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"Your 'amazing grace' just seems too easy."

Another standing-room-only day in the life of Christ. A crowd clogged every conceivable entrance of the house while he preached inside. Outside, a cir­cle of friends surveyed the scene. One of them was para­lyzed and needed desperately to be seen by Jesus. So love found a way.

Imagine the wonderful com­motion, the delightful mess. Dirt and debris fell all around. Dusty shafts of light stole through the ceiling, together with useless, mumbled apologies. These outra­geous friends tore an opening in the roof to lower the paralytic down into that makeshift sanctu­ary. A lesser man than Jesus would have been outraged at the disruption. He glanced up at four heads decorating the skylight. “Jesus saw their faith.” Wasting no time, he looked down at the object of such affection, the mumbled, useless man, and saw the Need behind the need.

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

Now, some who were watching had a problem with this. Their minds loudly grumbled the word blasphemy with logic that was simple and valid. It is the one sinned against who gets to say who is forgiven and who is not. But don’t miss Jesus’ implication: “All your sins—against Goodness, against Love, against God—were sins against me.”

Their private complaints—“Who does he think he is!”— were transparent to Christ. His reply was quite simply brilliant.

“Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’ ”?

Notice that the question wasn’t which was easier to do—to forgive or to heal—but which was easier to say. The answer, of course, was “You are forgiven.” Any mouth can make a claim about the mysteries in God’s heart. But once Jesus would say, “Get up and walk,” the whole house would know whether he had the right to say it, whether his words were a cruelty or a scarcely imaginable power. Do you see? Jesus bound up for all time his ability to heal people’s bodies with this author­ity to pardon their souls. If he could do the one, the other could no longer be denied. “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” he announced. Then, lowering his compassionate gaze to the man on the floor, he said, “Get up!”

No one could breathe. They leaned forward, mesmer­ized. This beautiful pause held the hope of the entire world. If the man was able just to climb up those words and to reach his own full height, then what else was true? His sins were forgiven, of course. And by the way, so are yours. Get up . . . get up . . . get up.

He got up.

Now turn it around. What if Jesus had not asked, “Which is easier to say?” but “Which is easier to do, heal a man’s body or forgive his soul?” That’s a different ques­tion altogether. For that we would need to compare the effortlessness of Jesus’ miracles to a long, slow crucifix­ion. Ask the questions: Is forgiveness easy to accom­plish? Were we so easy to love? Was it a walk in the park to save me? They take us to a different place entirely . . . an awful place. . . .

A place not even easy to look at.

Please read Matthew 9:1-8.

With this chapter, I roll any number of objections into one:

Salvation? I say it’s ‘deeds not creeds.’ Surely God val­ues what people actually do over what they happen to believe. Will he ignore all the wrong you’ve done, Christian, then punish me for mere incredulity?”

The gospel? It seems a strange notion—completely unjust in fact—that God should punish his innocent Son and declare sinners not guilty. It doesn’t seem right.”

Forgiveness? If it comes unearned, as you say, what is to keep people from doing whatever they want? Don’t tell me some people don’t think that way. They do.”

Peace with God? You don’t know what I’ve done. It’s too late for me. I’m no good. God may pardon those who deserve it, but not me.”

Grace? There’s no free lunch. No one has ever given me anything. I’ve worked hard all my life, and I’ve earned everything I’ve ever gotten.”

Whether you’re a philosopher or ethicist or homespun moralist—whether you identify with the messed-up prodigal son or his self-righteous brother (the one who never, ever, ever messed up)—you have the same problem with mercy. You sit there blinking at the scandalous love and at the embarrassment of just-like-that forgiveness. You find you cannot swallow the Christian gospel, as much as you might like to. It’s all just too easy!

Now there’s a perfectly fine answer to all these objec­tions, but only humility can ever make sense of it. Someone has commented that only two things have ever truly changed the human soul. One of them is sin, a far greater problem than we tend to realize. If you only recognize sin’s reality, its consequences and its power, you can capture some small sense of how repellent it must appear to an unspoiled God. If you’re with me so far, the rest should be . . . well . . . easy. If there were to be any such thing as sal­vation, it would be God’s own doing or it wouldn’t be done; it would come as a gift or not at all. It has to be free because, frankly, we have absolutely nothing with which to purchase it for ourselves.

You see, sin renders us incapable of performing the sort of works our God has the right to demand. He is unutter­ably holy. Do we impress him by doing a little good to other people, getting around now and then to what is simply our duty? He is Goodness personified. Do we put God in our debt by managing to do fewer of the self-centered acts he despises? He is incomparably Righteous. Just what did we think we were going to give to God that would erase the bit­ter fragrance of all our disobedience when even the disgraces of a lifetime ago are still now to him? He is eternal God. The fact that our efforts to curry his favor are fearful, guilty, and mercenary spoils everything from the start, because these qualities exclude genuine love for God. We slide our measly bribes a few inches across his infinite table. The currency of our dead works is worthless. He is the righteous Judge, the Sacred Perfection, the offended Lord.

And “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”

What it is like to recognize these truths may be described in many ways. Easy is not one of them. And it was not easy to save us. Not even for God. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears. . . .” He also “suffered when he was tempted.” He resisted sin and knew its full force. In just the same way, the power of a river is felt by the man who dares to stand against it, not by the man who floats along with its current. Jesus Christ accepted every costly obligation of perfect truth and goodness and consistently denied himself every illegiti­mate comfort. In this unkind, unholy place, this was a sin­gle perfect life painfully pieced together out of an infinity of flawless moments. And, in a word, it hurt—to say nothing of the dragging of a crossbeam upon a torn-open back through stony Jerusalem toward a skull-shaped hill. To speak of “deserving” or “not deserving” such a thing is to misunderstand the words. Forgiveness, mercy, grace—these are precisely the words you use when deserving is no longer in the picture at all. As Jesus himself said of salvation, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possi­ble.” Love found a way.

We were loved before we were born, saved before we even sinned. Before we started out on this journey, he already saw us home. So what is the second thing, besides sin, that changed the human soul? It is this grace of God. Yes, Divin­ity was willing to take the risk that some would be left unaf­fected by grace, whether they call it a lie or merely pretend when they call it the truth. But if there is anything that has ever had power to shake the soul’s foundation, create its own opening, and plant something new, it is the words of Christ. He was willing to die for the right to say to them:

“Take heart, son. Your sins are forgiven.”

“Well, if forgiveness comes freely, can I just go do what­ever I want?” Now I’m smiling. Please notice that this is one objection that only the faithful witness of Christ ever has to confront. If you’re asking it now, I’ll take it to mean that I have presented God’s grace in the same spirit as did the apos­tles of Christ, who were compelled to answer this very ques­tion. Listening to the Muslim, the Jew, or the Hindu, this thought will never occur to you. Sadly, it won’t often come to mind even as you sit in the worship houses of many Chris­tian denominations. Only the shocking grace as articulated by the likes of Paul, Peter, and John could give rise to such a query: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”

Step a little closer, and the answer is clear: “By no means!” God forbid that grace should be cheapened in such a way, that it should be taken, of all things, as a reason to be bad! Those whose hearts were once broken see in grace a powerful reason to be good, to love, to praise, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. And, no, easy is not the right word to describe this either. As it was for him, so it will be for us. After all, the Christian church on earth emulates the life of Christ in his humiliation, not his exaltation. The glory is yet to come. First the cross, then the crown.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the king­dom of God.”

May I return to an interesting word from the story of Jesus and the paralyzed man? What did they mean by accusing Jesus of blasphemy? To blaspheme is to take some­thing away from the awesome Lord of the universe, to whom all glory and honor rightfully belong. It is blas­phemy to snatch away from God one of his privileges, to claim to have a right only God has, or to diminish with words, if that were possible, his awesome qualities. When the people at the house thought the forgiveness of Christ was blasphemy, they had it all wrong. Blasphemy is in those who fail to ascribe to God the qualities that bring comfort and inexpressible joy. Blasphemy is in those who would snatch away from God his right to “have mercy on whom I have mercy.”

Fullness and joy consist of precisely this, that you take nothing away from Jesus. Not his power. Not his sacrifice. Not his tender, eternal embrace. And not his right to speak his words.

“Take heart. Your sins are forgiven.”

There’s an instructive moment in Victor Hugo’s Les Mis­erables. The scene begins with a dreadful abuse of kind­ness. Jean Valjean has been caught stealing silver from the old priest who took him in. He is dragged back to face the shame and consequences. A loud knock by the arresting officers arouses the cleric. He sees and instantly understands.

“I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too.” The cleric retrieves them and places them in Valjean’s hands. The man of God then leans for­ward and whispers, “Do not forget.” From that moment on, Les Mis is the story of a cold, calculating man utterly changed by the only thing that ever could change him. The act of the cleric worked its power on Valjean precisely because it was free, unexpected, unasked for, unearned. It was, in a word, grace, the sort that unavoidably calls to mind Christ and his own parting imperative.

“Remember me.”

By Mark A. Paustian, from More Prepared to Answer © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Hole in roof_0733" by James Emery is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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