It’s not a new or novel idea, but I believe the best picture of God’s relationship with sinners is nowhere more accurately displayed than in Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s no secret that I love this chapter. From start to finish, Luke 15 is filled to the brim with beautiful pictures of the gospel of God’s condescension to sinful mankind. And while I do think it’s a little cliché when preachers introduce a sermon by stating that their particular passage is their “favorite in the Bible,” there are definitely instances where specific texts resonate with you more than others, finding a special place in your heart and memory. Unquestionably, Luke 15 is one such passage for me.
In a world that’s built on the foundation of earning and sacrificing, that’s predicated on how much effort you’re putting when it comes to rewards and punishments, God’s mission was to radically transform our innate rationale by making it painfully obvious that his economy is different from ours. To be certain, there are infinite amounts of truths to be mined from the gospel, to be studied and mused upon until the End of Days, but at the core of the whole thing is fact that God came down — he came down to us and for us. No other religious system in the world can boast of this. Indeed, what makes Christianity as a religion unique is that it is completely paradoxical, from start to finish.
The gospel is so outside of human logic that we’d never conjure up God’s plan of redemption on our own if we were left on earth for a million lifetimes. The reason this is the case is because of one truth, one word: grace.
It’s not a cliché to say that grace changes everything, because it does. Even though we quickly define “grace” as “God’s unmerited favor,” that doesn’t even come close to a marginal definition of the term. Grace is infinitely more than that. There’s so much wrapped up in that little word that we could spend eons delving into it and describing it and declaring it, and we’d still never find the bottom of its reaches nor the heights of its glory. Grace isn’t a natural idea to us. It’s otherworldly and strange — which is why we have to hear about it so often.
Our minds aren’t inclined to be gracious. The entire concept flies in the face of everything we instinctually believe. “The very idea of grace is strange, and, we may say, unnatural to man,” writes Horatius Bonar. “He understands the meaning of righteousness, but not of grace.” (Sermons, 277) Which, then, is why we’re often so opposed to those who preach the gospel of free grace. “We more easily understand principles of legal right and claim than principles of simple grace,” continues Bonar elsewhere. “The natural mind is as much a stranger to the very idea of grace as the natural heart is opposed to it.” (Tracts, #31) Those who are committed to such a message will be slandered and scandalized and accused of preaching “too much freedom” at the expense of true religion. But that’s exactly the point. Because our minds aren’t naturally predisposed to grace, any declaration of such freedom is seen as destructive. From the perspective of merit, grace is a rule-breaker, skirting the system, bypassing the constructed order — it’s a cheat. “You didn’t earn anything,” the Law says, “and therefore, you shall not get anything.” By our standard, grace isn’t academic enough. It’s too simple.
But nothing so wonderfully and majestically displays the nature of God as grace — his persistent and active pursuit of rebels. What makes grace so amazing and so scandalous is that it’s not just a pardon of wrong, it’s a re-establishment of relationship. There’s a twofold process in the gospel, whereby, when one believes on Christ’s work, they’re not only forgiven of sin, they’re also given righteousness. The glorious exchange takes place in the heart of the believer, washing away the rebellion of the sinner and writing to his account the righteousness of the Son. (Col. 2:9–15) But nothing is this good, right? Nothing is this free. That’s ludicrous: it’s too good to be true! But it’s not too good, it’s just grace, it’s just the nature of your Heavenly Father.
The Father sees his prodigals in the land of famine. His eye follows them. They may have lost sight of him, but not he of them. He sends out his grace in search of them. The Son of his bosom comes down in quest of them. He shrinks not from entering the place of exile. He becomes a banished man for them. He lived an exile’s life; he endures an exile’s shame; he dies an exile’s death; he is buried in an exile’s tomb. All for us, the outcasts, the exiles. He takes our place of banishment, that we may take his place in his Father’s many mansions. He stoops to our place of shame, that we may rise to his place of honor and glory. (Bonar, Story, 112–13)
We’re all prodigals, wandering far away — and yet our God spies each one of us with his grace, seeking for us to come back to his side, to come back home.
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851).
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857).