The problem of grace and what it says about our gospel?

We had a very interesting chat in our community group on Tuesday night. We are currently going through the book of Jonah on Sundays and we often use our community group to dig into the applications in a bit more detail.

One of the points that came out of Sunday’s sermon was about whether there were particular people groups that we would really rather weren’t saved. Jonah’s particular problem with Nineveh was that he hated them and didn’t think they deserved God’s mercy. Which, of course, he is right, they didn’t deserve it any more than he did. But that is the offensiveness of grace.

The example I gave to the community group was this. We may have a competition to jump to the moon. I might get a little further than you. So, in that case, I have done better. I am better than you. But, weighed against how close either of us actually got to the moon, the comparison is totally pointless. The distance between me and you is so much smaller than the distance between me and the moon. Comparing ourselves and our sin is much like this. I may do a bit better than you – I may do a lot better than some particularly heinous sinners – but the bottom line is, I am far far closer to them than I am to naturally being anywhere near God and his perfect holiness. God is the moon and we are the idiots trying to jump to him and saying, ‘I got closer than you did!’

Which brought us back to our question. Are there people who we think are just too bad to be welcomed into the church? It has always struck me that (and I know some such people) that we are prone to look even at those who have committed murder, yet repented and turned to Christ, and welcome them into the church as wonderful examples of God’s grace. But there are very few of us indeed who can bring ourselves – even if there has been clear and evident repentance – to view a paedophile of the very worst kind in that way.

Even when preachers occasionally try to take an ‘out there’ example like a serial paedophile to make a serious point about God’s grace, they are often only prepared to do it in an abstract sense. The reality is, if that same person they outlined turned up to their church on a Sunday morning, many would tell them to hop it. There would be a terrible fear about what people might think of the church letting someone like that in here. Perhaps it will stop families coming? What is it gets out and people know that we haven’t turfed that person out as soon as we knew? Won’t it keep others away from hearing the gospel, so we better do some sort of utilitarian assessment and tell the guy to get lost because the potential impact of his staying might mean we get fewer people in the building?

But there really shouldn’t be a time that we ever say the gospel is not for this person. There shouldn’t ever be a time when we say that Christ cannot save them. There shouldn’t ever be a time we say – instead of what a wonderful work of grace Christ has done in saving someone like that – we end up saying this person isn’t welcome in the church. It really gives the lie to the gospel we claim to believe otherwise. Grace is alright, as long as the person hasn’t sinned in too serious a way, and certainly not any ways that I can cope with.

As has been noted many times before, it is not ultimately the doctrine of Hell that is all that offensive to most people. It is grace with which they (and, if we’re honest, we) have the biggest problem. We are alright with grace for people like us, and people who haven’t damaged us, and people who haven’t sinned in ways that we find so repellent that we struggle to see a way back for them. We have a real problem with grace.

That, of course, isn’t to say that there aren’t consequences of sin to contend with. Anybody saved from a sinful background (which is all of us) have to deal with the consequences of our sin. Our being saved doesn’t magic those consequences away. And the longer we’ve been around sinning, and the more seriously we have sinned – especially if we have sinned in such ways that we have been to prison and are now ostracised by most people – the consequences that we have to live with are far deeper and longer-lasting. There will be some people who have sinned so badly – not that Jesus won’t have them (he never says that) – but who will be living with the consequences of their sinful actions for the rest of their lives. If they are truly repentant and want to be faithful to Christ, they will accept those sad, inevitable yet necessary consequences. Sin is, by its nature, very messy and ruins lives. Those consequences may well reach into the life of any church who – just as Christ welcomes repentant sinners – does the same, just as he commands us to do.

Are there people that you really do not believe can or should be saved? Is there is a deficiency in you view of grace that says, no matter how repentant, I just wouldn’t have that person here? How we answer that question tells us a lot about how we view the gospel.