By Richard Niell Donovan
I attended seminary in Indianapolis, the home of the famous 500-mile race. As a teenager, growing up in Kansas, I had listened to the race through the static of a distant radio station. I attended every race during the five years that I lived in Indianapolis.
1967 was an especially exciting race season. Andy Granatelli of STP had spent one million dollars developing a jet-turbine powered car, and Parnelli Jones postponed his retirement to drive it. It was a radical development for a conservative town.
When the race started that year, the old Offenhauser engines roared their way around the track. The newer Ford engines screamed ahead of them. But in front of everyone, Parnelli Jones whispered his way around the track in a jet-powered car that effortlessly and noiselessly out-distanced everyone.
The race lasted for three and a half hours boring hours. Nobody could get close to Parnelli. The race wasn’t a test of driving skill. It had no drama. Technology had triumphed, and everyone was asking whether a turbine should be running in the race.
Then, on the 198th lap of the 200 lap race, I saw Parnelli slowly rounding the third turn, headed for the pits. I watched for him to accelerate, because A. J. Foyt was only a mile behind him. But “Parnelli continued to coast, and A. J. passed him and ran two more laps to win the race.
Later, we found that a $6.00 bearing had broken in Parnelli’s car, and that little bearing had stopped him just 60 seconds short of the finish line. All the planning, money and perfect driving that he had put into the race couldn’t carry him through the final lap. He had fallen short of his goal. His disappointment must have been terrible.
We know what it is like to lose a race. No, we haven’t been in the seat of a race car watching A. J. Foyt pass us. But we are in what Paul calls the race of life.
This is the most important race of all, the race of life. In this race, we sometimes experience the kind of disappointment that must have overwhelmed Parnelli Jones in the 1967 race, because there are occasions that make us realize that we are losing the race.
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Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But our hope is renewed as we see the rest of Paul’s theology. Hear this:
“All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
being justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24).
What is Paul saying here? He is stating, first of all, that all of us are in the same leaky boat. “There is no distinction,” he says, “for all have sinned” (3:22-23). He is saying that, plan as we will and try as we will, none of us can run successfully the race of life under our own power. He is saying that, as in Parnelli’s car, there is something weak inside us that will break before we reach the finish line. As long as the ”weakness is enough to stop us, it doesn’t matter if it stops us on the first lap or the last. It still stops us. Whether the weakness is great or small, it stops us.
Parnelli was stopped by a $6.00 bearing. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had been stopped by a $100,000 turbine. Either way, he would have found himself coasting into the pits, watching A. J. Foyt snatch the lead away from him. It matters little that we are stopped by a great sin or a little sin. We are still stopped. “There is no distinction,” Paul says, “for all have sinned.”
But then Paul goes on to his second point. We are “justified freely by (God’s) grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24).
Grace is undeserved kindness. It is this undeserved kindness that saves us. Paul tells us that God has sent Jesus Christ to give us what we weren’t capable of winning on our own. It matters not whether God must forgive a little or a lot. He gives us the same gift–– the gift of forgiveness––the gift of life.
There are two common errors about this business of sin and forgiveness. The first is the error of lack of confidence. When I was a child, I used to imagine God keeping a great book. On one page he made a mark for every good deed I did; on the other page he made a mark for every bad deed. I knew which page was filling fastest. I wasn’t helping many old ladies across the street, but I was provoking fights with my little brother on a pretty steady basis. Thinking about God’s great book was like going further into debt every minute, and hoping to live long enough to find a way to balance the books.
The good news of the gospel, of course, is that we do not have to balance the books. If we did have to balance the books, life would be hopeless for us. But what we can’t do for ourselves, Christ does for us. His cross stands on the skyline saying, “debt cancelled.” The whole purpose of his life on earth was to make it possible for us to win the race of life. Paul says that we are “justified by his grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus….”
The second great error is misplaced confidence. All my life, I have worked hard and stayed out of trouble. I made significant sacrifices to attend seminary. I have now been in the ministry for many years, and I have helped a few people along the way. I never robbed a bank. I am a faithful husband and father. It is pretty tempting to believe that I am just the kind of guy that God is looking for. Heaven must be full of people just like me––and just like you––and it is difficult to imagine that God wouldn’t grant us admittance. We have earned it.
But when I read the Bible, I realize that the people we would usually label as “good guys” were the ones who gave Jesus the most trouble. He got along just fine with thieves and prostitutes. It was the Pharisees and priests who wanted him dead. Why? Because Jesus punctured their pride. He showed them that they weren’t as good as they imagined He showed them that they too were dependent on God’s grace––and they didn’t want to hear it. Paul says:
“Where then is the boasting? It is excluded.
By what kind of law? Of works?
No, but by a law of faith.
We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith
apart from the works of the law” (3:27-28).
Lewis Smedes tries to explain the meaning of the grace of God by retelling the familiar old story of Don Quixote:
Don Quixote, that ridiculous knight who came riding on his silly donkey to conquer his crazy world, is a splendid secular parable of amazing grace. Quixote ended up tilting at windmills, but he had one powerful ability. He was able to make life better for someone by persuading her it was all right when things were really all wrong.
He met this tawdry woman in a tawdry tavern in a tawdry little town. She was not a fine woman; in fact, everyone in town knew she was a bad woman. Since they all knew she was bad, they all treated her like a hopelessly dirty sinner. And, since everyone treated her like a bad woman, she felt she must be a bad woman. So she acted the part.
Then the amazing Don Quixote rode into town. He looked at her through the spectacles of his grace. What he saw was a splendid woman.
He broke through the icy judgment of the moral majority and declared her to be a fine and noble person. He said to her: “It’s all right even though everyone says you’re all wrong.”
And when she was sure that Don Quixote really meant it, when she embraced the grace with which he embraced her, she began to feel the power of grace. She became what Don Quixote saw.
And that is what Christ has done for us. Thanks be to God for “his unspeakable gift.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan