My understanding of unconditional love and its implications deepened when I was ten years old and I flooded our next door neighbor’s home. Our neighbors had moved and they were trying to sell their house. One day I broke in through the back door and closed all the drains in all the sinks and tubs and turned on all the faucets. Then, I just sat there and watched water flood the entire house. I let the water run while I went home for dinner and finally returned a few hours later to turn it off.
I knew what I had done was wrong and I was even shocked that I just wanted to do something so destructive. Our neighbors saw the damage the next day while showing the home to prospective buyers, they came to our house, and asked us if we had seen anyone around their place recently. On top of what I had already done, I lied to our neighbors and my parents.
Surely something so deliberate and cruel was just too much to forgive.
I felt completely messed up. I was destroying stuff for the sake of destroying, and then I lied blatantly to everyone. I had heard about asking God’s forgiveness (my dad had taught me the Lord’s Prayer), so I begged God to forgive me but was worried that He wouldn’t. Surely something so deliberate and cruel was just too much to forgive.
After a month of an uneasy conscience, I was finally found out. Another neighbor had seen me sneaking around and told my parents. My father called me in from playing outside with my friends and asked me if I remembered anything important about the flooding incident. I knew something was up, but I felt like I had to stick with the lie at this point. Finally, my dad told me that I was busted. I experienced an overwhelming sense of shame, guilt for my sins, and intense fear of the consequences. I sobbed and muttered, “Dad, I’m so sorry. I’ve been asking God to forgive me for so long for this and I don’t know if He ever will.” In a moment of parental love and great wisdom, my dad said: “If you asked God to forgive you, then you are forgiven. You deserve to be punished and this will cost lots of money to fix. But, son, you are forgiven. Go back outside and play.”
He loved me because I was his.
In that moment, the reality of forgiveness and gratuitous grace powerfully moved me. Now when I confess my sins, I think of that experience of absolution. My dad didn’t take grace “too far.” He saw that my misunderstanding and fear of God’s wrath and my dad’s discipline threatened to crush me. He took on the consequences of my sins and literally paid for them for me.
Instead of experiencing my fears unfold, I knew I was safe with my dad and I finally understood what he told me growing up: “I love you unconditionally.” I knew there was nothing I could do to cause him to love me less. And I also knew there was nothing I could do to cause him to love me more. He loved me because I was his. God loves you like that. It’s gratuitous* grace, the only kind there is.
* In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.2.xxix), John Calvin writes: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists…Faith begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it. For in God faith seeks life: a life which is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and only in a gratuitous promise. For a conditional promise that sends us back to our own works does not promise life unless we find it in ourselves…Therefore the apostle bears this witness to the gospel: that it is the word of faith (Romans 10:8). He denies to both the precepts and promises of the Law, since there is nothing which can establish faith except that free embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself (II Corinthians 5:19-20).” In Calvin’s theology, the knowledge of God the Redeemer focuses on the “gratuitous promise” as the main theme of scripture. The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God exist throughout Calvin’s writings in countless variations: “gratuitous mercy” (InstitutesIII.31.vii and II.17.i), “gratuitous favor” (Institutes III.21.vii and II.16.ii), “gratuitous goodness” (Institutes II.7.iv), “mere good pleasure” (Institutes III.21.v and II.17.i), and “gratuitous love” (Institutes III.21.v and II.17.i). This post is taken from Judgment and Love, a collection of 35 true-life stories that illustrate the powerful truth that when love is shown in the face of deserved judgment, lives are changed.Gratuitous Grace