March 16, 1997
It is commonly said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace. And that is certainly true. We sing about grace, we write poems about grace, we name our churches and our children after grace. Across the street is Grace Episcopal Church and less than two miles from here is Grace Lutheran Church. And every year parents in our church name their daughters Grace.
But for all that, grace is not well understood and often not really believed. We use the word a great deal but rarely think about what it means. It’s probably true that most of us think infrequently about God’s grace. For every discussion we have about grace, we have a dozen about the church budget or the church programs or more likely, how the Bulls are going to do in the playoffs. If you ask us, we certainly believe in grace, but outside of the worship services, the word is rarely on our lips.
That’s not true of all of us, I’m sure. Some people never get over what God did for them when he saved them from their sins. They are as amazed today as they were the day God found them. They say with the people of God (and with the apostle Paul), “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
The Problem of Misbelief
But many church people simply never think of God’s grace at all. There are many reasons that might be suggested. One stands out as most important, however. No doctrine is so repugnant to man as the doctrine of grace. J. I. Packer used the arresting term “misbelief” to describe the problems we Christians have in this area. He means to say that because we do not fully understand who we are in the sight of God, we “misbelieve” in God’s grace. We have a sub-Christian view that is less than fully biblical. That’s actually worse than it sounds because to be wrong about God’s grace is to be wrong about the heart and core of our faith. Packer goes on to say that the Spirit of this Age adamantly opposes the doctrine of grace, and in this he is surely correct.
My goal in this message is quite lofty and cannot be accomplished without the help of the Lord. I would like to recover the doctrine of Grace and re-enshrine it in our hearts. I pray that as we think about these foundational truths we will once again lift up God’s grace and place it where it belongs in the throne room of our hearts. To that end I propose to say four things-and four things only-about the doctrine of grace.
The Need for Grace
We begin with the most important point-the need for grace. Miss this and you miss everything! Nothing else I say will matter unless you understand why you personally stand in desperate need of the grace of God.
Why do we need God’s grace? Because all men and all women are by nature spiritually dead and separated from God. We must begin at this basic starting point for biblical theology. Let’s pay close attention to the analysis found in Ephesians 2:1-3.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
This is God’s indictment of the entire human race apart from his grace. It’s what he says about you and me as we stand before him in our natural condition. Three things are true of you without grace:
You were dead (v. 1).
You were enslaved (v. 2).
You were under the wrath of God (v. 3).
Think of that. Dead enslaved and under the wrath of God. Could there be a more helpless, hopeless condition? Dead! Enslaved! Under the wrath of God! This is what God sees when he peers down upon planet earth. Dead men, enslaved men, men under the wrath of God.
The “Cool Part” of Hell
We tend to dismiss this as not literally true. After all, how “dead” can we really be? We don’t look “dead.” To our eyes, we look very alive. Not so. God says that apart from grace, all men are dead.
Or we tend to think we’re not so bad after all. I doubt if very many Christiains would say that we deserve to go to heaven on our own merit. We know too much theology to say that. But I daresay that many of us think that we’re not so bad after all. Left to our own devices, we’d go to the “cool part” of hell and the very bad sinners would get the “hot parts.”
There is something in us that causes us to think we’re basically good at heart. It’s easy to think that way, especially when you consider how many murderers and rapists are running loose in the world. We’re certainly not as bad as they are, are we? And we hope God thinks the same way we do!
Wrong! The Bible says that apart from grace the whole human race, and each one of us individually, is spiritually dead, in rebellion against God, under God’s judgment, guilty and unclean, worthy of eternal damnation. We are not simply unworthy of heaven, apart from God’s grace, we are entirely worthy of hell!!! This is what God says about you and me. It is also what God says about your husband or wife, your children, your parents, your grandparents, your uncles, your aunts, your neighbors, your friends, your classmates, and your business associates.
Man Without God is a Beast
Let me say that again clearly. Not only are you undeserving of heaven, you are completely deserving of hell. Your good works, your kind deeds, your charitable giving, your acts of kindness, when contemplated by a holy God, are nothing more than filthy rags in his eyes.
These are hard words. Americans like to think well of themselves. Pride in our scientific achievements, our high standard of living, our material wealth, our status as the world’s greatest superpower, our educational system that leads the world. We are the best of the best, the greatest nation on earth, the greatest that ever was or ever will be. Or so we think.
Against that we have these sobering words by Whittaker Chambers, “Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness.” The recent airing of Schlinder’s List should remind us that the horrors of the Holocaust were perpetrated by a people with a Christian heritage.
We desperately need God’s grace because we’re not as good as we think we are, and in fact we are much worse than we dare to admit.
The Meaning of Grace
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions-it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:4-5
Please circle three words in these two verses-love, mercy, and grace. Love is that in God which causes him to reach out to his creatures in benevolence. Mercy is God withholding punishment. And grace? Grace is the unmerited favor of God.
Think of it this way. Imagine a vast reservoir of God’s love. As it begins to flow toward us, it becomes a river of mercy. As it cascades down upon us, the mercy becomes a torrent of grace.
These two verses offer three words which answer the desperate state of mankind:
Here’s a good way to remember the difference between mercy and grace. Mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve-Judgment. Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve-Salvation.
The picture of a torrent of grace rushing upon us is especially apropos since grace always comes down from God to man. Grace never goes up; it always comes down. Grace by definition means that God gives us what we don’t deserve and could never earn.
There are two thoughts behind the truth of God’s grace:
You deserve eternal punishment for your sins.
You do not deserve God’s grace and can never earn it by anything you say or do.
Let me illustrate this. When God looks down at the human race, what does he see? Imagine if you will that while you are walking down the street you happen upon a corpse. While you stop to ponder who this is, someone drags a second corpse next to the first one. This puzzles you but before you can ask any questions, three more corpses are thrown on the first two. Suddenly from every side corpses are being tossed on the pile. Old and young, rich and poor, black and white, man and woman, they seem to be coming from every direction. You step back and watch as the pile grows before you eyes. In a matter of seconds, it becomes a mountain of stinking corpses. Soon the mountain reaches to the skies with more dead bodies being added by the second.
According to Ephesians 2, that is what God sees when he looks down from heaven. Not our good deeds, not our vaunted achievements, not our fame or our wealth. God sees death on every side. He sees dead men walking.
Now suppose you ask, which one deserves to be brought back to life? The answer is, it doesn’t matter, they all stink. Dead is dead is dead. That leads to an important truth. God is not obliged to save anyone! Or show mercy to anyone! Or forgive anyone! God would be perfectly justified in letting the dead stay dead.
There are two key words that always go together: Free Grace. Someone has called this a “blessed tautology.” And so it is, because if grace isn’t free, it isn’t grace. If you have to pay for it, work for it, do anything to earn it, it’s not grace because it’s not free.
The Implications of Grace
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:6-9
Now we discover the effect of grace upon men and women who were dead, enslaved, and under the wrath of God. Circle these three words in the text:
That says it all. He takes dead men and raises them. He takes enslaved men and seats them with Christ in heaven. He takes condemned men and saves them from judgment. Grace is thus God’s total answer to the moral ruin of the human race. It is such a complete answer that nothing else could ever be added to it.
Our Judge Becomes Our Savior
Here, then, are several crucial implications of grace:
Salvation is a work of God from first to last. It starts with God, continues with God, and ends with God. Anything we do is in response to what God has first done for us.
Nothing you have done or ever could do can contribute in the least to your salvation. That includes water baptism, whether as an infant or an adult. That includes the baptism you receive at Calvary Memorial Church. I can hold you down so long that you’ll come up singing “Amazing Grace,” but that won’t make you a Christian or forgive even one of your sins.
As long as you trust in your own good works to any degree, you can never be saved. The reason is clear. Those who trust in themselves will never truly trust in Christ. It’s not Christ plus your good works. It’s faith in Christ, plus nothing and minus nothing.
Through grace our Judge has become our Savior. The face of God is changed from judgment to mercy through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The One who would condemn now becomes our Savior.
This truth, once understood, takes away our terror of God’s judgment and replaces it with joy and boundless peace. This is why we sing, we pray, we praise, we rejoice. This is the only ground of our hope. This is the reason for our assurance. God’s grace gives us peace and fills us with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
The Demands of Grace
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10
Now we face the main objection to the teaching of this sermon, which is that grace produces careless living. Many people fear grace because they think it leads to a “who cares” attitude. “I’m saved so now I can whoop it up like the people of the world.” To which I reply that anyone who uses grace as an excuse to sin shows they have never understood his grace in the first place.
But it may be fairly asked where works fit in. If they don’t save, what difference do our good works make? Verse 9 tells us that salvation is not by works, while verse 10 tells us that we are created for good works. Perhaps this little comparison will make it all clear.
We are saved by grace and not by works.
We are saved by grace unto good works.
Grace is the source of our salvation. It is also the motive for living the Christian life. Good works are not the ground of salvation, they are the result of salvation. As someone has said, after you are saved, everything else in your life should be one big P.S. in which you say, Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.
One final word and I am done. God’s grace is the guarantee of our salvation. This is a wonderful truth. Some people believe in getting saved by grace and staying saved by works. That’s patently impossible. What God starts, he finishes. We are not saved because we hold onto God’s hand but only because his almighty hand holds onto our tiny hand. He holds us, we don’t hold him.
Grace found us, grace will keep us, grace will not let us go. Those whom God saves, He saves forever. Not one of God’s children will ever be lost. All his sheep will eventually find their way home to heaven.
Too Bad to Be Saved?
Many years ago Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Seminary, wrote a monumental treatise on this subject. He gave his book a wonderful title, calling it Grace, The Glorious Theme. And so it is. No word is sweeter to the sinner’s ear. No word brings more joy to a child of God. And no word is more repulsive to the self-righteous.
It may be that someone reading these words says, “I am too bad to be saved.” If you would say that about yourself, I have some very good news. Grace means you can never be too bad to be saved. Grace is God’s good news to you. How far can a person go in sin until God will no longer forgive them? The answer is, No one knows because no one has ever gone far enough to find out.
God’s grace is truly the heart of the Christian faith and the sum of our message. It is the beginning, middle and end of the Christian life. We are saved by Grace, kept by Grace, taken to heaven by Grace, and throughout eternity “we’ve no less days to sing His praise than when we’ve first begun.”
Now I Belong to Jesus
This week I received a letter from a man in the church who has experienced God’s grace in a profound way. This is what he had to say:
Sunday, March 9
I listened to your words this morning about salvation from our Lord with tears in my eyes. Next Sunday-March 16-will be a celebration of my spiritual birthday. Seven years ago-on March 16-I gave my life to Jesus Christ. I was saved. It was the best decision of my life. I am never alone for Jesus walks beside me. It amazes me that someone loved me so much that he died to take away my sins. Each time I stumble, he picks me up and carries me.
On my spiritual birthday I’ll receive no gifts. I have already gotten the best gift yet, I have Christ. I know where I have been. But better yet, I know where I am going.
One song that says it all to me is “Now I Belong to Jesus.” It says I’m his for eternity. Not just for a little while but forever.
What a gift he has given us all.
What a wonderful letter. Today is his spiritual birthday. Do you have a spiritual birthday? Have you ever been saved by grace? You don’t need to know the day or hour or the moment. It’s not important that you remember the precise event. But it’s all-important that you put your trust in Jesus Christ alone and be able to say, “I’m saved by the grace of God.”
Grace is God’s gift to you. But a gift must be received in order to be enjoyed. Have you ever received God’s gift of salvation? Through grace you can belong to Jesus not for the years of time alone, but for eternity.