I once heard a sermon about grace. The person who explained, did it so eloquently that the message never left my memory even though I already forgot the name of the speaker. He described grace in light of two other concepts: pardon and forgiveness.
A decade later, when my thirteen-year-old son asked me to explain what grace is, I felt equipped to at least retell it just how it left impact on me when I first heard it. Using my own words and style, I retold the message to my son describing grace side by side with pardon and forgiveness. Here, I attempt to convert the message into written words.
Pardon. When a man murders the son of another man, and the offender is accused in the court, he has to face judgement. If the father of the victim withdrew his charge and asked the judge not to punish the murderer, that’s pardon. He is asking the judge to pardon his offender because he cannot pardon the offender by himself. Pardoning is not in his authority; it is up to the judge, or even someone higher.
Although the word pardon in the dictionary is defined as “the action of forgiving or being forgiven for an error or offense,” the focus is on the action not on forgiveness. Often we pardon somebody without forgiveness in our heart. We fake it. We do that simply for publicity—to display our action, not really to forgive and forget; we do that to show others what a “forgiving” person we are, that we are kind. In that case, pardoning becomes superficial, meaningless…sort of hypocrisy.
Forgiveness. If pardon is the icon, forgiveness is the substance. Pardon is external; forgiveness is internal. Forgiveness is the reason why we pardon. But more frequently we pardon just to show off our “goodness,” not really to forgive.
An in-law told me of a true story of a farmer in their province whose son was murdered by his neighbor. In the court, they settled everything amicably in front of the judge. The offender offered one million pesos to the farmer and he accepted it. Few weeks later, the neighbor’s son was also murdered. The main suspect, obviously, was the farmer’s family. They were taking revenge.
Back in the court, the farmer returned the one million pesos that he received when they first settled “everything” in the court.
Now both neighbors lost a family member, both fathers lost a son. None of them went to jail; both parties settled “everything” in the eyes of superficial forgiveness—of pardoning the offender but not forgiving them in their heart.
I can always pardon a person yet not forgive him. Likewise, I can also forgive a person, yet not pardon him. The father could have forgiven the offender in his heart and yet still asked for justice, letting the murderer be punished in jail for the sake of justice.
Pardon is the surface; forgiveness is the core, it is why we pardon. Forgiveness is the cause, pardon is one of the effects. Pardon is the icon; forgiveness is its substance. Pardon is a matter of the written laws; forgiveness is a matter of the hearts. Pardon can be faked; forgiveness, not.
Grace. Pardon is about the externals; forgiveness, the internals; grace is about the merging of justice and forgiveness in one ironic act. Grace is the convergence of two conflicting truths into one painful sacrifice.
That makes grace to be the most difficult to comprehend, the hardest to preach and teach, the most difficult to explain, and definitely the toughest one to live.
According to Philip Yancey, grace is something that contradicts our common sense, violates our human instincts, and defy our logic. I agree.
When a man murders the son of another man, and the offender is accused in the court, as I said earlier, he has to face judgement. And if the father withdrew his charge and asked the judge not to punish the murderer, that’s pardon. Yet, if the father shifted his focus from the law to the matters of his heart by absolving the offender, he’s forgiving.
Now, if the father, in a bitter twist, instead of demanding justice for his son, offered himself to be punished in place of his son’s murderer, and then offered the murderer to be the heir of his wealth, business, and all of his properties (realizing that his son is already dead), that—as painful as it may—is true grace.
By offering himself in place of the offender, he is satisfying justice and extending forgiveness at the same time, merging it in one act called grace.
How can I fathom the depth of this teaching? I may ask, “Who in the world, and in his right logical mind, would offer himself to be punished in place of his son’s murderer, and offer all his wealth to be inherited by the same murderer?” Is it logical or at least fair to promote the one who deserves to be demoted?
Of course not. But grace is not about logic, nor it’s about fairness.
We, fair-minded people are often infuriated by such stories. We want fairness, justice, equality. At most, we want revenge. At least, we want people to “receive exactly what they deserve, nothing more, nothing less.” We concentrate on our human rights—right to speak, right to express, right to take revenge.
We don’t want the undeserving to receive what he doesn’t deserve, much more to receive the very opposite of what he deserves.
We don’t promote employees who deserve to be demoted, nor we give first price to the weakest player in the tournament. No, we don’t give honor medals to the lowest ranking students nor we bestow the heirship or inheritance to the murderer of our sons. We don’t reward the unscrupulous; we punish them.
Given a choice between justice and grace, we tend to choose justice, for we are all accustomed to it. Justice, for us, is the natural thing, the logical choice, the fair option.
Yet, in the Bible, we see a very clear condition. We are the undeserving, the offenders, the sinners. All of us don’t deserve heaven, instead we deserve hell. But what happened? Jesus Christ accepted the death penalty for us so we become heirs of his father. Transferring the sonship to us and accepting the penalty for our sins, we become heirs to his father’s wealth while he suffers for us. Jesus’ life shows us what grace is.
Daily Encounters. In the day to day reality of our lives, we prefer justice to grace. We think we don’t need grace because we don’t understand it. It is difficult to grasp.
Grace becomes incomprehensible if we see ourselves as perfect, blameless individuals. If we are too proud of our titles, of our accomplishments, of our medals and academic degrees, of everything that we have earned, if we become too proud, and have an unrealistic view of ourselves—believing that we are holier, better, kinder, humbler, and more deserving than others, then grace becomes too difficult to understand. If in case we understand it, it even becomes too hard to swallow.
If we don’t see ourselves as sinners, we tend to choose justice instead of grace. If we don’t see our own imperfections and shortcomings, we “logically” choose justice.
Pride and arrogance fool us and cloud our vision so fiercely that we cannot see the images of grace. Because of pride, we want to earn everything, including grace. But grace cannot be earned.
In the realms of grace, no one is deserving; we stand in common ground. Indeed, grace is unnatural, unfair, and beyond logic.