Category Archives: mercy

It is Finished

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Cross-posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30

In 1862, French poet, playwright, and novelist Victor Hugo released his magnum opus Les Miserables, considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. In 1998, Hugo’s masterpiece found its cinematic zenith in the Bille August-directed film by the same name. In both works, one scene stands out above the rest.

At the beginning of the narrative, we meet ex-convict Jean Valjean who has just been released from a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Trying to get on his feet, Valjean attempts to find a place to live but no one would take him in except for one—Bishop Myriel.

It doesn’t take long for Valjean’s old temptation to rear its ugly head. When everyone is asleep one night, Valjean goes to the cupboard and pilfers some of the bishop’s silver. He makes a run for it but is eventually caught red-handed. The police bring him before the bishop.

Valjean stands before the bishop, being held by the police. Bishop Myriel looks at the police and proclaims something extraordinary. He says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. If that wasn’t enough, the bishop goes over to the mantelpiece, takes two silver candlesticks, and says that actually more silver had been forgotten by Valjean. He places the candlesticks in Valjean’s hands. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go free. But the story doesn’t end there.

After the authorities leave, the bishop looks at Valjean and says this to him, “Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you needn’t come through the garden. You can always come and go by the front door. It is only closed with a latch, day or night.”

The bishop not only gives him mercy by forgetting the original crime and letting him keep the silver he stole, he gives him more mercy by giving him more silver. And then, he gives him even more mercy by giving him the best gift of all: his trust. The bishop does something so radically counter-intuitive to us. Something that feels so unnatural to us. He gives him unconditional grace.

Quid Pro Quo

We live in a society based on conditions. When you look at the world around us, everything in our culture demands a trade of some kind. “You do this for me; I’ll do this for you.” “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” But unconditional grace? We just can’t seem to wrap our feeble minds around that. It doesn’t’ make any sense to us. We are so acclimated to a culture of quid pro quo that we believe everything must have a catch.

We impose this idea upon God as well. We think that in order for God to truly extend his mercy to us, we must give him back something in return. We feel like we owe him something. So we resort to a spiritual checklists because they feel much safer. We like conditions because they keep us in “control.” If we can complete our spiritual “to do” list, it gives us the illusion that things are good between God and us because we have played a part in it. Theologian Gerhard Forde can help here:

The gospel … is such a shocker … because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of god! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where.

God’s grace isn’t conditional. It’s unreserved. It’s not a back-and-forth, two-way love. God’s grace always moves in one direction. And that is why it disturbs us. Forde continues:

How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “you are righteous for Jesus’ sake?” Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?

That’s exactly what we do with God’s grace. We put conditions on it. We take a “yes grace but …” position. We think there is something that must be done on our end. There can’t just be free grace for the taking, can there?

The Beauty of Grace

The last words that Jesus spoke before he gave up his spirit on the cross were three words we need to massage into our hearts. “It is finished.” Grace announces that Jesus met all of God’s conditions on our behalf so that God’s mercy towards us could be unreserved. That’s the beauty of grace. It requires no work on our part. The work of redemption is complete in Jesus. In Christ, we are completely accepted. We are completely loved. In full. The work is done. It is finished.

This rightly rages against our insatiable need to work for our salvation. When we look to the cross and see the Savior of the world proclaim that the work is finished, it disorients us because we are a “conditional” people. Work, not rest, is our modus operandi. But that is exactly why Jesus breathed out those three words. God knew we would need to hear over and over, “Your effort is not needed. It is finished,” because to rest feels like a waste of time.

But deep gospel rest is exactly what we can find in the finished work of Jesus. Our hearts can truly engage with the words from Hebrews, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). Entering spiritual rest means that we are resting in Christ’s finished work on our behalf—not our work or our reputation or our accomplishments. It means we are swapping effort for rest. It’s at the heart of what Jesus achieved on Calvary’s cross.

As we hear again the crucified Jesus’ final words this Holy Week, hope is uncovered. We are saved solely by grace through Christ’s work. In Jesus, we can be forgiven. We can be made clean. We don’t earn it. We simply receive grace because that’s the only way grace is received. Grace isn’t grace unless it’s unconditional. It looks as if there is such a thing as a free lunch after all.

The Guest List of our Lives

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My daughters received an invitation to attend a birthday party for our neighbors recently. If you’ve ever wondered how screams could be collected for energy (see Monsters Inc.), you’ve never been in the same room when young girls receive soul-thrilling news in the form of an invitation. My daughters’ hearts could have burst and their shrieks could have powered a small village—easily.

Ecstatic joy flowed out of my daughters so naturally, I felt like I was being let in on something. We like to be invited to things. It makes us feel loved. It makes us feel like we belong. Jesus once told a parable about an invitation. It was an invitation, not to a birthday, but to a dinner—and at its core, it was a very unusual invitation.

The Parable of the Great Banquet

In Luke 14, Jesus first tells the Pharisees that when you give a banquet or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so they will invite you in return. Jesus instead says when you give a feast, invite the typically uninvited—the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Now, this is counter-intuitive because the Pharisees and scribes felt a sense of supremacy in their separation from those on the fringes. When the Pharisees and scribes would throw a party, they would only invite the people who could invite them back. In other words, the Pharisees manipulated hospitality for their own self-glory and reputation. Parties were about raising your social capital. Only those who could further that agenda were welcomed.

But the marginalized—those on the outside looking into the cultural upper echelon—had no way of doing this. In fact, if they were invited, they wouldn’t accept the gesture because they knew they would be required to repay the courtesy and they knew they couldn’t do that. It would be too humiliating to accept that type of invitation because they did not have the means to reciprocate, so they would refuse.

To further make his point, Jesus launches into a story to illustrate his teaching with the opening line, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.” This was going to be a huge event thrown by a very wealthy man. The Jews would have understood this. To be at this party would be the height of social recognition. In fact, when you were invited to a large dinner like this, you would typically get two invitations. The first invitation acknowledged you as an honored guest. The second invitation would come to alert you that the party was about to officially begin.

Now, when the second invitation comes in this parable, we go from the invitation to excuses. Every single person highlighted in this passage says, “I can’t come.” All of them. The Pharisees would have said, “Nobody would do that. This is disrespectful. This is uncivilized.” But in Jesus’ story, they all decline. So the wealthy man does the unthinkable. He tells his servant to go out and seek another group of people. He tells him to bid the outcasts to come to the banquet—the poor and crippled and blind and lame.

In the minds of the Pharisees, the first group wouldn’t turn down the invitation and the second group would never have been invited. But in this story, the master says go and bring them in. In Greek, the verb bring in highlights that they would have to be taken in because they would resist. So they would have to be forced to come. And they knew the etiquette—they would have to pay the master back with an even greater feast if that happened. And that would be impossible.

Head over to Gospel Centered Discipleship to read the rest of this article and see how Jesus pushes us to go even further missionally in our pursuit of the outcast.

Jesus is the Better Atoner

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In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that “we feel the rule of Law pressing on us so ­ that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility…human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.”[1] He says that even though humanity knows what is right and wrong, “they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”[2]

Truth and untruth are hardwired in us but it’s in the dabbling with untruth that we know there is a culpability. It is in the “breaking” that we taste the bitter loss of innocence. The result? We just can’t seem to get out from under the anvil of guilt.

It finds it origins in Genesis 3. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:7­-8). After disobeying God, the first actions of our first parents were to cover up and hide. These are the activities of ones who find themselves mired in disgrace.

We know this to be true because its antithesis is found a few verses prior in Genesis 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” In a moment, an identity once hidden in perfect and safe communion God was now subsumed in an overwhelming sense of shame. Now present was a gaping sense of insecurity where there was once peace. A cavernous space where there was once intimacy. And instead of running in their newfound vulnerability to God, they disguised themselves and holed up away from him. Commentator Alec Motyer describes it this way:

They [sense that] they cannot meet and keep company with the Lord God as before, but neither do they see that the consequence of sin is loss of paradise. Hearing the approach of the Lord, they hide, but within the Garden… The blindness of sin is beginning to take effect…From the moment of the Fall, humankind has suffered from moral schizophrenia: neither able to deny sinfulness nor to acknowledge it for what it is. [3]

This is what shame does. It disorients. It muddles. It flusters. But those are only its horizontal affects. There was something else that happened in this moment of moral failure. Something more sobering. Something more destructive. After cursing the serpent, God approached Adam and Eve and said these words, “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The “hide and seek” that Adam and Eve played was short­-lived. God found them and relayed to them a harsh but necessary truth. Death would now be the repercussion of their blatant disobedience to the parameters that he had set. In God’s economy, the reach of the spiritual consequences had to be relative to the sinful activity of his human creations. Rebellion cost something.

In a way, God was following through with his earlier promise that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 3:16­-17). But did they? Not immediately. What did happen in the fall were two “kinds” of deaths. The first, the promise of physical death. Dust returning to dust. The second, the actuality of a spiritual death.

Yes, sin brings horizontal a sense of internal shame and insecurity but graver was that the chomp of an apple was a defiant spiritual action of the heart. It was an exploit that produced a cosmic condemnation of the soul. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). No one escapes this kind of guilt. It is corporate. And it has a debt.

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Maybe that is what we all really feel. We may call it “guilt” but at the bottom of it all, what we sense is a deep, pervasive debt. We detect that there is a settlement that we can never repay. When Adam and Eve tried to conceal themselves and cover their nakedness from God, they were beginning to feel that there was a deficit that could not be reimbursed. They were keenly aware of a bankruptcy of the soul that resided in the red. It’s what they did with their guilt that was the problem.

When feelings of spiritual indebtedness start to overtake us, we mimic our first parents. We hide. We self-protect. We self­-justify. And maybe most threatening ­ we try to make up the difference. We attempt to pay back the debt in one form or another. We functionally do “penance.” Pastor C. John Miller says:

Penance is a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts people to attempt to pay for their own sins by good works and sufferings. Self­-justification is the goal of this effort. In practice this means that humanity always has one more scheme for getting things right with God and their conscience. Sinners doing penance always say in their hearts, ‘Give me one more day, a new religious duty, another program, another set of human relationships or a better education, and then things will come right­side up’…They are preparationists—that is, sinners who are forever getting ready for grace. They want to make themselves worthy of grace so that God will reach out to them once this work of preparation is completed. [4]

Notice Miller’s statement that those who do penance are “forever getting ready for grace.” It’s interesting that we know that our guilt requires something radical to handle the chasm between our deeds and what is required for forgiveness of the debt. But we go on. We think one more bible study, one more soup kitchen visit, one more degree, one more zero at the end of our salary will balance the shortage, one more intimate relationship. It never does. We will never be able to get “prepared” for grace.

Herein lies the rub. We don’t want anyone to give us mercy because that means we have to, one, admit we can’t make up the difference, and two, admit that what have to look outside ourselves to someone who can. This is offensive to our Western ideals of independence and strength. But this confession is the very beginning point for absolution. Acknowledging our spiritual inability is actually where we begin to see the light. Powerlessness is the prerequisite.

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Head over to Grace For Sinners to read the third section of this article to see where atonement can be found – outside of ourselves.