by Daniel Harrell
A couple of years back I walked up on a dear friend distraught over sideswiping a parked car as she tried to parallel park her minivan on a city street. Regrettably, she’d left a sizeable scrape on the front bumper of the other car and was in a quandary as to what she should do about it. Huge dollars signs rattled around in her head, both in terms of repair costs but also in terms of jacked up insurance premiums. Couldn’t she just flee the scene and chalk up the mishap to “life in the city”? The damage appeared mostly cosmetic. Besides, she noted, the car was a piece of junk. What was one more scrape? The owner probably wouldn’t even notice it.
Granted, this ethical line of reasoning was somewhat dubious—especially for someone professing to follow Jesus. Still, I could empathize with her plight. If you’ve ever dented a parked car’s fender, you know the temptation to just drive away. Ruthless insurance companies and predatory body shops can be like salivating dogs over fresh meat. My propensity for extending grace did tempt me to grant my friend a pastoral dispensation and allow her to leave the scene of her crime, but better judgment compelled me to advise she at least leave a note. Owning up to your faults is the Christian thing to do. However I also informed her that the good news, at least in this instance, was that she wouldn’t have to actually write the note because the car she hit—was mine.
Her distress descended into mortification. She started apologizing profusely and pleaded my forgiveness, promising to pay whatever damages her parking blunder caused. Just send her the bill, she said. But I told her not to worry about it. My car is a junker, having endured countless bumps and scrapes due to my own parallel parking exploits. Yet my friend felt horrible. She wanted to make amends. But I assured her everything was fine. It was no big deal. She responded with genuine gratitude, thankful that if she had to hit a car that at least the car she hit was mine. That I considered it no big deal was to her an act of magnanimous grace.
Some might use this introductory tale as an illustration for the magnanimous grace of God. Rather than condemning us for our own sinful ways, God nobly considers it no big deal to forgive us without our having to pay a dime. The problem, however, is that my apparent magnanimousness was really nothing of the kind. It came as close to resembling God’s grace as I come to resembling God. True, my friend felt she’d received mercy from me, but in reality it was mercy that cost me nothing. My car really isn’t that important to me. Sure, I’d prefer people not run into it, but I own an older model precisely because I expect that they will. I wasn’t four months in Minnesota before a hit and run crunch took out a door and mirror in a suburban parking lot. But what if my friend had sideswiped my brand new Subaru instead? Would I have been equally willing to let the accident slide and pay for the damages myself? What if she had rendered my car undriveable? Or what if knowing it was my car, she had backed into it on purpose? What if she had hit me? That would have been a very big deal and forced me up against the harder realities of grace.
I don’t know whether you’ve kept up with the trial of 18-year-old Michael Swanson, the severely disturbed kid who murdered two convenience store clerks apparently for fun down in Iowa. He was convicted last week for the first murder, grinning a mocking grin as the judge read out his life sentence. What would it mean for the family of the murdered store clerk to extend grace to their mother’s killer? To declare it “no big deal”? How to forgive anyone who so monstrously robbed them of someone they held so dear? The heinous nature of this crime demanded justice, not mercy.
Christians hold that the demand for justice accords with God’s own just and righteous character, a character codified in stone, that law to which the apostle Paul referred in the passage read for you a moment ago. Most familiar to us as the Ten Commandments, the essence of God’s law is sublimely summarized by Jesus as the ethic of love. Violate love and you violate divine law, evoking, the Bible repeatedly warns, heaven’s most righteous justice. Because God is always the one ultimately violated, the penalty is always of ultimate severity. “The payback for sin is death,” Paul famously forebodes. When it comes to God’s law, there is no wiggle room. Love or lose, these are the options.
The starkness with which Biblical judiciousness is portrayed has always troubled people who confuse God’s mercy with benign indifference. For them, a permissively loving God would never condemn anyone. Yet such a depiction remains as ludicrous as the reputedly kind and loving family of the Iowa store clerk never condemning her killer. “But wait,” you say, “that family loved their mother, not her murderer. Our Heavenly Father reputedly loves us as his children—even more so. How could such love ever express the sort of wrath the Bible so fiercely depicts?” You already know the answer from your own experience. You know your fiercest anger is reserved for the people you care about most. It’s their betrayals and offenses which cut most deeply. Love and fury have never been mutually exclusive. Indifference is the opposite of love, not hate. “How can a loving God be so ferocious?” You know the answer.
Yet because fury is a function of love; the love still remains. And since we are talking about God’s love, the love remains with unrelenting ferociousness. Therefore Paul writes: “What the Law failed to do, weakened as it was through the flesh, through human defiance, God did himself.” If God was ever to have the loving relationship with sinners he so desired, He would have to make it happen. Which he did not by rendering our sin “no big deal.” That would mean he didn’t care. God did it, Paul writes, by sending his Son in a human body like ours in order that he might take on our sin and our condemnation too. For Christians the cross is the expression of God’s passion, in all its darkness and light. Justice gets done and love does too.
Which is how Paul can so boldly declare that there is now—right now—no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of Christ sets you free from the law of sin and death. You are free to live and to love as God intends. There is no longer any excuse for pettiness or gossip, or grudges, or deception or dissention or any of the many things the love of God stands against. Our righteousness arrives as free gift, but it survives as obedience—as faithfulness to the Spirit—which is true freedom. That’s why owning up to your faults is the Christian thing to do. Only when you get your mercy can you get your freedom and be free to love.
I had a friend with whom I would attend AA meetings once a year to present his annual medallion for sobriety. The meeting ran like AA meetings have run since their inception: first names only, an acknowledgment that you are an alcoholic, an empathetic welcome from the crowd. When I stepped up to the podium to present the medallion, instead of saying “Hi, my name is Daniel and I’m an alcoholic,” I said, “I’m a minister” to which the crowd nevertheless compassionately intoned, “Hi Daniel.” They understood. We’re all a mess.
One evening, this drunk guy crashed the meeting—slamming chairs, screaming and cursing at everybody. He tried to pick a fight with some of the guys seated quietly toward the front. You could hear a communal sigh. The speaker kept on speaking. Everybody basically just let the drunk make a fool of himself. For some reason I was surprised by this. I asked my friend about the protocol: “What do you usually do when a drunk person disrupts your meeting?” My friend cleverly asked back, “What do you usually do when a sinner shows up church? We’ve all been there. Some day he’ll hit rock bottom and when that happens, we want to make sure he always knows that help is here in this place.”
An alcoholic lives one drink away from tumbling back into his or her personal abyss. While AA does not associate with any religion, denomination or sect, its got the gospel written all over it. Person after person at the meeting described how their alcoholism robbed them of their livelihood, their marriages and children, their homes and all of their dignity. It was never until they owned up to their fault, confessed their futility and their need for God that they ever stood any chance at redemption. As every recovering alcoholic discovers, you cannot save yourself. It’s a humiliating realization, but the redemption is unbelievably sweet—a miracle was how one man described it. “Sobriety,” another remarked, “is freedom.”
Which is what Paul meant when he wrote we’ve been freed from the law’s indictment so that we might live according to the law of love. Obedience is freedom. Christ frees us from our addictions—be they to the substances we abuse or to the selfishness, pettiness, envy and anger we harbor. Christ frees us from our faults that we might enjoy the fruits of a life lived well. There’s solid rock at the bottom. So confess your futility. Get our mercy, get your freedom and get the help you need from God to faithfully love and live according to his Spirit.