Unexpected and unfair.
There’s no such thing as fair and balanced grace.
A few times on this blog,1 I have affirmed the outrageous unfairness of the gospel of God. That is, perhaps, not a common way in which we talk about the gospel, but it is among my favorite, not the least of which because the paradigm of unfairness heightens both the scandal and the victory of the cross. The cross, you see, is an incredibly unfair instrument of punishment when viewed from Christ’s perspective. Such horrid Roman gibbets were reserved for criminals and scoundrels of the very worst sort. Yet, he was the Son of God, Yahweh incarnate, in whom no sin ever dwelled. There was, indeed, no cause for such atrocities to be rained down on him. His treatment was entirely undeserved and unfair. But he endured such treatment because he was the willing and the only substitute and sacrifice for a world of sinners (Heb. 12:2–3). Without the Christ of God undergoing such unfair judgment, all hope would be lost.
The thing is, Christians are made to rejoice precisely because of this unfairness. To parrot some of my own lines, the sinner’s only hope of redemption rests in God the Father dispensing not what you deserve but just the very opposite. This is the uncanny and unexpected news which God’s only begotten Son purposed to reveal. “The grace that comes to us in Jesus Christ is not measured,” Dane Ortlund says. “This grace refuses to allow itself to be tethered to our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and balancing of the scales. It is surprising.”2 “Grace, it turns out, is fundamentally unfair and therefore offensive,” William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl affirm, “it makes no allowance for what we feel we, or anyone else, are owed.”3 “Grace,” writes Tullian Tchividjian similarly, “offends our sense of justice by being both implausible and unfair.”4 God the Father can deal with us in righteous unfairness because he dealt with his Son in the same.
I say all that as merely the lead-up to the following excerpt, which might just be the best articulation of the gracious unfairness of the gospel. It comes from a sermon by the late pastor Ron Hodel, who asserts:
God’s good news is inherently unfair. In fact, it can’t be the gospel if it’s fair. The true gospel of Jesus is about the incredible gift of God’s free generosity, and it has nothing at all to do with fairness. Fairness isn’t interested in generosity. Fairness is about requirements, legalities, obligations. Fairness is about something someone must do whether one wants to or not. God, on the other hand, isn’t much interested in dealing with us fairly . . . God seems much more interested in dealing with us graciously; generously giving us something we don’t deserve in the least. And he’s always been like that. An unfair God . . .
Now on the surface, that sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? A God who’s not fair. That doesn’t market very well out in the world, but it’s true. Christians have a God who isn’t fair, because graciousness doesn’t always take into account what’s fair. But I’ll submit to you that God’s unfairness is a wonderful thing, because fairness means one more thing. Fairness means just desserts, proper compensation, wages, getting what you deserve . . . the good, fair, and proper payment reimbursing us for what we’ve actually earned by our doing is death. So we’d better think twice before we ask God to be fair with us. God’s fair justice would destroy us forever. His unfair mercy is what saves us.
And so the fact that the gospel is unfair is very good news indeed, for in God’s unfairness is his love towards you. You are declared righteous freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. The redemption, the purchase price being Jesus’ bloody work on the cross. We didn’t come by that declaration of not guilty. We didn’t come by that fairly, because we earned it somehow. We came to it because in the end, God is gracious, for by grace, you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast . . .
Those who come before God with pride and self-sufficiency will be last and outside the kingdom, and broken spirits who come to God knowing they’re last, and lost, and least, and lowest, and deserve nothing at all, those who come to him as beggars will find themselves at the front of the line, strangely the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
That’s the way it is with Jesus. He who was and is the greatest made himself to be last of all on the cross of Calvary, as he suffered unfairly in your place and mind on account of our sins. He was treated unfairly so that we would be treated graciously.
To that, I give a hearty “Amen!”
Dane Ortlund, Surprised by Jesus: Subversive Grace in the Four Gospels (Leyland, England: Evangelical Press, 2021), 15.
William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 53.
Tullian Tchividjian and Nick Lannon, “Sept. 2,” It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2015).