Summary: God’s grace is dependent on what Christ did for us, and not on what we do. It is given without respect to merit, worh, or accomplishment.
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.’"