18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. [Isaiah 1:18-20, NRSV]
In 1969, Peter Fransen, a Belgian theology professor and the foremost 20th century expert on the theology of grace, published The New Life of Grace. To this day, it remains unsurpassed in clarity and simplicity, wit and insight. Instead of the traditional approach of scholarly treatises, he opted for the narrative style which produces a text that reads like a personal journal of one who is experiencing grace as he writes. Readers enjoy not only a hefty reference to Scriptures, but also an easy-to-read interpretation of the Word of God.
What is at once striking, and reveals the genius of this Jesuit scholar, is that he begins the book by telling a parable. This is creative writing and teaching at its best, modeled after the very teaching style of the Lord Jesus himself.
In this parable, Fransen highlights the Christian view of human existence, where two great forces are at work:
- the force of human nature (in the “fallen” human nature, sin predominates), and
- the force of grace (where God’s unearned, unmerited, and gratuitous love is poured out to humanity).
The incredible thing is, Fransen presents all this by way of a love story. In the story, he contrasts two sharply different scenarios, pitching vulgarity characteristic of human existence where love is absent, against goodness and beauty where love reigns.
In so doing, Fransen contrasts a fallen human nature that is hard-edged, violent, and competitive – the tough side of the world, with the more powerful dominating the less powerful – with grace that is love, forgiveness, compassion, patience and gentleness, and all things lovely and beautiful.
A young girl, an orphan, grew up in coarse surroundings. She had never been loved, so she never knew love; her heart was hardened. All she had was instinctual survival in a rough men’s world. Rough and nothing to look at, she was made even less desirable as a woman for her vulgarity both in language and in behavior:
- biting in order not to be bitten,
- she toiled and moiled, dressed in cheap, graceless attire,
- rowdy, selfish, suspicious and uncouth,
- bitterness distorting her mouth,
- she had no beauty and men only wanted her body for a few lustful moments.
In the midst of oppressive darkness, there suddenly appeared a crack. A light broke through in her life, very faint at first, one which she could scarcely recognize and even less expect to happen to her. Of this light, she needed time to process and comprehend. Gingerly and hesitantly, she began to sense that it was unbelievable but quite real. So she began to learn to accept. Faith broke through that crack. Grace began to work in her life.
The protatgonist who brought her faith and grace was a young man who appeared out of the blue. He was everything she was not: hale and strong, a sunny youth who grew up in a family filled with wholesome love, a man of peace, a good man.
Beyond her wildest dream, the young man met her and “with the eyes of love, he saw right through and beyond her shabby vulgarity” to the original God-created goodness in her. His heart was filled with compassion in his innermost being (esplagnisthe) for her. He fell in love with her. Thinking at first that he was being ridiculous, she shunned him, and tried different ways to get rid of him. He, however, persisted with love and care regardless. This original love had power enough to cause even this rough girl to be awakened to “first love”, and “stirred up in her a nascent self-reliance, a foretaste of peace and quiet, of inner self-assurance.” Gradually, then, she began to see everything through the eyes of her beloved. Now with the courage to move into the unknown, she made the “leap of faith” and “leap of hope” in another.
Her injured youth lived on in her, but now she started to change, to accept the impossible in her life. From a life of “dark” existence, she began to experience light; from unspoken pain, she moved towards hope. She grew and developed generosity towards others in a wealth of gratitude.
This parable points to a few depth dimensions worthy of close attention:
- Despite extreme vulgarity due to a dire “lack” of love, there is a deep yearning inside “fallen” human nature for love, for the good and the beautiful – for “grace”.
Deep down, even fallen nature is capable [‘capax’] of yearning for grace. Fallen humanity is not just “a mass of sin”, entirely non-capax.
- Driven by that inner yearning, despite accumulated negative experiences and social inhibitions, nature is capable of responding to and accepting love and grace freely given.
With the help of grace, rough and sinful humans are capable of responding to and embracing love, the good and the beautiful.
- Furthermore, love and grace can then arise from within nature.
There is already a capacity to love in us. We are already capable of love because God loved us first (1 John 4:19). Love, goodness and beauty can flow and exude even from within. These qualities are intrinsic to humanity.
- Grace is defined by Fransen as “a very pure and powerful love [that] can change bitterness and hatred into a return of love”.
- Even as sinful humanity is death bound, salvation through grace comes gratuitously from God’s Son, if we but accept and trust in him.
- By this parable, Fransen demonstrates that “wickedness” is rooted more deeply in our (fallen) nature than we dare suspect, much less to admit. Clearly death-bound, fallen humanity was badly in need of salvation by grace, on the basis of which Fransen suggests the very rationale as to why Incarnation was necessary for grace to be freely present in human existence.
- That grace comes to us as God’s initiative.
- That grace is a free gift (gratuitous; unearned; unmerited), originating from God’s love.
- That love is undeniably a decisive factor in the “light” and “darkness” of human existence.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, July 2020. All rights reserved.
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