The Scandal of Grace

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian holocaust survivor, imprisoned for sheltering Jews. She and her sister Betsie were imprisoned at a death camp called Ravensbruck. Corrie Ten Boom survived the ordeal; Betsie did not. She tells the story that after one of her talks, a former Ravensbruck guard came up and introduced himself:

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk, ” he was saying. “I was a guard therre. But since that time, ” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein-” again the hand came out-“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there-and could not. Betsie had died in that place- could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

Forgiveness is always a scandal. Jesus’ easy declarations of forgiveness exasperated the Pharisees more than anything else. The sinful paraplegic, the weeping prostitute, the hordes of sinners He loved to eat with – the religious legalists seethed with the injustice of such easily declared forgiveness. Like this guard, can I be forgiven, can we forgive others, simply because it is requested?

Consider the murderer/rapist, at trial. As he is ushered in, bound in chains, the murdered girl’s family glares at him from the wings. He sits in front of the judge. What is he to say? What defense can be made? Perhaps he could promise never to do such a thing again! Is that enough? The girl is dead. Maybe if he grovels more, forgiveness might be easier. Maybe if there were more weeping. Perhaps if he says he is really really sorry. Perhaps if he promises money, everything he has. Maybe if he were to kill himself, that would be enough. The fact is, the girl is dead. Nothing he could say or do could bring the girl back, nothing could satisfy the real desire of the family. Every excuse is hollow and every recompense is inadequate.

All sin is unforgivable, and all forgiveness is a scandal. Promises and acts of repentance are grotesque and disgusting means to try to achieve justification. Part of the honesty of the tax gatherer who prayed and went away justified is that he made no promise to repent or change. Read carefully and see that this is true:

“”But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”” Luke 18:13, 14, NASB.

The worst and scariest part of guilt is its hopelessness. Forgiveness is a powerful and great mystery; we mouth the word and have no clue as to its substance. We fear because we understand that justice demands punishment, and we know this is real. But we know that forgiveness is a vapor, and few know how to give it or keep it. But when we are confronted with the need for it, we desperately want it for ourselves, and we desperately want to withhold it from the guilty. We hold to justice more dearly than any other value. In matters small and matters great, we are all from the earliest age instant experts in justice. We know when we have been wronged, and we know when others are obligated to forgive. In our flesh we demand perfect justice for others and perfect grace for ourselves. One has only to hear young children fight over the ownership of toys to understand that every human understands this first from the very earliest age.

Jesus spoke and acted repeatedly to confront the scandal of grace. Almost every healing he did was done in a manner to offend the brittle views of those who thought they knew God’s laws and justice. He extended perfect grace towards others and perfect injustice towards Himself. Consider this parable:

“”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, “You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he *said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ “They *said to him, “Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, “You too go into the vineyard.’ “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. “And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. “And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ “But he answered and said to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? “Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”” Matthew 20:1-16, NASB.

You see, grace is always scandalous! We have the greatest and most natural sense of justice. If I receive what I earn, and another receives more than they earn, I seethe. If I sin and know what justice holds in store for me, I hide! I sew fig leaves, do worthless things, to try to cover my shame, but nothing works. Yet I rightly judge that everyone else around me also sins, and also is blessed when they should receive punishment. We are led inevitably by our love of justice and fairness to hate each other, because it is only right.

When justice is required and is not meted out, when a blessing is given that is unearned and punishment is withheld when it is deserved, people learn that evil wins. As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes,

“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” Ecclesiastes 8:11, NASB.

The question is, if God forgives, is He not promoting evil? Does He not become a party to evil? He must not forgive, and yet as a God of love, He must forgive! As Paul says,

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” Romans 6:1, NASB.

If God forgives, if He blesses without requiring merit, does He not promote license and injustice? Can He manifest His blessing and still uphold His perfect justice? Can He forgive and bless without leading us down the road to greater freedom to sin? Can there be a freedom which does not sin more? Does Jesus have authority on earth to forgive sins? Are we ready to see the miracle of forgiveness, of scandalous and true grace, manifested in our lives? These are the questions at hand. These are the questions I am trying to answer.

In the end, Corrie Ten Boom did forgive, by an incredible act of faith and by a manifestation of the supernatural power of God:

Still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgive- ness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thriust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this jealing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

The aim of this blog is to show how God is extending this same hand to us, giving us the forgiveness and release we desperately need and crave. God longs to extend kindness and forgiveness to us, and to speak to our very conscience that our sin is genuinely forgiven, that true justice has been truly satisfied in Christ.

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