David A. Davis
June 19, 2022
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A few weeks ago, I sat in McCarter Theater listening to the jazz singer Gregory Porter and the incredible musicians that surround him. We were sitting in the balcony to the left of the stage and it felt like we had a better view to watch how the musicians communicate with each other. There are those moments in a jazz concert when a singer walks away from the microphone and just lets the instrumentalists take over. Then one by one they take turns with the improvisation as the others keep the piece moving. It is intriguing to watch how they communicate with one another in those moments of handing off the solo baton. Maybe some just intuitively count bars in the cord progressions and transition from one solo to another that way. Sometimes they make eye contact with one another. Other times amid a long complex riff that seems to stray far from any semblance of the melody, the musician comes back to a phrase or just a few notes that sound familiar. It signals the return to the melody which serves as the invitation for the next in line to take off. I was sitting with a few gifted musicians that night in the theater and it wasn’t lost on me that they were watching as intently as they were listening.
The last half of the fifth chapter of the book of Romans is a long complex riff on the theological melody of justification by faith, reconciliation, and abundant grace. The genre is not improvisation but rather rhetorical argument. It has the kind of density to it that notetaking might be recommended. Unlike some of the Apostle Paul’s soaring rhetoric elsewhere in Romans and elsewhere: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in call creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8) and “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians) The second half of Romans 5 flows more like an equation or a proof in algebra. Yet, like a jazz riff, there are these few notes Paul keeps coming back to. A few notes that don’t just sound familiar, they come from the melody of Paul’s entire New Testament corpus. But you have to have the ears to hear and the eyes to see it buried in the argument.
What ought to leap of the page or echo in your ear is the term “free gift’. “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ abounded for the many.” Free gift! Free gift! “And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but free gift following many trespasses brings justification.” Free gift! Free gift! “Much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Free gift.
Over and over again in the heart of Paul’s argument. Free gift, yadayada, free gift, yadayayad, free gift, yadayada, free gift, yadadyada, free gift. The abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness. Not our righteousness, of course, but his. The abundance of the grace of Christ and the free gift of his righteousness. Free gift. It is not only familiar, it brings to mind some some other tunes in Paul. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. (Ephesians 2) “they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that God has given you. Thanks be to God for God’s indescribable gift.” (II Cor. 9) “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3) “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6) Free gift!
A long time ago I hosted a fall small group in our home. It was quite a mixed up group of long time Nassau members, relatively new folks, some retired clergy, probably a seminarian in the mix too. I remember after several weeks, I opened one of our evenings together with a question along the lines of “what about being Presbyterian was meaningful or important to your faith?” The first response that night was an immediate one. and it didn’t come from the clergy or the seminarian. “For me, it is just so much about grace,” the person said, “God’s grace. Saved by grace.” Others started to join in. “It’s such a gift; the life of faith; it is about gift implementation.” “I can’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, I can’t control it.” “Not your own doing, not your own doing, not your own doing.” “The immeasurable riches of God’s grace, grace beyond description.” “God’s love and me, even me, just me.” Saved by grace. The whole conversation in the living room was an improvisation on saved by grace and the free gift.
The Apostle Paul certainly hits on it often in just a few verses. Free gift. In and of itself it sounds redundant. If a gift were not free it really wouldn’t be a gift. In the Greek text the free part is implied in the one word itself. Charisma: a gift freely and graciously given. Translators must add free for emphasis. The gift being free ought to be readily apparent, obvious and come with plain, common sense. Like a sign in an aquarium that reads “No swimming in the shark tank” Apparent. Obvious. Plain. Common Sense. That sign is there for one particular reason: someone at some point took a dip in the shark tank. So perhaps the translators go for emphasis with “free” and “gift” because the scholars, the theologians, the preachers, the listeners, the church, the followers of Jesus, we all know how hard it really is to accept, live by, and proclaim, the gift of God’s abundance of grace and the gift of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
A few months before the pandemic began, the Session of Nassau Church approved a new vision statement. One of the phrases from that statement that you often hear from a worship leader is that here at Nassau we “welcome the breadth of humanity and the challenge of the gospel”. I imagine most often, we think of the challenge of the gospel as the discipline of the life of discipleship or the teachings of Jesus that are most challenging to how we live our life and the opinions we hold or the constant call to work for justice and love your neighbor and show mercy. But I wonder if here in this historic university town of Princeton, New Jersey, where the heights of achievement are etched in stone, where success in our communities is expected and clearly defined, where our identity is shaped and influenced by pretty much everything other than being a child of God, here in these pews at Nassau Church, the biggest challenge of the gospel might be this…..by grace you have been saved. Free gift! The challenge of the gospel is the truth that there is absolutely nothing you can do, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can learn, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can earn, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can fix, by grace you have been saved…. nothing you can control, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can do. Free gift!
Surrendering, receiving, saying yes to God’s grace….it is much less like a college application where you try to write the perfect essay and much more like an infant who can do nothing but cry out. Much less like an exhortation to pull yourself by the bootstraps and work hard and seize an opportunity, and much more like being stranded in an airport realizing no phone call, no elite status, no amount of sweet talk or belligerence is going to get you home. Much less like some kind of mandate of privilege or rights guaranteed, and much more like finding yourself in a crowd of nameless folks just like you taking one day at a time powerless before the forces that be. Surrendering, receiving God’s grace. It is contrary to everything, absolutely everything we have been taught. Because it really is a free gift.
A friend and colleague Neal Plantinga recently published a collection of morning and evening prayers. I finish this morning with one of his evening prayers:
Refuge of all who suffer, we look for shelter in the shadow of your wings. Rain and hail and wind beat on your wings, but they do not fold. They are spread out like Jesus’ arms on the cross, spread out to protect all who seek shelter beneath them. …. O God, wonderous in love for sinners, we give you thanks for your saving grace. You do not hold against us our treachery and neglect but let them drop. You do not hold against us our conceit and indifference but let them go. We have been saved by grace through faith—all this is your gift. Surely there is none like you, O God. Spread your protective wings over us we sleep. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Yes, the gift really is free.