O, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!
-Charles Wesley, O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing
We have, in the last line of this hymn, a radical statement of Christian theology: grace triumphs. Grace wins.
It’s hard for me to picture grace winning. When I repeat the phrase to myself, I tend to change it to “God wins gracefully,” because it’s easier to understand a gracious winner. Think of the Olympics: the person on the highest pedestal, bedecked with sweat and the gold medal, is not expected to turn to the silver medalist and say, “In your face, sucker!” We expect the winner to indicate, somehow, that the other medalists also did well and were worthy competition.
There is an entire code of conduct that deals with this situation: sportsmanship. Bragging after a win is the equivalent of jumping off the pedestal and handing the medal back. The winner must go before the spectators and announce that the win is not attributable to anything that makes the winner better than any other contestant, even in cases where this is plainly untrue. This code is so important to us that if a contestant wins, but celebrates the win in a way that is considered unsportsmanlike, we often treat that contestant as though they had not accrued the social status of “winner” at all. Winning, in this sense, is a weighty responsibility for the winner to bear. If winners handle the social duties of winning incorrectly, they will be worse off than had they lost.*
Wesley, however, is not saying that God is a good sport. Wesley knew his Bible far to well to make such a claim; God celebrates wins in a way that would get a child kicked off a Little League team for bad behavior.
God doesn’t win gracefully, according to a sportsman’s definition. God is gracious, and grace triumphs.
“…therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1,2 (NASB)
We stand in grace, a cosmic win for God Almighty. We receive credit where no credit is due. If Charles Wesley were a contemporary netizen, he might have written that Jesus links us to being full of win, standing in a puddle of awesome sauce, LOG.**
To win gracefully means to give platitudes and politeness where no credit is due. This doesn’t make sportsmanship a bad thing, obviously- no one wants the winner of a race to slice the gold medal into wedges and pass the pieces along to all the contestants, as though real grace were involved. It’s a mistake, though, to bring God’s grace down to this level. God is not being polite to us. God is not speaking platitudes over us. God is not wondering whether the commentators on ESPN thought the victory dance was a little arrogant.
God isn’t concerned about seeming arrogant, because God is giving the credit away. To us. Are a thousand tongues even enough to sing of such grace? Tune in next time for Christians and Credit: Will Heaven Be Providing Spare Tongues? Details at 7.
*The winner gets bonus points, though, for attributing the win to God. This has never made sense to me -how can it be sportsmanly to say that God loves me better than all the other contestants? The idea seems to be that God is capricious and unpredictable, thus removing the weight of winning from the winner’s shoulders.
**Lots Of Grace. What? We don’t have to pretend that Charles would have been cool, do we?