This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
I’d say that one of the best depictions of God’s grace comes from a well-beloved and world-renowned children’s fantasy novel, that being C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this, the first book published in his acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia series, there’s an intriguing scene that takes place in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. (If you’re unfamiliar, yes, these are anthropomorphic, talking beavers. Just go with it.)
If you’re acquainted with these books, then you might already know the scene. Our protagonists are the Pevensie children, consisting of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They’ve just entered the magical world of Narnia thanks to the accidental discovery and eventual coaxing by Lucy. They stumble upon Mr. Beaver and are soon finding refuge in his home. And it’s here where Mr. and Mrs. Beaver not only show the hospitality of all Narnians, but reveal that the Pevensie’s weren’t there by happenstance. This wasn’t a lucky or chance meeting between these parties — they’re actually fulfilling a long-foretold prophecy. As Mr. Beaver recounts this prophecy regarding the two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, the conversation turns to the figure Aslan.
“Who is Aslan?” asks Susan.
“Aslan? Why, you don’t know? He’s the King, he’s the Lord of the whole wood,” replies Mr. Beaver, “the son of the greater Emperor-beyond-the-Sea.”
Lewis wasn’t shy about his Christian faith, nor was he subtle with the overarching Christian allegories throughout his work. Lewis himself has said that the character Aslan is an alternative version of Christ, that is, the form in which Christ might’ve appeared in a fantasy world.
“Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts?” Mr. Beaver continues, “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?” Lucy asks, logically.
“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.”
Aslan’s definitely good, but he’s not necessarily safe. The same can be said of God’s grace. It’s good but not safe, at least in human terms. In fact, a lot of the time God’s grace can seem really unfair! This phraseology might seem odd to you, but there’s an intriguing story in Matthew 20 that perfectly captures this for us, illustrating the dangerous nature of God’s grace.
Matthew 20:1-16 is, of course, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Here, Christ tells the story of a wealthy vineyard owner who hires workers to labor in his fields. The text says that he rose “early in the morning” to hire these workers (Mt 20:1), which is understood to be approximately 3 AM. Terms are agreed upon for a normal day’s wage and so the work begins. (Mt 20:2)
Later in the morning, “about the third hour,” which was approximately 9 AM, more hands are hired and sent to labor in the vineyards. (Mt 20:3–4) The master does this twice more, going out at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, which was 12 and 3 PM, respectively. (Mt 20:5) We’re not told of the master’s purpose in bringing in these workers separately. Perhaps he underestimated the work that was to be accomplished, or he was just very generous. Regardless, there are now four separate groups of laborers all working in the vineyard.
Evening comes, it’s the “eleventh hour” (around 5 PM), which means there’s only one hour left in the day for work. The master, again, repeats his process, going out and calling more idle hands to come and work his fields. (Mt 20:6–7) This creates a workforce of five distinct groups, each working less hours than the last.
Rational logic would conclude that the first group, who’s been toiling away since before dawn, should receive a significantly higher wage than the last group, who only worked for one measly hour. That’s only fair, right? But something strange happens when the master calls in the laborers to distribute their paychecks. He switches up the order, calling the last in first and, even stranger, pays them a “penny,” the same exact amount that the first group agreed upon (Mt 20:8–10) You can almost hear that first group doing the math in their heads, extrapolating and calculating that from one denarius per hour, they’re owed 15 denarii! Now they start getting excited. What was going to be a normal day’s wage now appears to be a superb payday! But watch . . . something stranger still happens next.
“Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.” (Mt 20:10) They all get paid the same amount! Can you imagine their faces? What a slap in the face! They are, of course, very unhappy, murmuring and grumbling and cursing under their breath. (Mt 20:11) “What, is this a joke?” they might’ve said. “Are you kidding right now? What kind of raw deal is this?! We deserve more, we worked harder, we ‘have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” (Mt 20:12) They figured they were worth more because they worked longer and harder — and it’s almost impossible to not agree with them. You have to feel for these guys. Here’s this well-to-do vineyard owner using and exploiting laborers for his benefit, and he doesn’t even have the decency to give them their just reward for their work. “This is fair!” they cry, bemoaning the atrocity of this master. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.” (Mt 20:12)
But note the master’s reply. “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) It seems short, blunt, and gruff, even a bit ungracious. How unfair and unkind this master’s acting! But Jesus’s postscript would suggest that the master isn’t behaving unfairly at all (Mt 20:16) In fact, the vineyard owner’s reaction is quite similar to our Heavenly Father’s. In the same way the vineyard owner gives all the laborers the same pay, God gives all sinners the same grace. Jesus’s point in this parable is that you can’t work your way into more favor or more acceptance. The grace of the gospel isn’t a commodity that can be bought, bartered, or bargained for. It’s simply and purely a gift! (Eph 2:4–9)
That which is a gift of grace, 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.1
The master wasn’t obligated to hire these laborers. He wasn’t coerced or forced by these workers to let them earn something. The master went out in search of them! The master hunted down these workers and graciously offered both responsibility and opportunity. And so it is that God comes in search of us. God hunts us down, coming after us, his stray sheep. He desires to bring us home to envelope and surround us in an overwhelming grace, with which he gives us the responsibility and opportunity to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Francis Thompson was a contemporary of both G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. He had a great influence on them both. But he was also a desperate and destitute man who battled lifelong illnesses and addictions. In his most notorious work, “The Hound of Heaven,” Thompson describes the relentless chase of God after his soul, which he likens to a hound after a hare. In, perhaps, the most poignant lines, he confesses:
Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
With unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;
And past those noised Feet
A voice comes yet more fleet—
“Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me!”
In the same way, God’s grace runs after us, chasing us down “with unperturbed pace.” It isn’t swayed or troubled by our scars. It’s unafraid of your filth. It’s his active acceptance of us that doesn’t wait around to be sought after first. The gospel is the announcement of the undeserved, unmerited, unconditional, unfailing favor of the Father, irrespective of the worthiness of the object it surrounds.
This isn’t a system wherein you can barter for more holiness by performing better or working harder. All of grace is wrapped up in God’s unspeakable gift — the gift of his Son to the sinner. (2 Cor 9:15) In the gospel, grace is given equally to everyone, regardless of their past, making it seem a little unruly, a little undomesticated, a little unfair, maybe even a little dangerous. Jesus, like the master in the parable, shreds all sense of entitlement and deservedness when it comes to gifts. He distributes his wages as he sees fit. Similarly, God gives his grace liberally and lavishly to all who believe. The drunkard saved from his addiction, the pervert rescued from his delinquency, and the Pharisee liberated from his piety all get the same saving grace. And from our perspective, this might seem a little unsafe but definitely unfair. To us, Christ’s retort is this master’s: Who are we to begrudge his generosity? Who are we to put conditions on God’s unconditionality? If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves muttering the same words as these laborers: “This isn’t fair! You owe us!” Once we vocalize those words, we’re on dangerous ground.
Spoiler alert: You don’t want God to be fair. If God were to deal fairly with you, you’d be burning in hell already for all eternity. If God dealt with you based only on what you deserve, you’d be condemned already because of your sin. Pleading for God’s fairness is like spiritual suicide. Operating family, our fate is sealed, we’re condemned forever. (Jn 3:18) In short, God’s fairness spells our doom — you don’t want God to be fair. The believer’s only hope is in God’s unfairness, in the Heavenly Father dispensing to us not what we deserve but just the very opposite. Our entire lives, in fact, are dependent upon the truth that Christ was dealt with unfairly by God so that God could deal unfairly with you and me — giving us life when we deserved death, giving us salvation when we deserved damnation.
As you’re tempted to shake your fist at God and shout “That’s not fair!” like these laborers, just remember how the Father dealt with his Son. As Jesus hung on the cross and the sins of the world were put on him, God the Father turns his face away, spurring that awful cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46) You see, God the Father turned away from his Son so that he would never have to turn away from us. Jesus endured the brunt of God’s undeserved justice so that you and I could enjoy the beauty of his undeserved grace.
The sinless one is condemned, the guilty goes free, — the Blessed bears the curse, the cursed bears the blessing, — the Life dies, and the dead live, — the Glory is covered with shame, and the shame is covered with glory.2
God the Father can deal with us in righteous unfairness because he dealt with his Son in the same. Believers are completely powerless to earn any of God’s grace, any of God’s favor. Our only duty is to trust in it wholeheartedly, praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) 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.
Walter Marshall, The Gospel-Mystery of Sanctification (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859), 72.
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, quoted in Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 96.