The Alchemy of Grace

“At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.” This is the gospel–the good news–of justification in Christ. We have spent many hours thinking hard together about the subtleties of what justification in Christ entails. It is time to ask: Have we begun to understand this gospel? Do we believe it?

“While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.” If we are not amazed by these words then we are fooling ourselves if we think we understand them. The gospel of justification in Christ rests on the alchemy of grace–the power of grace to transform enemies into friends, to take the ungodly and put them on the road to godliness. If we have begun to take grace for granted, if we have stopped being dumbfounded by it, we have stopped understanding the gospel and stopped believing it.

Ananias was flabbergasted by grace. The writer of Acts does not seem to think that we need to know much about Ananias except that he was a disciple. Ananias was a follower of Jesus; he knew that Christ had died for him and Ananias sought to live his life in the light of that truth. Maybe that seemed to be going fairly smoothly, but then Ananias had a vision.

Here we need to pause and think about what this would have been like. We are used to reading about people having visions in the Bible. “The Lord said to him in a vision” can seem mundane in a biblical context. But what if you were praying and you heard what seemed like the voice of God saying, “Get up and go to Alexandria, Virginia, to the detention center and ask to speak to Zacarias Moussaoui. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen a vision of you laying hands on him so that he might regain his sight”? Would you believe that you had heard the voice of God, or would you think that you were having some vivid hallucination? Which would be harder for you to believe: that God was speaking to you or that God was planning to heal, reconcile, and use Zacarias Moussaoui? Have you heard the reports of Moussaoui’s rantings and threats against Americans? Moussaoui has pled guilty to being a terrorist, or at least tried to, and has certainly proved himself to be at least verbally belligerent. Maybe God would tell you to go lay hands on Martha Stewart or Kenneth Lay or even John Walker Lindh, but Zacarias Moussaoui?

Are you surprised, then, that Ananias seems much more startled by the content of his vision than about hearing the voice of God? Perhaps God spoke audibly to Ananias pretty often. Perhaps God usually said things that seemed to make more sense. Ananias wonders whether God is less than fully informed about this Saul of Tarsus. “Did you know, Lord, that this man is an evildoer? He hasn’t done just harm, he has done evil. Do you know how many good people Saul has killed? Do you know that he has come to Damascus to kill people just like me?”

Ananias wants clarification. That is understandable. But then God says something that makes even less sense than instructing Ananias to go heal this Saul, this enemy of God. God says, “Saul is an instrument that I have chosen.”

God knows who Saul is and God has chosen him anyway. God has chosen to turn an evildoer into an instrument of grace and reconciliation, and God has chosen Ananias to be an instrument in this alchemy of grace. All Ananias has to do is believe in this gospel of grace and believe that God can choose and change whomsoever God wills.

Of course, believing this gospel is not some theoretic exercise for Ananias. God does not ask Ananias to speak about the gospel at a conference or even to preach about it. God asks him to act as if he believes this gospel, but to do that he has to take his life in his hands. The text tells us only, “So Ananias went and entered the house.” That sounds simple enough, but how much faith did it take simply to go to the house where Saul was? How much courage? After all, Ananias had every reason to be terrified of Saul and to be furious with him.

Did the sensible side of Ananias lead him to debate with himself as he walked to the street called Straight? Did he ask himself on the way, “Was that really the voice of God? How powerful is this grace anyway? Will I live to tell about this or am I on my way to my death?” As he walked, did Ananias think about the disciples that he may have known whom Saul was responsible for killing?

Whatever doubts Ananias may have had, he chose to act on his belief that God is a Lord who can choose and change even evildoers and bad guys. Ananias believed in grace. And so he went to restore the sight of this evildoer and enemy. Years later, when Saul, who has now become Paul, is writing to the Christians at Rome about the gospel of grace through faith in Christ, do you think that Paul might have had this quiet scene in Damascus in mind?

“While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of God’s son.” Where did Paul first learn this gospel? Not on the road to Damascus. On the road to Damascus, Paul learned that he was an enemy of God. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Up to that point, Paul thought he was a friend of God, a righteous person who was on God’s side. What horror must he have felt when he heard that the Lord was Jesus–that he had been persecuting God–that he’d been dead wrong about who the enemies of God were! The enemies of God deserve death–Paul had lived his life on that firm truth. On the road to Damascus Paul learns that he is an enemy of God. Perhaps Paul took his blindness as a mercy because he could not bear to look at himself after this revelation.

If it was on the road to Damascus that Paul learned that he was an enemy of God, it was in the room on the street called Straight that he began to understand that while we were enemies Christ, died for the ungodly. Paul began to understand this amazing truth because he met someone who believed that. The first word that Paul hears from Ananias is “Brother.” This word of grace, the good news that enemies can become brothers, comes to Saul not in a blinding vision but in the gentle voice of a stranger.

The Justification in Christ conference has asked the question: “Where does the church stand now on this gospel of justification in Christ?” Does the church understand this gospel? Do we have the faith and courage to believe it?

Paul believed this gospel because it was the story of his life. Paul had lived a large part of his life blind to the fact that he had no idea who the good guys and the bad guys were in the world. He lived the early part of his life with very clear ideas about what evildoers deserve. Evildoers deserve death. Paul never stopped believing that, but on the street called Straight he learned the rest of the story. On the road to Damascus Paul is only told that he’s been persecuting all the wrong people and that he will be told what he is to do about that. The logic that had informed Paul’s life up to that point had a clear answer to what Paul should now do–enemies of God deserve death; Paul is an enemy of God; therefore, Paul should die. Is it any wonder that he gave up eating and drinking? Did Paul spend those hours before Ananias arrived expecting his own imminent death? But God’s world turned out to be infinitely stranger than Paul had thought. On the street called Straight Paul had his eyes opened to the utter strangeness of a world in which, instead of killing enemies, God dies for them.

Does the church today believe that reality is this strange? Then the church must become a community of reconciliation. And in Acts we see how very difficult that is. The church can become a community of reconciliation only if the church stops being sensible and stops second-guessing whom God can use and whom God will call.

The disciples in Jerusalem had much more sense than Ananias did. When Paul showed up in Jerusalem and attempted to join his brothers and sisters in the Lord they were a long way from being willing to call him “brother.” They did not believe that Paul was one of them. Why would the
y? Even if they had heard that Saul had been preaching the gospel in Damascus, wasn’t it more likely that this was a clever ruse than that God could or would save an evildoer like Paul?

Fortunately for Paul and for the future of the church in the world, there was one person in Jerusalem who believed that the alchemy of grace had worked in Paul’s life. Barnabas believed the gospel and evidently he believed Paul’s story about the Lord speaking to him on the road to Damascus. The text gives us no clue that might explain Barnabas’s ability to believe what the rest of the disciples in Jerusalem could only doubt. Ananias at least had his vision and the voice of God to go on. Why did Barnabas believe that God could seek and save even Paul, this persecutor of Jesus, this enemy of God?

Here we can only speculate, but let me offer this guess. Notice how important the pronouns are in Paul’s letter to the Romans. While we were weak, while we were enemies of God, Christ died for us the ungodly. Is it possible that Barnabas believed that Paul could become a friend of God because Barnabas remembered that he himself had been an enemy of God? Is it possible that the rest of the Jerusalem disciples had temporarily forgotten that they were once alienated from God?

Perhaps the greatest challenge that the church faces in sustaining its life as a community of reconciliation is that it is so much more comfortable to see ourselves as dispensers of grace than debtors to grace. As H. Richard Niebuhr once astutely observed:

As Christians we want to be the forgivers of sins–new incarnations of Christ, saviors rather than saved; secure in our own possession of the true religion rather than dependent on a Lord who possesses us, chooses us, forgives us. If we do not try to have God under our control, then at least we try to give ourselves the assurance that we are on [God’s] side facing the rest of the world; not with that world facing [God] in infinite dependence, with no security save in [God] [Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 155].

There can be, Niebuhr observes, an ungodliness in “the piety of those who consciously carry God around with them wherever they go” (154). Maybe the disciples in Jerusalem were having a bout of this sort of ungodliness and it was giving them spiritual amnesia about how they themselves came to be reconciled to God. Maybe Barnabas was less prone to carry God around with him wherever he went and more prone to ask where God would be carrying him next.

So here we are, a small part of Christ’s church. Where does the church stand on the gospel of justification in Christ? We cannot answer that question without asking where we stand on this gospel. Where do you see yourself in this story? Do you see yourself in Saul–that zealous but wrongheaded enemy of God lambasted by grace? Do you see yourself in Ananias and Barnabas–those perhaps trembling but breathtakingly courageous believers in the alchemy of grace? Or do you see yourself among those disciples of Jesus who have a hard time remembering that they cannot second-guess grace or carry God in their pocket?

My twenty year old son is an adult sponsor for a church youth group. Some of the older adults who act as sponsors probably look at him as just a kid himself, but he is beginning to learn the challenges of trying to contribute to a community of reconciliation. He recently returned from a mission trip that this youth group took to help another church in Brooklyn, New York. Their group spent a week running a Vacation Bible School for seventy children from the mainly Jamaican neighborhood. My son, who loves basketball, was excited to find that there were hoops in the gym in the church’s basement. During the course of the week he met some young men in the neighborhood and invited them to come by some evening to play basketball with some of the other people from the mission trip. When my son and his friends needed to go upstairs for worship, they left their guests to continue playing ball in the basement. Some time later, the woman in charge of the church facility came to get the pastor who had come with the youth group. She asked him to go downstairs and ask the young men from the neighborhood to leave immediately. Unbeknownst to my son, he had violated a rule against having non-church members in the church without seeking official permission. No telling what trouble these unauthorized strangers might cause. A kind of angry incredulity crept into my son’s voice as he went on to say, “While those guys were being asked to leave the church we were sitting there singing “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love.’ Can you believe that?”

Where does the church stand on the gospel today? Probably where it has always stood, wavering between belief and half-belief and semi-despairing pleas to help our unbelief.

Wherever we see ourselves in these stories, our Christian calling is, as it has always been, crystal clear–and utterly beyond us. In Christ we are called to believe that the God who died for us and is transforming us from enemies into friends has mercies that are wider than we can fathom. We are called to believe that God can seek and save evildoers and bad guys. We are called to believe that the stranger that we fear is no less redeemable than we are. We are called to repent and to believe the gospel. May God grant us the grace to do so.

Caroline J. Simon is Professor of Philosophy at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan and a member of the Reformed Church in America. Her most recent book is Mentoring for Mission: Nurturing New Faculty at Church-Related Colleges (Eerdmans, 2003).