“Grace expresses the character of God.” So states Martin Marty in his contribution to The Handbook of Christian Theology. Yet, it is left to the body of believers to define how this character is made known to an unbelieving and broken world. Thus, according to Marty, “Grace is conceived as personal, a movement from the being of God to the drama of human experience. He also suggests that grace, as it is known in the Christian Church, is a primarily New Testament concept. Marty apparently follows the “Lutheran” assumption that ancient Judaism was a religion of works related righteousness, while Paul conceived of a concept of the “free gift of grace.” (Romans 5:15)
I contend, however, that grace is apparent throughout the canon, and especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Exodus event and the election of Israel is clearly an act of grace, unearned by anything the descendents of Abraham and Sarah might have done towards achieving such status. The giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai is similarly an act of grace, as YHWH makes fully known what the appropriate response to God’s love is, and how Israel might order a community that reflects such a love. The prophets are insistent upon the fact of grace. Ranging from Isaiah to Jonah to Hosea, the Creator is just and covenantally righteous, yet also inconceivably forgiving. If ancient Hebrews were sure of anything, it was that YHWH would be faithful despite the nation’s own unfaithfulness and disobedience. Thus, grace is an ever-present and constantly revealed aspect of God.
The primary question, in fact, may be the question of why some people seem to be the recipients of grace, while others languish in brokenness, guilt, or victimization. There is an old saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that seems to insist that grace is not balanced evenly upon the scales of cosmic justice. When a sober alcoholic sees someone under the influence, they might say “there but for the grace of God go I.” While this rightfully suggests that God’s grace is the reason for sobriety, is it incorrect in suggesting that God’s grace has not been made available to another person for reasons that are not readily evident? Does the God of grace play favorites. Is that what election really means?
I believe that God’s grace can only be made known through communities of believers that live their lives in a manner that exemplifies grace. When brokenness needs healing, loneliness needs attending, or empty stomachs need filling, God acts most evidently through those communities and individuals that believe the Creator is indeed a God of grace. Such communities heal victims of abuse, reconcile broken relationships, care for the widow and orphan, and feed the hungry. If a community does not practice such an ethic, than there is no evidence of a God who delivers the marginalized from the abuses of life. Such is a God whose wrath must be appeased in order that post-mortem grace might be hoped for, if not actual liberation from oppression in the temporal realm.
Cheap grace, however, becomes no one, and does an injustice to God’s character. Grace can be, and often is, rejected by those who disavow the creator God, the peculiar people, and the power of relationships that bear a commitment to reflecting God’s desire for humanity. To agree with Marty for a moment, he confirms my belief by writing that “in an often grace-less world, more and more believers have stressed the wonderful and rare character of divine grace and have urged that it be responded to more than it is precisely defined.”