If we asked most Christians about the meaning of grace, they’d probably tell us a good catechism answer: Grace is the unmerited favor of God. Not a bad answer, really, but it is one that is just abstract enough to distract us from the truly transformational nature of grace. Grace by its nature is powerful, audacious, and dangerous. I believe that if it ever got free reign in our churches, it would begin a transformation so rapid and radical that it would cause a sort of revolution.
So, what is grace, exactly?
An illustration from Les Miserables may help us better understand it. Most of us may know Les Mis as a broadway musical. The musical is based, however, on Victor Hugo’s timeless tale about a peasant, Jean Valjean, who is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Released from prison he is offered sanctuary in the home of a priest for a short time. Even though Valjean had been treated with dignity for the first time in many years, he steals valuable silverware form the bishop’s residence. The next day, Valjean is brought back to the bishop’s home by the police, who tell the bishop that Valjean claimed that the silver was a gift. The police obviously expect the bishop to deny that he gave the silver to Valjean. Surprisingly, the bishop addresses Valjean, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks too, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” When he hands the candlesticks to Valjean, he privately tells him, ”Jean Valjean, you are my brother and no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you.” It’s a Christ-like moment that shows the cost of grace, both for the giver and the receiver. In turn, Valjean goes on to live a life of grace, eventually coming to support the poor and adopting a young orphan whom he must ransom out of servitude.
The grace bestowed by the bishop upon the thief transformed the thief’s heart – so much so, that rather than serving only himself, he became a generous servant to others.
God knows what we are and what we have done (individually and collectively) and yet, he loves us still. That love is showered on us even though we do not deserve it and have not earned it. Yet grace does cost something. Just as it cost the bishop his silver, it cost the Son of God everything he had to give – his very life. It differs from simple mercy in this: grace costs while mercy does not. Mercy says, “I forgive you, I won’t press charges” (and the solver is returned). Grace, on the other hand, goes the extra distance and says, “Not only won’t I press charges, I’ll pay for your rehab program.” (And the silver gives a thief a new start in life.)
That’s how grace can transform us – once we receive God's forgiveness, we allow our hearts to be changed, transformed - we repent. The only cost to us is for us to abandon our selfishness and begin to live a life patterned on the generous self-giving love of Jesus. This indicates the cost of discipleship.