Mankind, apart from God, still has a god; it is most often ourselves. In that state, we may still believe in God, but this "god" caters to our will. We speak for him. We use him to authorize our own thoughts and condone our own behavior, and to insist that others do the same. The pious may use their god as a self-help program. The civic-minded may use their god to ensure social order. The greedy may use their god to help them get money. But this sock-puppet god does not satisfy us; we can use him but we cannot worship him. He approves of us, but then again we always knew he would. He gives us no true judgment, no real assurance. A sock puppet seems to be no threat to us. He may condemn other people -- the very same people we condemn -- and this can be very satisfying; this god becomes a stick with which to beat our enemies, and a justification for doing so. But such a god rarely condemns those who hold him in their hands, those who speak for him. (That may be a rough test for a sock-puppet god, whether he is more interested in the sins of your enemies than he is in anyone else's sins; whether he ever challenges you to examine your own.) In such a state we are without true knowledge of God, without true fear of God, without true love of God. And not knowing God, not knowing of his love or his power, we distrust him. Some come to hate him. Some see the blasphemous game in all its ugliness and imagine that all gods are man-made, a polite pretense for deifying our own egos.
Christ startles us out of this. He makes us think about ourselves, and others, and justice -- and mercy -- in new ways. He makes us hunger and thirst for righteousness. He makes us long to be peacemakers, yearn to be pure in heart. He makes us ready to feed the hungry and to seek the lonely. He arouses longing for the kingdom of heaven and the renewal of all things. He makes possible honesty about our sins because, in his forgiveness, our sin will be forgiven. It startles us to hear wrongdoing -- even our own -- honestly and unapologetically condemned. But then we never really trusted the assurances that we were fine exactly as we were, with our apathy and enmity, self-centeredness and spite. Finally we have solid ground on which to stand, words we can trust, judgments that are true. He sounds nothing like the religious people of the other type, those who use God to justify themselves. When we encounter Christ we know we have encountered the Word of God.
He startles us by more than just teaching. He fixes things that we thought were beyond hope: the blind see, the crippled are made whole, the paralytic walks, the deaf man hears. He even raises the dead. This is God's answer as to whether these things are ultimately how he wants the world; when he sees its brokenness, he heals and restores. He multiplies this until the whole countryside has noticed.
He startles us by more than just healing, more than even compassion. He enters knowingly, willingly, into a city where the religious leaders have been making public announcements against him. Somehow, it figured that it would be the "religious" people who opposed him. They had announced they were bringing charges against him that carried the death penalty (see the Talmud). And in those days, the Jewish people had limited authority to perform their own executions, so the execution would be the uniquely slow and brutal Roman execution of crucifixion. Death. It's what makes all of us, sooner or later, only a memory, or a record with nobody to remember. If you have ever walked away from a gravesite where you have left a loved one behind, you know what is behind the words of the creeds, the words of the gospels: dead and buried. That's where hope ends. That's where "the meaning of life" becomes a thing of the past.
Most people thought the women were talking nonsense on the third day, with their wild stories of an empty tomb and a vision of angels who said he had risen. They didn't really believe them -- until they saw Christ. Even then some of them who had seen him, had talked with him, had eaten with him -- even then some had trouble believing their eyes. It simply was not possible. Death itself was overcome. To be sure he had raised others from the dead -- but only for a few more years of mortal life. This resurrection of Christ was new. He was no longer subject to death. Before he died, he had predicted his death -- and his disciples, in typical interpretive fashion, asked themselves what "rising from the dead" might mean. Now they saw what he meant, what he had promised, what the redemption of mankind would be in its fulfillment not just for him but for them, and the implications for all mankind.
Grace is first and foremost this: the encounter with Christ. Grace has to do with relationship, with the other's favor. God's grace -- his favor towards us -- comes through Christ. It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, and God's grace comes through this encounter. Apologetics and argument does not bring grace; it changes nobody. Evangelism is the proclamation of Christ, bringing to others Christ that they may encounter him. When Christ is there, when his words are spoken, when he is made known, the grace of God is there. The grace of God does not come some other way; it comes through Christ.
Index for systematic theology series