In the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38), we read the story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the peasant girl Mary that she has been chosen to be the virgin-mother of Jesus Christ. The “Annunciation” is the staggering news that an unmarried Galilean teenager from a backwater village in an inconsequential corner of the Roman Empire will be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and will conceive in her womb the Son of God.
The Priority of Grace
The choice of a simple peasant girl to be the “God-bearer,” that is, the virgin-mother of the incarnate Son of God, is a paradigmatic example of the gracious nature of God’s relationship with humanity—a relationship unilaterally determined by the love and goodness of God that in no way depends upon reciprocal human “worthiness.” The choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus did not depend on any salutary characteristics she possessed that would “qualify” her for the unique role she would play in God’s redemptive plan. There was nothing remarkable to commend the young peasant girl for the awesome responsibility she was to assume. She brought no resources to the God-human encounter. She had no wealth or social standing; she held no important position in society, even in her small village. In terms of worldly power, possessions and prestige, she was of no consequence. Despite her lack of worldly status, however, the angel Gabriel hailed Mary as the “highly favoured one,” who is “blessed among women” because of the unique role she plays in salvation history as the human mother of the fully divine Son of God (Luke 1:28 NKJV).
Notwithstanding her unique, awe-inspiring status as the virgin-mother of Jesus, however, Mary was an ordinary human being—an “earthen vessel” (2Cor 4:7) made of the dust of the ground, an ordinary “sinner” who had fallen short of the glory of God (see Rom 3:23). To be sure, there was nothing extraordinary about Mary to make her “worthy” of her “highly favoured” position.
Even Mary’s willing consent to God’s plan for her life was not a precondition for God’s goodness towards her. The choice of the young peasant girl to bear the Son of God was not determined by any prior “decision” on her part. To be sure, Mary could not “decide” of her own accord to become the virgin “mother of God.” To the contrary, as the angelic messenger announced, the divine decision to choose Mary had already been made for her. She could only acknowledge the divine decision made on her behalf and allow the word of God to happen to her (1).
Mary freely received the divine favour that God had sovereignly and graciously chosen to bestow upon her by consenting to the extraordinary plan God had prepared for her life, trusting that with God “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). With simple trust and humility, she replied to the angel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
“Conditional” Grace (?)
Mary, the virgin-mother of Jesus, is an outstanding example of an ordinary human being whose life is transformed by grace. Unilaterally and unconditionally, God graciously bestowed his favour upon the young peasant girl, apart from any prior attempt on Mary’s part to earn divine favour. With trusting consent to the divine plan for her life, Mary simply received God goodness towards her.
Evangelicals often describe “grace” as “unmerited pardon” or “favour.” Often g-r-a-c-e is defined as “God's riches at Christ’s expense.” Evangelicals rightly assert that we cannot “earn” God’s grace. Despite a proper emphasis on the unmerited nature of grace, however, there are—perhaps unintentionally—implicit yet contradictory “conditions” in much evangelical preaching. In this kind of preaching, the gospel is presented in terms of a “contract”: that is, if the sinner fulfils certain conditions, then God will be gracious. Evangelical preachers may claim that God’s goodness and mercy are available only to those who have made a “decision for Christ,” or who have recited “the sinner’s prayer” and “accepted” Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Preachers with a more legalistic bent may attach other conditions to divine grace, asserting that only those who believe specific doctrines or adhere to certain standards of behaviour deserve God’s favour.
According to much contemporary evangelicalism, human salvation is not complete in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Contrary to the words of Jesus when he hung on the cross, it is not “finished”; rather, some task remains undone, to be completed by the repentant sinner; some doctrine must be fervently believed if the fires of “hell” are to be avoided. For many evangelicals, salvation is a mere “potential,” waiting to be “actualized,” or brought to fruition, by some action on the part of the penitent. Only when the sinner has played his or her part in the drama of salvation is he or she “saved.”
The gospel, however, is the good news that our standing before God does not depend upon any decision, belief or action on our part. We do not have to “earn” God’s favour. The gospel proclaims that God’s goodness is freely bestowed upon all in Jesus Christ. Contrary to evangelicalism, grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and presented as a contract whose conditions must be fulfilled if the sinner is to be “saved.” Contrary to Roman Catholicism, grace cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ and constituted the sole property of the church, so that it may be doled out to sinners via the sacraments, penance or confession.
In contrast to the “contractual” view of grace prominent in evangelicalism, or the “sacerdotal” view of Roman Catholicism, wherein priests are regarded as mediators between God and humanity, grace is God’s self-giving for all humanity in Jesus Christ (see John 3:16). Hence, grace is personal, for grace is identical with Jesus Christ, in whom the “gift” and the “Giver” are one and the same.
A Sinner Encounters Grace
An outstanding portrayal of a sinner’s encounter with grace as a personal Reality is the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus (Luke 19:1ff). As a “chief tax collector,” a servant of the oppressive, pagan government of occupying Rome, Zacchaeus was regarded as a “sinner”—a social-religious outcast shunned by the respectable members of first-century Jewish society, who doubtless resented the wealth he accumulated by “skimming” money from the taxes he collected from his neighbours.
Upon hearing that Jesus was passing nearby on his way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed a sycamore tree, so that he might get a better look at Jesus. When he saw Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus shunned contemporary social convention by inviting himself to the tax collector’s home. Jesus’ gracious intention to “stay at the house” of the chief tax collector triggered the complaints of the local villagers, who disapproved of the Lord’s willingness to lodge in the home of a “sinner.” As a result of his surprising encounter with grace, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to return fourfold to any he may have cheated. Upon hearing this, Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9, 10).
It is vital to note that, like the Virgin Mary, Zacchaeus had done absolutely nothing to “deserve” what was nothing less than a divine visitation. Zacchaeus merely climbed a tree to get a better look as Jesus passed. Yet, despite the local villagers’ contempt for the tax collector, Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, engaging him in the midst of his sinfulness and greed. Apart from any attempt to make himself worthy—indeed, with no opportunity to make himself worthy!—Zacchaeus freely “received” (Luke 19:6) Jesus into his home. Through his personal encounter with grace, even the sinner Zacchaeus, like the Virgin Mary, was highly favoured by God!
Here again we see the priority of grace. Note that Jesus did not wait for Zacchaeus to “accept” him before expressing his wish to stay in the tax collector’s home. To the contrary: Zacchaeus did not “accept” Jesus; Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, who had done nothing more than climb a tree. The sinful tax collector could only receive the favour that Jesus had already decided to freely bestow upon him, for, as Jesus proclaimed, “The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
The Transforming Power of Grace
As the direct result of his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was radically transformed, so that he freely and willingly reached out to his neighbours in repentance and restitution. The transforming power of the divine favour Jesus unconditionally bestowed upon Zacchaeus reveals the abject failure of religion to change the human heart. Religion attempts to control “external” behaviour by its emphasis on law rather than grace, expressed in stern-jawed demands for unquestioning submission to human rules and expectations. Yet human sinfulness is an “internal” problem, originating in the “heart” (Matt 15:19), and even the most stringent outward adherence to the demands of religion cannot transform the human heart or constitute even the most zealous “worthy” of the grace of God.
The proclamation of the gospel heralds the end of religion, where “religion” is understood as any attempt to please or appease God through human effort. Grace cannot be “earned” through the onerous demands of religion; grace can only be received by the empty hand that reaches out in trust to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment (see Matt 9:19-21). Zacchaeus is not transformed by the rituals, rules and regulations of the cumbersome religion of his day; rather, he is condemned by his neighbours and scorned as a “sinner” for his failure to live according to its burdensome demands. Rather, Zacchaeus is transformed by God’s love as revealed in the incarnate Son, as Jesus graciously engages him in intimate fellowship.
Jesus’ loving, gracious engagement with the “sinner” Zacchaeus unveils the eternal heart of God. Because Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the “express image” of God (Heb 1:3), the one in whom the “fullness of the Godhead” dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9), and the eternal Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14), his loving act toward Zacchaeus is an expression of the eternal heart of the Triune God, whom scripture describes as “love” (1John 4:8, 16). Jesus shows how God is toward sinners: God engages us, even in our sinfulness, and pours himself out in self-emptying love for us (see Phil 2:5-11)!
The Way of Grace
Returning to the much-loved story of Gabriel’s appearance to the virgin Mary¸ the “Annunciation” appears at the beginning of the life and mission of Jesus Christ as a sign of the way God’s love has taken, not only for Mary, but for each of us (2). We too are the recipients of God’s goodness, and our standing with our heavenly Father does not depend upon our “worthiness” to receive divine favour. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In Jesus Christ, the world is fully reconciled to the Father (2Cor 5:19; Col 1:20), who has “lavished” his love upon us and claimed us as his children (1John 3:1 NIV). Like Mary and Zacchaeus, ours is simply to receive by faith the grace of God that is already given us in Jesus Christ.
In the old Latin translation of the New Testament, Gabriel greets the young virgin with words made famous in Schubert’s beloved song, “Ave, Maria!” That is “Hail, Mary!” Because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, this holy day season the angelic hosts joyfully proclaim: “Hail Mary!” “Hail John!” “Hail Susan!” And “hail to you” dear reader, for the good news of the Advent-Christmas season is that, like Mary, we are all highly favoured by God! (3) Amen.
1. Torrance, T.F. 1957. “When Christ Comes to the Individual.” In When Christ Comes and Comes Again. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, pp. 31-38.