Among the singular distinctions that set apart the Christian faith from any other belief system is the concept of grace. In all other religious philosophies, in one way or another, it’s a matter of earning or proving worthy of something, whether it’s blessing, eternal life, or well-being in some other form. It might be viewed as an outworking of karma, good works or legalism, but basically it’s a matter of getting what you deserve – and trying how to figure out how to be good enough.
Biblical grace, however, is in many ways the antithesis. It’s unmerited; actually receiving what we don’t deserve. As Ephesians 2:8-9 states, “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.” But recently I heard a statement that provided one of those “aha” moments we occasionally experience, helping me to grasp the concept of grace in an even more wondrous way.
I’ve always understood grace as “undeserved favor from God,” but a speaker at a breakfast I attended observed that God’s grace is not so much undeserved as it is “ill-deserved.”
Look at it this way: Imagine walking along a city street one night, headed to a favorite restaurant for dinner when a panhandler approaches you, asking for a handout. This individual has done nothing to deserve your charity, but even though it’s not your standard practice, you decide to give him two one-dollar bills that you retrieve from the front of your wallet. He hasn’t done anything to merit your generosity – it’s undeserved, offered by you out of compassion and kindness.
However, suppose this beggar, rather than politely asking for some money, came toward you cursing and screaming, spitting in your face, and throwing mud on the nice clothes you’ve just purchased for the special evening out with your spouse or date. This person has given you nothing but insults and abuse, and yet you pull out your wallet and graciously offer the two dollars despite such uncalled-for, unacceptable behavior. That gift would not be undeserved. It would be ill-deserved, because if anything his actions merited a stern reaction or a quick call for a law enforcement officer.
In reality, regardless of whether we’re now ardent followers of Jesus Christ, nominal believers, or outspoken, vehement atheists, we’ve all essentially done that to Him in varying degrees and with different levels of “enthusiasm.”
It’s not a case of attempting to become “worthy,” or of “cleaning up our act.” The Bible makes that abundantly clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). And just in case we suspect something might have gotten lost or misinterpreted in the translation, another verse makes a similar declaration: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
While we might be tempted to apply those indictments to others, people whose behavior runs contrary to our values, God is essentially saying to each of us, “Hey, don’t look around. That includes you!” I’ve read through the Bible a number of times, and have yet to identify even a single exception to this rule.
We can read about Judas Iscariot horrifically betraying Jesus, or how the apostle Peter boldly denied Him three times on the eve of His crucifixion. But if we’re honest, we’ve each done so much more in our own unique ways. None of us is a stranger to such denial and betrayal.
And yet, the Lord stands before us with the incomprehensible offer of grace – not just undeserved, but completely ill-deserved. We’re like the brazen, 100-pound weakling kicking sand in the face of the hefty bodybuilder on the beach. We don’t deserve favor of any kind; in fact, what we’re rightly entitled to is wrath and harsh judgment.
As Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin (what we deserve) is death, but the gift of God (what is ill-deserved) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (parentheses mine). Maybe this is why the words and simple, yet profound message of “Amazing Grace” resonate so deeply for many of us.