Our friend/favorite/conference speaker John Newton’s newest book Reckless Love: The Scandal of Grace in a Performance-Driven World puts at odds the reality of the grace we receive daily with the ways we think grace is supposed to work. Instead of something given in return for our own goodness, grace can cause outrage by the abundance with which God gives it and in the way that he “refuses to love selectively.”

Read an excerpt below:

The tax collector and all the other disreputable types in the Gospels loved Jesus’s program of forgiveness. It was the religious establishment that gave Jesus pushback. Forgiveness struck them as unfair and regressive, threatening even, and I can’t help but think that we often feel the same way. We love that God has forgiven us, but Hitler? Our ex-husband? Sex-trade traffickers?

We find forgiveness and mercy just as threatening as the religious types in Jesus’s day. We love the idea of forgiveness, but when we have been wounded, or when we see the most vulnerable members of our population being wounded, the last thing we want to do is extend forgiveness. Forgiveness seems offensive and wrong. Our world teaches us to earn, achieve, perform, measure, count, evaluate, and weigh the evidence. It may be a harsh world, but we all know the rules of the game. We invest little and we get a little. Good guys are rewarded, and bad guys are punished. Reciprocity keeps the old creation balanced. The mutual scratching of one another’s back is all we know. Perhaps what makes Jesus so scandalous is his insistent and annoying reminder that all that we know is dead wrong with respect to the kingdom of God. Jesus refuses to play by the rules of our game.

Jesus’s message of forgiveness and mercy for all will forever remain incomprehensible to a person who does not know that they are a sinner. When we admit that we are sinners, we do not make a moralistic judgment but a theological judgment. We number ourselves among those in need of mercy and forgiveness. We stand with the worst and call them brother and sister (Reckless Love, p.7-8).

“Mutual scratching,” as John Newton puts it, is the way we conduct our everyday interactions. We “want” to give, but what we really want is something in return. And it’s not just the nature of us as humans, but we’re taught that it’s the only way we can succeed in our world. We have to earn our grades, spend money at the grocery store so we have something for dinner, and show up to the office to keep our salary. (Hear some beautiful and related words from Dorothy Martyn’s talk at the 2009 Mbird conference here.) In comparison to this way of life, which is so intrinsic to our thinking that we don’t even know it, unconditional grace and forgiveness don’t just sound strange but start to become uncomfortable. Why give grace to someone even though they don’t deserve it? Or, as Newton illustrates so well, why should someone truly cruel and evil get grace? Do we want to extend love to Hitler or to sex-trade traffickers?

What Newton exposes so clearly is the nature and danger of grace, and how far it actually is from our performance-based paradigm. In reality, contrary to our notions of conditional love, Jesus’s sacrifice reverses everything because it gives what we will never be worthy of. The possibility of forgiveness outlined here is controversial — that the bad guys who deserve the worst punishment can actually be set free. And it’s not just a moment of mercy, but an outpouring that God continues to give recklessly.