The Scandal of Grace

Patheos - Philosophical Fragments | Published on January 21, 2014

By Peter Wehner

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The best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has written an article in Relevant magazine, “How I Rediscovered Faith.” He recounts being raised in a Christian home and wandering off the path taken by the rest of his family. “I have always believed in God,” according to Gladwell. “I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.” He continues:

I put that sentence in the past tense because something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.

Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness…. Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.

 To forgive after having been grievously wounded, as the Derksens did, can speak to the world in a way, in a language, that almost nothing else can. I’m reminded of what Denver Seminary’s Gordon MacDonald has said: “The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church. You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”

I’ll readily admit that grace – the willingness to forgive and even to sacrifice for the undeserving – is counter-intuitive. For some people, in fact, it’s downright scandalous. Ayn Rand, for example, believed the notion of the ideal sacrificing for the non-ideal to be an offense. Still others believe grace is fine up to a point — but beyond a certain point, when it’s dispensed to certain people, it’s wrong and unjust. This isn’t, by the way, simply a modern sentiment. When the Ninevites were spared the judgment of God, Jonah was displeased with Him, believing God was showing more mercy toward them than was warranted.

It will take someone with a greater mastery of theology than I possess to satisfactorily answer all the questions raised by grace. (Does it, for example, undermine the concept of moral accountability?) In the words of Philip Yancey, I leave in God’s hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy.

What I can say is that having been loved and embraced by God despite the brokenness in my own life, I’m not terribly well positioned to deny it to others. (We all place ourselves in the column of those who are imperfect and yet deserve grace, never in the column of those who are imperfect and don’t.) It’s worth observing that the Christian church, absent grace, can be brittle, legalistic and joyless. Authentic grace can also bind up deep wounds, uncoil anger, liberate us from bitterness and resentments, and move us toward reconciliation and redemption. It can hardly be an accident that many of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, from David to the Apostle Paul, were people who had committed serious transgressions (including murder, adultery, and persecution of believers) and to whom God dispensed grace. Would we rather have wished He had withheld it on the grounds that they were unworthy to receive it?

“The world thirsts for grace,” Yancey has written. “When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.” And when we see grace find a place in the hearts of others, as Malcolm Gladwell did, it changes how we see just about everything.

Grace can lead us home again.