Yesterday, listening to the radio, I heard the song “Be My Escape” by RelientK. While I have heard the song many times in the past, there was one particular line that caught my attention this time around. The song is quite biblical as these things go and is something of a cry for redemption. I’ll provide a brief excerpt:
I’m giving up on doing this alone now
Cause I’ve failed and I’m ready to be shown how
He’s told me the way and I’m trying to get there
And this life sentence that I’m serving
I admit that I’m every bit deserving
But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair
The line that stood out to me was “the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” I thought about that line for a while trying to discern its meaning. I am not always so good at unravelling the meaning of poetry and songs but I believe what the songwriter is suggesting is that there is something a little bit unfair about grace. And so I also wondered if this is true. I have often heard this type of definition so the guys from RelientK are not alone in feeling that there is something unfair about grace. But I’m not so sure there is.
As is so often the case, definitions are half the battle. Let’s define “grace” and “unfair.”
Grace – We can define grace as the free and unmerited favor or beneficence of God. Or to provide Wikipedia’s definition, “Divine grace is a Christian term for gifts granted to humanity by God, that God is under no need or obligation to grant. Most broadly, grace describes all of God’s gifts to humankind, including our life, creation, and salvation, which God gives to us freely. More narrowly but more commonly, grace describes the means by which humans are saved from original sin and granted salvation.” The most important concept to grasp is that grace implies a favor that is unmerited and undeserved, yet given freely by a loving God.
Unfair – Unfair can be defined as follows: “Marked by injustice or partiality or deception; ‘used unfair methods’; ‘it was an unfair trial’; ‘took an unfair advantage’.” The American Heritage Dictionary adds, “Not just or evenhanded; biased: an unfair call by an umpire” and a secondary definition of “Contrary to laws or conventions, especially in commerce; unethical: unfair trading.”
Grace and Unfairness
Grace, as we have seen, is unmerited favor. In a theological sense grace is seen when God grants a gift to people who are in every way undeserving. Theologians speak of two broad categories of grace. The first is common grace which God extends in varying measure to every person in the world. Were God to withdraw His common grace, the world would quickly crumble and decay as God’s restraining hand allowed everyone to become exactly as evil as they could be. Theologian Charles Hodge defines common grace in this way: “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. In this sphere also He divides ‘to every man severally as He will.’ (1 Cor. 12:11.) This is what in theology is called common grace.” John Murray provides an even better definition stating that common grace includes, “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” This grace includes restraint upon sin, restraint upon the consequences of sin and temporary restraint upon the Divine wrath against sin. Conversely, it also includes the bestowal of good and the excitation to do good.
The second type of grace is special, saving or salvific grace and this is the grace that God extends to those who are His people. Exactly when and how God extends this grace is a point of dispute between Calvinist and Arminian, but both agree that a special measure of God’s grace is given, and indeed must be given, to those who are saved. And so we see that God’s grace is evident all around us, in the good gifts we enjoy, in the restraint of our evil natures, and in the salvation He grants to those who are His own. Because we are evil, God-hating creatures, every measure of grace is entirely undeserved.
Now we are left with “unfair.” Is there anything unfair about the manner in which God dispenses His grace? To this I have to answer with an emphatic “no!” There is nothing unjust or unfair about God’s dispensation of grace. There is certainly nothing unethical about it. You see, the word unfair suggests duplicity or unfairness. But because grace is, by its very definition, a free gift, it cannot be given in a way that is unfair.
Consider, for a moment, an example. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we were all moved by the absolute devastation and perhaps moved to tears when we saw people’s homes and livelihoods destroyed. But out of the chaos came some wonderful stories of compassion and grace. For example, many people in inland areas whose houses safely weathered the storm, opened their homes to refugees (or “displaced persons” as I hear the news channels report as the new politically correct term). Of course no single person could open his home to more than a few refugees. So was it in any way unfair that a particular person chose to extend grace to only a few people? Of course it was not. His act of grace was unmerited, so no one would dare complain that this person was unfair to refuse to open his doors to every person escaping the storm.
This analogy, while being as weak as most analogies are, does show an example of undeserved merit. I could also speak of homeless people. If I were to come across an intersection in which there was a homeless person on each corner, I would be in no way unjust to single out one of them and invite him to share lunch with me. This would not show unfairness or injustice towards the other. My invitation and the subsequent gift of lunch stands as unmerited favor.
Now assuming that we are discussing saving grace in particular, I believe we have left one important concept out of our equation. The basis of God’s grace is the sacrifice of Jesus. The grace that is extended to those who would believe is composed of two factors. A simple equation is grace equals justice plus mercy. Our very natures tell us that a crime deserves punishment. We have committed an infinitely grave crime in forsaking the Creator and this is a crime that deserves an infinite punishment. God’s justice requires satisfaction. But thanks be to God, He, through His mercy, provided satisfaction in His Son. So He fulfills the requirements of justice and mercy so that we can receive grace. The lyric for the song we considered earlier, then, takes into consideration the undeservedness of grace, but then suggests an element of unfairness that has no part in grace.
Is Grace Unfair?
So is grace unfair? No, not at all. Grace cannot, by definition, be unfair. Were it in any way unfair, it would cease to be grace! The undeservedness of grace does not imply or necessitate unfairness or injustice. Grace is built upon the foundations of the merciful satisfaction of justice. It is undeserved, but not unfair.
Having shown, I hope, that grace is not unfair, I would like to answer the critics of Calvinists and our understanding of God’s saving grace. But I will do so in the future.