Similar Stories. Different Messages.

Had they been through too much? Would the weight of history filled with its destructive words and actions prove to be too excessive for the relationship? Had the bridge of a loving rapport been forever destroyed? Apparently not. Deep concern for his rebellious but repentant son’s well-being drove the father to run and embrace him. Tears of joy unabashedly streamed down his own face as he gazed into what had once been a youthful defiant face. Today, those eyes were different. Today, a son was receiving something he had not deserved or earned. He was forgiven.
Sliding the DVD into the player, another father and son story roars to life on the screen. Would the weight of history filled with the son’s deliberate alterations of his father’s instructions prove to be too excessive for the relationship? Apparently not. Although the father had at one time demanded exact compliance to his instructions, now he allowed the son to reshape or even ignore his requests. Filled with pride and acceptance, the father joyfully embraced his son who had pursued the path of doing his own thing. Today, a son was receiving something he had not deserved or earned. He had full approval and acceptance.
At least to me, these dramas encapsulate both a similarity and an extreme divergence. Because the first story describes unmerited forgiveness and the second unmerited acceptance, both might be called narratives of grace. However, the conditions under which grace was extended could not have been more contrasting. In the first situation, the father’s gift of forgiveness and acceptance was predicated upon the son’s faithful response – namely, repentance. With the second story, the father’s gift is given without regard to whether the son responded faithfully, a broad latitude of response was fully acceptable. To state this difference in another manner, there is a chasm between graciously forgiving what is acknowledged by all to be wrong, verses transforming the unacceptable into becoming an approved path to be ardently pursued.
Do not these two stories capture the two very different notions of grace that drive opposing approaches to worship and doctrine? Everyone agrees that grace involves receiving something we do not deserve. People generally acknowledge that in the New Testament grace includes gifts of the Spirit and salvation. But when the scriptures repeatedly speak of Christians being under grace, was the author also trying to communicate that God has enlarged the parameters of what he accepts from his people as being right? Has the unacceptable now become sanctioned?
To be sure, from the parable of the prodigal son to explanations regarding conversion, scripture is littered with God extending unmerited favor to those who respond to his offer./1 So my question is, where does the Bible teach or illustrate the second definition of grace? That is, where do we learn that God now blesses us to pursue paths and understandings which God formerly rejected? Does not God’s word teach us the exact opposite message from this?/2 If the New Testament does not speak of the grace we have in Christ as nullifying a faithful response to God, then our doctrine and the forms of our worship are significant, though not the ground for our salvation. If this does matter to God, should not our hearts be humbled before our gracious Savior to respond as God desires instead of arrogantly insisting upon our own will? Should we do wrong that the forgiveness of grace may abound?/3 God forbid. We died to that way of living.
1/ Luke 15:11-31; Romans 5:1-2; Titus 3:3-8; Ephesians 2:1-9
2/ 1 Timothy 3:14-15; 4:15-16; 1 Corinthians 3:10-16; Titus 1:9; 2:1; 2 Timothy 1:13-14
3/ Romans 6:1-2

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

2 thoughts on “Similar Stories. Different Messages.

  1. I heartly agree with today’s (3/10/05) comments. However, there is an aspect of God’s mercy that is often overlooked. Namely, “He sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mt. 5:45) This is not grace towards the forgiveness of sins, but it is His grace or we would die!

  2. I appreciate Bob’s reflections (and approval). In describing God’s indiscriminate love toward all, Jesus taught that God sends rain on the just and the unjust. It seems reasonable to describe this outpouring of love as also being mercy.
    As we think about grace, perhaps it is helpful for us to categorically distinguish between those general provisions of God given indiscriminately to sustain this world and that special relationship to God described as being under grace and in Christ. I am concerned about good biblical words (like grace) being hijacked to promote ideas which the Bible does not teach. An insidious way to distort the message involves changing the definitions of the words. When people hear a biblical word (like grace) it would be easy to think,”oh, this idea being described must be biblical” … when it is not.

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