In the now famous October courtroom scene, Brandt Jean turned to the former Dallas police officer convicted of killing his brother, Botham Jean, and said, “I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” Then the black man stepped off the witness stand and warmly embraced the white woman, Amber Guyger, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for murder.
The scene inspired millions. But any time the radical grace of God becomes manifest, some begin to grumble, and for understandable reasons. As Jemar Tisby noted in The Washington Post, the killing of a black person by a white person is always an iconic event. Such tragedies “aren’t just felt by one black person. The black community feels the impact.” He also said, “Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”
Tisby is rightly concerned about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” as in: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . . grace without discipleship, without the cross.” Many today would add, “grace without the pursuit of justice.”
Sentimental grace is indeed a danger, and yet so is a grace that is qualified by something we have to do to earn it. Faith without works is dead, as James noted, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the forgiveness that faith receives is, in fact, “instant absolution.” To be clear, this instant absolution took place long before the act of faith, when on the cross Christ announced, “It is finished.” That was the moment when “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). If the Cross means anything, it means absolute forgiveness with no strings attached.
To be sure, Paul also calls us to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20), which we do by repentance and faith. It is not our turning to God that makes Christ’s work on the cross powerful—we cannot add anything to that work—but our faith does make that work personal and effective in our own lives.
When we start worrying that mercy will lead to moral sloth, we need to recall that divine mercy is a robust mercy, one that shines a light on the magnitude of sin. Thus the church’s practice of having seasons of penitence, Advent and Lent, when we reflect on this reality: Our sin was so horrific that it took the death of a perfectly holy God to wipe the slate clean. We ponder our sins, both personal and social, not to beat ourselves but to recognize ever more uncomfortably just how horrible sin is and how wonderful is the mercy that covers it.
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Source: Christianity Today