When we have sinned greatly, we feel we to have work ourselves back into a right standing with God through good works, obedient behavior, or a commitment to religious rules and standards. Our belief is through good works, obedient behavior, or faithful commitment to a religious system, we will gain God's acceptance that was lost when we sinned. However, the Bible teaches us that acceptance with God is never based upon the amount of sin in our lives or good works, obedience, or faithfulness to a religious system after we sin, but upon his abundant and amazing grace.
When we sin, we feel guilty. That initial feeling of guilt is good. It shows our conscience is working. It is what we do with that guilt that matters. For some of us, we feel we have to work off that guilt through good works. After we prove ourselves to God based upon these good works, then we feel better and believe that God now accepts us. Our belief is that God's acceptance of us in based upon our obedience to him and that disobedience removes us from his acceptance.
Such was the case with the prodigal son and his older brother. As you remember, the younger son set off to live a life of rebellion toward his father. He spent all the money his father had given him in sinful living. Eventually, he found himself in a pig pen broken financially, emotionally, and spiritually. In addition, he felt his relationship with his father was certainly broken.
In his brokenness, he conceived a plan to restore his relationship with his father by returning home and working as a hired worker in his father's fields. By working hard, he believed he could restore his relationship with his father and gain acceptance back into the family. In addition, he thought he could repay his father for the money he had so foolishly wasted in his rebellious acts.
Dirty, filthy, and full of shame and regret, the prodigal son began the long journey home. As he got closer to his home, he noticed someone running toward him. To his surprise, it was his father. Maybe he was thinking as he saw his father running toward him that his father was angry and frustrated with him. Maybe he thought his father was going to meet him with condemnation and tell him how worthless he was. But just the opposite happened, rather than anger, the father accepted him. Instead of frustration, the father forgave him. Rather than condemnation, the father had compassion on him.
The acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion of the father was demonstrated through an embrace. The father threw his arms around his son in grace. The son was embraced by grace. It was the very opposite of what the son expected or deserved. But that's what grace is. Grace is giving us the very opposite of what we expect and deserve. Through grace, God embraces us at our worst, demonstrating his acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion. As Romans 5:20 says, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. We can never out sin God's grace.
So what about the prodigal's plan to pay off his debt through hard work in his father's fields? Because of grace, his plan was futile. Grace forgave the debt completely when the father forgave the son. There was nothing to work for. Nothing to pay back. Grace had paid it all! The son was accepted. The son was forgiven.
In our own lives, grace has already paid for the sin debt we owe. Because of our sin, the debt we owed was death. Jesus paid it all through grace. His death was a demonstration of grace to us. This grace frees us from having to work our way back into acceptance with God through moral obedience or following religious rituals and requirements. Through his grace, we have been fully forgiven forever and made righteous, or stand totally accepted by him. We are totally accepted by him through grace on our good days and bad days. Our behavior has nothing to do with God's acceptance of us. His grace has everything to do with his acceptance. Through faith, we receive God's grace.
The prodigal was changed by the father's embrace of grace. Grace changes us. It grows us up. Grace matures us. Grace heals us emotionally, relationally, and spirituality just as it did the prodigal.
What about the older son? Was he happy his father showed such grace to his younger brother? No. He was angry at the abundance of grace poured out upon his brother. But why? Because he believed acceptance with his father was based upon obedience...hard work in the fields. He had been working hard while his brother was living in wild rebellion. He believed his brother deserved punishment.The older brother was angry at grace.
It is important to remember the context of the story of the prodigal son to fully appreciate its meaning. The older brother in the story represents the Pharisees who were very angry with Jesus for the grace he demonstrated to "sinners". The prodigal represents the "sinners" who Jesus demonstrated grace to. The Pharisees mistakenly believed their obedience to the Law of Moses (the hard work of the older brother) gained them acceptance before God and the sin of others (prodigal son) resulted in rejection from God.
Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to teach the Pharisees that acceptance with God the Father is not based upon moral obedience or following religious rules and requirements, but only on the grace of God. Furthermore, he told the story to show that rejection from God is not based upon disobedience. Yet, even after this simple but profound story, the Pharisees continued to be angry with Jesus because of the grace he abundantly poured out on sinful people as represented in the older brother's angry response to the father's grace poured out abundantly upon his younger son.
For some reason, there are those who dislike grace, just as the Pharisees disliked grace. They get angry with people who teach grace, just as the Pharisees were angry with Jesus. They call those who teach grace light on sin, just as the Pharisees said about Jesus. They believe that those who teach grace are giving people a licenses to sin, just as the Pharisees believed about Jesus. That is not the case at all. Grace actually brings people out of sin and restores them. Law keeps people in sin leading to greater rebellion.
These people who are against grace and are angry with those who teach grace tend to be religious people who are proud of their own obedience to God, morality, and commitment to a set of religious standards as were the Pharisees and the older brother. They are blind to the sin of pride in their own lives and their very need of the same grace they themselves despise. But this grace, which they so despise, is what Jesus demonstrated daily to those broken in their sin. It is the very grace the prodigal experienced.
We are all like the prodigal son in need of grace. Sin has made us feel worthless and shameful, unacceptable to God. The good news is we do not have to work ourselves back into acceptance with God. Through the blood of Christ, God's abundant provision of grace that he has freely poured out upon us, we have been redeemed and set free from the penalty of sin. We have been forgiven (Romans 3:21-24, 5:17, Ephesians 1:6-7). Through his resurrection, we have been restored to life by his Spirit who lives in us. We now stand in grace (Romans 5:1-2) and live according to his Spirit is us (Galatians 5:16).
So, if you are feeling like you have to pay God back for sins you have committed, if you feel you have to work off your guilt by being good, remember, grace has paid your debt in full. Be embraced by God's grace. His grace meets you with acceptance not anger, forgiveness not frustration, and compassion not condemnation. Enjoy the embrace of God's grace!