Unmerited favor. This is the typical definition of the word grace. It sounds nice and I suppose it sort of explains grace in a short pithy statement, but what does that even mean? And is that what God intended for us to understand about his grace? I will boldly declare the answer is no! Grace means much more than "unmerited favor." It is the act of God in saving and sustaining mankind throughout the Bible and continuing into today. And it is scandalous! The Bible is filled with stories of people making decisions. Some people obeyed God, and he blessed them. Others made poor decisions that had drastic effects on them, and God redeemed those poor decisions for an even greater purpose. Lets look at two of those stories.
First is the story of Abraham.
Abraham is from the Mesopotamian town called Haran. God calls Abraham to leave his father, his culture, his gods, and all he ever knew to follow him. Now Mesopotamia was a cultural hub of the Ancient Near East world in his day. Each tribe of people had their own language, their own gods, and their own identity. When God calls Abraham, in Abraham's mind he is one of many gods, but the only difference is this specific god calls him, and tells him to follow him into a new land. And out of this new land, Abraham is promised to be the father to offspring that outnumber the stars in the sky and will make Abraham a great name (Gen. 12:1, 15:5). So, like any good follower of their god, he followed.
One evening Abraham asked God how this whole thing was going to happen? God told him to bring him a heifer, a goat, and turtledove, all three years old, and to slice them in half and divide the pieces opposite each other (Gen. 15:9). In Ancient Near East cultures, in order to make a covenant, or agreement between two people, the slicing of these three animals were necessary (sort of like a modern-day pinky promise, but bloodier and much more real). Then each person would walk between these three sliced animals. Why? Because if one person breaks this important covenant, then that person will likewise be sliced in half. Yes, that is correct, sliced in half, blood, guts, and all. To make and oath or covenant was serious business. All they had to offer was their word. There is an interesting twist in this particular covenant. Later in the night, God places Abraham into a deep sleep and explains to Abraham what is going to happen to his promised offspring, the slavery for four hundred years, and the powerful work of redemption by which God would save them. While Abraham is still in this deep sleep the story takes an amazing turn. "When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On this day the Lord made a covenant with Abram saying, 'To your offspring I give this land… (Gen. 15:17-18)'" God made the covenant alone! He is alone handling the work and bearing the responsibility of the covenant. Abraham didn't (and really couldn't) make this covenant. Any act of disobedience would show that he couldn't hold his end of the covenant and therefore would lead him to be sliced in half. Rather, God made the covenant by himself. This was the promise that he made to Abraham. In a sense it showed Abraham that this God was serious and he meant business, and thus propelling Abraham in full submission, which attributed him as the father of faith (Gen. 15:6; Heb. 11:8).
This is Grace!
The ultimate outcome of Abraham's offspring would be Jesus, the promised Messiah and King of Israel and all mankind. He would serve as the judge and redeemer of the world. God's ultimate grace of salvation through Jesus started with his gracious covenant through Abraham. He did it utilizing the cultural background and understanding of Abraham of his day. God is personal and particular. When we read the stories of the Old Testament and see some of the strange ways that God acted, it helps to understand that what is strange to us was normal to them. When we say that God transcends time, we have to remember that this also means he is active in it across cultural boundaries. He moves in our cultural understandings as much as theirs. Typically we think that God moves in supernatural terms, which he most definitely does, but he doesn't ignore what we know as natural terms. God's grace is involved in all details of life. We are not robots by any means, but God lovingly uses our life choices, whether good or bad, for ultimate and greater outcomes.
This leads to the next story of Judah and Tamar.
This story comes at such an odd point in the Genesis narrative (Genesis 38). Genesis 37-50 is all about Abraham's great-grandson and Judah's brother Joseph, but the author takes a brief pause in the Joseph story to fill us in on an interesting event about Joseph's brother Judah.
Judah had three sons, Er, Onan, and Chezib. His oldest son, Er, had a wife named Tamar, but God killed Er because he was so wicked and therefore he had no children. The custom of that day was that the next brother-in-line would marry the wife of the previous brother so she could have offspring for her deceased husband. Unfortunately, in continued wickedness the next son, Onan, would have sexual relations with Tamar, but would refuse to get her pregnant, so God had him killed too. Well, by this time Tamar reasoned with herself that she would find a way to get Judah to impregnate her. She poses as a prostitute, he sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant, with twins. These two illegitimate children were named Perez and Zerah.
This reveals God's grace in the greatest detail! First, there is no hidden agenda in the story. Judah, his sons, and Tamar are all wicked, and live and act in complete disobedience. However if we notice the genealogy in Matthew 1, it states that Jesus comes from the lineage of Judah, Tamar, and Perez (Matt. 1:3). This is incredible! God did not condone wickedness at all, and two people in this story died because of it, but he still used a horrible decision of Judah and Tamar to bring about the ultimate hope that would come through their son Perez, culminating in the hope found in Jesus.
This is Grace!
What is even more incredible about the placement of this story is that it rests in the middle of the Joseph story. If we read the story of Joseph clearly, we see a man of faith and patience and obedience to God. It would appear that the coming king of Israel would come through the line of Joseph. Nope! Jesus would come through the line of Judah, and not one of Judah's legitimate sons, but his illegitimate son Perez, who was conceived from a sexually immoral act.
This is Grace!
God's radical and unfathomable grace in the Old Testament led to the ultimate grace of giving his son Jesus to die for the sins of the world. This act of total redemption set forth the redeeming act of the Holy Spirit through the continued act of proclaiming the good news of Jesus by the Church throughout the entire world today. You and I are not a chess piece in a crazy cosmic chess match. You and I are loved and cherished creatures of an Almighty Creator that allows us to live our lives and make choices. We will make very bad choices and yet in Christ, we are still loved and redeemed (1 John 2:2). God's grace is salvific in that it is only by his love and patience and providence that we are saved, but it is also sustaining in everything we do. I challenge you to view God's grace as pervasive in all aspects of your life. Praise God for the fact that your heart beats and for the food he provides. Praise God for seeing you through bad choices, and redeeming you in spite of them. Praise God that through wicked and sinful people, that he sent Jesus to live, die, and rise for us, that in him we have life eternally, and in him we have hope eternally.
This is Grace!