In her first novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” Maybe you’ve thought this way before. It’s among the most theologically naïve notions of human history. Here’s the idea: as long as one manages to avoid conspicuous forms of sin, upholding a modicum of goodness and perhaps even enriching others, one doesn’t need to bother oneself with Jesus the Savior. Such people regard themselves as deserving of God’s approval and the blessings that come with it.
But, of course, such people are pure fiction. Humanity is sinful by nature, a “mass of perdition,” as Augustine put it. Even the most kind and benevolent soul is incapable of living in continual conformity to the truth, beauty, and justice of God. Paul argues in Romans 1:18–3:20 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We must therefore work hard to resist the urge to find something within ourselves that deserves God’s favor. As the old hymn, Rock of Ages, declares:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the Cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress,
Helpless, look to thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
How else can we explain God’s acceptance of cowards such as Abraham and adulterers and murderers such as David? And of course, how do we explain our own faith? Such acceptance is without “any claim of our own, not even our faith,” says Mostert.
We see a beautiful example of such grace in Les Misérables, when Monseigneur Myriel embraces Jean Valjean. Myriel, you’ll recall, is the bishop who invites Valjean (the recently paroled convict) into his home for food, warmth, and a bed. Despite the “highly dangerous” designation on Valjean’s papers, Myriel offers unconditional hospitality, declaring, “This is not my house; it is Christ’s . . . [therefore] you’re welcome.” But that night Valjean steals the bishop’s valuable silverware. The next morning the police return the stolen goods and set Valjean before the bishop. In what is an obvious case of theft, the merciful Bishop Myriel transforms the situation into a moment of redemption:
“Ah! There you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I’m glad to see you. Now, look here, I gave you those candlesticks as well, they’re silver like the rest and you’ll certainly be able to get two hundred francs for them. Why didn’t you take them with your forks and spoons? Jean Valjean’s eyes widened, and he stared at the venerable bishop with an expression no human tongue can describe. The bishop [then] went up to him and said quietly, “Don’t forget, never forget, you promised to use this money to become an honest man.”
How does one explain this grace, pure and undeserved? The police were incredulous. Valjean was dumbfounded. Even readers who have heard the story multiple times continue to shake their heads in wonder.
This, dear friend, is our basic need.
* Portions of this post are from my book, The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes (Crossway).