Sunday, March 18, 2018

 

On the Grace of God


I have long felt uncomfortable hearing people say, "There but for the grace of God go I". I realize that most people who say it have good intentions. They mean it as an expression of sympathy for someone who has, to their mind, fallen into misfortune or sin. They may also mean to convey a sense of humility to the effect that only God's grace, and not their own merit or efforts, prevents them from likewise falling.

Good intentions notwithstanding it seems to me that there is an implied arrogance and judgmentalism in the phrase. The problem is in the idea that you can look at the external circumstances of another person's life, discern the presence or absence of God's grace, and assert that somehow explains the situation. Then, too, there is the implication that God's grace has formed a hedge keeping you from descending down into the same condition. Given this how do you imagine someone who is experiencing what is perceived as misfortune or sin would feel about learning that another has assessed their situation and declared, "There but for the grace of God go I"?

It's worth also noting the phrase is not biblical. Rather, it is attributed:
to the English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford (circa 1510–1555). He is said to have uttered the variant of the expression - "There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford", when seeing criminals being led to the scaffold. He didn't enjoy that grace for long, however. He was burned at the stake in 1555, although, by all accounts he remained sanguine about his fate and is said to have suggested to a fellow victim that "We shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night".
In the case of Bradford the expression may have had a markedly different meaning than in modern times. It is possible that Bradford meant to suggest that those facing death were in some measure the beneficiaries of God's grace. There, after all, was a time when Christians more commonly understood suffering as a powerful means of identification with and faithfulness to the cause of Christ (Phl 1:29;  2Th 1:4,5; 1Pe 4:12-16). I have no conclusive evidence that this is what Bradford had in mind but I think it is from far inconceivable.

There is though considerable cause for doubt that the expression originated with Bradford. As one source states, the earliest appearance in print of any version of the saying goes back only to 1771. In any case, as I have already said, the expression is not biblical. Although there are numerous references to the grace of God in the Bible there are none I am aware of that hold up God's grace as a reference point for interpersonal judgment or comparison.

The Greek New Testament phrase most frequently translated as "grace of God" appears only once in the Gospels. It appears in Luke 2:40 to describe Jesus' spiritual maturation while still a child. In considering "There but for the grace of God go I" four other biblical passages come to my mind.

First, there is Jesus' admonition to "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Mat 7:1; cf. Luk 6:37). I do not take this as a blanket exhortation to never judge any thing or any actions but to refrain from making judgments about the spiritual conditions of others. Taken in context, it seems to me that Jesus is saying, among other things, that spiritually judging others is an example of false piety and that we are really in no position to make such judgments. It follows then that we likewise should not presume to know where God's grace is to be found.

Second, in John 9 there is the blind man whom Jesus sent to wash in the pool of Siloam. Jesus' disciples ask, "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answers, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." So, in this instance, it would appear that the man was born blind—something many sighted people would consider a misfortune—by the grace of God.

Third, there seems to be a special place reserved for sexual sins/sinners in the working of God's grace as is apparent from the genealogy of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both describe the paternal lineage of Jesus. Unlike Luke, Matthew's version (1: 1-18) includes, among the many men, four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Including Mary, an unwed mother, there are five women listed in Jesus' family tree.

Tamar "played the harlot" in order to deceive her deceased husband's father into impregnating her (Gen 38:15-24). Rahab didn't pretend to be a prostitute; she was a prostitute (Jos 2: Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). Tamar and Rahab are also both reckoned by scholars to have been Canaanites. Ruth was a Moabitess, meaning she was a descendant of Lot, who engaged in incest with his eldest daughter (Gen 19:36, 37) and part of a group who worshiped Chemosh (Num 21:29; Jer 48:7, 13, 46). And Bathsheba, as you may recall, was the mother of Solomon by King David who first impregnated her (with another son) in an act of adultery. In order to try to conceal that adultery, David essentially murdered Uriah, Bathsheba's husband. As if to underscore this, Matthew makes specific mention of Uriah in verse 1:6.

Finally, there is the fact that Jesus was repeatedly judged a sinner. For example, by strict (mis-)interpretation of the Law he was indeed a sinner for, among other things, aiding and abetting the violation of the Sabbath after he healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda as recounted in John 5:
Jesus said to him, "Get up, pick up your pallet and walk." Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.

Now it was the Sabbath on that day. So the [Judaeans] were saying to the man who was cured, "It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet." But he answered them, "He who made me well was the one who said to me, 'Pick up your pallet and walk.' " They asked him, "Who is the man who said to you, 'Pick up your pallet and walk'?" But the man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, "Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you." The man went away, and told the [Judaeans] that it was Jesus who had made him well. For this reason the [Judaeans] were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working."

For this reason therefore the [Judaeans] were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.
The mandate to keep the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments, along with, for example, the prohibition on murder. Thus, violating the Sabbath was a very serious offense, as is evident from the text below (Num 15:32-36).
Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp." So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus completed the Law and finally terminated its claim on the lives of humans. We are under grace, not the yoke of the Law (Mat 5:17; Jhn 1:17; Rom 6:14; Gal 3:13). Jesus also challenged and overthrew the false understanding of the Law, declaring, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" but more importantly from Matthew 22:
But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And He said to him, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend [lit. "hang"] the whole Law and the Prophets."
The Old Testament and the Gospels make clear that this is not a novel idea but Jesus, by his actions and his words, repeatedly challenged Pharisees and others stuck in legalism to go beyond a shallow, intellectual understanding of this important truth and to incorporate it in a meaningful way in their lives, practices, and doctrines.

I think this understanding of the Law is important when considering judgments about God's grace in the case of those who seem to be fallen not into misfortune but into sin. The point being that even sinfulness is not always so easy to discern when thinking about God's grace or its absence.

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