Goodness Gracious by Rev. L. John Gable
February 19, 2017
As we listen to these two passages of Scripture we can’t help but be struck by what appears to be the extraordinary “unfairness” of God, but not in the way we would ordinarily think of “unfairness.” We’ve seen this characteristic of God before and every time we stumble upon it we are taken aback by it. This God we worship is “extraordinarily unfair” in His mercy and love, in His goodness and grace. He welcomes those we think should be rejected and forgives those we think should be judged. He even goes so far as to consider “righteous” those we know to be guilty as sinners, and all we can say in response to this is “goodness gracious.”
Imagine a professor standing before the class on the first day of school and saying, “I’m going to give you all an A!” What kind of response do you think she would receive? It sounds great, doesn’t it? Or does it? I have a professor friend who did exactly that as he handed out the final exam one semester. He said, “I still want you to take the test, but I’ll tell you in advance I’m going to give you all As”, and he was stunned by the response. Of course some loved the idea, particularly those who hadn’t studied sufficiently, those who were on the borderline between passing and failing, those who were hovering between two grades. They loved it because they knew it was a free gift that they hadn’t done anything to deserve, so they were extremely grateful for it.
But curiously, others complained, openly, loudly. “That isn’t fair! They don’t deserve it! We studied hard and they didn’t, and now we all get the same grade? That’s not right! It isn’t fair!” We’ve heard that response before, haven’t we? From the laborers in the vineyard who complained when those who came late in the day got paid the same amount as those who had worked all day long in the hot sun. We’ve heard it as well from the elder brother who complained when his father welcomed his prodigal little brother home again after his foray in to the far country. If these parables are intended to give us insights into the character of God, then it is fair to say that our God is extraordinarily “unfair”, and how we feel about that will largely depend on whether we see ourselves as ones who are desperately in need of His mercy, grace and forgiveness, or whether we think we stand a pretty good chance of being found favorable on our own merits.
The bottom line is this: we like the concept of God’s goodness and graciousness when it is applied to us and to those like us, to those we think deserve it (like we think we do); but then we have trouble with it when it is extended to those we don’t think deserve it, and that’s where the rub comes in these two passages we’ve just read. As much as we like the idea of God’s graciousness, we fundamentally have a problem with it because it seems “unfair”, particularly to those who think they can make it on their own. As great and amazing as it is, and it truly is, this is perhaps the most difficult and unsettling doctrine of the Christian faith for many. But, friends, we better get comfortable with it because everything else about our faith and our understanding of God’s character hinges on this: God’s extraordinary “unfairness” called grace.
At some point we each need to resolve for ourselves this one question: on what basis do I believe myself to be accepted and acceptable by God? Is it on the basis of some inherent goodness of my own, on something that I can do or have done that makes me loved and loveable by God? Is it because I believe that God is somehow “fair” as I measure “fairness” and for that reason He will surely give me a better grade than those other people who I know have done terrible things while I have tried, admittedly not always succeeded but have at least tried, to do what is right? Or have I come to the realization that I am accepted by God solely on the basis of what God has done for me, for us, in the person and work of Jesus Christ? Let me ask that even more simply. Do you believe there is anything you can do to make yourself more loveable or acceptable to God, or is our acceptance totally a gracious act of God? It has got to be one or the other, there is no middle ground. Either we earn our own salvation by what we do or it is given to us by what God has done. It is either our good works or God’s gracious goodness; one or the other because it cannot be both. Unlike any other world religion or supposed way to God, the Christian answer is this: we are made acceptable to God by God’s gracious goodness, nothing more and nothing less, and until we come to understand and accept this truth, then we really haven’t come to understand or accept the character of God or the essence of the Christian Gospel at all.
In the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans he very plainly lays out who we are and the broken condition we are in without Christ, and though this letter was written nearly 2000 years ago, it still describes us to a tee. In summary it tells us that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…and wages of sin is death.” Now, unless and until we understand and accept that fundamental truth about ourselves and the condition we are in we will never be able to understand and accept our need for God. This is the sobering truth of the Gospel: given our inherent and pervasive sinfulness, either we are made right with God on the basis of God’s grace or we are not made right with God at all.
Let’s go back to my opening illustration about the professor, on the righteousness test all of us deserve failing marks. God would have every right to take the position, “When in doubt, flunk them out!”, but He doesn’t. Instead, in an extraordinary act of “unfairness”, God stays true to His character. God’s goodness shows itself in God’s graciousness, to which we say, “Goodness gracious!”
Listen to this truth. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us…Jesus Christ came in to the world to save sinners.” Paul is not offering up some abstract theological principle here, he is applying the Gospel message to his own life, he is telling his own story, and we can as well. Before Christ, before his encounter on the road to Damascus, Paul admits he was a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Despite his best efforts, on the righteousness scale, he was getting an F. But then God in His tender mercy, reached out, took hold of him and changed him. It was God, not Paul, who took this initiative. It was God’s goodness that showed itself in graciousness; again, goodness gracious.
Formerly, before Christ, Paul believed that all he had to do to be right with God was to obey every law laid out in Scripture and he tried to do exactly that, and compared to everyone else he did pretty well and was proud of his righteousness. The problem however is this, no matter how hard he tried, he still fell far short of the “perfection” God demands. Something very similar is happening in our culture today. Rather than trying to live up to the demands of the Law, many are simply comparing themselves to those around them and judging themselves to be kinder, more loving or caring, so think they will score pretty well as long as God is grading on the curve. Even we, as people of faith, try to do something of the same. We think we have a pretty good idea of what God wants or expects of us and, compared to everyone else, we think we are doing a pretty well, or at least are getting passing marks. We somehow have the notion that if we do these things and don’t do those things, if we obey these rules and regulations and avoid others, if we say these prayers and abstain from those activities, we will somehow get good enough marks and so earn God’s favor. But you know what the problem with that is? We’ve tried that and it just doesn’t work. We’ve tried to be good enough and we can’t do it. Compared to others, to the “real sinners” out there, we think we are doing OK, but we can’t live up to the standards of a holy and perfect God, and every time we miss the mark, the theological word for that is sin, we get a mark against us and there isn’t a darn thing we can do about it…but God can, and He has, in Jesus Christ. “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: Jesus Christ came in to the world to save sinners.” Not because we’ve earned it, because we haven’t; and not because we deserve it, because we don’t; but simply because that is how God has chosen to deal with us. Martin Luther put it this way, “God doesn’t want to deal with us according to our work, or according to our deserving, but according to His grace.” Centuries later theologian Karl Barth writes, “Grace is the gift of Christ, who exposes the gulf between God and His creation, and by exposing it, bridges it.”
Just like it was for Paul long ago, God has reached out and touched you and me. God has taken the gracious initiative toward us. He has chosen us and changed us. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Not because of anything we have done, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The whole of the Christian Gospel comes down to this, either we are saved by God’s grace or we are not saved at all.
But if our salvation, if our being made right with God, is all up to God’s grace then why do we put such emphasis on the need to confess our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Because at the heart of that confession of faith in the admission and realization that we can’t do it on our own, that despite our best efforts we can’t earn our own salvation, that we really don’t deserve God’s grace at all. All we can do is accept it as the free gift it really is. In our confession of faith we abandon all efforts to try to earn God’s favor on our own merit and accept the fact that God really does love us, just as we are, “warts and all.” As theologian Paul Tillich put it so succinctly, “faith means accepting the fact that you are accepted.” This is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it is an expression of His “gracious goodness”, and this is what seems so extraordinarily unfair about the character of God.
To those who have worked so hard to earn God’s favor, to those who are trying still to earn their way into God’s good favor by their good works, to those who, in any way, think they have done something to earn their salvation all of this talk about grace seems categorically “unfair”, because they bump up against that inconvenient truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that just plain seems unfair.
But to those of us who have finally come to the realization that we know we can’t earn God’s favor this whole idea of grace feels strangely unfair as well because we know we don’t really deserve it either. It really seems too good to be true, but it is true. It is the truest truth we will ever hear. This is the heart of the Gospel. This is the radical truth of the Christian faith: God loves us, not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of Who He is and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Now two questions remain. First, how do we get that love? How do we know we really are loved by God this much? We simply look to Jesus, to His life, His teachings, His death and resurrection, and then we trust that what He did He did for us. This is what it means to have “faith”. As Paul writes, “the righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” All we need do is accept the fact that we are accepted; nothing more and nothing less. This is the free and gracious gift of God’s goodness.
And the second question is this, once we accept it what are we supposed to do with it? How are we supposed to respond to the fact that we are unconditionally accepted by God? What are we supposed to do with God’s gracious goodness? That is the question we will explore next week.
So for now, just accept the fact that, fair or not, we’ve all been given As, so be grateful, for this surely is a gift of God’s gracious goodness, and to that we say “goodness gracious.” Amen.