The grace of God sets biblical Christianity apart from all religious systems. It is at the very core of what it means to be a Christian. The grace of God is what makes biblical Christianity different from every other worldview, every other philosophy, and every other way of life. It is what makes biblical Christians, period.
I have long loved the definition of God’s grace that J.I. Packer gives in his classic book, Knowing God. There he writes, “The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity” (Packer, Knowing God, p. 120).
There is a passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus puts this grace on display in a striking way. The passage is Mark 2:13-17, which reads:
Mark 2:13-17 13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
I love this account and believe it teaches us two vital and foundational truths about the way God’s grace works in the life of a sinner.
First, we see that God’s grace gives sinners full acceptance with God.
The first part of this account (vv. 13-15) shows Jesus going out again (as he often did) to the Sea of Galilee, away from the religious establishment of Israel to continue building his team of twelve disciples, when he passes by a man named Levi sitting at a tax booth. Levi was a tax collector. A Jewish man, employed to collect taxes in service to Herod Antipas. And given his station by the sea, he was probably a tax collector of fishermen.
Jewish traditions lumped tax collectors in with thieves and murderers. And their reputation was in many cases well-earned. Tax collectors were not typically very good men. They often used underhanded and aggressive means to get their jobs done. And it was not rare for them to skim cash off the top of their collections to pad their own lives.
Levi would not have had many fans among the Jews. He was a collaborator of Rome, a supporter of Roman oppression. But Jesus commands Levi to follow, to become a disciple. Jesus invites Levi to come spend time with him, to learn from him, to imitate him, to work with him, and eventually to serve as one of his authorized representatives to the world.
That, dear reader, is grace.
Jesus goes directly against Jewish custom here, as he so often does. Those whom the Jewish authorities were content to treat as outsiders, Jesus seeks out and brings close.
After this, Levi, as an expression of joy and gratitude in response to the grace Jesus offered to him, throws a party at his house and invites Jesus, his other disciples, a bunch of tax collector friends, and a collection of “sinners” (probably Jews who showed no interest in God’s law or Jewish tradition) over to enjoy a day of relaxation and relationship reclining at his table. And Jesus accepts the invitation!
Fellowship like this around a table was an expression of intimate relationship. Mark says that Jesus and his disciples were reclining in Levi’s house with a house full of his reprobate buddies. And instead of standing off in a corner with his arms folded, Jesus kicks up his feet and relaxes with these people like they’re his friends too.
Which is exactly what the grace of God does for humbled sinners. It gives genuine, full, complete acceptance with God. The grace of God brings repentant sinners to the table of fellowship, relationship, and celebration with the living God. In Jesus God extends to us his free and lavish love completely apart from our merit, and in fact (as Packer says) completely contrary to our merit. In Jesus we are fully accepted by God.
Second, we see that God’s grace gives sinners full acceptance before Jesus cleans them up.
In verse 16, Mark shares how the scribes of the Pharisees react to Jesus’ willingness to party with these reprobates. “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”, they ask. Translation: “How could he possibly think this is okay?” The theologians of the Jews had a problem with Jesus’ claim to offer forgiveness of sins to the paralytic man earlier in chapter 2, and now they have a problem with Jesus’ association with these sinners. They kept their concerns to themselves then, but can’t keep those concerns to themselves any longer.
But what is their real concern? Is it that they are afraid that these sinners might be transformed and changed by Jesus as he teaches them and shows them how to live? Surely not. You would think they’d be happy about that possibility.
No, what they are upset about is the fact that Jesus is associating with these sinners, before they’ve proven themselves to be changed – before any noticeable moral transformation has taken place in their lives.
They’re upset because Jesus is making it seem as though acceptance with God is possible before a person has been externally transformed. That you can be accepted by God before you are changed by God on the outside. Jesus is enjoying fellowship with people who have only been changed in one sense; they (at least some of them) have begun to follow him.
This is one of the radically unique things about the grace of God. It makes a way for sinners to be accepted, before sinners are transformed and reformed. It brings right standing with God, before right actions begin to sprout in the life of the believer. Justification precedes sanctification. Forgiveness precedes sanctification. Adoption into God’s family precedes sanctification. This is how it works in the economy of God’s grace. Good works proceed from justifying grace. Moral transformation is the result of God’s saving grace; it is not the cause of it. Otherwise, grace would not be grace.
Jesus makes that clear in his answer to the scribes. Mark writes, “And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
Jesus makes two big statements here. The first is a general principle. The second is a specific explanation of a core priority of his mission. The general principle is: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”
Here he uses a familiar analogy of a doctor and his patients. Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do. Similarly, “righteous” people don’t need a Savior; sinful people do. By this, Jesus is not saying that some people are righteous in and of themselves and as a result are not in need of a Savior. Rather, in the words of one commentator, Jesus is saying that “In one sense great sinners stand closer to God than those who think themselves righteous, for [they] are more aware of their need of the transforming grace of God” (James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 86).
Self-righteousness and religious pride are so dangerous. A lot of Christians are worried about all kinds of things making their way into the church – things that exist “out there.” They get scared when they think of the potential for all the sins of the world coming into the church. However, what scares me, and I believe what Jesus is far more concerned about, is the potential for self-righteousness and religious pride to make their way into the church and choke out all amazement at the glorious grace of God in Christ.
But then Jesus gets more specific and responds with a statement that gets to the core of his mission. He says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus is saying that his intent is to create a community of people who know their need for grace. He is not interested in building a community of people who think themselves to be righteous in-and-of themselves. He has come to call people who know that their only hope is the grace of God. He wants those kinds of people in his family. And once they are in his family, Jesus gets to work cleaning them up, but not a minute sooner. And that sequence of events is crucial to understanding how the grace of God works in the life of a sinner.
At times it seems as though these things are too good to be true. How could God accept me fully when I am still so sinful in my day to day life? That is truly the wonder of God’s grace. It is a bit outrageous. But as long as you feel this way, you are in a good place, since Jesus did not come to call the righteous (those who think themselves righteous, that is), but sinners. Are you a sinner? And have you heeded the call to follow Christ? Then the grace of Christ is all yours, outrageous as it may be. Enjoy it. Celebrate it in the church. And share it with other sinners like you, for they really need to hear about it too.