Much of the church these days proclaims that God is a God of grace, that the church should be about grace, that grace is a message needed in a dying world. I've heard a lot of sermons and read a lot of articles about accepting the downtrodden, opening our church buildings to anyone, being the hands of Jesus to the sinner, showing people a God who hasn't written them off. Trouble is, I don't think we really believe this. At least, we often don't act like it.
We are human and our sinful humanity unfortunately means that the concept of mercy and grace run right up against our sin. We easily expect mercy and grace for ourselves, but we have a hard time giving it to people who have hurt us, people who are against us, people we don't like. We often operate under a double standard where I get grace, but you don't.
I think the reason grace is hard for us is because we think giving people grace is excusing sin. But that's not true. Grace doesn't excuse sin. Let me say that again: Grace doesn't excuse sin. Grace takes care of sin. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Christ died to get rid of sin. His grace wipes sin away. To give grace is not to say that someone's sin didn't matter. It mattered a whole lot--our Savior died to take care of it.
God's grace does not excuse sin, but a lot of people we meet haven't been saved. They aren't under God's grace as far as Jesus' sacrifice. Does grace apply to them? "[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). All throughout the Bible there is a focus on God's desire for people to be saved and God draws his people into this desire by commissioning us to speak his truth about grace. Verse after verse speaks of Christians denying themselves for the good of the unsaved. Jesus modeled his love for the unsaved, eating with those despised. Think of the worst person you can, then think of Jesus sitting and eating with this person. Through this image we get a sense of what it truly means to be the hands of Jesus in a fallen world.
The truth is, there are a bunch of people we personally know and even those we have never met that we despise and we don't want love or grace extended to them ever. And we certainly don't want to be the conduit of love and the mouth that speaks grace. There's an entire book written about a man just like this. His name was Jonah and he was called to go to a people he hated and had no desire for their salvation. He tried to flee and got swallowed by a fish, then spit out. He agreed to go. He proclaimed the need for repentance and the people he despised repented. And Jonah got mad. He grumbled and complained. He was more concerned about a plant to shade him than a people's destruction: "Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:2-3). But God responded: "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who
cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?" (Jonah 4:10).
People on this earth face consequences for sin. Sometimes they are spared those consequences, sometimes not. Regardless, Christians are called to be people of love and grace and truth. We speak truth about sin, but we also extend grace. We show people that God hasn't written them off. We aren't called to go around making sure people repay their debts to us and God (Matthew 18:21-35). We are called to extend the same forgiveness that has been given us to others (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).
Grace is hard. Mercy is hard. Ultimate mercy and grace took the death of a sinless God-man. They don't excuse sin; they acknowledge it and take care of it. They reach a hand down to sinful man and whisper, "God is still here. God sees you in all your ugliness and he still opens his arms. Come, let him enter in." If people are to hear this message from us, then we must guard our hearts and minds and mouths. We must remember what God was willing to give those we consider the most despicable, indeed, even us in our most despicable. If it's all about grace, we have no other option.