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Trading places

Join me in one of my favourite movies from the eighties.

Trading Places (1983). (This post containers plot spoilers.)

Two extremely wealthy financiers, Mortimer and Randolph Duke, observe one of their commodities traders, Louis Winthorpe III (played by Dan Ackroyd), mistreating a black street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine, (played by Eddie Murphy). So they make a wager (of a paltry $1) to test their opposing theories of nature versus nurture. They manufacture a switch between the lives of these two men located on either end of the social spectrum. Who will rise? Who will fall? After having Louis falsely accused and fired from his position, they invite Billy Ray Valentine to live in Louis’ old home, surrounded by luxury. Will their genes determine their outcomes? Well, Louis proceeds to descend into despair, while Billy Ray excels at his new position as a commodities trader. Question answered. But this is also a story about injustice and greed. Billy Ray and Louis eventually discover they’ve been duped, and not only that, Mortimer and Randolph plan to reverse the switch. So, our two ‘heroes’ team up. Cue Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd, along with Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis, executing a wonderful plan to triumph and walk off with an awful lot of money.

Looking good, Billy Ray! Feeling good, Louis!

Let’s return to the scene in which Billy Ray is invited to live in Louis’ home. This particular scene is packed with theological insight.

And it’s all about grace.


The scene is entitled ‘It’s all yours’, a title we could use to describe grace. Randolph says, ‘William, this is your home. It belongs to you. Everything you see in this room is yours.’ Mortimer, however, can see that Billy Ray is still in the dark. ‘I don’t think he understands, Randolph’, he says. And sure enough, seconds later, while the elderly financiers’ backs are turned, Billy Ray proceeds to place valuable items inside his jacket—a cigar case and a silver ornament. Later, as Mortimer removes the cigar case from Billy Ray’s jacket, he says, ‘These are your personal possessions. You will only be stealing from yourself.’

The scene works, because of course, in our world, no one gives away such wealth for free. Hence Billy Ray’s sceptical riposte, ‘I could really dig this, Randy, you know why? This kind of thing happens to me every week!’

This is the perfect scene to prompt a discussion about grace, because our response to grace is often to ‘steal from ourselves.’ We’re watching Billy Ray, but he is simply a mirror, a reflection of the darkness in our souls.


Like you, probably, I have heard hundreds of Christians talk about or interact with the idea of grace. In my experience, they broadly fit into three categories. [i]

  • They don’t understand it at all, and when questioned, they demonstrate their lack of understanding.

  • They can say the ‘right’ words, but quickly, they stumble and it’s clear that they haven’t really understood it. Legalism, works, workaholism, judgemental attitudes etc betray that their espoused theology isn’t actually driving their lives.

  • They have the right theology, and they revel in the wonder of grace so that it transforms all their human relationships.

Why do we struggle so much to understand grace? Some thoughts.


Grace is otherworldly. Well, of course it is. It comes from the heart of a compassionate God. It’s his idea, not ours. Furthermore, it’s hardly surprising that we struggle when we already know that ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ (Isa 55.8). Perhaps most importantly, though, is the impact of our human experience. From our earliest childhood, we are introduced into a world of consequences. Cause-and-effect is written into every single one of our human relationships. As children, when we behave well, we receive a cookie, and when we don’t listen, we end up sitting on the naughty step. (Choose your own childhood discipline method.) We reach school and start handing in homework. Perform well and we are praised; perform badly and we’re in trouble. Then we get a job and the whole saga continues. Reward for good work, consequences for poor performance. So when we’re told that God will give us something for nothing, our minds and our hearts can’t really take it in. It’s like the first time a kid hears about trick-or-treating, as described by the comedian, Jerry Seinfeld.

Remember the first time you heard about Halloween, your brain can’t even . . . what is this? Who’s giving out candy? EVERYONE WE KNOW IS GIVING OUT CANDY?! I gotta be part of this. Take me with you! I’ll do anything they want . . . (pregnant pause) . . . I can wear that! (Cue laughter)

Free candy? Impossible. Because we struggle to believe in free.


Ever received one of those letters announcing that you’ve won a FREE prize? It doesn’t take long to ask, ‘what’s the catch?’ Because there’s always a catch. No one just gives stuff away. Not without an ulterior motive. And so it is with our response to grace. We’re looking for the ulterior motive, when the only motive is love.

Could it also be the case that we pride ourselves on our faith? Grace may be free, but to receive it, you must have faith. So you see, we do contribute in some way. How clever we are to have figured out the gospel. It’s not such a small step to continue along this road . . . and how clever we are to live better lives than others. Surely God must approve and credit to our account some of our good choices. Law-keeping is so embedded in us, we can’t or we won’t let it go.

Little wonder, then, that we can describe what grace is, we can recite the theology, but it’s so counter to our human experience that we struggle to accept it in our hearts. We know it’s true, but for many, it just doesn’t seem real. So we struggle to apply it in our own lives. This is why the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 is so instructive . . . and damning. The forgiven servant, the man who has been forgiven an astronomical debt, appears to have no understanding of how this should shape his life. The church is littered with such people, and if I’m honest, I’m sometimes one of them. Make no mistake, I’m as guilty as the next person.

  • Not only do we judge others harshly, but we allow a judgemental attitude to reside deep in our hearts. Well, after behaving like that, they deserve it, don’t they?!

  • We continue to believe that good people should prosper and bad people should suffer. Well, they deserve to suffer, don’t they? We’ve read Job, but we’ve forgotten that God condemns this attitude in Job’s friends.

  • We can’t help believing that if we behave well, God should bless us. And I don’t mean that when we make good choices, good things should naturally come to us. I mean, that God should answer our prayers. We deserve a healthy serving of his grace and favour because of our virtue. Why isn’t he answering me when I’ve been faithful to my calling?

  • As for the parable in Matthew 20, in which vineyard workers who arrive late are paid the same as those who’ve worked all day, well, that continues to sound absurd. Why does the vineyard owner treat the latecomers the same as those who’ve worked all day? That’s unfair. Just as it feels unfair that a repentant sinner aged eighty receives grace after a life of greed and selfishness while ‘good life-long Christians’ receive the same grace.

Why do we think and behave in these ways? Why do these errant thoughts and attitudes linger in our hearts when the entire focus of the biblical account is supposed to lead us the jewel at its centre: God’s grace.

I don’t think he understands.

Perhaps we should start there. Grace is otherworldly. It is a jewel of such shining brilliance that it blinds us with its wonder and beauty. Certainly, the Lord desires that we grasp the idea with our heads, but grace is something we receive in our hearts. It is a gift and we receive it by faith.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Eph 2.8-9

We must cast ourselves before the Lord, confessing our inability to take in the enormity of his gift, the overwhelming nature of his love, and pour out our thanks. In response, we would do well to bow before his throne with grateful hearts, and worship.

And what is the source of this gift? How was it created? How was it achieved?

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

1 Peter 2.24

Dare I say it but this beautiful gift was achieved for us by . . . trading places. A free gift that cost everything. So receive it. For when we live by law, we steal from ourselves. How shameful. We act like Billy Ray. And we do more than demonstrate our lack of understanding, we denigrate the sacrifice of our Lord.

So, today I invite you to live in God’s grace. To revel in its wonder. Be thankful for the riches you have in Christ Jesus, and when you reach the point where you just can’t take it in, then bow down in worship before your holy God. Ask him for eyes to see and ears to hear. Then receive by faith. For only by so doing will you be able to extend this beautiful gift to others.

For by grace you have been saved.

How amazing is that?!


[i] - This list is not exhaustive, of course.


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