Jesus opposed the proud and strong. He called spiritual leaders into question. He opposed preachers who used their platform to abuse the weak and shame the outcast. And Jesus did all of this through preaching a message of grace and mercy. How did that work?
In his book The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Crossway, 2016), Sinclair Ferguson shows that when Jesus preached grace he exposed proud hearts, spiritual abuse, and shady religion because he preached grace to the very people who didn’t deserve it. He writes,
In several of his parables Jesus seems to expose the legalistic spirit by describing massive outpourings of God’s grace in deeply countercultural ways. In his teaching, grace is unexpected, and so its appearance takes us by surprise and evokes very basic reactions, exposing the heart. (Ferguson, 126 )
Through parables—short stories and dark sayings meant to illustrate the gospel—Jesus exposed both legalism and the religious leaders who used their position of power to oppress the weak.
As Jesus embraced sinners and offered the Kingdom of God to them, the religious leaders reacted in disgust. And “the truth is their reaction was a revelation,” Ferguson writes, “It had never appeared before simply because they had never encountered such grace before” (Ferguson, 127).
Grace uncovers the traits we hope no one can see. Jealousy, pride, and envy—grace reveals these sinful attitudes that work their way out in hypocrisy. This can cause all sorts of controversy in the church, but it is also necessary for the gospel to work.
No one will come to Christ unless they know that they are a sinner, and sin is often exposed when grace is explained and offered.
This is true about the church today. We still tend to fall into the trap that “grace should always operate on the principle of merit, as a reward for, or at least recognition of, our prior faithful service” (Ferguson, 127). This happens to everyone.
God’s method is to humble us so that we can trust Jesus to give us salvation. Jesus died for us and sent the Holy Spirit to us to humble us, so that we can see our problem, confess our sin, and trust in Jesus to save us. As we trust in Jesus, we are learning to give up trying to fix ourselves and make ourselves presentable before God. We are always learning to trust that God accepts us sinners because Jesus was righteous.
People forget that grace is undeserved mercy. It is mercy given to people who deserve the exact opposite: wrath. If grace has revealed attitudes in your heart that aren’t pretty, join the club. That’s what the good news of the gospel does. The gospel opposes our natural sensibilities, expectations, and desires.
As we continue to embrace the gospel that offers forgiveness of sins to everyone—you, me, and the people that we fear might abuse it—we are continually reminded that the gospel is about Jesus, and it is for us.