This morning, we begin a three-week series of messages on the topic of "grace". Over these next three Sundays, we will be focusing our attention on this one single doctrine, because a correct understanding of God’s grace is at the center of our faith. It is absolutely foundational. A clear, accurate understanding of grace will tend to produce a strong, resilient, joyful Christian; while an uncertain or false understanding of the grace of God will tend to produce a weak, fearful, or even a resentful Christian. In fact, I’m not exaggerating when I say that a majority of the counseling issues I deal with as a pastor have to do with either a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the idea of God’s grace. It’s really that important.
But although grace is critically important, it’s also scarce. For example, perhaps you grew up in a home where grace was largely absent. What you heard from one or both of your parents was that nothing you ever did was good enough. You would always fall short, you could never perform well enough to gain their approval and acceptance. It’s not that your parents didn’t love you. More than likely, they thought they were doing the right thing by withholding praise and heaping on the criticism; they thought they were helping prepare you for life by emphasizing your flaws and failures, instead of your achievements and successes. Or maybe they were just repeating what their parents had taught them. But regardless, what you learned was that you’re not good enough. And when that kind of message gets burned into your mind during childhood, it’s awfully hard to erase.
Or you may come from a church background in which God’s grace was never mentioned. Instead, God was presented as a harsh, demanding taskmaster who would accept nothing less than flawless obedience. Instead of delighting in the lives of his people, He spent all of his time sitting on his throne, looking down on the earth, waiting for them to mess up. Then, with an angry scowl, he would punish them with some terrible misfortune. Or He would mark their transgression down in his book, keeping track of their sins to condemn them at the day of judgment. And if you messed up bad enough, you would lose your salvation. You would be rejected by God, cast out, banished.
What do these types of experiences and ideas produce? People who feel like they’re on a performance treadmill with God. People who feel like they can never gain God’s approval, no matter what they do, no matter how fast they run or how hard they work. People who feel rejected by God; people who are full of pain and shame; people who struggle with anger, and fear, and anxiety.
The good news is that these are distortions of the truth about God, not the reality. The good news is that God’s acceptance of us is completely unconditional. His love is offered freely and without cost. His favor toward us is given without respect to merit or demerit, worth or worthlessness, accomplishment or failure. We cannot earn God’s approval or his forgiveness, and the good news is that we don’t have to. Our behavior, good or bad, has absolutely no effect on God’s attitude toward us. We can’t cause Him to love us more by being good, or make Him love us less by being bad. His love for us, his affection toward us, and his acceptance of us are perfect and unchanging.
How is that possible? What about sin? Doesn’t God care about good and evil? Yes. God hates sin, including our sin. God hates evil. There will be a judgment day, and there is a hell, as well as a heaven. But the good news is that someone else has already suffered the penalty for sin in our place; someone else has already purchased God’s forgiveness on our behalf; someone else has already done everything necessary to earn God’s favor for us. That person is Jesus Christ. And when we place our trust in Christ for salvation, the guilt of our sin is transferred to Him, while the credit for His perfect obedience is transferred to us. We are accepted by God for Christ’s sake; not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us. And that’s why we don’t have to worry about losing God’s love and acceptance. We didn’t earn them in the first place; Christ did. His perfect life and substitutionary death are the grounds of our acceptance before God, and nothing we do can change that. Listen to what the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church at Rome:
"Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ’Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.’"
-- Romans 4:4-8
"It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy."
-- Romans 9:16
"And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace." -- Romans 11:6
It could hardly be clearer. Having a right standing before God does not depend on anything we do. Salvation is given "apart from works"; it "does not depend on man’s desire or effort." It is by grace, and not by works. What, then, is grace? It is "God’s free and unmerited favor, shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgment." In other words, the only qualification for receiving God’s grace is to be completely unqualified. Which includes every person who ever lived, because as Romans 3:23 tells us, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s put this in as stark terms as we possibly can. Timothy McVeigh. Six years ago, on April 19, 1995, at 9:01 a.m., Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb which destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In doing so, he ended the lives of 168 people, nineteen of them children, and became the worst mass murderer in American history. The suffering caused by this horrible crime, this single act of rage, is incalculable; not only of those who died or were injured, but of the families destroyed, the mothers and fathers ripped from their children, the children torn from their parents. And to this day, Timothy McVeigh has never expressed any remorse, or sorrow, or pity, or even regret. If ever there was a case deserving of the death penalty, this is it. In fact, Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be executed 3 ½ weeks from now, on May 16th.
And if, by some last minute act of grace and mercy between now and then, if God were to grant Timothy McVeigh repentance for his sins, and Timothy McVeigh were to seek forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ, then on May 16th, when the poison is injected into his veins to carry out the death sentence, he would walk into heaven and be welcomed by God as warmly and enthusiastically as any of us hope to be when we die. God would not receive him grudgingly, or reluctantly. On the contrary, God would be overjoyed to receive him. Why? Because the basis of our acceptance before God, and of our welcome into heaven, is the finished work of Christ on the cross. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with what we deserve. We can do nothing to add to Christ’s work, or detract from it; all we can do is receive it in faith. And anyone who comes to God on that basis, even a mass murderer like Timothy McVeigh, someone who caused so much pain and suffering, anyone who repents of their sin and seeks forgiveness in Jesus Christ, will be forgiven, and not only forgiven, but joyously welcomed, and enthusiastically embraced by God the Father.
Some of you recoil against that idea, that someone as thoroughly evil as this man could, in effect, get off scot-free. It’s morally offensive; it seems monstrously unjust. The idea that Timothy McVeigh could not only avoid the hell he so richly deserves, but that he could also receive eternal life, and enter into all the riches of heaven, and enjoy God’s love and acceptance too, seems very wrong. To think that God could treat him, someone guilty of such a heinous crime, in exactly the same way as he treats us, seems outrageous. Doesn’t it?
When we respond that way, we show that we are finally starting to understand the radical nature of God’s grace. Grace isn’t just a bit of help, a little assistance to make up the difference between what we’re able to do and what God requires. Grace isn’t God giving us credit for good intentions. Grace isn’t for basically good, and decent, and moral people who happen to fall a bit short of perfection (the kind of people we like to think we are). Grace is for helpless sinners who can do nothing to merit God’s favor, and who deserve only God’s wrath and judgment. In other words, every one of us.
"As it is written: ’There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ . . . But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." - Romans 3:10-12, 21-24
Are we guilty of the same crimes as Timothy McVeigh? No. But we are still guilty of sin, still guilty enough to deserve God’s condemnation and judgement. Our only hope, the only hope of anyone, regardless of what they have done, is to come to God through faith in Christ. "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: "and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
Until we understand that we have no advantage whatsoever over a Timothy McVeigh when we come to God, until we appreciate the depth of our own sin, until we recognize that we are just as deserving as anyone else of God’s wrath and judgment, until we recognize that the only thing we can claim before God is what Christ did, and what He deserves, then we won’t truly appreciate God’s grace. Still doubtful? Listen to what Paul says about himself:
"I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am," - 1 Corinthians 15:9-10
"Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ," - Ephesians 3:8
Paul, the author of much of the New Testament; perhaps the greatest church planter, and theologian, and preacher of all time; this Paul considered himself to be "less than the least of all God’s people." We cannot understand what Paul is saying unless we realize that he is not exaggerating. This is not false modesty. This is not depression or discouragement. This is a sober statement of spiritual truth. When Paul looked into his heart; when he considered the depth of his own sins, he understood that he was just as deserving of judgement as any man alive. And so he understood that it was only by God’s grace, God’s undeserved favor, that he had been not only forgive, but also given the high privilege of preaching Christ. Brothers and sisters, if you don’t see yourself in the same way, it’s not because you are more holy than Paul. It’s because you don’t understand your sin, nor the grace of God.
Now, let me shift gears a little. Because although may of us can accept that we need to rely on God’s grace for our initial entry into the faith, we often live as if everything after that depends on our work. As if we need grace to be forgiven, we need grace to be saved, but then our daily walking with God is by our own effort. But that’s not how it works. The way we come to God is the way we continue with God. It’s just as presumptuous to think we can grow spiritually by our own effort, as it is to think that we can save ourselves by our own effort. It’s just as foolhardy to think we maintain our standing before God by works, as it is to think we can be accepted by works in the first place.
"Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" - Galatians 3:3
Let me ask you a question: Do you feel more confident praying for something on a day when you’ve gotten up early to read your Bible? Do you feel as if God likes you better when you’re able to control your temper? Are you more confident of God’s acceptance after you’ve just finished preparing your Bible study, or after you’ve done some kind of work for the Lord? On the other hand, does it feel as if you can sense God’s disapproval, God’s rejection, when you go for a week without prayer, or when you yell at your husband or wife? If so, then you aren’t living by grace; you’re living by works. That’s the way other people respond to us, but it isn’t the way God responds. God’s attitude toward us is not affected by anything we do, good or bad. His love for us is boundless, limitless, infinite. His love isn’t any stronger if we do what pleases him, nor any weaker if we do what displeases him. He will not reject us, no matter what we do, because we are in Christ.
Let me give you a personal example. Every Sunday morning, I stand up here and proclaim the Word of God to these precious souls the Lord has placed in my care. It’s a great privilege, and a great responsibility. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But you know what? I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There are Sunday mornings when I feel spiritually dry. Maybe I’ve neglected prayer that week, and so I’m not feeling close to God. Maybe I had a hard time preparing the sermon. It just didn’t seem to "click", and so I’m not very confident of what I have to say. Maybe I’ve got some sin I’m dealing with. Maybe I’m sick, or tired, or just preoccupied with something else. When that happens, do you know what I pray before the service? I say, "Lord, please use me as your instrument of blessing this morning. Not because I’ve earned it, and not because I deserve it, because I don’t. But just because you love me and you love these people. Work through me, work in spite of me, but reveal your grace and mercy this morning for the sake of your Son." That’s what I pray when I don’t feel up to the task. And often the times that people have told me they’ve been the most blessed is on mornings like that, when I know for sure that if anything good is going to happen it has to be God. And now I’m going to tell you another secret. That’s what I pray every week. Because I know that I never deserve God’s blessing, no matter how many hours I’ve spent in prayer, or how many hours I’ve spent preparing the sermon. Anything of value that happens is by the grace of God. I pray I never forget that.
In closing, let me give you just a couple of benefit of embracing this idea of God’s grace. First, it gives us tremendous freedom, because we don’t have to pretend anymore. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together spiritually, because we know that God loves us anyway. We can acknowledge our faults and our failures. We don’t have to worry what people think of us. We don’t have to impress anyone, least of all God. We can let it all hang out, we can be honest with one another and with God, we can stop expending so much energy trying to create an image, and trying to look good in other people’s eyes, and we can just be ourselves, our messy, imperfect human selves. God loves us, and accepts us, no matter what. And that’s all that matters.
Another benefit is that it frees us up to extend grace to other people. We don’t have to keep score; who did what bad thing to us, and what we should do back; or who did what good thing to us, and we need to reciprocate. It frees us from worrying about what we deserve, and what our rights are, and what other people owe us, and how they should treat us. It frees us to just love people in Christ’s name, without worrying about whether we’re getting what we deserve. Because we know the truth, which is that we don’t deserve anything, and that everything we have is a gift of God’s grace. It frees us up to serve people, and love people, and give to people, without worrying about whether the "books" are balanced, whether all the payments and obligations have equalized. It frees us up to give freely, without calculating what we’re owed in return, and it gives us the freedom to receive from others, without calculating what we owe them in return. Grace gives us the freedom to simply love and be loved.
"Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law." - Romans 13:8
(For an .rtf file of this and other sermons, see www.journeychurchonline.org/messages.htm)