An Inalienable Right to Grace?
My favorite illustration of how callous we have become with respect to the mercy, love, and grace of God comes from the second year of my teaching career, when I was given the assignment of teaching two hundred and fifty college freshman an introductory course on the Old Testament. On the first day of the class, I gave the students a syllabus and I said: “You have to write three short term papers, five pages each. The first one is due September 30 when you come to class, the second one October 30, and the third one November 30. Make sure that you have them done by the due date, because if you don’t, unless you are physically confined to the infirmary or in the hospital, or unless there is a death in the immediate family, you will get an F on that assignment. Does everybody understand that?” They all said, “Yes.”
On September 30, two hundred and twenty-five of my students came in with their term papers. There were twenty-five terrified freshmen who came in trembling. They said: “Oh, Professor Sproul, we didn’t budget our time properly. We haven’t made the transition from high school to college the way we should have. Please don’t flunk us. Please give us a few more days to get our papers finished.”
I said: “OK, this once I will give you a break. I will let you have three more days to get your papers in, but don’t you let that happen again.”
“Oh, no, we won’t let it happen again,” they said. “Thank you so, so, so much.”
Then came October 30. This time, two hundred students came with their term papers, but fifty students didn’t have them. I asked, “Where are your papers?”
They said: “Well, you know how it is, Prof. We’re having midterms, and we had all kinds of assignments for other classes. Plus, it’s homecoming week. We’re just running a little behind. Please give us just one more chance.”
I asked: “You don’t have your papers? Do you remember what I said the last time? I said, ‘Don’t even think about not having this one in on time.’ And now, fifty of you don’t have them done.”
“Oh, yes,” they said, “we know.”
I said: “OK. I will give you three days to turn in your papers. But this is the last time I extend the due date.”
Do you know what happened? They started singing spontaneously, “We love you, Prof Sproul, oh, yes, we do.” I was the most popular professor on that campus.
But then came November 30. This time one hundred of them came with their term papers, but a hundred and fifty of them did not. I watched them walk in as cool and as casual as they could be. So I said, “Johnson!”
“What?” he replied.
“Do you have your paper?”
“Don’t worry about it, Prof,” he responded. “I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.”
I picked up the most dreadful object in a freshman’s experience, my little black grade book. I opened it up and I asked, “Johnson, you don’t have your term paper?”
He said, “No”
I said, “F,” and I wrote that in the grade book. Then I asked, “Nicholson, do you have your term paper?” “No, I don’t have it.” “F. Jenkins, where is your term paper?”
“I don’t have it.”
Then, out of the midst of this crowd, someone shouted, “That’s not fair.” I turned around and asked, “Fitzgerald, was that you who said that?”
He said, “Yeah, it’s not fair.”
I asked, “Weren’t you late with your paper last month?”
“Yeah,” he responded.
“OK, Fitzgerald, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. If it’s justice you want, it’s justice you will get.” So I changed his grade from October to an F. When I did that, there was a gasp in the room. I asked, “Who else wants justice?” I didn’t get any takers.
There was a song in the musical My Fair Lady titled “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Well, those students had grown accustomed to my grace. The first time they were late with their papers, they were amazed by grace. The second time, they were no longer surprised; they basically assumed it. By the third time, they demanded it. They had come to believe that grace was an inalienable right, an entitlement they all deserved.
I took that occasion to explain to my students: “Do you know what you did when you said, ‘That’s not fair’? You confused justice and grace.” The minute we think that anybody owes us grace, a bell should go off in our heads to alert us that we are no longer thinking about grace, because grace, by definition, is something we don’t deserve. It is something we cannot possibly deserve. We have no merit before God, only demerit. If God should ever, ever treat us justly outside of Christ, we would perish. Our feet would surely slip.
Excerpt from R.C. Sproul’s contribution in Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God. Available in the Ligonier store.