That which is good, is rare. I was introduced to this Romanian phrase the other week at Bible study, when our Romanian leader for that week put this idea forward and asked whether everyone agreed with the statement. Such a statement seems true on its face. Yachts, diamonds, vintage wines, and front row seating at a concert are wonderful things, but extremely rare. They're something you savor when you experience them, and often pay a high price to obtain them. The more magnificent something is, the rarer and harder to obtain it will be.
For the most part, all of us agreed with the phrase. While I typically shy away from universal statements, it at least seemed generally true. It does seem like the best things are rare. After discussing the Romanian phrase, our leader then asked a tough follow-up question. "If the love and grace of God is so wonderful, how could it be so plentiful?" The implication, of course, was that if God's love was so amazing, it would be rare and difficult to obtain, but we know that God's love is endless and readily available. Our leader pointed out that a grace like that presented in the gospels seems like something that would devalue itself. Flooding the spiritual market with grace, like flooding the economic market with money, would make the value, wonder, and power of grace diminish. I appreciated this question, as our Romanian leader had grown up with a very strong emphasis on merit. This notion of free, unmerited grace was new to him. It seemed like he found it interesting and compelling, but couldn't figure out how such a thing could be real.
1. Actually, grace is rare
We can determine whether something is rare in at least three senses: abundance, accessibility, and frequency of occurrence (which I will distinguish from "abundance"). I think grace seems common to us because it is both infinitely abundant and infinitely accessible. God's grace is deep enough for the worst sinner who has ever lived, and it is available to any human who desires a relationship with God. In those senses, grace is not rare. However, we know that God's grace is not accessed with great frequency. Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, and he told us that the path leading to destruction is very wide. God's grace may be available to everyone, but because of the self-focused human condition, few people access God's grace.
In this regard, God's grace reminds me of saffron. My grandma used to grow saffron - a substance worth hundreds of dollars more per pound than gold. I remember first learning about the price of saffron and asking my grandma why everyone didn't just grow it and get rich. She invited me to experience the saffron growing process with her. It was extremely laborious. We dug up all of the saffron bulbs and sorted the good from the bad. We replanted thousands of bulbs in just the right location to ensure they would grow. When it came time to harvest – many months later - we went around to the thousands of bulbs and picked three or four little hairs of saffron off each flower that bloomed from a bulb. We were lucky if we got four ounces from a few thousand flowers. On average, it takes 35,000 bulbs to produce one pound of saffron. 35,000 flowers and bulbs - over 100,000 saffron hairs - all for a $1,500 return.
I think grace is like saffron. The idea of it is wonderful. It can make you wealthier than you could ever imagine, and the process is really quite simple. But it is laborious. If you want to get rich in it, it must change your life. Truly accessing grace makes a rich man willing to sell all his possessions. It makes a coward and betrayer like Peter willing to die a horrific death. God's grace may be free, but the effects of its transformative power may cost us everything. Most people don't grow saffron because it's hard. It would change how they structured and lived their lives. Most people don't accept God's grace for the very same reason. In this sense, grace is rare.
2. The best things are rare, but the necessary things aren't
It may be true that yachts, diamonds, vintage wines, and front row seats are both rare and expensive. In fact, you could likely make a list of the greatest objects, pleasures, and places in life and find that every single one of them were rare and/or expensive. But what you would also find is that every item on that list could be eliminated from existence for the rest of eternity, and life would go on. In fact, one could live a very good life without these rare things.
What one couldn't live without is food, water, and air. One might actually consider these to be the best things because they are necessary things. Without them, one cannot live long enough to enjoy anything else this life has to offer. Food, water, and air are the best things, yet they are also the most ubiquitous things. They fit all the categories of being common. They are numerous, easily accessible, and frequently used.
One might argue that grace is more like the necessary things. Without grace, our connection to the life-giving creator and sustainer of our being is severed. Without grace, we're merely "breathing to death," as Lecrae says. Grace mends our relationship with God, and even through our continued failure, maintains that relationship. Without God's grace, our lives are empty and meaningless pursuits of momentary pleasures. Grace isn't a yacht, it's the air we breathe.
3. Grace can't increase - only it's manifestation can increase
I think it's wrong to look at grace as a commodity which can be increased or decreased. While Paul does bring up the notion of grace increasing in Romans 6, I would argue that he is speaking in terms of its manifestation. When we sin, there is an opportunity for grace to be applied - to show itself. But if you think about it, this isn't increasing the amount of grace. The full amount of God's grace was procured at the cross (and I think John Owen would agree with me on this). On the cross, Jesus graced all believers past, present, and future, with the full amount of grace possible. Nothing greater could be given or done. When we sin, then, the grace we receive is not an influx of more grace into the system, but the manifestation (or application) of grace that already exists. When we sin, Jesus is not crucified again. Rather, God graciously applies the work of Christ, done once for all, to our offense. Sin is not an opportunity for re-crucifixion, but rather the opportunity for the revelation of the crucifixion that was.
One might be able to think of grace like a buffet, or like an all-inclusive resort. When you go to such a place, you pay a set price to cover your activity. If you make another trip to the buffet or if you get another drink from the tiki lounge, you don’t incur more expense. Rather, each item ordered is a manifestation of your payment which provides you access to that for which has already been procured. The work of Christ procured all things. His sacrifice was sufficient for all things, though it is only efficient for those things to which it is applied. God’s grace cannot grow, it can only be instantiated and exemplified in more places.
4. A relationship steeped in grace produces love, and love produces obedience
Luke 7:36-50 gives us a wonderful look at grace. Jesus receives worship from a prostitute to the disdain of many religious leaders around him. Jesus goes on to explain that those who have been forgiven much, love much. Whereas the Pharisees saw themselves as guilty of little (or perhaps nothing), the prostitute knew exactly who she was. The Pharisees didn’t see a need for grace while the prostitute couldn’t imagine there being enough grace to go around for her. The prostitute, however, realized through Jesus the grace which was extended to her. The great grace she received produced great love. It is the same for us. The only reason we love God is because he first graced us with his love and forgiveness (I Jn.). Jesus says in Luke 7 that the more we realize this grace, the more love it produces.
Elsewhere in the Bible Jesus tells us that love, like grace, will likewise produce something. If we love Jesus, we will obey his commands. True followers of Christ are obedient to Christ. It doesn’t mean they never make mistakes, but rather that as they grow in their discipleship, so they grow in their convictions, their realization of God’s immense grace, their love, and their obedience. People know we are Christ’s disciples by the way we love one another. In relationship, grace produces love and love produces obedience.
Does this mean that prostitutes and murderers have the ability to love God more because they receive more grace? Not at all. The problem for the Pharisee in Luke wasn’t that he needed less grace from God than the prostitute, but rather that he didn’t realize that the amount of grace he needed was as great as that needed by the prostitute. Sin, as Paul says, has a way of showing us our offense. Those who sin more overtly, more frequently, and in more societally offensive ways can much more easily see their sin, and therefore the amount of grace it requires to save them. “Bad” people can comprehend that they need God himself to die in their place. “Good” people, in need of the same sacrifice, can’t understand how God couldn’t accept them as they are.
True grace, then, does not at all produce a desire within individuals to sin more. A true recognition of grace received is always accompanied by a true recognition of one’s offense in a relationship. If one aspect is taken lightly, so will the other be. But when God opens our eyes to see the greatness of our sin, he also opens them to see the even greater magnitude of his love. This love compels us not simply to proclaim his wonderful grace, but to follow and obey him. And as we follow a God who has saved us out of darkness - while we were offenders and enemies - we can’t help but grow in love. And with love comes obedience.
5. Being graced is ultimately positional, not causative
I think the inflationary model of grace (or "cheap grace") looks at things too naturalistically – too behaviorally. I don't think true grace is Pavlovian. True grace is something that occurs within a relationship. It is not an action used to manipulate another's action - though one's actions may indeed be affected by grace. We know that one reason we love God is because he first graced us with his love. His loving of us in our state of enmity with him - in our sin - enables us and compels us to love God. Rather than a cause/effect relationship here, though, I think it's more of a relational relationship.
As an example, if you have to go on a business trip for a few nights or if you go on a guys/girls night out for a few hours, you likely don't think to yourself, "while the cat's away the mice will play." Your absence doesn't produce some suspicion in you that your spouse is cheating on you. Your absence doesn't cause your spouse to cheat, though your absence may give them the opportunity to do so. For most of us, it would be absurd to think that our absence gives us reason to believe that cheating will occur. It's not absurd because cheating couldn't easily occur, but because our loving relationship with our spouse produces a trust within us that they will be faithful. Our spouse could cheat if they wanted to, but why would they want to if they are in a loving, trusting relationship which is valued?
To me, grace seems very similar to the trust depicted above. Trust naturally grows within a healthy relationship – but so also does responsibility. One gains trust as one is found to be responsible with the trust given. Most of us don’t look at the gaining of trust as a greater opportunity to commit worse evils against the one who trusts us. While clandestine operatives in espionage may seek to gain trust for nefarious purposes, those in true, healthy relationships don’t view trust as an opportunity to do evil, but rather a privilege to preserve. Grace is the same. Knowing that I have the opportunity to sin big and be forgiven through grace could provide me with a rationale to sin more. I get free grace, right? That type of thinking is self-centered and Pavlovian, looking simply at the cause/effect aspect of grace and the potential gain for self. But if I am in a true, loving relationship with my God - if I have made him my Lord - then how could I possibly think this way? He has entrusted his grace to me. I know that when I mess up, he'll continue to extend grace, but in no way would I ever consider taking advantage of his grace if I am in true relationship with him. His grace may make me bold and may take away my worry, as I know I will always be loved, but it in no way makes me feel as though I want to manipulate him. If grace were merely causative and didn’t come in relationship, of course I would take advantage of it in order to reap the greatest pleasures for myself. But grace isn’t merely causative. It’s relational.
Relationship is really the main component in explaining how abundant grace doesn't produce abundant sin. While many might take free money spitting out of a broken ATM, they would likely return a money-filled wallet their friend lost at their house. Similarly, most of us aren't too concerned when some random stranger is angry with us on the road, but we are devastated when we deeply disappoint someone we love dearly. Relationship changes everything. Grace inside of a relationship allows us to be secure in that relationship, and it deepens our love and respect for that relationship even more. It in no way encourages us to harm or manipulate a true, meaningful relationship. When one is apart from relationship and focused solely on self, the question is “how can I get the most for me?” In relationship, the question is “how can I uphold this relationship?”
The Gates of Hell
Right now we are walking in the midst of the very conundrum laid out above. We have been working with a Roma woman, *Alexa, for over six months. We recently had our credit card stolen and used for thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases. Rather than go to the police, we confronted Alexa. We told her we didn’t know who took our card, but that we knew it was a friend since it was taken from our house. We wanted to give her the opportunity to tell us if it was her so we could work it out. We told her we didn’t want to go to the police, but that we would if the friend who took the card wasn’t able to confess and work with us towards restoration. Alexa confessed, we had a long talk (and will be having many more) about the process of restoration. After our talk, we gave her a bag of food and made her a meal to take home to her family. She couldn’t believe that after we found out what she did, we would pay her for her work, send her home with food, and make a meal for her and her children. She has experienced grace.
I’m not exactly sure what appropriate grace looks like. We’ve already dealt with several financial issues and lies with Alexa before. Have we reached our 491st time to forgive? Is it possible to reach an end of forgiveness and grace? I don’t think we ever reach an end to forgiveness, mercy, and grace. However, showing grace doesn’t mean the elimination of consequences. Don’t forget that the grace we receive isn’t free. It was procured at a very hefty price – the life of God’s own son. Sometimes grace means that we, the offended party, eat the cost of the offense. We know Alexa can’t pay back in full what she stole. However, our giving of grace doesn’t mean that Alexa doesn’t have to bear any burden. Just as God’s mercy and grace often don’t liberate us from all of the natural consequences of our sins (broken relationships, jail, STD’s, etc), so it is at times when we extend mercy and grace. The road to restoration is often long and costly.
Some may say that such an extension of grace towards Alexa is too much. If we continue to show mercy, grace, and forgiveness, aren’t we just perpetuating Alexa’s sinful lifestyle? Aren’t we just enabling her and affirming her in her bad actions? Perhaps. But we are attempting to depict God’s unending grace and love in relationship. It would be easy to turn Alexa over to the police and let them do the dirty work meting out justice. It's much harder to persist in a broken relationship, to sift through lies, to be taken advantage of, to call out injustice, to acknowledge offense and the barriers it creates, to offer coffee and food to one who uses you, and to persist in a loving pursuit of the unlovely. We will not terminate our relationship with Alexa, though we may put up some parameters and stipulations within the relationship. Broken trust is a natural consequence of what Alexa did, but I don’t know that God would ever call us to completely terminate a relationship without leaving open doors for restoration.
At the moment, we are pursuing Alexa hard and showing her that we seek a genuine relationship with her. Why she wouldn’t want that, I don’t know, but we understand the very real possibility that Alexa will come to view grace as Pavlovian rather than relational. She may come to love grace without ever loving us or loving God. We have provided her with some income. We have provided companionship, inviting her into our home to talk and drink coffee. We have given her food. We have bought her medicine for her kids. We have offered to visit her daughter in the hospital and bring her a meal. We have offered to drive her places. We have researched how to get her money from the state for her kids and offered to walk through the process with her. We have offered to help her create a resume and apply for jobs. We have offered to have her family over for meals. We have offered for her and her six kids to stay with us when she said they were being evicted from their home. We have listened to her, loved her, trusted her, forgiven her, and shown her that we are all for her, and we have explained that this is because of the gospel of Christ. Alexa would be a fool to scoff at this clearly one-sided relationship (in terms of benefits received), if for no other reason that it is likely the one place she’s ever experienced unconditional love and acceptance. But until Alexa begins to understand that Jesus is the life-giving source which has procured and divvies this grace, then grace may simply just be another tool in her toolbelt.
We all know that Alexa may very well refuse to make this one-sided relationship work both ways. She may continue to seek our harm, her momentary benefit, and she may keep refusing to allow us into her life. Long-term, that’s foolish. Relationally, that’s foolish. But individuals are often only able to think of themselves and that which is immediate. Such myopic vision reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s description of hell as being locked from the inside. God has poured out his abundant grace – a grace which is sufficient for everyone. Yet this grace which is unmatched in both power and presence is rarely accepted by sinners. Alexa’s “hell” here on earth will likely continue if she chooses to remain in a lifestyle of sin and deception, refusing to accept healthy relationships with those who seek her good. Likewise, all sinners who pursue their own self-centered will - pharisee and prostitute alike - will one day find themselves in hell, a judgment fashioned of their own perpetual choice to refuse God. Hell is the place where God gives these individuals what they want - to be left alone in the self-created misery of their narcissistic choices, and apart from relationship with the the living God.
What could possibly break through the gates of hell which humanity builds to maintain self-rule? Jesus himself gives us the answer when he says that the gates of hell cannot withstand his hands and feet in the world, the church. It is through Christ’s grace and love manifested through the church that the principalities, powers, nations, rulers, and hearts of humanity will be conquered. While you may believe that all seems hopeless in this prescription, especially if you’ve been in any churches lately, we know that our God is able to overcome all things through the means of his choosing, no matter how foolish those means may seem. We believe that the church is central to God’s plan for salvation in the world, and that he has called the church to pursue the means of mercy, grace, and love. We pray that God would enable us to implement his means, no matter how foolish, mundane, or fruitless they may seem, and that God would prevail in the hearts of those he pursues as he draws them to himself.