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.