Delivered January 2017 at Liberty Spring Christian Church
What kinds of things are you amazed by?
I used to be amazed by juggling. I’m basically an uncoordinated schlub, so watching someone toss more than one ball into the air at a time and then catch them all just seemed like straight-up magic to me. And then I had a juggler in college spend a few minutes teaching me about it one day. Ever since then, I can take three balls and — with a little practice — actually juggle.
See? I’m a juggler. Even me, an uncoordinated schlub. Of course, I can’t do four or five balls, and I doubt I could juggle bowling pins, and I’m not likely to try to juggle chainsaws or fire or anything like that — at least not until the new insurance policy comes through.
There was a time when I was amazed by the stars. And things about space are still fascinating to me. But I learned a little about what stars are made of and how they work, and the magic of them faded.
That’s how it is with amazement. We’re amazed by the things we don’t understand. When we begin to understand them, they’re no longer amazing. They might still be fascinating or even incredible, but the sense of awe that’s part of being amazed tends to fade away.
But during the past couple of years, I’ve discovered something amazing that just gets more amazing the more I understand it, something for which my sense of awe just grows stronger every day. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
I am amazed by grace. And I hope you are, too, or that you will be by the time we’re done here today.
Perhaps you know the story of John Newton, who wrote the song Amazing Grace. For those who might not know, Newton was a slave trader in the mid-1700s. While aboard the ship Greyhound, he gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. He was actually admonished for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but then making up new words to describe debauchery.
Here’s a quote from Newton in 1778: “ How industrious is Satan served. I was formerly one of his active undertemptors and had my influence been equal to my wishes I would have carried all the human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was.”
And then, during a voyage on the Greyhound, he and his shipmates encountered a storm so violent that one of his fellow sailors was swept overboard, from right next to where Newton had stood. Lashing himself to the ship’s pump to keep from being swept overboard himself, he looked at the captain and said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us.”
After a brief rest, Newton returned to the deck to steer the ship for the next 11 hours, and he spent much of that time thinking of that divine challenge. The words would haunt him for weeks to come, and he began to wonder whether he was even redeemable, since he’d spent so much of his life directly challenging God and even denouncing Him as a myth. And finally, he came to believe that God had answered his prayer.
Years later, as a preacher in the English village of Olney, memories of that desperate voyage must have been on Newton’s mind as he penned the words we know so well: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
But what’s so amazing about grace? Let’s look at four things God’s grace does for believers.
First, and perhaps most important, by grace, we are saved.
Turn with me to Galatians 2:8-10
Paul put it simply in his letter to the church in Galatia. “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
It’s a familiar passage, but I think we often don’t really grasp the full measure of it. The more I study it, the more I am convinced it’s one of the most amazing statements in the Bible.
We know from Scripture that God is holy. God spoke to Moses as the Jewish people wandered the wilderness after He had saved them from the Pharaoh, and He told Moses to warn his people against the things of this world, the idols they might make to worship, the sins that would draw them away from God. “Ye shall be holy,” he said, “for I the LORD your God am holy.”
God, who is perfect in His righteousness, perfect in His Truth, perfect in His love; God, who is set apart — holy — from the sins of this world, calls the people He created to be similarly set apart from sin.
But we of the line of Adam are born into sin. Scripture tells us that even — especially — our hearts are deceitful. From the moment of our birth, we begin to learn to manipulate others, we begin to learn to lie to get what we want and to avoid responsibility for hurting others and we begin to learn to worship not God but ourselves.
Look at our culture today, and you’ll find that we have elevated ourselves to the position of gods. We take selfies. We encourage young people to develop a fine sense of self worth. We can hardly do a good deed without trumpeting it on Facebook. The Salvation Army this Christmas sent a press release encouraging folks to snap selfies of themselves dropping money into the red kettles and post the photos to social media with the hashtag #RedKettleReason757.
Holy? We can’t even be nice without expecting a pat on the back.
And God knew that. He knew that before I came along. He knew that before Adam and Eve decided in the Garden of Eden that they wanted to be as gods. And so, in His infinite wisdom, He had a plan from before the foundation of time to shower sinful man with His grace.
As Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, hung upon that cross on Calvary, He took the punishment that I deserved — that we all deserve — for our sins. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”
Reconciliation with God is not something you or I could have done. God said the wages of sin is death. But by His grace and the obedient sacrifice of His sinless son, we can have the free gift of eternal life with the Father and the Son.
By His grace. Only by His grace.
So we who follow Christ are redeemed from the bondage of sin by God’s grace.
That’s amazing in and of itself, but that’s just the beginning of God’s immeasurable grace.
Once we’ve been saved from spiritual death, grace begins to work within us in some incredible ways.
First begins a lifelong process of sanctification. Looking back in that same chapter of 2 Corinthians, we see that God’s grace changes us. From verse 17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
We are made anew through the grace of God. Paul understood this well. He’d been killing Christians and was on the road to Damascus to do more of the same, when God met him and changed him. And He gave that man, Saul a new name, Paul, to memorialize the transformation. I like that. I wonder if God has new names for all of us who have been saved. I like to think he calls me something that means “Handsome Editor.”
Scripture tells us God removes our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” I wonder if Paul’s new name was God’s way of saying, “I’m going to choose to forget the sins you committed against me.”
Friends who knew me before I was saved still remark about what a different person I am today. Recently, Annette and I visited an old friend in the hospital whom we had not seen in many years. This friend, Amy, has pancreatic cancer, and as we talked with her about old times and about her terminal condition, she looked at me and said something that took my breath away. “You’re a lot calmer than you used to be,” she said. “You don’t seem as angry.” It was a great opportunity for me to share what God did with that old man and the new man He is creating. I don’t know if she was amazed by the change, but I am.
Of course, even the most committed Christian still sins. This side of heaven, we all are still flesh, and we all still have the tendency to live in the flesh, as opposed to living in the power of the Holy Spirit who abides within us from the moment we first believed. But the Spirit reveals those sins to us, convicts us of the need to put off the old self with its evil deeds and empowers us to be more like the Christ we follow. That’s the process of sanctification. It will be made complete when we enter heaven, where sin no longer has dominion over us. In heaven, the transformation will be complete.
Throughout that process of sanctification, God does another amazing thing with grace: He sustains us.
The work of a Christian is hard. Think of the Apostle Paul. Shipwrecked. Tossed from a wall. Stoned. Left for dead. Imprisoned. Not to mention having to correct false teaching, chastise wayward believers and referee church disputes.
But things are different today, right?
Here are a few statistics from the Fuller Institute, George Barna and Pastoral Care, Inc.:
- 90% of pastors report working between 55 to75 hours per week.
- 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.
- 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
- 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
- 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
- 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
- Only 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
- Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.
With this backdrop, it’s easy to see how pastors, especially, must rely on God’s grace to sustain them. But it’s true of all of Christ’s followers.
When Paul asked God to “remove the thorn” from his flesh, God replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The grace that saved us, He promises, will sustain us for the job God has for us.
What is that job?
Back in our key passage from Ephesians, we get our answer: To do the good works that God has prepared for us.
What’s interesting to me is that the passage suggests that even the good things we do as Christians are not done in our own power. God doesn’t just prepare those good works for us in advance; His grace empowers us to do them.
In 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Paul puts it this way: “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”
Paul worked hard for God, he says here. But he recognizes that his work was enabled by the grace of God working within him.
But this empowerment also suggests an obligation on the part of those to whom it has been bestowed. In his letter to Titus, Paul said this: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age….”
We are empowered by grace to be obedient and to do the good works that God has prepared for us, and true followers of Christ should never consider those things to be somehow secondary to their salvation.
It may be that “obligation” isn’t exactly the right word. Perhaps it’s better to think of our works as evidence of our grace-bought salvation.
In Galatians, we learn that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But what’s the purpose of fruit? Fruit was made to nourish us, of course. But at a more basic level, fruit exists to make more fruit. That’s what the seeds are for. So if you’re bearing the fruits of the Spirit, that fruit should ultimately serve to make more fruit-bearing trees. Just as Christ’s character attracted people wanting to understand why He was so different, His characteristics in us should do likewise.
Here, I want to be sure that you’re listening closely, because this might be the most important point I make today for someone in this room.
Good trees bear good fruit. God’s grace empowers and obliges them to do so.
Do you bear these fruits? If you do, you will see evidence of them in your obedience to God’s word and in your love for others. Others will see their evidence and wonder why you’re so different. On the other hand, if you don’t see evidence of these fruits, then you need to “be even more diligent to make your call and election sure.”
That’s exactly what happened to me a dozen or so years ago. I’d been raised in a traditional Baptist church. My parents and grandmother were all Christians. I’d gone to Christian school as a boy. And then one day, while I was cutting the grass and listening to talk radio, someone said something about America being a Christian nation. I scoffed at the notion, saying aloud to myself, “There’s no evidence of that today.”
And then that small, still voice spoke to me: “What about you, Res? Where’s the evidence of it in your life? Do you exhibit any of the fruits of the Spirit?” Ticking them off from memory, I came to the sudden realization that they were entirely absent from my life. I had a knowledge of Jesus, but I had no relationship with him. I was the fig tree bearing no fruit. Jesus cursed that tree and it dried up and died overnight. It was a stunning revelation for a man who had called himself a Christian ever since he’d walked to the front of the church and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer during a revival service when he was in the second grade.
Soon, Annette and I found a church to attend, and within a few weeks, we were praying with that pastor in our living room, making true professions of faith and entering into that personal relationship with Christ that I had never had before.
We were saved by grace that afternoon. We have been sustained by grace since that day. We continue to be sanctified by grace. And we have been empowered by grace to do the work that he prepared for us from before the beginning of time.
That’s truly amazing.