Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

Exod 2:24; Judg 2:16; Luke 17:12-19

This time of year means preparation for facing first year students. Most have never engaged in rigorous academic study of the Bible. They come to seminary as I came to my undergraduate religion major, innocently expecting that the Bible says what they have always thought it said and that serious study of it will only confirm what they     already believe. My calling asks me to nudge and cajole, nurture and confront my students to read the text. It is impossible completely to set aside one’s assumptions and convictions in order to open oneself to new insights, I know, because after decades of studying scripture academically and devotionally as my life’s work, the Bible still surprises and shocks me regularly.

For example, while working on my commentary on Judges, I realized that for over twenty years I had wrongly been teaching what I had been taught about the theme of the book instead of what the book itself says.  Scholars identify in Judg 2:6ff. what they term the “Deuteronomistic Paradigm” of Israel’s history. It offers the overarching scheme of the authors/editors of the six volumes that comprise the Former Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible, a section also known to scholarship as the Deuteronomistic History.  According to the scheme, Israel’s history since at least Joshua’s death (but arguably reaching as far back as the Golden Calf episode) manifested a repetitive cycle in four phases: (1) Israel sinned by worshiping strange gods; (2) God “handed them over” to their enemies; (3) Israel “cried out” (Hebr. z`q) in their distress; (4) God raised up a deliverer.  After a period, the cycle then repeated.

For decades, I taught that this paradigm involved Israel’s repentance as part of phase three. The literature on Judges, the Deuteronomistic Paradigm, and the Deuteronomistic History assumes that Israel must have repented.  I assumed it, too.  Otherwise, God would not have sent a deliverer.  Unfortunately, that is not at all what the text says.  Instead, the text seems intentionally to allude to God’s response to Israel’s distressed cry (Hebr. z`q) in Egyptian bondage (Exod 2:24) that prompted God to remember God’s covenant/promise to Israel’s ancestors.  In fact, the verb used in both contexts connotes a cry for assistance, not a cry of despair or of repentance.  According to the text, God sent deliverers (Moses, then the judges) in every case, not because Israel had improved its attitude and changed its behavior, but because God was moved by their plight and God’s original promise to their ancestors. As when God called Abraham, God acted purely out of grace. There was no transaction:  “Repent first, earn it, and then I will deliver you.”

Jesus offered grace in the same way.  From afar, ten lepers, one a Samaritan, called upon Jesus to show them mercy.  He told them to present themselves to the priests and, as they departed to do so, they were healed.  Only one, a Samaritan, paused to thank Jesus.  Not one word passed between Jesus and these ten about repentance or even about becoming disciples.  Grace transforms people; it does not require people first to conform to some expectation.

I am not a Calvinist (see “Making Theological Trouble for Ourselves”), but I do find truth in the Calvinist doctrine of “prevenient grace,” the notion that God’s grace “comes before” everything else in our relationship to God.  We can love God only because God first loved us – when we were most unlovable (Rom 5:8).

Why, then, do we find it so difficult to emulate God in extending grace? I once served a church that would not allow youth to go along on youth outings unless they had accumulated a minimum of “points” awarded for attending church, Sunday school, and youth group meetings. People use the very popular slogan about loving sinners but hating sins to conceal the fact that they are unwilling fully to extend grace to categories of people until these people conform to some standard. The lepers did not first become well in order to receive Jesus’ grace.  Jesus’ grace made them well.

Conveniently, of course, the “sins” people hate are always someone else’s.  The slogan also conceals the fact that no one can cast the first stone. All of us receive God’s grace “while we [are] yet sinners” (Rom 5:8).

Can it be that those outside the church look at all of us who profess the Gospel as hypocrites because of our tendencies to use grace transactionally?  to offer it on a quid pro quo basis? to withhold it until the other party deserves it in our eyes?  Such attitudes deny the very essence of grace – the fact that it is always undeserved.