Why the Gospel Is not Fair
I don’t do well with traffic. I’m getting better (you have to when you work in Nashville), but it is still a struggle. Here’s what gets to me: drivers who think they have a right to be in front of everyone else. You know who I am talking about.
- The driver who waits until the very last foot to merge from a lane that ends.
- The person who jumps out of the backed-up lane onto an entrance ramp lane just to duck back into the traffic jam farther up ahead.
- The infamous car driving on the shoulder or motorcycle rider forming his own lane by riding on the painted stripes.
Here’s why this gets to me – I’m hard-wired for fairness. I have a strong drive (pardon the pun) for fairness in the world around me and it irritates me when I experience something that is unfair. With the possible exception of these drivers, I think everyone is wired the same way – at least to a degree.
And there’s the problem.
Our desire for fairness works against the gospel.
Jesus told a parable about a vineyard owner hiring some servants in Matthew 20:1-16. In the parable, a vineyard owner needed to hire some day laborers to work his vineyard. So the owner went out first thing in the morning and hired some workers and negotiated what he would pay them for their day’s work. The owner needed additional help so he went out again at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and even at 5 pm and hired more workers.
When it came time to pay the workers at 6 pm, the owner paid the last to arrive first and gave them the full wage he had agreed to pay the hands he hired first thing that morning. Seeing that these workers had only worked one hour and received a full day’s wage, the workers who began working first thing in the morning anticipated that they would receive much more than the wage to which they had agreed earlier. Imagine their shock and dismay when the owner paid them the day’s wage – the exact same amount he paid the workers who were only there for one hour.
When the workers grumbled and complained, the land owner pointed out that these workers were satisfied with that wage earlier in the morning and that they shouldn’t complain when the owner was generous with his money toward others.
Jesus provided context for the parable when He introduced it in verse 1 – it is about His kingdom. So Jesus’ here is what Jesus is telling us through this story:
The gospel is not based on fairness – it’s not about what you can earn – it’s based on grace.
When we read this parable through the lens of fairness, we side with the workers. It just seems rather… well, wrong to us that the 5 pm workers received the same wage. We do the math and we don’t like the result.
And that’s our mistake. Fairness isn’t the right lens. Grace is.
Fairness says the workers who worked all day should have gotten more pay.
Grade says that none of them deserved anything.
Fairness says the people should receive payment based on their effort.
Grace says that people have earned one things – eternal separation from God and there is nothing we can do to earn His forgiveness. Nothing. So if the gospel were based on our perception of fairness, we’d all be in serious trouble.
Thankfully, the gospel is not based on our system of fairness, but God’s grace.
That is not to say that God is not fair and just in His dealings with people. He is of course. But this is to say that salvation is a free gift and all of those who receive it enjoy equal benefit – the greatest treasure imaginable – Jesus.
It doesn’t matter if you came to Christ as a child, were a militant atheist until grace got hold of you as a college student, worshiped a false god until you repented and turned to Christ as an adult, or thought of yourself as a Christian because you went to church and lived a “good” life until you responded to the gospel later in life. The reward is the same – Christ Jesus.
While some might begin to feel the tension of our desire for fairness at this point, the next step is where it really becomes a problem.
Not only is entrance into Christ’s kingdom based on grace, so is living in it. In other words, our effort doesn’t bring about a relationship with Christ, neither does it sustain it.
We have to resist our natural tendency to slide into a fairness-oriented, works-based faith that holds that we continue to earn God’s love and acceptance by what we do. We gather with other believers for worship because we fear that if we do not, God will be upset with us. Or we believe that God will be impressed with our obedience when we do and He will bless us in some way. We read the Bible, pray, share our faith, give for the same reasons.
And when we do this, we embrace man’s system of “fairness” and abandon God’s grace. We become the workers who began first thing in the morning. We look at what we have done and believe that God owes us because of it. We might not say that, but it is what is deep down within our hearts.
God owes us. We have purchased God’s favor with our obedience.
In the world, that might be fair. But again, God doesn’t operate according to worldly fairness, but grace.
Pay attention to what Paul told the Galatian church when they wrestled with this issue:
Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? – Galatians 3:3
It’s a great argument from the greater to the lesser. If God’s grace brings about new life, won’t it also maintain that new life?
This is one of the most important lessons for followers of Jesus to learn and live out. We do nothing to earn God’s favor; but we do all as a result of it. Obedience doesn’t produce God’s favor; obedience flows out of experiencing God’s favor.
This is how J.D. Greear put it in his book, Gospel:
God, however, motivates us from acceptance, not toward it.
Let this truth stir your affections for Christ. Nothing we do will prompt to love us any less – or more – than He does. That is because His love is based on His love for His Son who dwells within us.
What we do certainly matters. But why we do it matters much more. This is what our kids need to know.
This is the essence of the gospel.
Here is more help for leaders preparing for the February 1, 2015 session (Unit 30, Session 1) of The Gospel Project for Kids.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay in 2014. Brian earned an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian and his wife, Tara, and their three children – Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb – live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 1-3 graders at City Church.