I read a really unsettling book a while back: Between Noon and Three by Episcopal Priest Robert Farrar Capon. The book explored the notion of God’s grace using two “parables”: an affair between a professor and an older student and a murder by the mob. Yeah, I know – crazy. But it works. Capon is a wonderful writer with a great sense of humor. His book reminded me of something I realized several years ago.
After I went to a weekend spiritual retreat called Tres Dias (similar to Walk to Emmaus or Cursillo), I was talking to Beth on the way home. “Grace is so dangerous,” I said. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Well, grace is given freely without strings attached. Ever. I’ve never been able to preach that simply for the reason that people may take advantage of the grace of God. The minister in me screams not to tell the congregation, simply because all leverage for moral conformity will be lost. They are free to abuse grace based on God’s design alone.” Beth said, “I don’t know what I think about that.” “I don’t know either. But if I’m gonna teach the reality of God’s grace, I’m gonna have to come to terms with the fact that in God’s understanding, all grace is greasy grace, no matter what stipulations others may attach to it.” My supportive and loving wife told me to be careful as to the practical outworkings of such a notion, and that was the end of that.
But the truth is grace is dangerous. And there is only one type of grace: greasy. Now, you may have never heard of “greasy grace” but it’s a staple sermon illustration in the South. Greasy grace is the term to describe those people that take the grace of God and then live like the devil. People who cry out to God in distress but ignore him in times of comfort. In other words, greasy grace occurs when someone abuses the liberty that God gives us as Christians. I’m sure you can think of a hundred examples of what that may look like.
But here’s the reality of the free grace of God. For grace to truly be grace, permissive license and abuse must be an option. Otherwise it’s merely a suspension of moral law. The consequences are lifted, but only for a time – then the other shoe drops and we pay for our misdeeds. And that’s when some helpful person inevitably says, “Be sure your sins will find you out!” But let’s face it: it’s not grace until someone really gets away with it. Moralists hate that idea – it robs them of all control. Honestly though, people get away with things all the time. And the other shoe rarely drops. Instant Karma doesn’t getcha. We get away with all manner of sin, evil, and inconsiderate behavior.
I think we often mix up grace and moral law. Though we’d like for one to point to the other, they don’t. Apples and oranges, people. You see, moral law points to grace, but it can never save us. Yet, we think yelling, ranting, and preaching moral instruction will save us. Educate, educate, educate! But in the end, moral law merely points out why we need Jesus…but it doesn’t bring us to him. Grace does. Grace, not moral law, saves us.
Capon uses this illustration in his book. Grace is like the fire department. Now the building inspector (moral law) may cite you twenty times for breaking the fire code. But when your house goes up in flames, the fire department still responds every time, whether you’ve been warned or not. A fireman never walks up to a burning house and reads off the violations to the owner. Reminding, educating, cajoling, shaming, and guilting doesn’t stop the flames. Nope…the fireman runs past the owner and puts out the fire. Rescue is his business.
The bystanders watching the burning house could easily see the rescue as permission for the owner’s unwillingness to “follow the rules.” And the homeowner could certainly take the rescue as permission to violate the fire code again. The only person who doesn’t see it that way is the fireman that put out the flames. And that’s how God is. People may take permission but the rescuer never gives it. That doesn’t stop them from abusing grace…but neither does it stop God from giving it. The risk is inherent to the gift. Though law and grace can work together, grace is always the bigger of the two. Not because we’re worth the effort but because of the matchless generosity of the Father.