But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God (Luke 5:24-25, NIV).
I can think of few things as foundational to the Gospel as grace. But ironically, I have been learning that few things are more misunderstood and underestimated today than grace, what it is, what it is for, and how it works. In fact, I have been running into this a lot lately, so I thought I would not be a bad idea to look through my stuff and put something together on it here.
Part of the reason for that is that grace is one of those terms that you hear in Christian circles all the time but for some reason is never really defined. The thing most people tell me when I ask “How do you define grace,” is an acronym: Grace Received At Christ’s Expense. That’s true, but it doesn’t really define what grace is does it? It tells us how we get it, but it doesn’t answer the question, “what is it?” Another answer I am often given is that grace is “undeserved favor.” While that is true, that definition is, in my opinion, a rather domesticated and frankly truncated definition. My favorite definition of grace is from Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life by Paul F. M. Zahl.
What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of loveable.
…Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called “gifts” (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold…Grace is one-way love.
Luke 5:17-26 where Jesus heals the paralytic, is a powerful illustration of this definition. Friends of a paralyzed man hear that Jesus is in town and is healing the sick, so they take their friend to Jesus only to find there is no way to get close to Him. But so much was their love for their friend and their hope in Jesus’ ability to heal, that they carried their friend on his mat up to the roof, made a hole, and lowered him (probably by ropes) in front of Jesus.
What was Jesus’ reaction? It wasn’t, “Hey what are you doing to my friend’s house? Get back outside and wait in line! Can’t you see I’m teaching here?” which the crowd (or at least the Pharisees) probably expected, nor was it, “Take up your mat and walk,” which the paralyzed man and his friends had hoped to hear.
Instead he says Friend, your sins are forgiven.
The crowds are wondering, “Why isn’t He healing him?”
The Pharisees are thinking, “How can He forgive Him?”
And I am sure the owner of the house was thinking, “What about my roof?”
Jesus then turns to the Pharisees (because He knows what they are thinking—very scary) and says “You are right, no mere man can forgive sins. But no mere man can heal a paralyzed man either. So to prove I am no “mere man” and have the authority to forgive, I will heal him also, so you have reason to believe I do have the authority to forgive him.”
And the bed that had borne the man his whole life, is at once tucked up under the arms of the man it had carried, and the former paralytic walked back home praising God.
Why did Jesus do what He did? Why did He forgive him first? Jesus was not forgiving him for coming through His host’s roof. He was forgiving him of all the sins he ever committed and ever would commit. He was wiping his slate clean before God. That is why the Pharisees were so taken aback. What person has the right to do that? No man can claim such blanket authority on God’s behalf.
I think Jesus was making a statement that everyone in that room was paralyzed in the heart and confined to a mat. Just as no human medicine was able to heal the paralytic, there is no human cure for the paralysis of sin in the heart. I think He used the paralysis of the man as a visible picture of every man’s problem: Sin has us tied to the bed of the Law. We can’t get up. We can’t move. We can’t do what we were created for. No amount of time laying down on the Law is able to change it. The only thing that can cure us is grace. So in a shocking show of one-way love, Jesus does something for this man that he did not ask for—He forgives him.
That we are saved by grace alone is shocking. It flies in the face of what we think should be true. But what I have been learning is that while we confess “by grace alone,” the reality is we often live as if that were not really true. Even though we confess that we are saved by grace, Christians often continue to live as if what we do has an impact, even a significant impact on God’s love of us. Jesus’ forgiving and healing of the paralytic teaches otherwise. Grace is the only thing that works.
Grace is the only thing that can make us right with God. Like the paralyzed man was able to do nothing to help himself or find any man or means to cure his disease, there is nothing short of divine grace that can make us right with God.
How many of you remember the old TV show Get Smart? I think in almost every episode you would hear the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart say, “Missed it by that much.” When it comes to meeting our obligations to love, honor, and obey God we don’t “miss it by that much.” We don’t just bend the rules. We break them clean off! When it comes to describing sin’s effect on the heart and mind it is not a cold, or a flu, it is paralysis. We are totally unable to please God. Nothing short of grace can make us pleasing to Him.
Grace is not only the only thing that can make us right with God, it is the only thing that can keep us right with God.
Grace unalterably changes us. It makes us new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). It continually transforms us more and more into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17). Romans 8:29 (NIV) says that those who have been given God’s grace will be conformed to the image of his Son.
As our sense of sin grows and our desire to love God and live for Him increases, we resolve to strive to change so that we can please God. We resolve to go to church, to study the Bible, to pray regularly, maybe join a small group or Bible study. We resolve to give more, get angry less, let go of our grudges, and get control of our tongue. All good. Grace will motivate us to do those things.
But I have been learning that more often than not, something unexpected happens.
We get discouraged because we keep messing up. We don’t make it to worship all the time. Not just because of work or being out of town, but simply because we don’t feel like it.
Your resolve to read the Bible straight through was beaten up by Leviticus and knocked out by Numbers.
Some people in your small group or Sunday School class seem to have it so together in their faith, family, and life that you feel like you have missed something and start thinking that could never be you.
You feel bad about what you give.
Letting go of anger, grudges, and controlling your tongue has proved to be much more difficult than you thought.
“Why am I having such a hard time? What is wrong with me? Why isn’t God’s grace more effective?” Life seems just as hard, just as full of problems. Maybe it even seems worse. Inevitably we start to think to ourselves “If I only could do better.” So we end up depressed.
Another thing I have been learning is that it is not at all uncommon for us to start comparing ourselves to others. And after a while we can become more and more sensitive to the failings and shortcomings and sins of others—especially ones that we have overcome. Our patience begins to wear thin, and we think, “Why are you having such a hard time? What is wrong with you? Why isn’t God’s grace more effective? Your life seems just as hard, just as full of problems. In fact it seems worse.” If they only did better. So we go up to him or her and say, “I need to tell you something in Christian love…The reason you are struggling with this sin or that problem or that doubt is because you are still doing this or not doing that. And because of that, God isn’t pleased with you.”
I think many of us have been on the giving and receiving ends of conversations like that.
Why do these patterns show up again and again and again? Because grace does not eradicate original sin. It no longer has the choke hold on us it once had. Its roots have been cut, but it does not die as easily as we think. It is still there along with grace, infecting every thought, every word, every action we make. No matter how far we may progress in personal holiness, in showing the fruits of the Spirit, until we are ultimately transformed at death we will always be sinning. And I have been learning that one of the chief ways original sin shows itself (and that the Accuser takes full advantage of) is by making us live as if what we do has an impact, even a significant impact on God’s love for us.
The New Testament affirms that once we come to faith in Christ, in the Father’s eyes we go from being sinners who deserve His judgment to saints whom He loves. But it is not excelling at theological knowledge or personal holiness that makes us so or keeps us so, it is grace. Only grace.
When we are feeling down, defeated, or doubtful, and we start to compare ourselves with others and feel we don’t measure up we need to remember that grace is the only thing that makes us right with God.
The Christian life is not about becoming good enough. It is not about becoming worthy. The Christian life is about realizing that the perfect, holy, righteous, sovereign creator and ruler of the universe despite all our ugliness, sin, and messiness, has decided to set His love and joy and pleasure in you; that He has decided to redeem you, forgive you, and adopt you for Himself; and living in light of that grace and truth.
Don’t be dismayed because of your present struggles or circumstances. Don’t let the Accuser twist His love into something that is kept or lost based on your performance and the opinion of others. Keep striving, keep praying, keep working out the grace that God is working into you, because God is committed to making sure that His grace will accomplish everything He intends it to. Remember, it is all about grace. His grace is all you need to be right with Him. And in Christ you have all you need.
When we start to compare ourselves with others and judge ourselves as “good” in comparison to them and believe that our blessings are the reward of our faithfulness we need to remember that grace is the only thing that keeps us right with God.
Don’t become prideful because of your present blessings or circumstances. Don’t let the Accuser twist His blessings into something that is to be used to judge others. Remember that just as another’s sin can hide the work of grace going on in the heart, your own sin can keep you from seeing the work of grace in their heart too.
The Christian life is not about being right. It is realizing that we are wrong and unrighteous, and that the perfect, holy, righteous, sovereign creator and ruler of the universe, despite all our pride, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy, has decided to keep His love and joy and pleasure in us anyway; that He has decided to continue to redeem us, forgive us, and adopt us for Himself; and living in light of that grace and truth.
We should rejoice when we see grace winning out over sin in our life. But we must not think we are the cause of it. We must not fall for the fallacy that we are somehow more deserving of God’s favor and blessings because of our supposed “morality.” Remember, it is all about grace. His grace is the only thing keeping you right with Him. And in Christ you have all you need.
The fact is there is nothing you can do to make God love you. Not before you are a Christian and not after you are a Christian. God’s love for you has nothing to do with what you do. Not your successes or failures, your knowledge of the bible, or your church attendance. It is not grounded in marital fidelity (see King David) or never getting drunk (see Noah) or in always faithfully doing what God has called you to do (see Jonah) or whether you have ever assaulted someone with a deadly weapon (see Peter) or even in keeping the commandment “thou shall not murder” (see Moses, David and Paul). God’s love for you is not at all based in you. It is all grace through Jesus Christ, who He is and what He did. It is not based in whether you win or lose in your battle with sin, it is solely based in that Jesus won. God’s love is one way love. The word for “one way love” is grace.