In a State of (Confused) Grace

Grace is one of the most powerful and evocative words in Christian lingo, but if you ask Christians to define it properly most of them will scratch their heads. Very likely, they’ll try to use it in a sentence. In my experience, three types of use emerge.

The first (and most evangelical) is to speak of grace as forgiveness. We see this in prayers that begin with the words, “Our Gracious Heavenly Father;” we see it when people claim, “If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s present when others reflect that “there but for the grace of God go I.” In each of these phrases, grace means something like forgiveness. We pray to the God who is forgiving, we acknowledge that if it weren’t for forgiveness we wouldn’t be here, and we claim that without the experience of forgiveness we might be a lot more rotten. Grace is forgiveness.


The second (and most Catholic) is to speak of grace as a state of sinlessness. We use grace this way when we hear about someone being “in a state of grace.” Mary, addressed by Gabriel, is called “full of grace,” and Catholic theology typically interprets this to mean that she possessed a special sinless state (which made it possible for her to carry the Christ child). Formally, sacramental theology holds that the performance of the sacraments (eucharist, baptism, etc.) are visible signs of invisible grace. The performance of baptism removes the stain of original sin (restoring the infant to a state of grace); the regular performance of the eucharist restores the person to union with Christ and the state of grace that is consonant with that union. Grace is sinlessness.

A third (and more universal) way to speak of grace is to evoke a kind of goodness, generosity, elegance, or noblesse. Perhaps you’ve heard someone exclaim, after experiencing some unexpected good, “Well, that’s a grace!” Or perhaps you’ve seen an excellent dancer and remarked, “What grace!” You may have heard someone describe another person as a gracious host, or a house as a gracious house. The word ‘grace’ in each case evokes this sense. Interestingly, the word noblesse originally referred to nobility from a foreign country—in this respect, the grace of Christian persons is the representation of their foreign (heavenly) manners and sensibilities. Such a person embodies a goodness, a generosity, and an elegance that is otherworldly, therefore gracious.

Amy Adams as "Julie Powell" in Columbia Pictures' Julie & Julia.

There is enough variety between these three conceptions of grace to suggest that none of the three captures the essential heart of whatever ‘grace’ means. Sinlessness, forgiveness, and noblesse are similar, but not the same thing. So, what definition of grace gets at the heart of grace, without excluding these other interpretations?

A classic, Protestant, Sunday School definition of grace can be found in the following acronym: Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. I must admit that I’ve always found this definition somehow lacking. First of all, it is difficult to conceive. What are the riches? Are they all at Christ’s expense? Was no grace possible before Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead? It also seems conceptually cumbersome to plug it into scripture that utilizes the word grace. Consider the opening prayer: “Our [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] Heavenly Father.” This now seems strange and redundant. Or, to speak of a host, “He’s a very [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] host.” This seems to render excessively theological the duties of hospitality. The most sensible exchange, perhaps ironically for Protestants, would be Gabriel’s: “Hail Mary, full of [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense].” On this reading Mary, somehow, receives the merits of salvation prior to Christ’s death and resurrection.

A friend of mine alerted me to another common definition of grace—this time in contrast to mercy. It goes like this:

–> Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.

–> Grace is getting something we don’t deserve.

gavel_2To a degree, this is fair enough—on account of God’s mercy, humans in Christ are not punished for their sins. On account of God’s grace, humans in Christ receive an unmerited salvation. (Grace as “unmerited favour” is another classic definition of the term.) But I want to observe that these definitions rely quite heavily on their situation within a law court. Mercy and Grace are given tactile meaning by means of their interpretation with exclusive respect to sin and forgiveness. Is there no grace where there is no sin? If graciousness is an attribute of God, does our lack of sin limit His capacity to express that attribute? If mercy is an attribute of God, does it depend on sinners—on human failure—to activate? The law court appears to rely too heavily on a temporary human state to provide a suitable basis for our definition of grace (and of mercy as well).

In the New Testament, of course, the word we translate grace is charis, and its definition is ‘favour’—and yet it is favour in a very specific sense of social exchange. In the patronage system of the ancient world, to receive the favour of a superior often meant the reception of a gift, in exchange for which the recipient would render service. The link between the two concepts is further enshrined in the relationship between the words “charis” and “charismata”—the first is favour, the second is the explicit gifts given in favour (explicitly in the New Testament, the gifts of the Spirit). We still retain a semblance of these meanings when we remember that the Latin translation of charis becomes gratis, from which we derive our words grace, gratitude (thankfulness for a gift), gratuity (a gift given in exchange for service), and gratuitous (a gift exceeding what is required or expected). Gifts, and gift giving, in relationships with obligations, are at the heart of the meaning of the word grace. In view of this, a passage such as Ephesians 2:8 may take on some interesting nuance: “For by grace (charis) you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift (doron) of God.” God, in patron relationship with His people, offers them favour in the form of a specific gift. We get salvation, God gets something in return.

Viking Gold_

Famously, ancient tribes would trade gold for service. You can read about it in Beowulf, and then remember that Christian covenants aren’t all that different…

I am convinced that the primary frame for understanding the nature of grace is not the law court, but covenant. John Levenson has written compellingly in his book The Love of God about the nature of Hebrew (and ancient near eastern) covenants, how they make explicit the terms and conditions of relationship between suzerain lord and vassal. The Lord offers certain benefits to the vassal—protection, companionship, financial benefits, and in exchange it is quite common for the vassal to promise love in return. In a covenant context, God offers His people gifts (charis, charismata), and the people offer God love and service in return.

This situation seems to make a great deal of sense out of the New Testament account of God’s grace and the human response to that grace. God, in Christ, has established a new covenant with the people of the earth. God will be our God, and we will be His people. He, showing the favour of a liege lord to His people, gifts us with forgiveness (so that we can stay in His presence), with his Spirit (so that we can be equipped for His service), with new hearts (so that we can fulfill the covenant stipulations), and He effects all of this through the gift of Himself through the Son (Who makes all this possible). In a covenant frame, grace is the favour and gifting of God which, being received by His covenant people, demands a response of covenant love and obedience.


Grace, then, is favours/gifts from God which demand love and obedience. It follows that all things have the potential to be grace, if they are received rightly. Life itself, as a gift from God, is a grace the acknowledgement of which demands new love and obedience. Every instantiation of beauty, received as grace, is an apprehension of something which demands love and obedience. And, if we are to take Job as our guide, in an astonishing way every experience of horror—so received as if from God—can also be interpreted as a demand for love and obedience (“Shall we accept good from His hand, and not ill?” Job 2:10). Furthermore, a covenant frame for grace can contain all of our common understandings of grace—within the covenant, of course forgiveness is a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); sinlessness is also a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); and noblesse is a mode of grace (the witness of which also demands our love, obedience, and imitation).

Fuzzy definitions make fuzzy Christians. A good definition of grace should equip us to better fulfill our obligations as recipients of God’s favours. And, if we believe that all of life is a gift, then to live rightly in response to it is to embody the very nature of grace—covenant people receiving gifts and returning love, obedience, and gratitude.

The Law of Forgiveness

clenched-fist-silhouette_21-56776952“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15

According to Jesus, we don’t have a choice about forgiveness. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven. If we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. This is explicit. There is no wiggle room. There is no option. Forgiveness for the Christian is a command, not a choice.

It’s not like this is the only place where Jesus says this kind of thing. When Peter asks about forgiving his brother seven times, Jesus drops an ideological bomb on him in response—not seven, but seventy times seven (in other words, so often that you’re not counting anymore). Then he tells that chilling parable about the guy who owed a lot, was forgiven, and then went on to choke the other guy who owed him a little. The story finishes with the lord, moved to anger, handing “him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” Wow—but that’s not all, because Jesus completes the parable with the following stunner: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Huh? If we don’t forgive from the heart the Father of Jesus will hand us over to the torturers to make us repay what we are owed? Not forgiving others invalidates our own forgiveness like that? Apparently this forgiveness business is serious stuff.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, which is the passage immediately preceding the scripture quoted at the top, there is a subtle hint to this—one that our traditional translations obscure. You’ve heard this clause as, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One small problem—the word “forgive” in the second part is in the perfect tense. That means it’s something that has been done and completed already. A better translation would be, “Forgive us our transgressions as we have already forgiven those who transgressed against us.” Before we even ask for forgiveness, Jesus commands, we must deal with our own forgiveness issues. This is serious, tough stuff.

It’s such tough stuff that some have attempted to write these passages off entirely by dividing the teachings of Jesus into two categories—they argue that all the teachings before the cross fall under law, while the Christian life is all about grace. Passages like these three certainly have a force like law, and this equips these readers to dismiss them with a clear conscience. “Jesus came to free us from the law,” they say, “and these words are law. Therefore we aren’t bound by them.”

This seems inadequate, even laying aside the fact that such a reading invalidates most of the New Testament. So, presuming that as followers of Christ we must take the words of Christ with utter seriousness, how will we make sense of such a statement? What do we do with this “law” of forgiveness?

Sermon on the Mount_Altar in Copenhagen ChurchLet’s begin with the immediate context—the Sermon on the Mount. The first time Jesus lays down this law of forgiveness is in the section of the Sermon where he talks about three aspects of the Christian religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each of those teachings he makes a specific point to talk about not performing these actions “to be seen by men.” Instead, we must focus our attention solely on our Father “who sees what is in secret.” Our model for bad spiritual practice in each case is the Pharisees, who love to give in order to be seen, who love to pray in public places, and who love to disfigure their appearances when they fast. This is noteworthy: in each case the Pharisees are taking advantage of their power—whether status, visibility, or position—in order to make themselves look better. This is perhaps most clear for us in the passage on almsgiving. The only way to be seen giving to someone in need is to make the need of the other person highly visible. If I were to give today in the Pharisee fashion, then I could stand in front of my church, summon a needy member to come forward, then make a show of offering this poor person some portion of my grand resources, perhaps in the form of an oversized cheque. In that circumstance I would look big at the other person’s expense—my magnification would be one of perspective only, a righteousness achieved through injustice. This seems to be the heart of Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees. It is a rebuke of their abuse of power.

To take this and apply it to the other three teachings is straightforward—we cannot ever give, pray, or fast in such a way as to either shame others or seek to make ourselves look good. Our religious life is designed to focus our attention on God alone, and not our fellow man; that is its “secrecy.”

So then, how does this impact the law of forgiveness? Observe that in the middle of a passage about the abuse and right use of power—especially religious power—Jesus speaks a word about human forgiveness. The placement of Jesus’ command begs the question: if we are not to use our religious power to make ourselves look good or others look bad, how are we to use our religious power? The answer is forgive. This is the proper use of power—and not just a proper use, but the mandate of human power. We are not in control of our circumstances or our futures, of what will happen tomorrow, of what others will do to us—but the thing over which we do have control is whether or not we will forgive. In this place, the place where we do possess control, our Lord commands us to forgive.

Christian in Pilgrim's ProgressEven the word for forgive is interesting—it is aphiemi and it means “let go.” In the place where you do have power, hold your hands openly. In the place where you might hold a grudge, or be tempted to keep something, you must let it go. In the same way that we are commanded to trust our Lord with provision for our lives, we are also commanded to trust him completely with the wounds and grievances we bear. We entrust absolutely everything to our Lord and King, and perhaps our greatest obstacle to receiving and living out these words—the reason we ignore them and invent theological motifs to remove them from consideration—is that we recoil in fear from the radical submission required by absolute forgiveness.

The command to forgive is a command that humbles, convicts, and challenges God’s people. You can never shame someone when you are forgiving them. It is not possible to make yourself look good when you forgive someone from the heart. Forgiveness is the power that makes us powerless, and this, perhaps, is one of the innermost foundations of this thing called “Church.” How will we survive if we do not forgive one another? How will we preach a message of forgiveness from sin if we refuse to forgive at home? Will we allow our lack of forgiveness to invalidate the message we are commanded to bring? Would we be like that wicked servant who choked the other servant for a pittance, forgetting that we have been forgiven an amount that cannot possibly be repaid?

The Law of Forgiveness. Lex Aphesis. The law that breaks, and makes, the People of God.

The Two Sins of Judas

Dante’s vision of the final circle of Hell was Satan eternally chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (three greatest traitors in history).

Judas, right after Peter, stands out as the most compelling figure among the disciples, and, indeed, as one of the most mysterious personalities of the whole New Testament.

Part of the mystery stems from lack of information: there is little that we know about Judas other than his betrayal. What we do know makes his betrayal seem even more startling. After all, he was one of the twelve. When Jesus healed, preached, and exorcised demons, Judas was a direct witness. When Jesus sent the twelve out to preach and empowered them to cast out demons and heal the sick, Judas went out, preached the kingdom, cast out demons, and healed the sick. Judas, we must never forget, was a man who knew and experienced the power of Jesus firsthand.

And yet, for all this, Judas’s motivations remain shrouded in mystery. How could a person who knew Jesus so well, who experienced Jesus’ power, betray him in the end? Could such a person really betray Jesus merely for money? If it was really all about money and greed, then why did he take his own life?

Judas is compelling because he figures so prominently in the narrative of Jesus’ life. He is mysterious because we know so little about his life and motivations. But, in addition to these, Judas is also one of the most unsettling figures in the Bible because his betrayal presents us with a theodicy. How can God ordain that Judas should betray Jesus, then condemn him for doing what he had no choice but to do? Jesus states clearly at Matthew 26:24 that “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Jesus’ death was prophesied, but woe to the man who betrayed him! And this makes us ask: If Judas was clearly destined to betray Jesus, does that also mean he was destined to die as he did? Was the aftermath of his betrayal bound by the same necessity as his betrayal? Is Judas a special case in the history of salvation—the one man God could never, and would never, save? Did God, who destined Judas to betray Jesus, also destine Judas for eternal damnation?

I propose to you that the answer to those questions is “no.” That Judas, while destined to betray Jesus, was not of necessity bound to die because of it. In fact, when we examine the story of Judas in the Gospel of Matthew we discover a series of curious parallels that force us to ask a critical question. The parallels are between Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial, and the critical question is: What is it that separates these two men? The answer, I believe, is in two sins Judas commits, implicitly, between his betrayal and death. They are sins worth examining both to answer for Judas’s untimely death, and because they are sins into which every Christ-follower is equally prone to fall.

So worthless, in light of eternity…

The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that treats significantly with the details of Judas’s last night on earth. Curiously, within that narrative the actions of Judas and Peter are directly paralleled four distinct times. To set the stage, we must remember that Judas has agreed in Matthew 26:14-16 to betray Jesus into the hands of the Pharisees for a sum of 30 pieces of silver. (As an aside, Judas’s decision to betray Jesus falls on the heels of the ‘waste’ of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus at Bethany. Notably, all the disciples take offence at the waste, so Judas isn’t singled out. Nevertheless, we are led, by virtue of editing, to conclude that Judas is the only one to do something about it. This, of course, is merely speculation.)

This brings us to the first parallel between Judas and Peter. During the Last Supper, Jesus makes a prediction. He says (26:21), “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” He is, of course, speaking of Judas. Then, after supper, while on their way to the Mount of Olives, Jesus makes another prediction. This time he says (26:31), “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” Not only would one disciple betray Jesus, the whole group would fall away that very evening. It was, to be sure, not a very good night to be a disciple.

The second parallel is in the focusing of these predictions, because both Peter and Judas present themselves to be identified as prime culprits. First, right after Jesus predicts his betrayal, the disciples seek to exonerate themselves, each saying, “Surely not I, Lord?” When Judas offers his excuse in verse 25, Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, it is you.” Then, when Jesus has predicted the falling away of all his disciples, Peter responds, on behalf of the group, and says (26:33), “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” To which Jesus replies that Peter would disown him three times that very night. In verse 35, observe, Peter restates his conviction, “And all the other disciples said the same.”

The kiss would help soldiers identify the correct man in the dark. (They were afraid to arrest Jesus during the day.)

These, then, are the first two parallels: a general prediction (betrayal), followed by specific identification (Judas), and a general prediction (falling away), followed by another specific identification (Peter). Both predictions, of course, and both betrayals, come true. And this, indeed, is the third parallel in Matthew’s Gospel, because Jesus’ predictions are fulfilled. After the disciples arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas arrives with the soldiers and betrays Jesus with his kiss. Shortly after this, while Jesus is on trial, Peter disowns Jesus three times outside in the courtyard. It seems clear, from the editing of the text, that we are meant to see Peter and Judas in parallel to one another.

But there is a fourth parallel drawn between these disciples, and in order to understand this parallel we must also understand the passage Jesus quotes to his disciples when he predicts their falling away. There, in Matthew 26:31, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”

Zechariah’s prophecies figure prominently in Matthew’s account of the passion of Jesus, but the quotation of the oracle from chapter 13:7-9 is one of the most prominent instances. An initial clue to help us understand this passage will be to know that in the Old Testament the language of ‘shepherd’ and ‘sheep’ is frequently used in the place of ‘King’ and ‘people.’ Here, then, in the passage Jesus has quoted, God has promised to strike a shepherd (His King), and scatter His sheep (the people of Israel) as judgment. In Jesus’ quotation, Jesus has envisioned himself as the shepherd and his disciples as the sheep; he was about to be struck, and they were about to be scattered. For both Jesus (in Matthew) and Israel (in Zechariah) it is a striking of judgment—Christ, in other words, is about to take the judgment of God, on our behalf, upon himself.

This process of saving judgment is something the prophet Zechariah speaks about as well, and we find, in Zechariah 12:10 (a passage immediately preceding the one Jesus quotes), the following striking oracle:

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

The shepherd, Jesus, is about to be struck, or pierced, and the people of God will look upon the one who had been pierced and mourn as a response. This reveals our fourth, and most stunning parallel between Peter and Judas, because both of them look on the one they have pierced and mourn. In Matthew 26:75, immediately after Peter has denied Jesus, he “went outside and wept bitterly.” And right after this passage, in Matthew 27:3, Matthew records that “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse.” Both Peter and Judas mourn bitterly for what they have done to their master. They both fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy.

Painting by James Jacques Tissot

Peter’s grief was real.

But it is here that the parallels end, for while Peter lives on to be restored by his master, Judas takes his own life. And let it be clear, at this point, from within the darkness of betrayal, that neither man has a real advantage. Both men have had their master name the betrayal/denial in them before it came to pass. Both men have actually betrayed their Lord and Master. And both men experience remorse for what they’ve done. By all accounts and purposes, and to the extent that Matthew documents this story, Judas and Peter are, at this point, in the same dismal boat.

What is it, then, that sets Peter and Judas apart? Both men betrayed their master—why does one die, and one live? Indeed, this question becomes more imperative when we remember that we also, like Peter and Judas, sometimes deny and betray Jesus—what, in the end, is the real difference? If we commit this sin of Judas and Peter, are we equally doomed to die an eternal death as a result?

The answer is “no.” We are not doomed, but we must beware two sins that Judas commits at this point, because it is these two sins—those that follow his betrayal—that condemn Judas to an eternity in hell.

For a moment, let’s return to the passage Jesus quoted from Zechariah 13, because that passage will inform our understanding here. There, the same oracle from which Jesus quotes also describes the ultimate effect of God’s divine scattering. There, in Zechariah 13:9, it is revealed that the result of this scattering will be to refine and purify God’s people. The remnant who survive this scattering, who survive the remorse of witnessing the one they have pierced, will be revealed as God’s holy people, the purified foundation of Christ’s new nation. Remember again, it was not merely Peter and Judas who betrayed Jesus that night, but the entire group of disciples that abandoned him. They were all scattered, they were all filled with remorse, but only eleven survived. What set Judas apart was not that he had remorse (which was predicted by Jesus through Zechariah), but the way he dealt with his remorse. And it is precisely here that Judas committed his two sins.

The first sin Judas commits is the sin of despair, and to despair is to fixate on the present hopelessness to such a degree that you remove God from the influence of your life. Emotionally, you close off the world, close out the future, and judge all of eternity in light of a present moment. Judas determined that, for him, there was no hope.

I find this image sadly fitting…

As Judas fixates in this way, he sections off outside influences. Nobody can reach him. Nobody can get through. There are no words that can reach a heart that has given itself to despair because that heart is becoming increasingly self-referential. Even subconsciously, the heart thinks, “I am the only one. There is no one who can help me. There is no one who can save me. I am alone, and alone I have no hope.” Judas had experienced the Lord; Judas had then betrayed the Lord. And if Judas knew (as we must presume he did) that the Lord was his only hope, then Judas believed he had betrayed his own hope. His logic, in a twisted way, was sound. It is the logic of a world without God. It is flawed because it doesn’t account for God.

To put this another way, Judas’s first sin is the taking Good Friday without Easter Sunday. Judas got stuck in a moment of time, and never looked to the larger picture. To this you might immediately respond, “How could Judas take Easter Sunday? He takes his life before the resurrection happens!” But that is precisely my point. Judas stops, he fixates, on Good Friday. His remorse for what he has done is the right response, but he holds on to his remorse, lets it control him, and gives in, in the end, to despair. In this, Judas is so busy looking at himself and how he feels, that he closes himself off from the world around him. And ultimately, that is precisely what his suicide is: a closing off of the world, a denial of everything but the experience of his own self. Judas took Good Friday as the final word and didn’t wait for Easter Sunday.

That this is a lesson for us should be obvious. We cannot allow our momentary despair to overshadow the work of God. We must always maintain perspective, always remember that God is good and has a plan for us. We must always remember that for every Good Friday, when things seem darkest, there is always an Easter Sunday around the corner where God’s light will shine on us again—if we have but the patience to wait! Therefore the sin of Judas is this: to fixate on our circumstances, to close off the voice of God and the voice of history and the voice of the Church in favor of our own thoughts. It is to become self-referential when we ought to be looking for forgiveness. It is to judge our present circumstances as absolute, as if there were no future possible for us. It is, in effect, to take the world as all that is, and deny the possibility of God’s goodness and providence toward us.

The second sin of Judas is the sin of power, in particular with the taking of matters into his own hands. Judas doesn’t wait on God’s power; instead he acts in his own power. Potentially, there are hints of this in Judas’s betrayal. Some have hypothesized that Judas, knowing the power of Jesus, betrayed him as a way to force him to act. All the disciples, remember, were looking for an earthly kingdom—was Judas’s betrayal his own earthly way of forcing Jesus to exert his divine power against the Romans? The hypothesis fits what we know of Judas’s character, but even more than that speculation, we see this taking of matters into his own hands most clearly in Judas’s suicide. There, rather than waiting for God to dispense His divine justice, or wait for God to reveal His ultimate plan, Judas took justice into his own hands, literally. Judas determined to mete out his own punishment, determined what he deserved, and dealt himself the killing blow. He was to himself judge, jury, and executioner.

Framed this way, the sin of power, of taking matters into our own hands, is perhaps one of the oldest of all sins. After all, if only Adam and Eve had waited a short while longer, they could have asked God what He thought about the fruit and the snake. Seen this way, taking matters into our own hands is the essence of all sin—it is the refusal to admit God’s power, to wait on His will, and to allow God’s sovereign reign. We commit it when we grow impatient with God, when we try to work our own deals. God says to us, clearly, “Wait for Sarah,” and we go and find ourselves a Hagar and mess it all up.

Peter denies Jesus but is redeemed. Judas betrays Jesus and is condemned. Alike in their betrayal, they are unalike in their outcomes, and what separates Judas and Peter are the sins of despair and power. In the end, it is these two sins that commit Judas to Hell; not his betrayal. I even suspect that if Judas had stayed his hand for two more days, he might have been restored and forgiven by the risen Lord. He, like Paul, might have been the corrupt apostle made more glorious by the redemption of the master. Instead, Judas is in Hell. But he is not there because God chose him for Hell before time began, but rather because he was self-referential, because he allowed no inbreaking of God’s greater plan, and he, from that dismal vantage, impatiently took his own life into his own hands. In fact, together these two sins—despair and power—are the sins that create hell itself. They represent a sinister and pervasive logic: “This world is all there is. My power is all I have.” By such thoughts is Hell sustained. God forgive us all for thinking them.

The mystery of Judas has long pricked the imagination of the Church, and followers of Jesus have striven to make sense of Judas. The apostles, of course, felt no such compunction—they were content to condemn him in blanket uniformity, and after his replacement in Acts 1 he is never mentioned again. But later followers of Jesus were compelled by the mystery of Judas; he remained an alluring figure. Partly because of this there was even an early, heretical, “Gospel of Judas” which attempted to resolve the theodicy by framing Judas as the hero of the story, doing Jesus’ will by inaugurating the cross. But while the disciples dismiss Judas as a thief and say no more, and early Gnostics invent stories to make sense of Judas, neither of these provides a satisfactory answer to the complexity of Judas.

Of necessity, much of Judas’s life and choices will remain a mystery. We will never, this side of eternity, know the real motivation for his choice to betray his Lord. And yet perhaps there is more to the story of Judas for our benefit—not, as with those early Gnostics, in a secret history where Judas reveals to us some long-hidden truth, but rather in the content of Judas’s story as recorded in the gospels. And from that content we see these truths: that we may betray, deny, or fall away from our Lord, but we must not despair, closing God off from our lives. And no matter what happens, under whatever circumstances, we must always trust in the power of God, rejecting the temptation to take matters into our own hands. We must reject self-reference and patiently embrace God’s power. Like Peter, and unlike Judas, we must in all things wait on God.

The Scandal of Forgiveness, Part 2

(See Part 1 of this post here)

God’s forgiving generosity is extravagant beyond our wildest imaginations, rendering our sense of justice and desert completely null and void. In its teeth, we are powerless. But this aspect of forgiveness is essentially a problem for people who are outside the Christian faith. Since they haven’t tasted God’s forgiving generosity, they cannot comprehend how it works. The second problem with forgiveness, however, is how it troubles those who are inside the faith.

You see, when we become Christ’s followers—when we eat at His feast, drink from His well—we are expected to be free with God’s forgiveness as well. Once inside God’s Kingdom economics, we ourselves are expected to operate in accordance with its principles. Becoming part of the Bride of Christ, we are commanded to behave like the bride. Thus, John’s evangelistic declaration in Revelation 22:17 becomes a command for us: “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’; let him who hears say ‘Come’.” You have received, now offer. You have received freely, now offer freely. You have been forgiven, now forgive.

Forgiveness is clearly one of those things in life that sound great right up till when you have to do it. We all want—and need—forgiveness. We’re happy enough to receive it from God. But we suddenly get cheap when God asks us to forgive other people. Again, God’s word doesn’t leave us on our own, so let’s look together at Matthew 18:21-35.

 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

   23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talentswas brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

   26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

   28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

   29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

   30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

   32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

   35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Taken purely at face value, we can see that God seems pretty serious about this forgiveness business, doesn’t He?

Now the stark and uncomfortable reality is, of course, that forgiveness is unjust. Forgiveness isn’t fair. In forgiveness, we don’t get what we deserve.

What we must remember in forgiveness is that greater even than the personal injustice of forgiveness, forgiveness in Christian economics is particularly unjust because someone else did get what we deserved, and that person was Jesus. He took our punishment on himself. What we deserved for our sin fell upon him. He paid the price, and we got the gift. And God says to us, “Because I’ve been so generous to you, don’t you dare get cheap on me.”

God’s forgiveness is broad enough to include every sin imaginable. There is no sin that you can name that God won’t forgive. Lust. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Rape. Hatred. Envy. Pride. Gluttony. Lying. Deception. Laziness. Abuse. Slander. I could spend the next hour listing sins, but I don’t need to, because you’ve got a list in your own heart you can access any time. The point, however, is to hammer into your souls, as gently but unrelentingly as possible, the fact that God forgives things that we don’t want to forgive. God forgives all of these and more. Then He commands you to forgive them as well.

“Do you mean I have to forgive people who hurt children?” Yes.

“Do you mean I have to forgive murderers and rapists?” Yes.

“Do you mean I have to forgive the people who bully me at school?” Yes.

“Do you mean I have to forgive my spouse?” Yes.

“Do you mean I have to forgive my parents?” Yes.

“Do you mean I have to forgive the boy who took advantage of me?” Yes.

“Do you mean I have to forgive the person that said those terrible things about me behind my back?” Yes.

By all accounts, God’s forgiveness lays some serious burdens on the hearts of believers. You are commanded to forgive others because God has forgiven you. And in this process, as we forgive others, we, like Christ, eat the injustice and accept the person. We say, like God, that “This person is more valuable to me than what he/she has done.” We echo John’s declaration in our personal lives and say, “Come all who are thirsty and drink from the free water of life.”

I think that when Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we ought to “Turn the other cheek” he’s not spouting a nice phrase or pleasant sentiment, but a real practice in our lives: we absorb in our bodies the shame of other people’s sins. We forgive the debt. We let it go. We eat the discomfort.

Is forgiveness easy? By no means. Forgiveness is a truly difficult business. And inasmuch as God’s extravagant generosity boggles and frustrates the world, it lays an extraordinary high calling on us. In no way to I propose to you that forgiveness is easy. It’s not. It may take a lifetime to forgive some people. It takes longer when we’ve been deeply hurt. But as long as you are willing, I think God honors our intention.

C.S. Lewis is hailed as a hero of the Christian faith, but rarely do we think of him as a man who was deeply hurt. And yet when he was a boy he had been placed in a boarding school under an abusive headmaster. That man, right after Lewis was finally taken out of the school, was declared insane and committed to an asylum. Many years later, not long before Lewis died, he wrote the following:

“Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realised suddenly that I at last had forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I’d been trying to do it for years; and like you, each time I thought I’d done it, I found, after a week or so it all had to be attempted over again. But this time I feel sure it is the real thing. And (like learning to swim or to ride a bicycle) the moment it does happen it seems to easy and you wonder why on earth you didn’t do it years ago. So the parable of the unjust judge comes true, and what has been vainly asked for years can suddenly be granted. I also get a quite new feeling about ‘If you forgive you will be forgiven’. I don’t believe it is, as it sounds, a bargain. The forgiving and being forgiven are really the very same thing. But one is safe as long as one keeps on trying.” (Letters to an American Lady, 6 July 1963)

As followers of Jesus it falls to us to share the gospel, to offer this free gift of forgiveness to everyone. We do not judge or discriminate. We neither charge people for the bad things they’ve done, nor credit them for the good things we think they’ve done. We offer forgiveness—scandalous, free, glorious, grace-filled forgiveness—to everyone.

How do we do this? We learn to love our enemies. Once again God has been good enough to give us instruction in His own economics. Look with me at Matthew 5:43-47:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

As with Jesus’ other words in the Sermon on the Mount, this isn’t merely another platitude. This is a clear instruction. We know how to forgive the people we love, Jesus says; now take that forgiveness and apply it to your enemies. And the way we move from the idea of our enemies to the love of our enemies through prayer; we learn to love our enemies by praying for them. And ultimately this is the love that empowers all our evangelism, because the harsh but sincere truth of the matter is that if we can’t forgive the people we know have hurt us, then the forgiveness we offer to people we don’t know will be pretty thin stuff.

The Scandal of Forgivness, Part 1

(Note: this is adapted from a sermon I preached at my church on October 30, 2011)

I regard Revelation 22:17 as one of the most extraordinary verses on evangelism in the bible. There John says, as a kind of summary of his grand vision:

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”

Note the four invitations, increasing in scope, and progressively revealing God’s extravagant generosity. First, the Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’. For John, the Spirit is most likely the Spirit of Prophecy, and the Bride is the Bride of Christ (the Church). So the first invitation is the witness of the prophets (who spoke the word of God) and that of the Church, who is His promised Bride. It is thus the witness of God’s chosen people throughout history. The second invitation is to whoever hears this message. In effect, then, the gospel message (‘Come!’) was revealed first to Israel and is now made available to anyone who hears it. Third, whoever has thirst is invited to come. At this point the invitation is rendered universal. In the final clause of the verse what is offered is explained: whoever wishes let him receive the free gift of the water of life. A free gift. No charge. To whomever desires it.

To view this from another angle, because God’s gift of eternal life is completely free and open to all, the only way to miss out on eternal life is not to come at the call of Jesus.

I compare this passage to a kind of cosmic wedding invitation. The Spirit and the Bride send out invitations. The original invitees turn and invite others. Then, word gets out that the drinks are good (and that it’s essentially an open bar) and that everyone is welcome. Anybody who is thirsty can show up and find what God offers. In one sense we could summarize God’s mission in the by observing, essentially, that He encourages wedding crashers.

This Divine generosity is extravagant beyond our wildest imaginations. He gave the life of His son so that we could get salvation as a gift. And so we can rightly use words like profligate, extravagant, liberal, abundant, and mind-boggling to describe His giving.

However, at the very same time this generosity—God’s generosity—also causes us some problems. Not because something is wrong with God, but because something is wrong with us. And with this extravagant generosity I perceive two problems. Let’s discuss the first one today.

The First Scandal

If God’s generosity really is this good—this extravagant—then to our thinking there are going to be some surprises in heaven. Because if all it takes to receive the water of eternal life is coming to God, answering God’s call, then heaven is going to look different than we expect it to, isn’t it? There are going to be some people in heaven we weren’t expecting to see there. There are going to be some people missing from heaven that we thought should be there.

The divorce between our way of thinking and the economics of God’s Kingdom is stems from the reality that Christianity has never been about how good you are as a person; you cannot earn salvation, you can only receive it. The key that opens the door to eternal life is the simple matter of whether or not you have received Christ as your Lord and Savior. And as a direct consequence of these economics there will be surprises in heaven.

Jeffrey Dahmer was a mass murderer in the Milwaukee area not all that far from where I grew up. He would drug, rape, kill, and cannibalize young men. After he was caught he was tried and found guilty in the murder of fifteen different boys and men. Before he died (he was beaten to death while in prison) he accepted Christ and was baptized. If you have doubts, you can go and read the personal account of the minster met with and baptized Dahmer. There you can hear about Dahmer’s remorse for what he had done.

When we look at Dahmer, we’ve got to let John’s words echo in our minds: “Let whoever wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” Not ‘whoever was good,’ but whoever wishes.

There will be surprises in heaven.

Mahatma Gandhi is a renowned and revered world leader—known for his self-denial, his love for people, and his non-violent leadership that guided India toward independence. Yet Gandhi refused Christianity. Speaking of this rejection, one author wrote the following:

“When asked why he did not embrace Christianity, Gandhi said it offered nothing he could not get from his own religion, observing, ‘…to be a good Hindu also meant that I would be a good Christian. There is no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example.'”

Gandhi admired Jesus from a distance, but he didn’t come to drink at the fountain. He claimed that the followers of Jesus were too unlike Jesus for him to be one of them. His critique may have merit, but from what we know of faith, Gandhi, with all his goodness, is not in heaven.

Does this seem unjust to you? Dahmer, the mass murderer in; Gandhi, the great hero, out? Are you bothered by God’s forgiveness?

I stress again, against this, that you cannot earn salvation, you can only receive it. And furthermore if you think that one person deserves salvation while another person hell, then you understand neither God, generosity, forgiveness, or salvation.

The operation of God’s Kingdom economics is insanity by the standard of our world. Our world thrives on what is deserved, or at least on what it perceives as deserved. Against this metric of desert God has declared His own ways—His generosity, forgiveness, and salvation—in his word to us. Consider with me for a moment Matthew 20:1-16, and we’ll see together a parable that Jesus taught on Kingdom Economics.

 1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

   3 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

   “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

   7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

   “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

   8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

   9 “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

   13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

   16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Workers in the morning are people who come to faith early in life. As the day progresses we find people who come to faith later and later in life. The last people basically accept Christ on their deathbeds. Everybody gets the same wage: eternal life; the water of life. Does that seem unfair to you?

In response God basically says—to both them and us—”It’s my money, I’ll spend it how I want;” or, “It’s my salvation, I’ll give it how I want.” And then He goes on to say, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Does God’s generosity bother you? Does God’s forgiveness leave you angry? Do you think God is unjust for forgiving some people? Does your sense of justice matter more to you than God’s forgiveness?

The truth of the matter is that Kingdom economics are an economics of extravagant generosity. Forgiveness is lavish. Price is no object. Because the same God Who gave His only son for the salvation of the world will spare no expense to bring sinners into His Kingdom.

I admit, freely, that this doesn’t make sense by the world’s standards. I admit, freely, that on paper God’s forgiveness is absolutely nuts. And I recognize that this aspect of forgiveness bothers a lot of people, and that it especially bothers people outside our faith. The people who look at Christians from the outside see Gandhi and see Dahmer and conclude that we’re crazy, or stupid, or both.

But all I can say to those people is that they just don’t get it. They don’t get that Christianity is about forgiveness. They don’t get what lengths God went to to offer us that forgiveness. They don’t get that nobody purchases salvation. And I think a real part of their frustration is the powerlessness that we feel in the face of God’s generosity. It pulls the rug out from all our efforts to impress God. God’s forgiveness makes it so that there is nothing we can do to win God’s favor. As a result they reason, and we reason in our hearts as well, “If Gandhi isn’t good enough, then who is?” And they’re right to think that, but they aren’t prepared for the real answer: “No one is.” Nobody’s good enough. Nobody’s got it together. They don’t get that you, and me, and Dahmer, and Gandhi, and the Pope, and Hitler, and Mother Teresa and Stalin are all on the same level. They fight for Gandhi, not because they care about Gandhi per se, not because they are motivated by compassion for his soul, but because they are selfishly concerned about themselves. They don’t really care whether or not Gandhi gets salvation, but whether or not they can earn it; in short, they ask about Gandhi because he is a clear example of human merit. “Don’t his good deeds count for something?” they ask. But the answer is “No.” Nothing we’ve done can earn us our salvation and no sin we’ve committed can keep us from it. Salvation is God’s generous gift to an undeserving world; the only thing we can do to prevent ourselves from receiving it is reject the gift. And so I think what really bothers us is that in the face of God’s forgiving generosity we are all rendered utterly powerless.

In all this, God’s ways frustrate the logic of our world. As Paul announces in 1 Corinthians 1:18-19,

“the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.'”

And then he concludes, in verse 25,

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

Kingdom economics are an insane economics to the world; but they are the salvation of God to us.

And that is the first reason why God’s forgiveness is so scandalous. Scandalous because free. Scandalous because without merit or desert. Scandalous because we are made completely powerless in its face. All you can do is receive it.

(Part 2 of the scandal coming soon.)