Misconception: Grace Is a Get Out of Jail Free Card
*What you are about to read is Chapter 3 from my book, Grace Is A Dirty Word. I put this together as an ebook about 3 years ago. It was the first free download I ever offered on my blog. Recently I updated it and am making it available for free when you subscribe to my blog. This is the last week you can get it for free. After this, you can get it amazon in paperback or kindle.
Going to Prison
I don’t have much experience with being arrested or going to prison. At least not that I would like to share at this time. I am just kidding. I’ve never been put in cuffs or had to ride in the back of a paddy wagon. I have unfortunately been pulled over for speeding.
Seeing the blue lights in your rearview mirror is one of the worst feelings ever. When this happens, you can try to argue, but you know you are guilty and without an excuse. Most likely, you will get fined with a ticket. On top of that, your insurance will go up because you are now a certified menace to society.
Every now and then, you get #blessed, and the officer lets you go with a warning. Although you broke the law, you’re let off the hook. That’s not only a good feeling but usually makes for a great story as well. It’s not possible to escape getting a ticket and not tell someone in the same way it is impossible to vacation at the beach without posting in on Instagram. There are certain laws to the universe that keep things together, and these are two of them.
My absolute favorite example of being caught red-handed and still being allowed to go free is from Les Misérables.
A Criminal and a Priest
Jean Valjean was a homeless criminal when he shows up at Bishop Myriel’s door. Consistent with his nickname, Monseigneur Bienvenu (which means welcome in French) accepted Valjean, feeds him, and gives him a bed for the night. This behavior towards an outcast sounds like grace to me.
How does Jean Valjean repay the good Bishop after receiving this undeserved favor? He steals most of his silver and vanishes into the night.
When no one else would take him in, the Bishop did, and Valjean returns the favor by taking his most valuable earthly possessions. Man, that’s cold enough to make even Elsa shutter.
Later, as he is trying to leave town, the police discover the silver in Jean Valjean’s bag. He claims they were given to him by the Bishop, but the police know better. He is then captured and returned to the church for the truth to be discovered. At this moment, we see how far grace will go to love the unlovable.
An Act of Grace
When the police tell the Bishop that they found his silver in Jean Valjean’s possession, they were probably expecting him to thank them. That is not what happened. Instead, the Bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Jean Valjean. He even goes so far as to chastise Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks, the most expensive of all the silver, as well. The unexpected beauty of this scene is overwhelming.
The Les Miserable musical quotes the Bishop this way,
“But my friend you left so early, Surely something slipped your mind, You forgot I gave these also; Would you leave the best behind?”Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables
With the police now gone, and Jean Valjean given yet another chance at freedom, Monseigneur Bienvenu leaves him with these words,
“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables
Jean Valjean was not given a mere chance to escape. He was granted an opportunity to become a new man. The real gift of grace is not that it gets us out of jail for free, but gets us out of our old identity for free – when we least deserve it.
This act of grace from the Bishop transformed Jean Valjean from a slave of sin into a slave of righteousness. The darkness in him was transformed into a light for others by the goodness of the priest.
This is what should happen when we accept the price Jesus paid for us on the cross.
Grace is Not a Free Pass
Jean Valjean might have received the silver for free, but it cost Bishop Myriel significantly. You see, grace is not a free pass. It’s much more than that. The beauty of grace is that it exchanges the priceless for the worthless so that which was once without value can become priceless itself.
Jean Valjean had received grace when he was given a place to stay when no one else would accept him. That alone would be a great picture of how God welcomes us when we are unacceptable. But how do you explain the Bishop forgiving the theft after such a tremendous betrayal? And then giving him even more silver – his best pieces?
The Motive of Grace
The gift of the candlesticks shows us the motive of grace. God does not want us just to go free; He wants us to be free to be who He created us to be. Grace doesn’t stop giving until it brings out the giver in us. It is a light that pierces the darkness in us until we begin to shine as well.
The goal of grace isn’t to help you escape condemnation, but rather to transform you into a person that no longer desires the things that will lead to condemnation. Grace does not just set you free; it makes you new.
By every observation, Jean Valjean had earned his punishment. And while I’d like to see myself in the priest, I’m afraid it’s Valjean I identify with most. His number as a prisoner in the story is 24601. I think about that number often as a reminder of the fate that awaited me without grace. I was 24601, but now I am a son.
Like Valjean, we have all sinned, and therefore earned the wages of our evil deeds.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” -Romans 6:23
When we sin, we earn death. It is like going to work and getting a paycheck. The only difference is this is not a paycheck you want to cash. Death is the “reward” for our efforts of sin.
Grace is different.
The difference between grace and guilt is that one is earned and the other is a gift.
A Scandalous Exchange
No matter how hard we work, we will never be able to earn grace. Like the Bishop in Les Misérables, God gives it to us freely. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t cost him something. In fact, providing us with grace cost God everything.
When God sent Jesus to die in our place, he bankrupt heaven to pay our fine. He didn’t just give precious silver to redeem our souls. He gave His only Son. If Jesus was just a good man or a wise teacher, this would have been a tragedy, but He was much more than that. He was perfect in every way. Every intention, motive, thought, attitude, and action on his part was pure, yet in response, we gave him the most horrific death that humans have ever conceived.
God came to give us life, but we gave him death. Jesus healed the hurting, gave hope to those in despair, fed the hungry, and accepted the rejected. Our response was much like Jean Valjean’s. We, in turn for his acts of kindness, betrayed him with the cross.
God left the beauty of heaven to make a way for us to join him there, and we respond by giving His Son the cruelest death imaginable. This may have always been God’s plan of redemption, but what does that say about us? More importantly, what does it say about Him that He loves us anyway?
I think it means He gives us grace, not as a get out of jail free card, but as an exchange. He wants to take slaves of wickedness and turn them into sons and daughters of righteousness.