Restoring Grace

Some subjects are only pertinent to a segment of Christian readers. Grace that restores is for everyone, not only for Christians but, in fact, for anyone seeking the answers to life’s most basic questions – Who am I? Why am I alive? Do I have value? God responds with restoring grace.  Our relationship with Him begins with grace and continues with grace. Sin and shame broke our relationship with God and continues to break it with each other, but restoring grace bridges the chasm and repairs the damage that our “messy” lives bring to ongoing relationship with God and one another.

The parables of Luke 15, especially of the father with two sons,[1] highlight God’s grace in action, reaching out to find and to restore something or someone lost to Himself. These lessons are addressed to members of a religious group who think themselves better than those with whom Christ was closely associated – may you and I be delivered from sharing this elitist attitude! We will see one son who shares this “holier than thou” outlook and does not benefit from restoring grace.

It is very likely that Christ is comparing these religious leaders to the shepherd who had lost a sheep (v4), as His wording is unusually direct. In your local church, the question to the shepherds could be asked, “How many sheep have been lost on your watch?” The recovery of the coin is interesting in that the search area is circumscribed. All that is needed is effort and time searching and the coin will be found. Thus we are reminded that God’s grace does not flag or fail in restoration, and neither should we give up easily on the lost, whether sinner or erring saint.

The lost sheep and the lost coin do nothing to prompt the search process other than become lost.  Instead, the emphasis of the stories is on the effort and joy of the seeker in finding the missing sheep or coin. Repentance is not mentioned until the end. Repentance seems to be equated with being found. God’s restoring grace precedes and provokes repentance (Rom 2:4), so repentance is not a precondition to grace. In fact, repentance is the acceptance of grace and the confession of unworthiness.

This is seen with the lost son, though we easily miss it because of our ignorance of the cultural implications of his planned repentance speech (v19). The younger son is, in effect, planning to repay his monetary debt as an independent workman outside of his father’s authority. However, the father’s remarkable display of grace (unsolicited and unmerited love), running down the road to warmly welcome him, silences his plan for earning forgiveness. The father would have been expected to chastise and reject his son who, by his previous actions, clearly stated that he wished his father dead when he asked for his inheritance. The father’s restoring grace is seen in his actions and not his words (he does not address the lost son), and the son ends by offering a confession, revealing a repentant heart and a willingness to submit to the father’s authority.

The lessons are clear. God’s grace reaches out to the lost or to the erring believer without waiting for repentance. The father’s grace is not looking for more workmen, but for sons. If God has joyfully done, and continues to joyfully do, this for you and me, must we not do the same for each other?

Some say these parables show forgiveness without atonement. It is worth noting that the father’s actions toward his two lost sons, understood in the light of Middle Eastern culture in Christ’s time, do typify the work God has done to show grace in salvation. Grace is very costly.

The story begins with the father dividing everything between the two sons; one son stays, one son goes. There is no precedent in the Bible or Middle Eastern culture for the giving of inheritance (or receiving, as the older son did) while the father is alive and well. It is an ugly, bald insight into the value the sons place on the father – they, in effect, wish him dead, and dishonour him completely. Too often we take our sin lightly, as a weakness to be excused by our Adamic heritage or as small on the scale of sin we see in the world around us. When we sin, we rob God of what is His by creatorial right (Rom 1:21, 3:23) – glory and honour.

The father first extends grace in the beginning as the sons break relationship with him and each other when he divides his possessions. He then extends it to both sons as they approach his home. A Middle Eastern man of honour would never run, and would be expected to act in a way that reflected his position of respect. If he were wronged, he would be expected to end the relationship and not seek its restoration (e.g., King Ahasuerus and Vashti in Esther 1). The father shows he keenly awaits the errant younger son’s return, and before the shocked eyes of his community, takes a humble place of offering unmerited welcome as we observe his haste, his kisses and his gifts to an unworthy son before all. The young man, with all the visible evidence of his own shame, receives the best robe (it would have been his father’s garment), covering all evidence of his shame and clothing him in honour. He receives the signet ring to wear as a sign of trust. Shoes are put on his feet, evidence that he is a free man, not a servant. Finally the calf, not just a goat or sheep, but an animal big enough to share with the whole community, is prepared, showing the acceptance of the young man to the whole community. The father’s restoring grace speaks of Christ’s coming to earth “despising the shame” (Heb 12:2), actively seeking the lost, bearing our shame to give us a place of honour as God’s sons. What extravagant, matchless grace!

Yet, the older son, like the Pharisees listening to the parable, stands outside and rejects the father’s grace to his brother. His complaints to his father and his words are as dishonouring as his younger brother’s initial request for the inheritance, but the father is as willing to bear shame and reach out in unexpected grace to his older son as he did to the younger brother. The story ends without telling us what the older son finally does, showing Christ’s open offer of grace toward the self-righteous leaders of His day.

With the sheep, the joy is two-fold: first in the finding, then again when the seeker arrives at home. Likely the hardest work would be in carrying the helpless lost sheep home. Yet that labor begins and ends with joy! The One who found you and me (Luk 19:10) is carrying us joyfully and certainly to His home – this is the power of restoring grace. It is noteworthy that the shepherd is not satisfied with only finding the sheep but he must also restore the sheep to the flock. Shepherd work is more than search and rescue; it involves long-term care and, at times, rehabilitation! The Good Shepherd knows nothing of survival of the fittest, as He delights to find, and “lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, even the princes of his own people” (Psa 113:7-8 NLT). May God give shepherds in local churches this heart of restoring grace as well.

[1]Read chapter 7 of Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and Peasant for a fascinating, in-depth exegesis of Luke 15 in light of the culture in which Jesus spoke these parables.