Of Grace and Second Chances

A Lesson Learned from a Missouri Farmer

Mark SanfordMark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina, is running for office again. He resigned his office in 2009, after his adulterous affair came to light. As part of his campaign Sanford has spoken of a “God of second chances.”

This story caught my eye partly because it reminded me of something I learned from an elder years ago. Richard Barr was a farmer southeast of Kansas City. He was a very quiet and even stoic fellow, a Korean War vet. He was a thoughtful man. He thought a lot more than he talked. When he talked I didn’t always understand him but when he spoke he was worth hearing and I still think about things he used to say. Once, in the pulpit, I said something about God being a God of “second chances.” I was trying to find a way to explain grace. Richard didn’t like it. At the time I couldn’t understand why it bothered him but now I think I understand why.

At the time I assumed that the problem with the expression is that it might suggest that God was indifferent to sin. I was wrong. The problem with the defining grace as a “second chance” is that it limits grace. Grace is not a second chance to do better. Grace is much more radical than that. A second chance is, in ordinary usage, conditional. “Well, okay, we’ll give you a second chance but don’t do it again!” Second chances are reasonable but they are not gracious and grace is not reasonable. It’s outrageous. Grace is utterly unconditional acceptance.

We get “second chances” with traffic cops and bosses. When we get pulled over for doing 75 in a 65 we plead for mercy and pledge to drive more slowly. When our boss has finally had it with our tardiness, we ask for a “second chance.” In both cases, however, we are still under the law. The gavel may yet come down if we do not meet the terms of the law this time.

Now, politics and civil life generally, is a legal covenant. The operating principle is not grace but works. We elect and appoint people to civil positions in order to execute laws and justice. Yes, that justice should be tempered with mercy but it is still justice and mercy expires for repeat offenders. That’s not grace.

With respect to acceptance with God, however, we are not in a legal but a gracious covenant. Grace freely accepts repeat offenders not because God is indifferent to sin—far from it!—but because by grace the penalty has already been paid, justice has already been satisfied for recipients of grace. Christ did not die in order to give us a “second chance” to do our part. That’s not grace, that’s law. Christ obeyed and died for his people in order to free them from the requirements and penalties of law with respect to acceptance with God. Under grace the question is not “have you done your part?” but rather “have you received?” If you have received grace, then that’s it. The question of future condemnation is over. The gavel has already come down. The decision is final.

There are only two other questions remaining: how does one receive grace and what then? In the nature of grace there isn’t anything one can “do” to receive grace. Unconditional acceptance with God is only bestowed freely on the unworthy. That’s why it’s grace. Grace is not mere “help” or “possibility” but utterly free acceptance. So, how is such a thing received? Well, if your neighbor suddenly handed you the keys and the title to a mansion  for which you didn’t pay and for which you couldn’t pay how would you receive them? With open, empty hands. That’s how gifts are received. If it is any other way then we’re not talking about gifts but about wages. In Scripture that open, empty hand is called faith.

What then? How do the recipients of grace respond? With gratitude, with thanksgiving. The same grace, earned for us by Christ alone, which we have received through faith alone, is at work in us by the Holy Spirit to conform us gradually, usually imperceptibly to the image of Christ. The recipients of grace have been given much more than a “second chance.” They’ve been given a new life and they are being preserved in that new life not by doing their part but by grace alone. What would a truly thankful recipient do? He would care for and nurture that gift which has been given and by grace that’s what we intend to do.

Second chances have their place in some spheres of life but when it comes to acceptance with God let us not talk about second chances. Richard was right. Grace is far more than a second chance.

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  1. Yes, I’ve never liked the “second chance” language, either, or its cognates like “turning over a new leaf”. Some people, recognising part of the problem, extend it to God being the God of second, third, fourth chances and more besides. But the language is still trapped in a path of glory, saying “I’ll make it myself: only, I might need a couple of goes before I get it right”.

    But as you say, God isn’t just giving us a chance to do it better this time: he’s freeing us from the tyranny of “having to do it better this time” and he’s freeing us from feeling that our standing with him is based on our efforts. The cross kills any notion we might have of making it up with a second chance, or even more. It’s hard to keep hold of, but when we do we find it so much better than another chance!

  2. That was beautiful, insightful, and edifying. Thanks Scott, and thanks to our Lord for brothers like Richard Barr.

  3. Brother,

    Hopefully no one will confuse the gift of a home analogy with the well-worn argument by Arminians that the “gift” of faith must be accepted and some refuse it, but said “gift” is offered to each and every person without exception.

    For example, the efficacious grace brought to bear upon the regenerate leaves them no alternative than to genuinely want to accept that which has been offered them, hence, they freely chose–according to their greatest inclinations at the moment of so choosing–the grace that has regenerated them from spiritual death unto life.

    for what He did for us,

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Not to worry. That thought never entered my mind!

    My comments were basically addressed to the non-Reformed person who may venture here and then come away with the wrong impression.

    running the good race,

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