I scuttled my scheduled sermon Sunday and instead offered this to the congregation. The message is about God’s grace. I read two books last week on grace and I got to thinking that perhaps I had not spoken enough about grace. My heart was overwhelmed as I read those books and Scripture. I offered this to the congregation.–jerry
October 21, 2007
Sinners in the Hands of a Graceful God
The Gospel According to Romans
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness; because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves: for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due. And even as they refused to have God in knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them.” (Romans 1:18-32)
I’m coming to you this morning from a particular point of view that I grant you may sound somewhat strange. But the truth is that I did some thinking this past week while I drove to Cincy for my class, and while I was in my class, and while I was in my dorm room between class. I also thought while I started preparing for the next class I will take: Doctrine of Grace. My preparation consisted of reading two books. One, an older book by a man named K C Moser, The Gist of Romans, and the other by Max Lucado, In the Grip of Grace. I thought about it while I drove to Cincy and listened to a radio program called White Horse Inn and the four co-hosts spoke about grace. I thought about it while reflected on the sermons I have preached this year, last year, the year before, and as I began preparing my thoughts for what I want to preach in the coming year.
I have been thinking about grace. As I reflected, I honestly cannot recall that I have mentioned grace to you this year. Maybe I have and simply don’t remember it, but how often have I said to you: You are not saved by what you do, but by what God offers? Maybe some of you are under the impression that I have been making the case that in order for you to be saved, to be right with God, you must do this, that, this, that, go here, there, and be a perfect person by your own power. Maybe I have somehow, inadvertently, neglected this most significant aspect of Scripture—a feature, more than a feature, that actually goes back to the garden of Eden, back to the days of the call of Abraham.
Sad to say: I have neglected grace and I don’t know why.
Maybe I have mentioned grace before. I don’t know. I don’t feel like I have mentioned grace a whole bunch. How could anyone forget to mention that which is first and foremost in importance in the realm of Christianity?
Look, I have spent a great deal of time telling you about the dangers of this world we live in. I have spent a great deal of time telling you about the dangers of poor doctrine, and about the dangers of not having enough Jesus and not having enough of the cross. I have spent a great deal of time telling you about the dangers of a lot of the religion that is floating around in a lot of churches nowadays. But have I talked to you about grace? Have I stood up here and said you to: You are not going to be perfect when you accept Christ and you are not going to be perfect after you accept Christ and that you are not going to be in any better condition to accept Jesus than you are in right now.
I have not told you that have I?
You see I think a lot of people are waiting on something. They are waiting on a sign from heaven or for everything in their lives to be right and then they will come to Jesus—on their terms.
Have I really neglected to tell you about grace?
I had a friend at my last church. He would worship, but he wouldn’t take communion. I asked him why? He said, “I’m waiting until I can go through an entire day without sinning before I take communion.” I shook my head and said, “That will never happen. You’ll never take communion.”
But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus. Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? of works? Nay: but by a law of faith. We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yea, of Gentiles also: if so be that God is one, and he shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish the law. (Romans 3:21-31)
Have I really failed to mention this to you? I’m sorry. I should have been telling you about grace.
Look, what I mean is this: We have all done the wrong thing. We are all going to do the wrong thing. It’s not the wrong thing that prevents us from coming to God: It’s our stubborn refusal to come to God. I think sometimes we would rather cling to our sin, cling to our pride, than to admit that there is something that God wants to do for us that we simply cannot do for ourselves. What does this mean? It means that God holds out to us life, gift wraps it, practically shoves it down our throats, and we refuse it. Sadly, God gives us everything we need for life, liberty, happiness, peace, and hope—and we refuse it. Why?
Have I told you about grace? Have I defined it for you? Have I given you a clue as to its beauty, its magnificence, its grandeur; it’s free?
Do you know that God makes no demands of you: Believe in him and have life is what he says. We talked about this when we studied John’s Gospel because Jesus said things like that all the time. In me is life. Drink me. Eat my flesh and drink my blood—are simply ways of saying: Believe in me! For God so loved the World that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever Believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. What’s he saying? Have faith. By grace you have been saved through faith.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, hath found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God. For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom, the Lord will not reckon sin. Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness. How then was it reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision: and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned unto them; and the father of circumcision to them who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision. For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:1-13)
There is no doubt we are all guilty.
There is no doubt that we truly deserve to be punished—experience the wrath of God up close, first hand.
There is no doubt that we ourselves can do nothing about it.
There is no doubt that Abraham was justified on the basis of his faith in God’s grace.
There is no doubt that if we hope to be saved we must look to Jesus and His cross work.
There is no doubt that we are all guilty and can do nothing about it and that if we hope to be saved, if we hope to be right with God, then we are in need of God’s grace. We are in need of something from outside of ourselves.
What must we do to be saved?
In whom, or in what, must we put our trust?
Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us. For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from the wrath of God through him. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life; and not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-11)
I think we try to hard: Those who are saved try to hard, those who are not saved try to hard. We think God is impressed if we can, if we will, and if we do even though we can’t, we won’t, and we don’t. Do we really think we can win Him over by obeying this or that when he has made it abundantly clear that we simply cannot?
We put our faith in Christ, the Sin-offering. We put our trust in His work for us on the cross.
God saved us while we were yet sinners. God looked on us with mercy and delivered us by grace. God looked on us wretches and saved us through the work of His Only Son Jesus on the cross. We deserve punishment, but Christ Jesus has taken the punishment upon himself: He took it upon himself.
I want to share a personal story with you to illustrate grace. I thought about grace one other time this week as I reflected on an episode from my childhood. I’m mortified to this day that I was as young as I was—more so now that J* is the same age.
The preacher from my home church was to be the dean at the week of camp. My younger brother was going to the week as a camper. I was going to the week as a helper—I would be working in the kitchen, cleaning floors, taking out the trash. This was the most popular week of camp there was back when I was a kid. Everyone wanted to go to B* week of camp. We took a whole busload of kids down from the church: Campers, helpers, adult helpers. It was the good old days of church camp.
I had a bright idea. I was all of fourteen or fifteen. I was incredibly stupid. I had a bright idea. The week before I had, along with another friend, procured a bottle of whiskey. I was fourteen or fifteen, but it was alcohol. We drank some the week or so before—I remember because the week or so before the Fair was in town. I drank some of the whiskey then. I kept the rest of it in a cleaned out peanut butter jar—about half the jar. I took it and stowed it away. I took it with me to church camp.
Some time Friday evening, the day before we were to get up and go home, I opened the peanut butter jar of whiskey and did enough shots, mixed with diet coke, to render my fourteen year old body excessively inebriated—and then I drank more. Suffice it to say that I was drunk beyond imagination.
I ran around for a while. Said and did a lot of stupid things. Then went back to my dorm and began playing chess with some friends. Before long, in came the dean, B*, the most popular dean, the preacher from my home church. “Jerry, were you drinking tonight?” “Yes.” A couple of hours later, my parents were at the camp. Soon after, we were making the long trip from Camp to my home.
I remember, strangely, everything about that night, everything about the experience. I have forgotten not a detail. I remember what I drank the shots from—it was a plastic film case. I remember mixing the whiskey with diet coke. I remember B* walking into dorm 4 to confront me. I remember the next morning sitting at the table in my parent’s house and my dad asking me, “Do you want some coffee?” I remember my parents taking away all of my music—thinking that somehow my music had caused me to be so stupid. But there was something else I remember too: Aside from losing my music, and probably some grounding, I was not punished. My dad had every reason in the world to beat me senseless and yet he didn’t. I can remember getting in far more trouble as a kid for simply running my mouth back to my mother. But for this, I didn’t.
The next day, Sunday, we had to go to worship. Dad was a deacon; he had to serve the next day. Do you think that was hard? Do you think that wasn’t embarrassing? You know, the church had every right to ask my dad to step down as a deacon. They didn’t. The church had every reason to ask us not to worship with them any longer, they didn’t. The preacher, B*, had every reason to hate me (I had embarassed the entire church) and my family—he didn’t. The members of the church had every reason to ostracize and speak ill of me, my mom, my dad, my family and yet one of the first things one of the church members did was hug my mom, weep with her, and tell her, “It’s going to be alright.”
The camp had every reason to ban us for life. They didn’t.
The church had every reason in the world to consider us nothing but the most viral bacteria growing on the underside of a log. But years later, even when the church knew about me—because that was, sadly, only the first of many episodes of my drinking whiskey—even then, the church did not condemn or abandon or hate me or my family. When I went to Bible college, it was the church there that gave me scholarship money. When R* was sick, it was B* Bible school class that sent us money for food. It was they who ordained me to preach. It was they who suffered with us when R* was sick. Listen, I could go on and on and on about the grace that the FCOC in E* has shown to me—despite knowing what they know, in spite of what I did.
I know why they did it. I certainly didn’t deserve it. If every anybody on the planet has not deserved to be treated so well, be so blessed, by a church it was me.
That, my friends, is how I understand grace. There’s nothing I could do to earn any of this from the church: clearly I was a rebel.
There is nothing I can do to earn the grace of God: Not before I’m saved, not after I’m saved. Grace is grace precisely because it is free. It is grace precisely because there is nothing I can do to earn it. Grace is grace precisely because it is grace.
I think we try to hard. Those who know Christ try to hard. Those who don’t try to hard. If you want to work Paul also wrote this: “The wages of sin is death…” If you want to try to earn something, all you can hope for is death.
But he also said this: “…but the grace gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” If you want eternal life, you cannot earn it. You simply have to trust God for it.
I’d like to invite you today to share in God’s grace, to partake of the free gift of eternal life. But I won’t beg you anymore than He will. It’s there for the taking. It’s free.
Friends, In part two of this short series (a series I will take up again in the month of December) we are focussing on grace in action. Can God’s grace run out? Should ours? We will look primarily at Romans, but other passages are read as well. jerry
The Limits of God’s Grace: Does Grace Exhaust Itself?
John 8:1-8; Matthew 18:21-35
Grace in Action, pt 2
I understand what we are all looking for this morning: A continuation of the subject of Suffering from Matthew’s Gospel. And I was fully ready to preach about that weighty subject this morning. Then, on a whim, I visited a website of a friend, Jeff, the atheist, who had posted a blog about the members of the Westboro Baptist Church—the church made famous for picketing funerals of dead American soldiers and carrying signs that say things like “God hates you” and other things. They are being sued. My friend Jeff thought this was good fodder to prove that Christianity is bunk and that all practitioners of biblical Christianity are prone to become such fundamentalist, hateful zealots as the members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
But then, as I was replying to Jeff’s post, I found myself drifting away from his topic and towards another topic: grace. Then my entire reply turned on this word that has been holding me hostage for the last month or so. I don’t know what is happening to me, but the more I think about grace, the more I find myself challenging cherished doctrines and my own carefully worked out theological system. I don’t know why I’m thinking about it. I’m reading books about it as I prepare for a class I’m taking next year, but other than that—I’m a victim! I even came to realize this past week, that when it get’s down to it, I don’t have to be perfect. I actually remembered Paul’s words to the Romans: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master they stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
In other words, not only am I thinking about how grace has played a factor in my life, but I am thinking carefully about the nature of the grace I am showing to others in their lives. It’s frightening what happens to a person when they are set free from these shackles of ‘please me’, ‘please you’, ‘please everyone.’ It’s amazing what happens when grace starts to matter.
But what are the limits of grace? How far does grace go? How far does it extend? Can we exhaust God’s grace in Christ?
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11″No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
What else did she have to cling to? To what else could she hold? All she had to go on here was Jesus’ words, “Then neither do I condemn you.” She had nothing else, no one else.
What else do we have to cling to? What else can I hold on to? All I have is Jesus standing over me saying, “Neither do I condemn you.” What does this mean other than there is nothing I can do to merit this? The woman was still guilty of sin. That cannot be taken away. The woman had been caught—regardless of whatever else we might think about this story—the woman had been caught. To what could she appeal? Her good looks? Her life at most other times, that is, when she wasn’t caught? Could she appeal to her name, her upbringing, her Jewishness, the law? No, she was guilty. Jesus didn’t even challenge her guilt, or the right of those who caught her to punish.
But Jesus demonstrated his grace: Go now and leave your life of sin.
So not only did Jesus give this woman forgiveness, but he gave her reason to be able to leave her life of sin. I submit to you that grace, by it’s very nature, is power to overcome sin. I don’t know what happened to this particular, unnamed woman in this story. All I know is that Jesus forgave her and in doing so he ultimately set her free: Free from guilt, free from power. He liberated her.
But there may be times when we don’t fully understand the grace of God. There may be times when grace is just a little disturbing. How gracious should we be?
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Here’s the question: Is this grace that the Lord calls upon us to demonstrate in our lives towards others an indication of the nature of the grace that God himself shows us?
The reason I ask is this, and I confess that this sounds a bit crass, but here’s what I’m getting at: How many times does God forgive? How much grace is there? How sufficient is God’s grace when it comes to us, you and me, them? Is there a limit? Is there a giant meter that will one day ring and announce that God has none left for us?
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.”
Interestingly enough, this story begins with these words: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” Does this mean that what God expects to be nomative in our lives is normative for his kingdom? How dangerous is this grace we are talking about? What does Scripture really mean when it mentions this grace? This story starts with the words ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is like…’ and then he tells a story about the way we treat one another!
Or, worse, if we are the kingdom of God, does this mean that such grace is normative for us? Well, if such grace is normative for us to experience, and it is normative for us to practice, then who is to stop anyone from taking advantage of us? Who is to stop anyone from hurting us on Monday morning coming back Monday afternoon asking for forgiveness and starting all over again on Tuesday morning? The bottom line is that we are sitting ducks, ripe for the picking, reading to be turned over, taken advantage of, and having our kindness and generosity abused at every possible turn. My Goodness! What sort of people does God really expect us to be?
Is it too easy to say that God expects us to be the very sort of people as the God we belong to? Is it too easy to say that God expects us to be the very sort of people towards others that God has been to us? Seriously. If I asked who among us sinned this week all of us would raise our hands. If I asked who repented and asked God for forgiveness all of us would raise our hands. And if I asked who repeated the same cycle the next day—who among us thinks that God asked more of us on Tuesday than he did on Monday? Who among us thinks that God showed us grace on Monday, but on Tuesday he demanded a couple of ‘Our Father’s’ and a few more ‘Hail Mary’s’? Who among us thinks that by Wednesday were were needing to sign up for an overseas trip to work off the debt that we owed God because of our sin? Who of thinks that by Thursday we needed to enter a convent or monastery? And who among us thinks that by Friday we had been cut-off from Israel? By Saturday going to hell?
Do we really enslave ourselves with such thoughts? Do we really think that God’s grace is any less today than it was yesterday? Do we really think that God will think more highly of us than he did at the first? What sort of faith is this we practice where we are in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out? Is Christianity really just cosmic hokey-pokey?
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
So, who then can be saved? Here’s the paradox: John says in his letter that those who say they are without sin, make God out to be a liar (1 John 1:10). Then John says a mere sentence later, “I write this so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the Atoning Sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Then later in the fifth chapter he writes this: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.
In short, we have this:
1. We cannot deny that we sin because God has said we do.
2. John wrote so that we won’t sin, but he acknowledges we will sin.
3. John writes that we cannot continue to sin if we are born of God.
It’s all very confusing. How shall we live? Will we, won’t we, can we? What will happen if we do? What is the basis of our salvation? Are we saved because of the righteous things we do? Paul wrote to Titus:
3At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
Or maybe we read it this way in Galatians:
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! 10Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Do you think that if we are saved originally by grace that after we are saved by grace God all of the sudden changes the plan? That is, after God saves us ‘while we are yet sinners’ does he continue to save us each day on the basis of our meritorious behavior? Or does God continue to save us each day on the basis of his grace?
If I was saved by grace yesterday, am I any less saved by grace today? So the Scripture agrees: If I am saved by grace before I am Christian I am not less saved by that grace after I become a Christian. I’m not saved because I am a Christian, or because I attend the right church, or perform the right rituals, or because I ‘go to church on Sundays.’ I am saved by the grace of God. Period.
So what is the limits of grace? Who can be saved? Surely this is not a liscence to sin. No, Paul says, “May it never be!” We should not take advantage of God’s grace just because we are aware of God’s grace. There’s no room for such hypocrisy even if we must admit that we do indeed, and will indeed, continue to sin so long as we remain in this unperfected state.
But if God allows us in the church, who else? If I curse today and repent am I unforgiven or forgiven? If I lust after a woman today and repent am I forgiven?
If you get angry today, and repent, will you be forgiven? What if you get angry tomorrow and repent? Will you be forgiven? What are the limits of grace?
Let’s raise the stakes. If a homosexual belongs to Christ today and tomorrow fails and then repents are they forgiven or do they forfeit their salvation? I’m talking about a homosexual in the sense that you and I are guilty of lust and anger and cursing and gossip and more. You know, they repented long ago, but, like Paul with his coveting in Romans 7, they lapse and do ‘what they don’t want to do.’ Are they forgiven any less than you for hating your neighbor who won’t rake his leaves or than you for drinking too much caffeine or too much beer or you for acting like a snotty brat towards a cashier at Fashion Bug or you for being a lousy tipper because the waittress was having a bad day and forgot your creamers—you know we all have grudges we bear against others don’t we?
I’m not making blanket statements. I’m asking you to probe the depths of God’s grace which really means that we must probe the depths of our own sin. And if to our own master each servant stands, then what are the limits of God’s grace? What about the prostitute who gets caught, repents, leaves her life of sin Monday—sincerely, without sham—and later lapses, say on Wednesday and then repents—sincerely, without sham—and then lapses again a year later and then repents? What are the limits of God’s grace?
Let me put it to you this way—and please understand that I am making a sincere distinction between the repentant and the unrepentant—but, let me ask it this way. We all know ourselves, what we are capable of, the things we do that we carry around inside of us, the things we don’t want anyone to know about—we all know ourselves all too well. Well, how much grace do we want God to show us? What are the limits of God’s grace towards us?
And if that limit is rather generous, say 70 times 7, do you think that our grace towards others should be any less? If we expect so much grace from God to cover our lust, anger, adultery, idolatry, beer drinking, cigarette smoking, television watching, overeating, our atheism, cursing, greed, workaholism, selfishness, ambition, despairing, faithlessness, prayerlessness, stinginess, gracelessness, and how much more?—don’t you think that same grace ought to be afforded to everyone else, not least one another?
Do we not all struggle? Does not every single one of us, saved by the blood of the Lamb, baptized into the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, worshipers of the One God, Readers of the Bible, Followers of Jesus, Prayers in the Spirit—does not every single one of us struggle against the flesh? Is it not a constant, day after day, minute after minute struggle against the flesh, to take every single thought captive unto Christ? Do you see how dangerous is this grace? Do you see how terrifying this is? We might have to actually forgive people that we are certain deserve hell for the manner in which they have offended—not only God—us? Do you see that we might just have to rethink the manner in which we have conducted this entire sordid affair of ours.
We will have to rethink what it means to be forgiving and gracious if we actually take time to examine ourselves. Isn’t that what the apostle says we must do before we break break: Let everyone examine himself. Don’t we check this nook and that cranny and then decide that even then we are unworthy to break the Body and drink the Blood? And to whom should we thus deny the supper?
I’m not advocating anarchy—although it sounds dangerously close. I’m not saying that God has no standards or that every single person is saved by divine fiat regardless of their decision to repent of sin and trust in Christ’s sacrifice. I am saying that in the church grace has meaning precisely because are a body created by grace, forged in grace, and perservering in grace; sustained in grace. And we hope to make it to the place where grace rules the day.
39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I think this is the sort of grace that is appropriate for the church.