We’ve gotten grace all wrong.
Once I heard a preacher say that churches needed to start putting altars in the parking lot so that people could get their act together before coming in. That little zinger got a lot of Amens. But it wasn’t grace. Self-righteousness? Sure. But not grace.
Many people have grown up under this kind of gracelessness. Do more. Try harder. That wasn’t quite enough. This guy did it better. Work, work, work, so that Jesus will love you more. This is the exact opposite of the grace that Jesus modeled, taught and distributed.
As a result, some have swung too far the other way and mistaken grace for apathy. They have managed to convince themselves, and others, that grace means that Jesus doesn’t care about sin. At least not your sin. He certainly cares about the sins of whatever group you happen to not like very much but he’s cool with your sin. In this faulty view, Jesus is like the the parent at the park who can’t quit texting while his kid pushes other kids off of the slide and takes candy from strangers.
The Bible gives us a much better picture of grace in Luke 7:36-50.
Jesus had been invited to the home of a religious leader named Simon. Most likely, Simon wasn’t looking to spend some quality time with his Lord. He was probably looking to trap Jesus or find some sort of dirt on him. During the dinner, Simon seemed to have the perfect opportunity to expose Jesus as something less than the promised Messiah.
A “woman of the city” came into the room where the people were eating and began washing Jesus’ feet. “Woman of the city” doesn’t mean that this lady liked to shop at Bloomingdale’s and drove a smart car. It was first century talk for a prostitute. This woman sold her body for sex. And now she was washing Jesus’ feet.
Clearly, this was all of the proof Simon needed that Jesus wasn’t God. If he was, he wouldn’t let a woman like that even come close to him. That’s what Simon thought to himself (v. 39). But here’s the thing about thinking something to yourself. Jesus always knows what you’re thinking. So he confronted Simon in his self-righteous skepticism.
He rebuked Simon for his smugness and lack of hospitality. And then Jesus did something no one was expecting.
He forgave that woman of the city. He took away the sins of the prostitute. Not because she washed his feet or somehow loved him first but because of his love. He forgave the woman because of his grace.
The words Jesus says about the woman as he forgives her are interesting.
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Luke 7:47 (ESV)
“Which are many.”
Jesus didn’t excuse her sins. He didn’t look past her sins. He stared them in the eye. And then he forgave.
For many today, grace means that Jesus should have ignored this woman’s “mistakes,” started managing her clientele and told her to continue on with her business. But that wouldn’t be grace. Jesus didn’t come to affirm us in our sins and he didn’t die for people who could get their act together on their own. He came for sinners. He came for the women of the city. He spent time at tables with sinners on earth so that they could spend eternity at his table (Revelation 19:9).
It’s is often pointed out that Jesus ate with sinners. In the account of Luke 7:36-50, this is true. He ate with sinners. Plural. That “woman of the city” wasn’t the only sinner he ate with. He ate with another sinner named Simon. And there were more differences between Simon and the prostitute than their gender and means of income. What really set them apart was what they did with the sins that they both had.
Simon’s sins were socially acceptable. But socially acceptable sins still send people to hell. They keep people from seeing Jesus for who he really is.
The prostitute’s sins were many. But she took her many sins to Jesus. And he took them away. Sins, both great and small, keep people from Jesus. Until Jesus’ grace intervenes. And when he takes aim for a sinful heart, no matter how broken, his grace is always enough.
Grace isn’t working hard to get it all together so that Jesus will love you more.
And grace isn’t covering over your sins and convincing yourself that Jesus either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about your sins.
Grace is when Jesus sees the depth of your depravity even better than you do. And then he forgives you.
Your sins keep you from God. We all know that.
But so does your self-righteousness.
Whether you’re a Simon or a woman of the city, you need grace.