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Prodigals VII: Grace for Prodigals

Maybe this has happened to you: a prodigal demands “grace” in response to their sin. You know that God is gracious, and so you should be too, but something about the “grace” they’re looking for seems off. How can you get past the hurt and wrong of what they’ve done to you? Is “grace” a magic wand that makes sin disappear? In order to try to figure out how to show grace to prodigals, let’s look at a clear example of grace in action from Joel 2.

The prophet Joel calls God’s people to repentance in the face of imminent judgment. They are a nation of prodigals, and so God is coming against them with His armies, but He offers them a way to avoid destruction. “Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart.” And the reason why they should come back to God is that “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and he relents over disaster.” Grace is not a sentimental response on God’s part to how miserable our sin has made us. Grace is an expression of who God is in Himself. So when you turn away from sin back to God, God turns away from bringing disaster against you, and blesses you instead. That’s grace! You deserve disaster, you get blessing.

That’s what the prodigal wants, right? They deserve disaster, but they want your blessing instead. Is that all there is to grace? We need to look deeper: the prodigal sees and wants the effect of grace, but until they repent and return, they haven’t understood the nature of grace. Until they return with fasting, weeping, and mourning as evidences of a truly changed heart, they aren’t asking for real grace.

Real grace can be distinguished from false grace by three words: favor, repentance, and atonement. The false version of grace makes grace depend on a feeling, treats grace as a right, and demands an act of willpower that pretends that sin never happened. Real grace, on the other hand, is favor shown to those who don’t deserve it in response to repentance on the basis of an atonement.

Without an atonement, sin is not paid for, it is ignored. But the damage of sin doesn’t just disappear. Either you absorb the suffering that their sin caused, they absorb it, or someone else does. Showing grace, then, is not just an act of willpower alone, rather, grace is the application of atonement. Sin must be paid for, but in God’s mercy, someone else can make that payment for us.

But we also need to see that simple payment isn’t grace. Without favor, whatever payment is made is just a business transaction. But favor is a heart disposition, a settled conviction rooted in a commitment to a relationship. For grace to be real grace, I need to have favor for you – I must be seeking your good, not just my own. Loving a prodigal is often expensive, embarrassing and inconvenient, and it might seem easier in the short term just to problem-solve by writing a check or ignoring sin. That’s actually a subtle form of self-love, but it sure feels good to call it grace! But grace means that you are truly seeking their good. If you have favor toward a prodigal, then you don’t want to see them get what they deserve, and you don’t want the prodigal problem just to go away. You want them to rend their heart and return to God.

Grace means that you are favorably disposed toward your prodigal, but until they repent, they aren’t yet restored to favor. Prodigals need to know that favor will be freely and fully granted to them as soon as they repent. So by all means offer grace to them, prepare grace for them, and cultivate a gracious heart towards them, but they cannot be fully in your favor while sin is still in their favor. As Joel indicates, grace is given when a prodigal returns to God.

Grace for prodigals is a standing offer of a full return to favor as soon as they repent, no matter what they’ve done, made possible by the blood of Jesus. When we extend grace to prodigals, we are not ignoring their sin by sheer willpower. We are applying the blood of Jesus to the sins they have committed against us. And every time you show grace to others through Christ, you are reminded of the grace that was shown to you first, when you were an undeserving prodigal far from God. Once you are overwhelmed all over again by God’s grace towards you, then He tells you, “Go and do likewise.”

Posted on Wednesday, October 25, 2017 by CJ Bowen