Here are some thoughts on grace. I just cannot believe, at times, how abundant God’s grace is. Strangely enough, I think it is the church many times that is most afraid of this grace. My prayer is that the church will learn grace not only saves but that it empowers us to live freely. Too often the church condemns to hell those whom God has not condemned to hell. The church needs to recover the message of grace and soon or there will be no one left to enjoy what God has planned for those who love him, for those He will save through Christ.
There is a real sense in which grace is simply wasteful. That which is freely given can be abused, discarded, and rejected; grace can be scorned. The irony is that for some reason we are prone to reject that which we have no inherent claim to in the first place. It is the Lord who gets the bad end of this deal so to speak. Grace scarcely makes sense to the saved, much less the lost. Sadly, it is Christians, the very ones who are the beneficiaries of this saving grace, who misunderstand it the most. I am included.
I have been preaching now for roughly 13 years. I have a Bible college degree. I have been a Christian since I was 13. I have hardly missed a day of worship, a summer of church camp, or a day of Bible school since I was 5. Despite this remarkable list of credentials, I am not convinced that I had any inkling of what grace really means until about two months ago. It was there in plain sight yet I missed it. I have preached sermons about it. I have claimed to be saved by it. Yet for all this I was still oblivious. It was one thing to believe that I was saved by grace; however, it was something entirely different to believe that I continued to be saved by it. I always thought that God did the hard part and it was up to me to work it out with fear and trembling.
I call it salvation hokey-pokey. And it is terribly difficult to stay in.
The problem is that I do not believe the Enemy had any intention of allowing me to know what grace was let alone see it in is abundance, sufficient for salvation and sufficient for living. That is a fine game for him to play: keep people blind, oblivious, working, working, working. People who are so busy working out (earning) their salvation have very little time left to actually enjoy it let alone give praise to the one who qualifies them for it in Christ.. As such I did not even realize that I was trying to climb out of a hole that I could never climb out of. I was trying too hard and enjoying no rest. It is not easy constantly reminding oneself of their guilt and thrashing about inside that guilt trying to make amends that can never be made, trying to win approval already granted, trying to re-qualify for a race already qualified for on the basis of someone else’s effort. Sometimes it is much, much easier to live by rules and regulations than it is to live by grace. It is nearly impossible at times to believe that God is willing to continue loving me in spite of me or precisely because of me. In this sense, grace seems wasteful. Now I am beginning to understand Annie Dillard’s words, “Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 82)
Needless to say, grace is now the prime-mover in my life. Whereas at one time grace was ‘there’, but not, now I cannot stop thinking about it. I see grace in places where I had not imagined it before. I keep finding myself talking about grace in sermons even when I had not planned on talking about grace. It is not nearly as difficult now to offer an invitation at the end of a sermon because now it doesn’t sound so formulaic, so contrived, so forced. Now invitations at the end, the beginning, or in the middle of a sermon are invitations not to a list of chores and a life of drudgery but rather to the freeing love of God both for salvation and being saved. Not only is this true, but even the manner in which I understand Scripture has changed. Again, I see grace where I had not seen it before.
Just this past weekend, I preached from Colossians 2:16-23. I took two extra weeks preparing for this sermon because I could not figure out what Paul was saying even if what he was saying was clear. The passage was not making sense until I remembered what Paul said at the beginning and end of the letter: Grace! (1:2, 4:18). It is rather simple to understand what Paul is saying in these verses (16-23) if they are approached with an understanding of grace: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthen in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (2:6-7, NIV). More than one commentator suggested these are the ‘theme’ verses of the letter. Not ironically, then, Paul next writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:8). This thought is continued in 2:16-23. His point, I believe, is that when we allow people to pile on us rule after rule after rule we are effectively and essentially declaring our independence from God’s grace. “These things are shadows…he has lost connection with the Head…they are destined to perish…they lack any value in restraining the flesh” (2:17, 19, 22, 23).
When we submit to those who impose such regulations we are declaring that Christ is not enough, that he is insufficient. This is not living in Christ as we received him. This is not living free. This is salvation by slavery which is no salvation at all. This passage, in my estimation, makes little sense apart from grace and 6 months ago it is likely I would have missed this altogether. In the grip of grace, preaching has taken on a whole new life, has a renewed stamina, and new vibrancy. Knowing and understanding grace has altered my objectives in preaching because preaching has taken on an entirely different meaning in light of grace.
Another aspect of my life that has been radically altered by grace is in my relationships with others. This has only just started working itself out in any tangible way, but this is of major importance in my work as a minister of Christ. In a word, I am free now to love without an agenda. Now I can be as much a giver of grace as a receiver. I can be free with everyone and demonstrate the same freeing grace that God has shown me. If grace happens to appear wasteful at the moment that is fine and presents no problems. I can love not because everyone is particularly lovable but because grace loves. Practically speaking, grace has not only freed me from judgment but it has freed me from judgmentalism and this, I should add, is as freeing as being set free. I did not even realize how judgmental I was until I learned that grace is not just for saving but also for living. People do not have to conform to my rules, my standards, my objectives in order for me to love them. My love for others is now proactive. It reaches out before being reached to. It is most remarkable being freed from the notion that others must live up to my standards of holiness and rightness in order to be considered God’s child. “Judging requires that you think yourself superior over the one you judge.” (William P Young, The Shack, 159) Colossians 2:16-23 taught me that if I am saved by grace, and so also everyone who is saved, then the only opinion of anyone that matters is that of Christ Jesus, and I am not Him.
There is an older couple who recently left the church I serve. Their departure has been terribly difficult for me because the rumor as to why they left evidently had something to do with the most recent church budget and a certain line that had something to do with my education expenses. I have put off visiting them for 4 months because I have had no idea what I should say and I did not want to say the wrong thing, and given the closeness of our relationship at one time and my typical prone-to-defensiveness, reactive nature, I was bound to say something wrong. What I have learned is that I can go to them without an agenda. I do not have to go and ‘win them back’ or ‘persuade them to return’. Nor do I have to think that they are somehow apostate because they have chosen to worship elsewhere—even if their reasons for doing so are strange. Instead, I can go to them and offer them my love regardless of the outcome of the conversation. I do not have to have a particular agenda in mind. I can love them, comfort them (the husband has cancer), encourage them, and pray for them. I can demonstrate grace because it does not matter if I am to blame or not. What matters is grace and it is grace that I will speak of when I visit them this week. “Let your conversations be always full of grace” (Colossians 4:6a).
I read a book last week called The Shack. This remarkable book contains a lot of dialogue, but one particularly short section near the end really rattled me.
“Mackenzie!” she chided, her words flowing with affection. “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other. My goodness, you didn’t think you could live the righteousness of God on your own, did you?”
“Well, I thought so, sorta…” he said sheepishly. “But you gotta admit, rules and principles are simpler than relationships.”
“It is true that relationships are a whole lot messier than rules, but rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you.” (William P Young, The Shack, 197-198 )
The hardest part of grace for me is God. I, after all, know exactly where I have been, what I have done, and those I have hurt. I know myself all too well and I figure that if I know myself this well then God can only know me better. What gets me is that he wants me to be saved. What gets me even more is that he went out of his way to make certain it was a reality. It is hard, very hard, unbelievably hard at times to think that not only do I not have to make up for my sins but that ultimately I cannot. If the enabling power of God’s grace has freed me to love people, and to preach graciously, how much more has it freed me from the guilt of sin? And yet it is this very guilt that I seem to be reluctant to let go of.
Yet there it is. Philip Yancey comments, “Grace means that no mistake we make in life disqualifies us from God’s love. It means that no person is beyond redemption, no human stain beyond cleansing…Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance…When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent.” (Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World, 223) I think the reason why grace makes so much sense is because it makes no sense at all. “…God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to saved those who believe…we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Cor 1:21b, 23, NIV). This is what the world finds so difficult to believe. It is also what the church finds so difficult to believe. We thus end up worse than those ‘visitors’ in Colossae who piled rule after rule upon the church, worse than the Pharisees who in their haste to make disciples of law and order instead made children of hell, worse than the Judaizers in Galatia who insisted on a “Jesus…and” plan of salvation. I suspect this has, based on this evidence, always been a problem among those God calls.
I, no less than anyone else, struggle with grace. But I am learning. I am learning that God will not fail to finish in me the good work he began. The church needs to awaken to this message of God’s grace that is testified to abundantly in Scripture. Grace has taught me that God loves me and wants to save me. The question is whether I will let him do so or not, and on his terms. Grace may be difficult to understand. It may be wasteful by human standards. At the end of the day, however, we have nothing else to cling to. I am learning each day to trust that God loves me and His word to us in Christ that by grace we have been saved through faith. I am learning to trust that if in the course of writing a paper or a sermon I forget to capitalize all personal pronouns relating to God, he will not hate me and hold it over my head until I confess. I am learning that grace covers a multitude of sins. I am learning to trust Him for that which I cannot trust myself. Living free is far better than living in guilt. It frees me to love without an agenda. It frees me to be loved.
Annie Dillard wrote, “So many things have been shown me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 69)
Soli Deo Gloria!