In the now famous October courtroom scene, Brandt Jean turned to the former Dallas police officer convicted of killing his brother, Botham Jean, and said, “I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” Then the black man stepped off the witness stand and warmly embraced the white woman, Amber Guyger, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for murder.
The scene inspired millions. But any time the radical grace of God becomes manifest, some begin to grumble, and for understandable reasons. As Jemar Tisby noted in The Washington Post, the killing of a black person by a white person is always an iconic event. Such tragedies “aren’t just felt by one black person. The black community feels the impact.” He also said, “Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”
Tisby is rightly concerned about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” as in: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . . grace without discipleship, without the cross.” Many today would add, “grace without the pursuit of justice.”
Sentimental grace is indeed a danger, and yet so is a grace that is qualified by something we have to do to earn it. Faith without works is dead, as James noted, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the forgiveness that faith receives is, in fact, “instant absolution.” To be clear, this instant absolution took place long before the act of faith, when on the cross Christ announced, “It is finished.” That was the moment when “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). If the Cross means anything, it means absolute forgiveness with no strings attached.
To be sure, Paul also calls us to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20), which we do by repentance and faith. It is not our turning to God that makes Christ’s work on the cross powerful—we cannot add anything to that work—but our faith does make that work personal and effective in our own lives.
When we start worrying that mercy will lead to moral sloth, we need to recall that divine mercy is a robust mercy, one that shines a light on the magnitude of sin. Thus the church’s practice of having seasons of penitence, Advent and Lent, when we reflect on this reality: Our sin was so horrific that it took the death of a perfectly holy God to wipe the slate clean. We ponder our sins, both personal and social, not to beat ourselves but to recognize ever more uncomfortably just how horrible sin is and how wonderful is the mercy that covers it.
Back in October, some pundits complained after Brandt Jean’s dramatic act of forgiveness that blacks are “expected” to offer forgiveness, especially toward whites. I’m not so sure. The last thing I expect of a black person in the face of one more white-inflicted injury is forgiveness. Cheap grace would have us use this moment to put racism behind us. Overpriced justice would marginalize mercy. But robust mercy prompts us to explore the moment in greater depth. Given the history of racism in our land, I expect bitterness—and I don’t blame any black people who harbor ongoing anger. Injustice should prompt righteous anger. And yet, as I reflect on the radical mercy of a Brandt Jean, I stand amazed at grace. Robust mercy does not “put behind us” racist atrocities but only highlights their gravity—these too are sins that required nothing less than the death of God, so they must be serious sins indeed.
Such mercy burns more deeply into my soul the need to seek as much justice as one can hope for in this life, just as I pursue righteousness in my personal life. Robust mercy also fills me with a robust hope. Because of the Cross, we are assured that both holiness and justice will win in the end—precisely because mercy has already won on Calvary.
This being my last editorial for CT—I am retiring in January—I pondered what to say in this space. Those who have followed my writing know that the above is nothing new. To me, the response to every challenge—from injustice in the world to the sinfulness of the church, from cheap grace to grace that has become overpriced, to name a few—begins with grasping (as much as the Spirit helps us) the height and depth, the breadth and length of the robust mercy of God as found in Jesus Christ. May such mercy ever be the lodestar for his church.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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