Is Grace Fair?

graceA friend asked me about grace the other day. This was his first question, and this is how I responded…

Is grace fair, or is that the wrong question?

We must be careful whenever we speak about God, about God’s work or God’s attributes. We are often inclined to reduce God to what we can understand, humanly speaking. We interpret God through our own categories rather than through the categories Scripture gives us for understanding God and God’s work. This is a good example. There is nothing fair about grace if we look at it through the lens of the cross. Here, one who is wholly innocent suffers and gives his life for the sake of those who are wholly unworthy of his sacrifice. Where is the justice and fairness in this? The one who is crucified prays for those crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). He dies as ‘the just for the unjust’ (1 Peter 3:18). This is not ‘fair’ in any sense of the word, but a form of love in which ‘mercy triumphs over justice’ (see James 2:13). Further, there is nothing ‘fair’ about grace when we consider the gift of salvation.

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does  not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).

In these verses the apostle is arguing that we receive salvation, not on the basis of our works, but strictly on account of grace. Paul says that God justifies the ungodly. Not only is grace not ‘fair’, it is a scandal! If a human judge were to rule a guilty person innocent we would rightly be scandalised. How dare God justify the ungodly! And yet this is exactly what grace has done: ‘for when we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly … God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:6, 8).

Thus, the provision of salvation at the cross of Christ, and its reception in our lives through justification by faith, are both works of divine grace which go far beyond the boundaries of human justice. Human justice is an attempt to regulate human relationships and actions according to a principle of equity. This is important and must not be diminished. It is, perhaps, the best human society can aim for in the conditions of an often very unjust world of competing interests and powers. But we must not confuse human concepts of justice and fairness with the reality of divine grace. Grace is what God has done for us in Christ in all its scandalous glory. Grace is not so much a concept as an event and an action. Divine grace triumphs over human justice not by negating it, but by going beyond it and doing more than justice could ever imagine. It is a divine restorative justice, justice operating on a higher plain and in a different mode.

Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth, in a stunning exposition of divine grace claims that ‘grace is the distinctive mode of God’s being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter—able on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition.’ Barth continues:

Grace is certainly a gift—and indeed a very supernatural gift. In fact it epitomises all the gifts of God… But it is a gift—and this must be our a priori definitive  description—in so far as the Giver, i.e. God Himself makes Himself the gift, offering Himself to fellowship with the other, and thus showing Himself in relation to the other to be the One who loves. … Grace denotes, comprehensively, the manner in which God, in His essential being, turns towards us.[1]

For Karl Barth, grace is the almighty, holy and transcendent God turning in condescending love towards us in order to make peace and create fellowship between God and humanity. Grace is not simply a thing which God has or gives. Grace is God himself turning toward us in love, taking our wrong upon himself and putting it aside. Grace is a divine relational movement in which God acts towards us in love. To the very depths of God being, and to all eternity, God is nothing other than fellowship-creating, peace-making love. This is grace.

[1] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/1 (trans. T.H.L. Parker et al; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 353-354.

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