I love this painting by Scottish artist Peter Howsen. It’s got to be one of my favorites. It doesn’t take long to see that it’s a modern day rendition of the last supper. Jesus is in the middle of his disciples giving out the bread and wine. Judas, it seems, is making his break. John, the beloved disciple, is next to Jesus, looking intently into his face. I think Peter is the one with the beard, James is probably sporting the wife beater—looks like a son of thunder—and, I don’t know, perhaps Matthew is the dude with the stogie. Kind of looks like an extortionist and political traitor (i.e. a tax-collector).
Some of you may be taken back by the painting. After all, they look like a bunch of thugs. It looks more like the cover of an Iron Maiden album, not a portrait from the life of Christ. I mean, one of them is smoking on the night that Jesus is betrayed! Shouldn’t they be dressed in white and on their knees praying?
This was my initial reaction, and this seems to be the first thought most people have when I show them this painting. But this proves that we as a church don’t really understand grace.
For some reason, we think that our acceptance with God depends on what we do for God, rather than what God has done for us. We think that God only uses those who have their act together. We think that God gets angry at us when we do bad things, or when we miss our devotions and pass up an evangelistic encounter. We know that God is gracious—or at least we say we know—but we view our relationship with God along the lines of a transaction, where our performance will elicit more favor from God, and our sin will cause God to pour out his wrath on us. (Wasn’t that wrath poured out on Jesus? Why would we need to continue to absorb it?)
Grace is God’s unconditioned acceptance and continual love for undeserving sinners. It is not based on performance, good works, or anything we do. God’s love for us is based solely on what Christ has done and what the Spirit continues to do. The second we view grace through our contractual, performance shaped lens, we strip grace of all its uniqueness and beauty.
Consider Howsen’s painting again. Why is it that we are a bit taken back by the thug-like scoundrels that Jesus was breaking bread with? Why is it that we think they were much cleaner, much more “churchy” than that? I think it’s because we are ok with Jesus hanging out with ancient tax collectors and fishermen, but when we put this in a modern day context, we don’t know what to do with Jesus. We wouldn’t be ok with Jesus hanging out with prostitutes, gang bangers, pedophiles, pimps, and people addicted to porn. Or, we might be ok with Jesus evangelizing these folks, but once they’ve heard the gospel we would expect the relationship to continue only if immediate sanctification took place. But this is a transaction; this isn’t grace.
We wouldn’t be cool with Jesus embracing a repentant sinner and continuing to cherish, love, and delight in someone who still struggles with his addiction to homosexual porn.
Grace not only drives God to save us, but it’s the stuff that creates and sustains our very sanctification. Grace is non-contractual; it doesn’t say “if you…then I will…” It just says, “Because Jesus…therefore I will…” Jesus is the reason why God loves you at this moment. He doesn’t love you any more if you spent 2 hours in prayer today; he doesn’t love you any less if you just popped on to this blog after thinking several nasty thoughts in a row. God loves you not because of what you did or continue to do; he loves you because of what Christ did and continues to do.
Many of us do not have a performance-based salvation. We believe that God saved us apart from anything we did. But many of us operate with a performance-based sanctification; that God will maintain his pleasure toward us if we check off our Christian “to do” lists. But this is a truncated view of grace.
So relax, be still, and know that God loves you because of what Jesus—and him alone—has done for you and continues to do for you even though you didn’t, don’t, and never will deserve it.