By the normal, human standards of justice, this idea of grace presents some serious problems.
Where do you stand on this business of amazing grace? I don’t mean the hymn. I mean the idea of grace, the doctrine of it. Do you believe that the mistakes of the past, the wrongs a person has done, even grievous wrongs, can be wiped away once and for all by God’s love and mercy? Can someone, anyone, you, be freed from a lifetime burden of guilt by the grace of God? Is that grace poured out, without condition, so liberally that it can, in the words of the famous hymn, save the person who once was lost, give sight to blind eyes?
That’s what the Christian faith proclaims. Many volumes of theology have been written on the subject of grace, but sometimes it finds its best expression in the most unlikely places. A character in John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany puts it like this: “The point is, God doesn’t love us because we’re smart or because we’re good. We’re stupid and we’re bad and God loves us anyway.”
What makes that statement so unlikely is that it’s spoken by a character in the novel whose speech is liberally sprinkled with cuss words.
But that says it about as plainly as it can be said: God doesn’t love you or me because we’re smart or even because we’re good. By the normal, human standards of justice, this idea of grace presents some serious problems.
Some time back I listened to a presentation by a college philosophy professor. His subject was Islam. He told us the Islamic faith stresses justice: good behavior is to be rewarded, bad behavior is to be punished, both on the human level and the sacred level. The presenter said that even though he was a Christian minister and had many times taught and preached the doctrine of grace, he thought the approach of Islam made a whole lot more sense.
It does, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t good behavior be rewarded and bad behavior suffer consequences? There’s something in us that objects to sinful deeds going unpunished, even our own sinful deeds. A character in another contemporary novel expresses this point of view. Referring to the practice in Catholicism of the faithful declaring sins to a priest in the confessional booth, this character says: “Confession is a thing I can’t agree with. I say it’s cheap. You kneel down in that box and say what you done. And then, basically, you get off scot-free, only cranking out a few hail Marys or some Our Fathers. No restitution demanded, no community service” (Louise Erdrich, The Bingo Palace).
The Bible itself struggles with the issue of God’s grace. Some passages of Scripture demand the highest moral standards of the faithful. Other passages tell of God’s great love for everyone, even for the vilest of sinners.
Two examples: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? … So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14,17).
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
If the writers of Scripture can’t seem to agree, then we can perhaps be excused for being a bit confused ourselves.
One of the best explorations of this debate I’ve come across appears in Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe. The story is about Ian, a young man who blames himself for causing his brother’s death in a car accident. Actually the death resulted from circumstances beyond Ian’s control, but he blames himself nonetheless. Distraught by guilt, Ian one evening wanders into a storefront church. During the prayer time, he says to the small group of worshipers: “Pray for me to be good again. Pray for me to be forgiven.” After the service, Ian is feeling better. He asks the minister, “Don’t you think I’m forgiven?”
“Goodness, no,” Reverend Emmett said briskly.
Ian’s mouth fell open. He wondered if he’d misunderstood. He said, “I’m not forgiven?”
“But … I thought that was kind of the point,” Ian said. “I thought God forgives everything.”
“He does,” Reverend Emmett said. “But you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.’ Why, anyone could do that much. You have to offer reparation—concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.”
The form that Ian’s reparation takes is the financial support of his brother’s stepchildren. It’s a heavy burden for such a young man, but he sacrifices his own plans in order to atone for his guilt.
At the end of the novel, the reader is left to wonder whether Ian did the right thing. On the one hand, he did make a positive difference in the lives of his brother’s stepchildren. On the other hand, he spends much of his own life suffering from a burden of guilt that even his good deeds do not eliminate. He doesn’t find grace until the end of the novel. And it comes in a way that has nothing to do with his sacrifice.
I ask again, Where do you come out on this business of amazing grace? Maybe it is too easy, too cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred by the Nazis, warned of what he called “cheap grace.” In his own words: “[With cheap grace] no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, … grace without discipleship, grace without the cross” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).
Bonhoeffer’s words ring true. Surely it’s a mistake to think of God as an indulgent grandparent who turns a blind eye to the wrongdoings of humanity. Our faith teaches that the cost of salvation was the cross of Calvary. This is costly grace indeed. But it is God’s grace that saves us, not our own efforts.
John Newton was the son of an English sea captain. At the age of 11 Newton went to sea himself and after some years captained his own ship, one that carried African slaves. Converted to Christian faith, Newton left his old life behind to become a minister and hymn writer. Remembering his former lifestyle and his part in the evils of slavery, Newton wrote the words that have become beloved by millions.
“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.”
I came across a church hymnal that had taken some liberties with Newton’s words. Apparently the editors objected to the word “wretch.” I suppose to them it sounded so, well, wretched. Most people who sing this hymn aren’t wretches, the editors probably reasoned; they’re good people, most of them churchgoers. So they substituted the phrase “saveth men like me.”
It was a bad decision, not only because it used that noninclusive word “men” but because not one of us escapes the state of wretchedness at various times in our lives. We mess up, sometimes badly. We slip into petty hatreds, betray confidences, remain silent in the face of injustice, break promises, fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, fail even to love ourselves properly. There are times when we feel our lives amount to nothing more or less than colossal failures. We may even hate ourselves.
Wretch is the word for it. A wretch like me. A wretch like you. My closing word on the matter is simply this: When I bring my life into the presence of the Holy One, I really don’t want justice. I don’t want what I deserve. I want mercy, divine mercy. I want God’s amazing grace.
What do you want?
Ken Gibble lives in Greencastle, Pa.
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