By Dr. Barry Thornton
During the first few weeks of my first preaching ministry in Ohio, I ventured out to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to get our Ohio plates for placement on our Chevy Chevette. (Remember those cars?)
Having moved from Indiana, I discovered that Ohio issues two license plates, one for the front of the car and one for the back. I had only one license plate in Indiana for placement on the back of the car. Not having the bolts to attach the plate to the front of my car, I placed the license plate on my dashboard, intending to mount it once I arrived home.
Just a mile out of town, a state patrolman pulled me over for improper display of a front license plate and explained that in the state of Ohio, this was a finable offense. Knowing that justice was about to be served for my transgression, the patrolman proceeded to tell me that he was going to show mercy, especially since I was less than a mile from home. Boy, was I relieved! According to the law I should have been fined, but with the patrolman’s mercy, I was pardoned!
It occurred to me later that justice was not served in that situation. If it had been, I would have received a ticket and duly paid it as a result of my transgression. In addition, mercy was shown, but not grace. If grace had been shown, justice would have been meted out as the patrolman would have duly written out the ticket and given it to me with a demand for payment. Grace illustrated would have looked something like this: The patrolman would have written out the ticket and demanded payment for the penalty. But then he would have taken out his own checkbook and paid the fine, justifying my release through full payment meted out on my behalf.
The difference between mercy and grace is illustrated perfectly! Grace always takes into account the penalty, while mercy does not. In the illustration, the person offended (the patrolman representing the law) absorbed the consequences of the offense himself. He demonstrated the fact that in order for grace to be fully understood, it had to be illustrated.
Grace and Our Relationship with God
Our relationship with God takes on a life-changing dynamic as we understand the concept of grace; but even more as we understand the full importance of grace illustrated. Of all the theological concepts we learn as Christians, grace is one of the hardest to understand.
American culture is possibly the greatest barrier to grasping the concept of grace because of two things: (1) for the most part, we are not willing or able to grasp the concept of “something for nothing” because we are always “earning,” and (2) we don’t seem to understand that we’ll never be able to pay God back for his grace, so we keep trying.
If only we could understand that our good works are expressions of our love for God and not some form of “payback.” Think of the parent who finally sees the day when a child does something not out of obligation but out of love. “Mommy, I cleaned my room because I love you!” Grace changes the motivation from “I have to” to “I want to,” all wrapped up in love.
Grace and Our Relationship with Ourselves
If God has absorbed the penalty and pain of our deficiencies and sinfulness, we can let go of our regrets and guilt. At the cross God took away not only the consequences of our sin, but the perpetual self-indictment of our insufficiencies.
We will continue to fall short, but we can also be encouraged by the truth that says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). Satan will continue to try to dredge up our past failures and attempt to get us thinking about “performing better.” When that happens, our response should be to remind him of his future and our personal reliance upon Christ’s righteousness—not our own.
We can be at peace with ourselves because God loved us so much that he wasn’t just merciful, but showed grace. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, King James Version). God’s law declared us guilty. God’s grace considered the penalty and supplied the payment.
Grace and Others
Our relationship with others is where God’s grace must find ultimate illustration. It is not enough to understand the concept of grace; we must illustrate it to and through the lives of others for it to find ultimate validity. Jesus spoke about the imperative nature of this and how it affects the essence of our salvation when he told the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The point of the parable is to help us realize that grace must be transferred from our vertical relationship with God to our horizontal relationships with others. The operative word is must.
Jesus told a story about a man who was brought before a king to settle his accounts. In today’s currency the man owed the king millions of dollars—an amount he could never repay. In order to mete out justice, the king required that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold and a ledger be kept until it would all be paid back.
By the standards of the kingdom, this was justice. The man fell at the king’s feet begging for mercy. In response, the king showed compassion and canceled the debt, absorbing the loss.
Later, the man greeted someone on the street who owed him “pocket change.” The man who had been forgiven by the king demanded payment from the man he met on the street—for an amount far less than he had been forgiven. This man had the audacity to have the other man sent off to prison until he could repay the debt.
Some of the king’s servants saw the drama unfolding and reported the incident to the king. The king was furious and called for the man whose debt he had forgiven to come before him. The king said to the man, “You wicked servant, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18: 32, 33, NIV). Immediately the man was taken to jail until he could repay his original debt to the king, essentially banishing him to prison forever. In verse 35, Jesus said, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
When was the last time someone hurt you, used you, or wronged you? How did you react? According to Jesus, grace received vertically needs to be translated on the horizontal. Humanly speaking, it might seem impossible. “You hurt me, so, I’m going to hurt you!” But think of it this way. Put all your hurts together. How do they compare to the sins (hurts) of all mankind, past, present, and future? The “hurt ratio” is astronomical! We illustrate grace best when we consider how the king did it in the parable. He didn’t count the justice side of the cost first, but rather the ultimate benefit of releasing the man of his obligation to repay.
God wants us to release others from justice deserved by absorbing the hurt and embracing the healing that God brings. We can do it if we allow our understanding of God’s payment of “the ticket” on our own behalf to be translated into the lives of others who may have sinned against us. As one who has “taken up my cross” alongside Jesus, I, too, can look down from the cross and agree, “It is finished.” It is paid in full. That’s grace!
Dr. Barry Thornton is Director of Development at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.
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