Is Grace Amazing or Appalling?

The religion professor asked the students, “Why do you think Jesus was persecuted by the religious establishment of his day?” Their answers: “He healed on the Sabbath,” “He dissed the Jewish leaders,” “He hung out with sinners and tax collectors.” Finally, the daughter of a personal friend replied,

It was because of grace. The Jews believed that God’s favor was a matter of ethnicity and works. But Jesus came along offering salvation not as a Jewish entitlement or divine obligation, but as a gift to anyone who would receive him.

The good news of Jesus was bad news for the religious establishment. Grace nullified their merit-based religiosity and self-serving exclusivity. The Gate to the Kingdom was not the Law or the keepers of the Law, but the Author of the Law whose grace extends to all regardless of race, ethnicity, or social standing.

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No message could have been more appalling to the Jewish elite. Grace was a threat to their sociopolitical leverage. If left to feed the human imagination, it could trigger a leadership vacuum that the erstwhile, hands-off Roman occupiers would step in to fill with the iron fist. What should have been received as a gift leading to eternal life was rejected as a danger that could lead to ethnic persecution. Thus, in a closed-door meeting the Sanhedrin ruled it better “for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish.”

But despite their efforts to suppress the gospel and save their nation, they accomplished neither. After the Resurrection, the spread of the gospel led to explosive growth in the Church. And within forty years of the Sanhedrin ruling, Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was razed, and the Jewish state was dissolved with the Israelites driven out of the home they had inhabited for over a millennium. It was the consequence of attitudes formed centuries earlier, as reflected in the story of a prophet who was similarly appalled by grace.

The Reluctant Missionary
Discussions about the Book of Jonah often gravitate on whether it is a “tale of a whale” or “whale of a tail.” That is regrettable, because the important lessons from the story have more to do with Jonah’s attitudes and motivations than with his giant fish encounter.

Of all the prophets in Israel, Jonah was directed by God to go to Nineveh—a great city in the heart of the Assyrian empire—and “preach against it.” Yet no sooner does he receive his commission, than he turns tail and boards a ship going the opposite direction.

Was this an act of cowardice? Could be—after all, the Assyrians, notorious for their brutality, would be expected to have little tolerance for a tongue-wagging by a foreign, unknown Elmer Gantry archetype. More likely, Jonah was incensed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would withhold the rod of punishment from a people who were not only wicked, but thoroughly pagan.

Nevertheless, a storm at sea and a three-day stint in the belly of a whale gave the runaway missionary a much-needed attitude adjustment. When God re-issues his command, the reeking, freshly beached prophet obeys, delivering the terse warning to the Ninevites: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

Curiously, the warning included nothing about Yahweh, his commandments, or the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, it was astonishingly effective, sparking a city-wide, perhaps nation-wide, repentance that moved God to spare the city from destruction. But just when Jonah should have been praising God for mission-accomplished, he becomes absolutely livid at God’s response.

Presumably, Jonah expected his message to be roundly ignored or ridiculed, and the Ninevites wiped out—a chastisement that would serve as a warning to his own country that had fallen into pagan idolatry and apostasy.

Never did he imagine that these intransigent and hopelessly lost heathens would actually respond in repentance. When they do and God relents, Jonah fumes at the extravagance of God’s grace. Jonah is so galled that he desires death. A world in which a pagan nation (one that had been the neighborhood bully for years) could escape God’s punishment is, in Jonah’s way of thinking, a world turned upside down.

The sparing of Nineveh should have inspired Israel to its own great awakening. Instead, Israel continued its moral decline until the Assyrians sacked the northern kingdom and took its inhabitants captive, forty years after Jonah’s ministry. The Diaspora would continue until it was completed with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, forty years after Jesus’ ministry.

So Unfair
Like Jonah, we tend to find grace unsettling because it’s so unfair. We humans, it will be noted, have a thing about fairness. A few minutes at playground are sufficient to convince any skeptic that the concept of fair play is intrinsic to our nature. Just look for the child who spends too long on a swing, or cuts in line for the slide, and listen for howls of “That’s not fair” from those patiently waiting their turn.

Fair is about what is due me, either by my merit or another’s obligation. Grace, on the other hand, is not about what I deserve; it’s about what I need. And what I need, what I really need, I have no rightful claim to, nor can I earn; it is a gift I can either accept or reject. That’s a hard message made all the harder in the realization that St. Theresa of Calcutta was no more deserving of grace than was Jeffery Dahmer. For some, that’s downright appalling.

We imagine grace as a heavenly life-line that follows a “grace-plus-works-equals-eternal life” formula. Against that notion Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). And if that doesn’t settle the matter, Paul wrote elsewhere that if God’s favor could be earned by human effort, “Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21).

In the divine economy, there is no grace-works formula, only a Cross extending the full span to earth, not for us to climb, but for God to descend and meet us at its foot. It is there, in that holy meeting, that we gain what we cannot earn, including the sacramental grace we need to partner with him in the kingdom-building work of his Church. Can there be anything more amazing?

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Jonah and the Whale fresco from the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas, Anapausas Meteora, Thessaly, Greece.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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