But grace has no leash. It’s untamed, unbound, and runs wild and free. Was Dahmer’s conversion genuine? If we go on evidence rather than skin-deep religiosity, then, yes. But the church’s response to Dahmer’s conversion is telling. The doubt hurled at Dahmer’s conversion gives off the foul odor of spoiled grace that’s been sitting in church too long. Many Christians believe that rebels like Dahmer are unworthy of the fatted calf; they’re appalled at the thought of our Father running after them. We’ve got to have some sort of balance – grace and justice. We need to keep grace under control. When it snaps our leash and runs loose, we get nervous.
In many ways, the word grace has lost its stunning beauty, and perhaps through overuse, it’s become just another Christianese buzzword. We use the word grace in flat ways. My students ask for “grace” when they turn in assignments late. “Come on, Professor. Give me grace.” But divine grace is more than leniency, more than allowing exceptions to a rule.
Others say that grace means “unconditional acceptance.” God accepts people even though they have not met his standard. This is true. Sort of. But it’s still a decaffeinated definition. It fails to capture the divine aggression that invigorates grace and causes it to lurch upon the unworthy.
Grace is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. Divine grace is God’s relentless and loving pursuit of his enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable. Grace is not just God’s ability to save sinners, but God’s stubborn delight in his enemies – yes, even the creepy ones. Grace means that despite our filth, despite the sewage running through our veins, despite our odd addiction to food, drink, sex, porn, pride, self, money, comfort, and success, God desires to transform us into real ingredients of divine happiness.
Grace is God’s aggressive pursuit of, and stubborn delight in, freakishly foul people. And since we all stood or stand guilty in God’s courtroom – homeschooling moms, porn stars, Awana champions, and suicide bombers – we all urgently need the same stuff that rearranged Dahmer’s soul. We all need grace.
We demean grace by reducing it to another Christianese buzzword. The original Greek word for grace is charis (with a hard “ch,” like karis). Charis was not invented by Christians. Charis didn’t originate with Jesus, Peter, or Paul. The word charis, in fact, was used widely in the ancient world where Jesus grew up. When Jesus walked through Palestine talking about God’s Charis, his hearers knew what the word meant. When Paul traversed the Mediterranean world heralding a message of Charis in the marketplace, the vendors would have understood him. If he got into a debate with Greek philosophers, they, too, would have grasped the meaning of Charis.
That’s because charis simply means “gift.” When we say “gift,” the ancients would have said “charis.” It means the same thing.
Rich people in the ancient world often gave charises, or gifts, to other people. They would donate charises to their hometown: a fountain in the city square, a statue of Zeus next to the courthouse. They would give a charis to someone in need of food or shelter. The wealthy were eager to give gifts to people. Why? Because the ability to give a charis showed (or showed off) that they had the means to give.
So Christians weren’t the first people to talk about grace. But Christians revolutionized what charis meant, and here’s why.
When rich people gave a charis to this person and a charis to that person – “here’s a shekel to buy some food” – they didn’t give it indiscriminately. The ancients gave charises only to those who were worthy to receive it. Charis was given to people who were worthy of charis: those who had a high status or who were morally upright, intellectually astute, or physically impressive. After all, we wouldn’t want to squander our charis on some bum in the gutter who’s unworthy of our gift. A rich person wouldn’t waste charises on outcasts, the unappreciative, or thugs who had nothing to offer in return.
But Jesus did.
Jesus and his followers gutted the word charis and infused it with fresh meaning, with life-giving power. Jesus did more than give Charis to the unworthy dregs of society. He made it his mission to seek them out. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” (Luke 19:10). He didn’t just give Charis to the beggars who crossed his path. Jesus hunted them down and showered them with gifts. The same Jesus who overturned tables in the temple overturned the social norms for dispensing Charis. Naturally, Jesus would be especially drawn to cannibalistic fornicators with a sick attraction to dead people.
This is why Jesus was attracted to Paul. The apostle Paul didn’t eat people, but he did try to kill several churchgoers, which made him a prime candidate for Charis, (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Targeted, hunted, and conquered by Charis, Paul devoted his life to proclaim the message of the same leashless Charis that he once found toxic. Sure, the ancients understood some of what Paul was saying: the gospel of Charis, the good news about a gift given to those worthy of gifts. But Paul picked up where Jesus left off and infused this well-known term with the same unwelcomed splendor that rattled the prison cells of Wisconsin.
Our word grace has been overused and abused. It has lost its luster, its richness, its Charis. Perhaps through overuse, grace has become another nice term dumped into our worn-out bag of Christian lingo. We say grace before meals, include grace in gospel presentations, and slap the word grace on the names of churches. But if we never hug a harlot, befriend a beggar, or forgive our enemy seventy times seven, then we confess grace with our lips but mock it with our lives. First Church of Grace or Grace Fellowship or Grace Community – or whatever – should be an otherworldly safe haven where enemies are loved and porn stars are forgiven. That’s Charis.
Grace in the Old Testament?
God dipped his feather in Charis when he penned the New Testament. Jesus hung out with harlots and drunkards, and he touched quite a few lepers during his short ministry on Earth. Paul, too, could hardly talk about Jesus without clothing his message with a fresh understanding of Charis. But such harlot-embracing, cannibal-forgiving grace is not just a New Testament thing. It’s splashed across the Old Testament as well. This is why I want to admire grace through the lens of the Old Testament – that dusty, confusing, largely unread section that makes up two-thirds of our Bibles.
The Old Testament is all about grace. You can’t understand grace apart from the Old Testament, and you can’t understand the Old Testament without understanding grace. If you read the Old Testament and aren’t kindled and confronted by the scandal of grace, then you need to go back and read it again. You missed it. If you see only wrath and judgment, then you’ve missed the best part, the main plot, the primary message. Grace is the spine that holds the whole thing together. Look at any story, any chapter, and you’ll find a story of God’s relentless pursuit of his rebellious children. Take grace out of the Old Testament and, like pulling a thread from a sweater, the whole thing will come undone. Every character, every event, every single page from the Old Testament bleeds grace.
If you’ve read the Old Testament and didn’t see much grace, don’t worry. This is common. That’s why I’ve written this book: to help us see the grace that’s there. The reason we typically miss it is because we’ve been trained to read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, morally. That is, we generally look to the Old Testament as a showcase of moral examples to live by. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, and be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up for God like Esther.
Is there a problem with this?
Yes. There’s a huge problem with this. In fact, there are two huge problems with this.
First, this moral approach puts the emphasis on people rather than on the main subject, the primary character – God. God is the focus of every story in the Old Testament. Human characters play a role, but it’s a supporting role and never the main part. The Old Testament – the whole Bible, really – is fundamentally a story about God, not humankind.
Second, most of the characters of the Old Testament are not good examples to follow. Abraham was a liar, Jacob was a cheater, Moses was a tongue-tied murderer, Esther broke more commandments than she kept and never even mentioned God, and Samson was a self-centered, vengeful porn star enslaved to lust and bloodshed. So if we follow our Old Testament “heroes” as scripture presents them, we could end up in prison.
Instead of reading the Bible morally, we should read it theologically. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some moral examples to follow. Yes, by all means, flee like Joseph. Nor does it mean hunting for verses that support our favorite theological doctrine. Rather, reading the Bible theologically means that we look first and foremost at what the passage teaches us about God. What is God doing? How is God revealing himself? How is God going to overcome our sin, keep his promises, and reestablish the Eden-like relationship he created us for?
The Old Testament is all about grace, and it forms the rich soil from which Jesus’s gospel of Charis blossoms. To understand Jesus, we must soak ourselves in Israel’s story of grace. That’s why we’ll end our adventure in this book by looking at the birth, life, and death of Jesus. Jesus is not just the beginning of the New Testament but also the fitting climax of the Old.