Tim Keller, speaking about the gospel, says that if you think you really, really understand the gospel ... you don't. If you really think that you haven't even begun to understand the gospel ... you do. What he is getting at is that there has to be a lifelong process of more and more deeply realising the wonder of the gospel. This week it has occurred to me that the same applies to grace. If I
approach this subject thinking that I can do it any justice in half an hour, that I can sew it all up so that at the end of this talk I can say: "Well, now they know what grace is" ... then I really don't understand grace at all. But if I come to it thinking: "After 20 years of preaching grace, and 56 years of experiencing grace, I don't even know where to begin" ... then God might be able to speak a fresh word to me and to us on grace.
On Good Friday my text was from Jonah 2:9 “Salvation comes from the Lord.” That is grace, isn't it? Salvation is of the Lord ... it doesn't come from me or anything I do.
On Easter Sunday my text was John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Again ... pure grace ... God (Father and Son) do everything, why? ... because salvation is of the Lord.
My text today is Ephesians 2:8-10 "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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
What I'm saying today is that if we think we fully understand all this ... we don't! If the wonder of grace surprises us afresh today ... then we are beginning to understand these things. (As an aside, those of you doing my course on The Sermon on the Mount will hear strong echoes here of what it means to be spiritually poor)
Sticking with salvation by faith alone, let me say something that you will hear me say repeatedly: Religion is ... I obey therefore I am accepted. The gospel is ... I'm accepted through what Jesus Christ has done for me, therefore I obey.
Now, religion gives you some kind of control, that's why its so popular ... it plays into our selfishness: "This is how I'm going to live out my religious life" ... generally choosing those parts of the Bible I like and agree with, but leaving out or ignoring those parts that I don't like, or that might actually cost me something. Many people find the idea of salvation by grace alone, scary ... here's why: If I'm saved by my works, I have some control. I become like a taxpayer, and there's a limit to what God can ask of me. I have rights ... and I've worked very hard and He can't just ask anything of me. But if I'm saved by sheer grace, there's no limit to what He can ask of me. If I'm saved by works then it's kind of tit for tat ... but if by grace, there's no room for tit for tat.
I struggled for a long time with the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God calls on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in a burnt offering. When I preached on it I would ask the question (always saying: Don't answer aloud): "Who wants a father like that?" Then one day someone opened my eyes to the grace in that story: He said, Imagine Isaac, lying on the fire waiting to be lit ... his father lifting the knife that would kill him ... imagine all this, and on his lips these words: "Father, is there nothing He cannot ask of you?" and Abraham answers, "Nothing." Many people therefore find grace scary, because if I'm saved by my works then I have some control. But if I'm saved by grace ... there is nothing He cannot ask of me.
This is why, when you receive the gospel and you pass your salvation by grace through faith alone exam, when you say I understand I'm saved by grace and not by works, and I ask Jesus into my heart and I ask that He will accept me because of what He has done and not because of what I have done, I want my relationship with God to be based on Jesus past and not on my past, on Jesus record not my record .... I get it, I get it!! No, you don't. I'll baptise you, you're a Christian, but you haven't even begun to get it.
Grace is a huge subject, isn't it? And, some of our definitions of grace aren't always that helpful. For example, google "God's grace" and this is what you find:
Grace is free, sovereign favour to the undeserving;
grace is God reaching down to people who are in rebellion against him;
grace is unconditional love towards a person who does not deserve it;
grace is God's unmerited favour;
God's grace is God's goodness to those who deserve only punishment.
Do you notice something about all these definitions: Each of them emphasises and accentuates our undeservedness.
Let's try this: Think of a song/hymn you know about grace, first one that comes to mind ... Not that one ...only joking, that one is fine for what I am illustrating, because its second line is
[Amazing grace how sweet the sound]
That saved a wretch like me
Can we only understand God's grace through the lens of our own badness, our wickedness. If so, we're in serious trouble; firstly because it means any preaching on grace must then always be preceded by a reminder of how bad we are ... and that's a real problem if the church's job becomes telling people how bad they are ... in fact, they are tired of us telling them how bad they are, especially when they notice how bad we are.
But we're in trouble for another reason, and that is Jesus' way of ministry was never, never, to tell or remind people how bad they were ... this was one of the reasons the religious people said things like "If He knew who that woman washing his feet was, he would have nothing to do with her" ... that is how religion works, but it is not how the gospel works. We must find a better way to define grace, otherwise it can come to mean that we are just very lucky that God feels the way He does! Now, grace does in fact mean all the things mentioned above, but they are not what lie behind the meaning of the word in the NT. In the NT grace does not focus on the dark side of humans; grace is not about God wanting to constantly remind us how good He is and how lucky we are; that God can't be good and kind and loving towards us without first reminding us how bad we are. Something like the adoptive parent reminding the child what life would have been like if it weren't for the parent.
This is not what grace is in the NT.
In the NT grace follows love, rather than preceding it; God is gracious because He loves us. He doesn't love us because He is gracious:
"Humph, I've shown grace to them so now I better love them."
"I love them, therefore I will shower grace on them."
Grace emerges from God's love, not from God's anger ...
"I am so angry with them, but I've decided to be gracious to them."
Grace emerges from God's love and is always about God's deep desire to liberate us from ourselves and from the way of the world. God doesn't want to constantly remind us that we don't deserve to be in fellowship with Him. He has come to set us free from guilt and condemnation (Rm 8:1), why let our definition of the grace that sets us free be something that reminds us of our guilt and condemnation? Grace is a love-powered doctrine, rather than a reminder-powered doctrine.
Having said that, let me say that grace is far more than a doctrine; far more than something to be understood or explained. Grace is created, generated and empowered by God's love and is a transforming power that takes sinners and makes them saints... that's the story of grace.
I close with a few words from New Testament scholar, Scot McNight, which sum up some of the wonder of grace:
Love shapes grace. Grace is not negative ... it is God's love to commit Himself to us, and to be with us in Christ and to be for us in the cross and resurrection in such a way that when we spend time with Him we become like Him. Grace is the transforming power of God at work in us and the world. It is God's commitment to take us from where we are to where God wants us to be. Grace is God's transforming power in us. It is grace to be in the church and given a responsibility in the church. Grace is God's saving transforming power in us to turn sinners into saints so we can flourish; Grace is the invasion of life in the realms of death; the power of God at work in us so that we can do things never imagined before; the gift of God, not something we earn. Grace is the act of God's love to draw near to us so that we can experience life's greatest desires and become all that God meant us to be.
Let me conclude:
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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Grace flows from God's love and is given freely by God ... there is no tit for tat; no quid pro quo.
Grace is often resisted exactly because it flows freely and one-sidedly from God ... our sinful human nature is suspicious of anything which claims to be free.
When not resisted, Grace is a transforming power within you, changing us and renewing us into the likeness of Christ.
In the grip of grace, we become people who will do anything God asks us.
Grace ... what a HUGE subject, and I've only scratched the surface.
We close with a beautiful song, Power of Your Love. I encourage you to sing it as a prayer, where ever you are in your faith walk. If you aren't a Christian, I'm not going to ask you today to become one ... I am going to ask you to ask God to give you an experience of His grace. If you are a Christian, we've learnt that only by His grace can we do anything ... so let's ask Him for His grace again .......
Lord I come to You
Let my heart be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace
That I've found in You
Let my heart be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace
That I've found in You