The Reflexive Response of Grace

How Jesus reconditions our life even after we fail him

At the turn of the 20th century, a Russian physician named Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel Prize. Dogs naturally salivate at the smell of food, but Pavlov wanted to see if he could cause salivation with another stimulus. As you probably remember from a high school science class, Pavlov rang a bell before feeding the dogs. Eventually, the ringing bell caused the dogs to salivate. Pavlov referred to this as a conditioned reflex.

To one degree or another, all of us are Pavlovian. Over time, we acquire an elaborate set of conditioned reflexes. If someone slaps us on the cheek, our conditioned reflex is to slap back. Or is that just me?

The gospel is all about Jesus reconditioning our reflexes by his grace. The result? We love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and bless those who curse us. We turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give the shirt off our back. Theologians call these the Six Antitheses, but I like to think of them as six countercultural counter-habits.

No less than six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you . . .” (Matt. 7–9). Jesus was reshaping Old Testament mindsets such as “an eye for an eye” (Matt. 5:38). He was challenging our ethic, starting with forgiveness.

Remember in Matthew 18 when Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive? He thought he was being generous by suggesting seven. Jesus ups the ante: seventy times seven. It’s on a beach by the Sea of Galilee (John 21) where this idea of forgiveness is personalized for Peter. This is a post-Resurrection appearance, which means it’s post-denial. Peter had denied knowing Jesus not once, not twice, but thrice, and it was after the third denial that …

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