“Legalism is tidy. Grace is messy.” I have been challenged the last two days at the ACSI conference in Tacoma. Dr. William Brown, President of Cedarville College, warmly confronted me. He challenged me to care for the lost more like Jesus cared for the lost. At the masses of souls in Jerusalem, Jesus looked at the “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:35-38) lost with compassion; he ‘suffered with’ them, but more he looked on them and felt ‘from the gut’ for their peril, their lostness.
“Christianity has grace at the beginning, grace at the end, and grace in between,” said Brown. And, yes, “Grace is messy.” And we don’t like messy in homeschool, in Christian schools, in the church. We are so much more concerned with outward conformity, behavioral outcomes, external performance, test scores, achievement that shows the world how clever we are, how much better our kids are than the world’s kids. He talked to us about how we view homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, others who oppose Christianity and the gospel—and how to prepare the next generation to love the lost like Jesus does.
I had an experience the other day, in the car on the way home from—of all places—church. As I slowed to turn left, there was a woman walking slowly, pulling a suitcase; she was stooped and had the most anguished despair on her face. What did I do? I slowed down, pointed her out to my family, and—I am so ashamed to admit it—kept driving. I glanced in my rearview mirror. The woman, who looked Native American, had stopped on the sidewalk and had bent over resting her forehead on the handle of her suitcase. I asked my 8-year-old to pray for her; he did—but, bad as I felt for her, I kept driving.
Why did I do this? “Grace is messy.” I knew that if I stopped, this woman’s problems were so great that things would get messy. What could I do for her? Could we take her into our home? “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ parable describes the messiness of grace, and the cost of grace, cost in time, cost in money, cost in emotional energy, cost to my family—helping her would disrupt my family’s Sunday afternoon dinner, rest, reading together, listening to Alistair Begg together. If we stopped to help this “harassed and helpless” lost woman, whose life must have unraveled, perhaps long ago, this woman who was dumped out on the street, rejected by her family, abused by her husband; she may be a drug addict, prostitute who had gotten too old, worn out, beauty long destroyed by indiscriminate handling. It would be messy to help her, and I was afraid we would not be able to sustain helping her.
Maybe, deep down, I distrusted the grace of God. How could I expect to reach out to her and bring her to church, get her to conform outwardly to legalistic expectations, expect her to listen to a erudite lecture that puffs up the preacher, but conveys nothing of the grace of God and the sweet gospel of free grace to a woman “harassed and helpless,” who does not need a pedantic lecture. She needs the gospel. She needs grace. And grace is messy.