The Face of Grace
Reading lessons from a church pew
I have listened to and enjoyed many wonderful sermons, worship talks, and morning devotionals on the topic of grace. Yet none of them spoke to me like the story I read one recent Sabbath morning.
Two New Mothers
I read it, I say. Its page was a pew toward the back of the church where two young mothers were enjoying each other’s babies: bouncing them up and down, snuggling them close, and commenting about how cute they were.
One mother teaches at the academy where I live. The other is a recent graduate of the academy. They had both delivered baby boys scarcely four weeks earlier. Just a few months before they had been teacher and student. Now they were two young mothers adjusting to life with their new babies.
Back in the Day
I thought back over the years to when I was an academy student. How would any of my classmates have been dealt with had they become pregnant? It wasn’t difficult to imagine. It would have meant the end of their academy stay.
So what had happened? For something has happened. Something has changed. But what?
I’m not on the school staff or board, but my old ears still catch whispers upon occasion: it seems that somewhere in November the faculty became aware of the fact that one of the girls was pregnant. After a while the community gossip line was no longer necessary. As nature would have it, hearing gave way to sight. And how did the school’s decision makers relate to it?
Their action was to let the young mother stay in school, complete her final year, and graduate with her class. It was not according to the student handbook. And the variance was not because the handbook was fuzzy on that point. The handbook clearly disallows sexual contact. If discovered, it may lead to expulsion from school.
When our daughter found out she was pregnant with their first child, she shared the good news with her husband. He was somewhat surprised and a bit unprepared. He responded to his wife, “Well, can we send her back?”
We all had a good laugh. We all know the answer: it’s “No, my friend, you cannot send her back; you have taken the first steps of a lifelong journey.” And for parents through the ages it has been a journey that teaches us again and again about God’s grace and patience toward us as we discover how much we need to extend grace to our children.
Loving our own children teaches us so much about our own rules, handbooks, and discipline. Most of all, they teach us, in our own moments and seasons of inadequacy, about God’s long-suffering toward us, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).*
Do we stick that closely to our rule books? Did the academy toe the line as per its handbook?
No, we don’t; and no it didn’t.
Were the rules violated? Of course they were. Does that student think it was so fine that she’d like to keep breaking rules? I cannot know, but I hardly think so. In fact, I wonder how it would have been if some thoroughly strident disciplinarian had simply read her the riot act. I wonder if she would have been in church that Sabbath, next to her former teacher, delighting in her new gift, and beginning from the beginning to bring up that little one as best she could “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Grace and Principle
What fear does the very thought of grace inspire! What dread of the lawlessness that will surely follow if we do not nip nascent evil in the bud and promptly consign every prodigal to the fires of hell!
But grace will not be distracted from its course, because its existence does not depend for a moment on evil or the evil one. The pretender for principle who stands to accuse God’s filthy-clothed Joshua is no seeker after righteousness. There is no such vein or streak in him. He comes in anger (Rev. 12:12) and seeks to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10).
Divine grace is favor, not indulgence. It is principle, not pusillanimous compromise. Its principle is unbreakable—the principle of undying, never-surrendering love. The face of grace is the face of forgiveness: “Neither do I condemn thee” (John 8:11), a supernatural phenomenon that miraculously undoes and redoes the yesterday of all who believe. Grace never sets aside the rules. Nor does it even tamper with, modify, or lower the standards.
Instead, the God of grace, in honor of the rules, and in cognizance of our utter inadequacy to keep them, pays the penalty Himself for all the broken rules (2 Cor. 5:21), and gives us ever another chance to be free, by Him, in Him. The face of grace is Jesus in Gethsemane, at the whipping post, and nailed to a cross on a hill called Calvary. The voice of grace is Jesus crying out “It is finished” (John 19:30) as evil is vanquished and salvation for all of eternity’s ages is secure. Hearing His voice and learning its truth is our freedom (John 8:32); and because the Son has freed us, we are free indeed (verse 36).
There are consequences that issue from our choices. They may follow us all through life. We are free to ask for relief from their awkwardness.
But the first work of grace is its ultimate work: grace brings salvation (Titus 2:11). That great salvation delivers us from the powers of darkness and translates us into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Col. 1:13); it sustains us through the fire and flood of life’s vicissitudes (Isa. 43:2; Ps. 91:11, 12). And if, when we seek for respite, God judges that something we have not sought will be better for us, then He may speak again. And when we hear again the voice of grace we know that we live with the fullest of assurance and the sweetest of consolation, for His grace is always sufficient, whatever our need (2 Cor. 12:9).
Rest of the Story
There is much more to read from the story of that church pew; much to read, and much to dwell upon, and years of tales to tell through eternity, I trust. No sermon was spoken, no text read, no long exposition presented that day. But the vision that graced my sight still thrills my soul. I still find joy in the happiness of two young mothers holding and loving each other’s child. I cannot say for how long they will be together to watch their children grow, but I trust that the friendship of that foursome will last forever.
And even as I thank God for the grace of one academy’s administration that preserved one precious youth, I thank Him too for His amazing grace—so sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me.
* Bible texts in this article are from the King James Version.
Keith Heinrich is a retired missionary who lives in Hutchinson, Minnesota.