What belief is unique to the Christian faith?
Many years ago, some experts on comparative religions debated this question. After some time, the well-known novelist, scholar and broadcaster C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. On hearing that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique feature among world religions, Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace." All of them agreed. All other world religions depend, to some degree, on human endeavour to earn God’s approval and acceptance. Christianity stands alone in teaching that salvation from God’s wrath, and acceptance by Him, is solely by His grace.
Grace is the unmerited and undeserved favour of God towards those who have rebelled against Him.
The grace of God has been experienced by countless individuals. Those who thought they were so far away that there was no hope for them have come to know God’s grace, and those who thought they were near to Him realised they were not, and likewise have experienced His grace.
A Parable of God’s grace
One of the most famous stories that the Lord Jesus told is about His amazing grace. He told it in response to a complaint from the religious leaders that "This Man receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2b). They could not accept that God would welcome such people without them radically changing their ways and proving that by good works. Those Pharisees and Scribes incorrectly taught and believed that a lifetime of good works and servitude was essential for an individual to gain God’s approval.
In response to their objection, the Lord Jesus told the parable that is known as “The Prodigal son” or “The tale of two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). The events and characters in a parable are fictional but they do illustrate crucial biblical truth.
The parable has three main characters.
1) The Younger Son
He makes an outrageous and hugely dishonouring request: “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me” (Luke 15:12). It was not really a request but a demand that showed he lacked love for his father, and was in effect saying, “I value your riches and wealth more than I value you. What I will receive when you die, I want now.” Rather than humiliate the young son, the father gives him what he asks for. The young son then gathers all that he has, thinking he’s never going to return, and makes his way to a distant town.
He squanders all his father’s blessings on himself, with no thought that all he has comes from his father. However, in the parable, as in life, his circumstances change. A famine comes, he runs out of money and must find a job. When he is in a state of poverty, he realises the absolute mess he has made of his life.
He concocts his own plan of salvation from the mess. Remembering his father’s kindness to the hired servants he decides to go back home, confess his sin, and promise to work as a hired servant. His hope is that he will survive by his own efforts. Coming near to His father and being accepted by Him was out of the question.
The younger son portrays individuals who think that they are too far gone, that there is no hope for them. They believe that because of their past life and all the associated baggage God could never accept them.
As we look at the actions of the father, who represents God, we will see amazing grace. Grace is displayed that was beyond the hopes and plans of the younger son.
2) The Father
Everyone listening to Jesus would have thought that a cold welcome, a stern telling off and some place amongst the lowest of servants would be the best that the young man could hope for.
The future of the rebellious and wasteful younger son was dependent upon his father’s reaction. Imagine the shock of the original listeners when Jesus said:
“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20b)
The father was looking for the son to return. Although the son had left the father’s home, he had never left his heart. The father was compassionate. He wanted to initiate forgiveness and restoration, so He ran. Although it is different in our culture, in Jesus’ time it was most undignified and dishonourable for older men to run. But in front of the villagers, and even his servants, he ran. To the listener it was a scandal and disgrace for the father to act in such an undignified way but the actions of the father point to what God has done for us in Christ.
“who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
The younger son was repentant, and the father immediately forgave and instantly restored the younger son. This son had squandered all he had been given. He stood in filthy clothes, had nothing to give and stank of the pigsty, but a lifetime of servitude would not be necessary to earn acceptance. He was immediately forgiven and given tokens that would show that he was accepted as a son. All of this was entirely due to the father’s steadfast love and abundant grace. Yes, the son would serve and work but not to earn favour, rather as an accepted son.
The grace of the father pictures the grace of God. No matter what you have done you can come to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Repent of your sins (he knows them all) and be immediately forgiven and instantly accepted. The status of being a son will be yours, not because of a lifetime of effort but due to God’s grace. The work of Jesus Christ, bearing the punishment for sin on the cross, makes this a certainty for all who come to Him.
The apostle John was so taken up with the love and grace of God that he wrote:
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).
There is one last character we need to comment on:
3) The Older Son
He had been around the father, but he did not have the same interests and affections as the father. Although he was close physically, he was far away spiritually. The rebellion in his heart had never been shown outwardly, until now.
The older son pictures the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Those who complained that He ate and received sinners did not understand the grace of God. They certainly did not think they required it, as their good works merited acceptance before God, so they thought!
The sight of his father’s joy and his younger brother’s presence did not bring delight to the older son but resentment. His self-righteousness caused him to be self-deceived.
“I never transgressed your commandment at any time” (Luke 15:29).
Like many religious people in our day, he could easily see the sins of others but was blind to his own.
The older son represents those who can spend a lifetime around the things of God and still not be truly affected. We can think we are close when we are actually lost. Good works are the fruit of being forgiven and accepted by God. They are not the root, or cause, of it.
Eventually the religious works-centred moralists would demand that Jesus be crucified. They bitterly resented the grace of God.
This parable teaches us about God’s amazing grace. The father illustrates the grace of God seen in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The two sons both needed the father’s grace but only one accepted it. Where are you in the story? What similarities do you have with either of the two sons? Which one are you more like and at what point in the story?