Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Necessity of Grace

A couple of weeks ago, the hashtag #ConfessYourUnpopularOpinion was trending hard on Twitter, and I indulged in that trend by sending out the following tweet:
(For those of you who do not geek out on religious studies quite as much as I do: penal substitution atonement is the Christian doctrine that says God's wrath against humanity required satisfaction or appeasement, and that Jesus' death represents said payment for our sins or debts because He died in our place.  This is a fairly common belief in Western Christianity, as it crops up in all sorts of hymns and songs (think "Jesus Paid It All") in addition to our own theological discussions and colloquial expressions (ie, "Jesus took my place").

Penal substitution has largely been taught in the church only over the last millennium, after St. Anselm wrote Cur Deus Homo.  Anselm lived in the Feudal era of Europe, when people were tied to the service of a lord or monarch above them, and he projects that relationship onto Christianity, arguing that our relationship with God is like that with a feudal lord or monarch.  Which I always found sort of ironic, since feudal lords tended to be rather brutal to those underneath them, whereas Scripture is pretty clear that God is on the side of the poor.)

A couple of my pastor colleagues questioned me on Twitter on what theory I adhered to instead (more on that later), but this week, one of them, a buddy of mine here in town, followed up by asking me how I thought God appeases Himself for our sins.  I tweeted back:

It is difficult to convey in a 140-character tweet, but Erik got me thinking about why this is precisely the reason why I adhere to the theory of sola gratia (that we are saved by God's grace alone).  Grace is not something we can obtain by trading or bargaining for.  It is given.

I'm not the most systematic theologian out there, so please bear with me here: we, in our short-sightedness and oppressive evilness, killed Jesus.  To me, grace is the only possible source of authentic forgiveness for something as big as killing someone else's child, and if atonement is all about how we can become reconciled to God, forgiveness is perhaps the biggest step towards that reconciliation.

Herein lies the rub: if forgiveness is made possible by appeasement or satisfaction or repayment, then what need is there for grace?  More to the point, how can forgiveness of a debt that has already been paid be considered forgiveness?

Or, to put this in a more mundane example: MasterCard does not "forgive" my credit card debt, I pay off my MasterCard debt.  MasterCard is not showing me grace by allowing me to repay my outstanding balance, it is expecting me to honor the agreement we made when I obtained a credit card from them.

We are left, then with one of two options: that Jesus's death represents the debt being paid in full, and so forgiveness of the debt is no longer necessary--eliminating the need for grace.  The other option is that Jesus's death does NOT pay the debt in full, which creates all sorts of problems if you believe that Jesus was divine.  If God's own infinite divine substance is not enough to appease God, what possibly could be?  And if this God can never be appeased, then why bother worshiping Him?  We might as well all stay home on Sunday mornings and do the crossword--it'll have the same net effect on this God.

Ergo, I have come to believe that God--especially through what Jesus teaches in Gospels--is nowhere near legalistic enough to adhere to a framework of contractual obligation.  Instead, the Crucifixion represents God taking that contract and feeding it to the shredder: He tears up the contract that demands compensation for our transgressions, and He decides to err on the side of forgiveness, offering grace to all those who choose to accept it by following the example and teachings of the Son we had just killed.

In other words, God acts less like the judge interested only in ensuring our sentence is served, and God acts more like the father in the prodigal son narrative, who, despite being wronged by his son (note the lowercase "son," ie, us, not Jesus), welcomes him back into the fold with open arms.  After all, as the parable says, the father ran out to meet the son--before the son could explain to his father his change of heart and his humbleness in declaring himself unworthy of his father's name.

And all of this is possible because of grace.  If payment is what saves us from divine wrath, then what is the point of grace?  We might as well worship a God who is capable only of wrath, if we are fine for as long as that God continues to be appeased.

Yet Scripture tells us over and over again that God loves us dearly (most famously in John 3:16)  And because Scripture also tells us that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), it can still be righteous for God to forgive and extend grace without being sated by payment.

And all of this is so because God possesses something we do not--incredible grace.  It is what puts God above us.  We may want satisfaction for wrongs done to us, like St. Anselm's feudal lord, but I have to believe that God is above that.

Yours in Christ,

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