When it comes down to it, there’s no such thing as a “balanced” version of grace. The moment you try to temper grace you render it impotent — trying to cage grace is to make it powerless and ineffectual. The reality of God’s grace for us is that it’s not only unconditional, it’s illimitable and uncontrollable. Man can’t put divine grace into any human constructs or man-made boxes. There’s no confining that which is unmeasured and free. Grace is much like Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where he’s described as follows:
“I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion. Anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver . . . “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”1
God is good, but he’s not necessarily safe, at least human terminology.
That really is unfair.
Remember the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1–16)? In this account, Christ speaks of a master who hires workers to labor in his vineyard “early in the morning.” (Mt 20:1) The master and the hired hands agree to terms and they’re sent out to work. (Mt 20:2) Later in the morning, roughly nine o’clock, the master hires more workers to assist in his vineyard. (Mt 20:3) The master does this twice more, at approximately twelve and three o’clock, respectively (Mt 20:5), so that now there are four groups of laborers toiling away. And then, the master does the same thing around five o’clock, calling in more idle workers to assist on his property. (Mt 20:6) Five distinct groups of workers, each accumulating less working-hours than the last. Rational logic would conclude that the first group would receive greater compensation than the last — that’s only fair, right? That’s only human? But something strange happens as the master calls in the workers to receive their payment (Mt 20:8–9): they all get paid the same.
This appears to be a grave injustice on the part of the master, using others for his benefit and not giving them the due reward for their labor. And such is their complaint when they receive this seemingly paltry paycheck. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” (Mt 20:10–12) The men appeal to the fairness and reasonableness of this master, hoping to receive what they thought they were worth. But listen to the master’s response: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Mt 20:13–15) Such a retort seems abrupt and rather terse. How unfair and unkind this master’s acting! But Jesus’s point is that the master isn’t behaving unfair at all — in fact, he’s responding quite similarly to how the Heavenly Father does with us.
The same gratuitous gift.
You see, in the same way that the master gives the laborers the same wages, God gives sinners the same grace. You can’t work your way into more. Grace isn’t a commodity to be bartered, bargained, or bought — it’s simply and purely a gift. “That which is a gift of grace,” says Walter Marshall, “must not at all be earned, purchased or procured by any work or works performed as a condition to get a right or title to it . . . The condition of a free gift is only, take and have.”2 The master wasn’t obligated to hire these workmen. He wasn’t ever coerced or even called by the workers to let them earn something. The master went out in search of them — he hunted down these laborers and graciously offered them responsibility and opportunity. So too does God do with us. He hunts us down, he comes in search of us, his lost sheep, and brings us home and envelopes us in such grace that gives us responsibility and opportunity to glorify him and enjoy him forever. God’s grace is the active acceptance of God that doesn’t wait to be sought, reached, or found first. It’s an interminable fountain of undying, ceaseless love flowing from the Savior’s severed side.
The gospel of grace is the announcement of the undeserved, unmerited, unconditional, unfailing favor of God — irrespective of the worth, caliber, or excellence of the subject it surrounds. Grace isn’t a system where we can barter for holiness by performing better and working harder — it’s the unspeakable gift of the Son to the sinner.
You see, there’s no such thing as a safe version of grace — it’s undomesticated and unruly and, to us, even a little unfair. It gives equally to everyone irrespective of their worth or their past. Jesus shreds all sense of deservedness or entitlement when it comes to grace. Who are we to begrudge his generosity? Who are we to put conditions on God’s unconditionality?
Thanks but no thanks.
Recall yet another scene, the story from Luke 17. This is the one where Christ heals the ten lepers, which, likewise, shows the danger of God’s grace. (Lk 17:11–19) All of them cry out for the same saving mercy (Lk 17:13) — and all of them receive the same miraculous cleansing. (Lk 17:14) But only one returns to say thank you: “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” (Lk 17:15–16) But the truly wondrous part about this story isn’t that only one leper returned to show appreciation to Christ for what he did in his life, it’s that Jesus saved and healed all ten all the while knowing that only one would come back. Christ cleansed each one in full apprehension of the fact that only one would say thank you.
You see, God doesn’t tender grace on the account that we’re grateful. Giving something and expecting reciprocation is not truly giving. If God was gracious to the measure that we’re grateful, we’d all be in terrible trouble. But thankfully that’s not how God works — he bestows incredible, undeserved gifts for many who’ll never say thank you. His grace isn’t dependent upon our gratitude. Christ frustrates and irritates us with his grace by taking the spotlight off our work and performance and putting it squarely on his generosity and sovereignty. Grace magnifies the Giver; it showcases his benevolence — that’s the point of this story! Furthermore, that’s the point of the gospel, of the entire Bible — to show us that grace comes to us unilaterally, with no expectations, no regulations, no hints of reciprocity, no conditional fine print.
The heartbeat of the gospel.
The risk and danger of grace is that some will take advantage of it. But this doesn’t negate its power or disqualify its use. Ingratitude happens not when we think too much of God’s love, but when we think too little of it. But those who rightly and truly understand grace will spontaneously and instinctively be grateful. “True grace contains a death-blow to all sin, and a powerful incitement to all goodness,” asserts F. W. Krummacher.3 Grace awakens our self-centered hearts to the unfathomable love of our Savior. Grace leads to a life ruled by the love of God. (Gal 5:1–6) Grace leads to transparency and transformation. (Lk 18:13–14) Grace makes you say, “I want to give more.” (Phil 3:10) Grace engenders to humility as you realize all God has done through an undeserving sinner like yourself. (1 Cor 15:9–10)
The heartbeat of the gospel is unmerited and unlimited favor, mercy, and forgiveness. The rhythm of Scripture is the grace of God, unconditionally free and beautifully dangerous.
C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 146.
Walter Marshall, The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859), 72.
F. W. Krummacher, The Flying Roll: Free Grace Displayed (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1841), 96.