death in the belly of a fish—only when he desperately needed (and selfishly prayed for) grace—that he got it. His works demonstrably did not precede the grace he received. But, after accepting God’s grace, Jonah at least seemed to recognize that he owed God something in return, so he grudgingly rushed through Nineveh, as fast as he could to get it over with, delivering God’s message to the Ninevites. By then, he felt he had evened things up with God and reverted to his contempt for God. His good works were effective on the Ninevites, though apparently not on himself!

Don: There’s a sense in which accepting grace covers one with a robe of righteousness and makes one good. The problem (as we know) is that we tend to lose the robe after a while. There’s a sense in which we feel we may lose something by accepting grace, that it’s not such a great bargain. We need to think about this and understand it better. We seem to need constant injections of grace for it to be effective over any length of time.

Jay: We tend to view our recidivist nature in a negative light, but does a mother love her child any the less when it succumbs to naughtiness again? Does she stop trying to keep it in the family? All the child has to do is say “Sorry, Mom” and everything is OK again. Yet we can’t seem to accept that this must be how God operates also.

Robin: A child naughty by nature needs daily doses of grace.

Donald: A mother can even love a child whose behavior is so bad that it ends up in prison. Behavior is indeed defined by organized religion, to the point that we can sometimes even identify people’s religion by their behavior. So behavior is a central focus of religions.

Michael: There is a sense that in accepting grace we must disarm ourselves. It is easier to accept grace if we are already downtrodden.

Chris: Before accepting grace, our works are all that seem to matter. After accepting grace, our works no longer matter: We simply become the tools of God’s works. A mother is such a tool.

Eb: We need both grace and works, but works that result from one’s love for God.

Donald: We are almost glib in saying both that “we are saved by grace” and that “grace without works is dead.” Yet they seem contradictory.

Jay: If works result from grace, they are not necessarily contradictory. We tend to think of works as being hard, yet many do good works without realizing it. They exhibit true acceptance of grace.

Robin: That correlates with the idea that God prepared good works for us to do.

Jay: Acceptance of grace naturally results in giving it away to others.

Don: Sharing grace is the “works” referred to in the well known passage in James.

Eb: A stranger I approached for directions in Rome unwittingly gave me the wrong directions. After he realized his mistake, he went to great lengths to look for me and eventually found me, apologized, and set me straight. But the point was, his mistake was well-meant—his intention was good, even if his execution of it was bad.

Robin: We struggle with accepting grace through faith because ever since the Fall we have had to work to earn anything at all. We did not have to earn anything in the garden of Eden.

Donald: In that sense, grace is a “foreign” concept suitable for a spiritual world but not for a material world. A mother’s love is something we don’t earn and is the closest we seem able to come to straddling the two worlds.

David: We seem to be defining love as grace. Surely grace has a love component, but also a deliverance component, a salvation component, and a forgiveness component. Love cannot cure a dying child of cancer, but grace makes the cancer irrelevant. As a “foreign” divine spiritual concept, a full understanding of grace (and even of love and forgiveness and so on) is beyond us. How does a mother’s love compare with the love of a Jesus who said: “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26)?

How often could a Prodigal Son go off on multiple jaunts and return broke and genuinely shamefaced before any human father would say “Enough!” The Parable is about a divine level of grace, foreign to us.

Robin: Why would God extend grace if not because of love?

David: The question implies that love and grace are not the same.

Don: It goes to show how difficult it is to apprehend grace. So difficult that it cost Jesus His life.

Donald: What is the role of our conscience in this?

Don: Good question. To be continued…!

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