Recently, a friend and I were reading through a book entitled Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges, and we were both struck by the same passage. I don't have the book right in front of me, or I would quote it for you, but here's the basic idea:
When I sin and then repent of it, God does not put me in some different category in which I must serve a penance before I can be fit for His work. When I am righteous, that does not entitle me to greater blessings nor make me necessarily more "fit" for God's work.
Let me explain.
grace overcomes penance.
A story from my father's life outlines God's far-reaching grace. My father was praying as he walked along a road, grieving over a sin which he had just committed and repenting of it before God. He felt utterly unfit for any kindness from God, or any work which God might have for him to do. But suddenly, the Holy Spirit spoke to him powerfully. "Go up that hill before you and speak to the men you see there."
So Dad went up. He found two men whom he began to speak to about Jesus. They became angry, especially when he persisted, and one began to choke him violently while shouting threats. Finally, when my father thought this was surely how he was going to die, the man released him. My father staggered, but as soon as he gulped a breath, words came out of his mouth.
"Jesus loves you! And I love you too!"
He repeated these words as he regained his breath, louder and louder, with the full conviction of real love. The two men, terrified, abandoned the hill with the truth of God's love echoing around them.
"You know what really gets me?" Dad said as he told the story. "I had just been such a failure. It wasn't an hour before that I had sinned. So why did God pick me back up and throw me into the fight again?"
That's grace, God's undeserved favor. When sin is grieved over and repented for, the matter is over. Our ability to do great things for God is not conditional on our righteousness. He simply looks for the humility of a sinner who acknowledges the grace of God, then He invests that same sinner with the power and responsibility to do His work.
Grace overcomes pride.
All my life, I've tried to be the "good Christian girl." As the oldest in my family, I take my responsibility as role model very seriously, and I am also in the position to provide similar friendship and encouragement to others. While it is consistent with Scripture to obey the Lord and offer the "fruits of righteousness," one of my most common traps is the belief that I'm due some kind of reward for my exemplary behavior.
The story of the Prodigal Son has become a powerful one for me. Most people pay attention to the prodigal son and the joy of his father at the young man's return. But, for me, the character I most resonate with is the older brother of the prodigal. The older brother did everything right. He honored his father. He valued his inheritance. He served for years without murmuring or complaining.
And the second his younger brother shows up, broken and defeated because of his own stupid choices, his father throws a tremendous party, the sort of party with which he had never honored his elder son. The firstborn is understandably miffed.
"I've done everything right, and I get a little pat on the back. He does everything wrong and he comes back to get help, and what do you do? Throw him a party! In all my years serving you and honoring you, you have never treated me with such delight."
The father's response echoes the cry of every parent:
Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.
I'm that older brother. While I am still trying to remind myself that righteousness has a reward--eventually--I watch others do stupid things, make horrible choices despite the warnings of those who love them, then come back to the life they never should have left in the first place and get blessed abundantly by God! Meanwhile, I continue to struggle with the reality that the same desires that remain unfulfilled in my life are being fulfilled in theirs.
It has crossed my mind many times that there is no point in serving God well when the prodigal gets the celebration and I don't.
Where is the fairness in grace?
And that's when God has to re-explain grace to me. Grace is favor and kindness that is not deserved. He gives it to everyone in different ways, but it's the same grace.
Sin is the great equalizer.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. - Romans 3:23
All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lordhas laid on Him the iniquity of us all. - Isaiah 53:6
The prodigal has sinned. I have sinned. God's grace--the substitution of His son in place of my punishment and His continued goodness in my life as I trust in Him--is the same for the prodigal and for me. We are all prodigals, really. And the same Father who welcomed back the wanderer with open arms and tears of joy will welcome me someday into His new kingdom with the same delight.
When I am that prodigal, don't I want the same grace?
I am Saved by Grace.
Do my failures disqualify me from God's blessings to me? No.
Does my righteousness qualify me for more blessings? No.
God's goodness to me is abundant. His forgiveness never expires. His mercies are new every morning. My penance and my pride are no match for His stunning grace.
The look of love in the shape of your face I have known
None of my life has gone the way it was "supposed to go," but I don't love my life any less because of the hardships and new directions. I see so much unexpected good in it, and I want others to see the good in theirs.