It’s been said that one of the reasons Christianity seems so impossible a faith to embrace is that grace simply confounds us. That is, the stumbling block for so many is not the wild assertion that God came to earth in the flesh and blood humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor is the major stumbling block the declaration that that same human being, Jesus, found little welcome on this earth most notably from the very people and leaders who had steadfastly prayed for God to show up. No, in terms of stumbling blocks for people, I don’t believe that either the belief that God’s son was crucified for his troubles nor even the idea that he rose from the dead is the biggest obstacle. Rather, I have found time and again the biggest difficulty for so many is simply believing that grace could be that good, kind and real.
Philip Yancey, in his lovely book What’s So Amazing About Grace? suggested that there is not only a deep yearning in the heart of the world for grace, but a sort of inherent understanding of what grace is. However it might be described, there seems to be this longing for a holy kindness that would dare to reach out to us and help us despite all our unloveliness and failure and lack of deserving.
Yet, the invitation to hope in and receive that grace provided in Jesus is so often met with incredulity and resistance rather than wonder and joy. Our refusal to accept grace seems to flow from an unwillingness to see grace for what it is—an absolutely free, desperately needed and entirely undeserved gift. Sadly, some of the greatest resistance to grace comes from folk who have been in the church for years. What is perhaps more tragic is that the disbelief seems to flow from an unwillingness to let go of guilt and shame. It is as if we believe grace can only be merited if we experience a sufficient degree of humiliation and self-loathing. Which suggests that because we don’t believe we are worthy of grace, then how could God ever choose to see us as worthy of grace, and therefore go beyond everything that might be considered just and reasonable (at least by human standards) and offer through his son’s death a grace that is absolutely undeserved? Yet it is precisely that undeserved and unmerited grace which we so need—a grace which we will never be able to live up to or pay back or adequately honour no matter how bad we may feel about our sin and failure in the past or how good, grateful and holy a life we may henceforth lead. We are and always will be debtors to that majestic and mysterious grace of God who chooses to see us, through Christ, as worthy of the most incredible sacrifice and love.
That is not to say that we need not deal with the reality of our sins. Mark McMinn in a wonderful book, Why Sin Matters, argues that if we do not have a healthy understanding of sin and our sinfulness, we will never have an adequate grasp of the marvel of grace. Yet at the same time, an inadequate view of grace will always stunt our ability to comprehend the otherwise desperate situation in which we stand because of sin—a situation from which we can be rescued only by grace. Sin and grace, McMinn says, are part of the same story and if we leave out either part, we end up with a shallow, life-draining theology.
Why grace is so amazing is that it is the only real answer to sin, and only in the light of grace can we fully comprehend how terrible a problem sin is and how desperately we need to be set free from our sin—and in truth have been by the power of Christ. Old John Newton grasped that reality so powerfully when he penned those wonderful lyrics:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Grace ought never cease to be utterly amazing for us because there is no moment this side of heaven when we do not stand in complete and absolute need of that grace. Wretches we never cease to be on our own. Blind and lost are we save we rest in the good news that Christ has found us, is healing us, is freeing us from our fears and sins and hopelessness, to live in the promise and hope of grace that is bigger than our sins past, present and yet to come.
Someone once wrote that grace not only saves us from our sins—grace frees us from the Enemy’s desire to keep us forever trapped in a crippling shame. Grace frees us to move from the necessary “I’m sorry” to the far more essential “I’m redeemed! I’m forgiven! I’m set free by the mercies of the Lord! Thanks and praise to God and to the Lamb and the Holy Spirit! Hallelujah! Amen!”