19th March 2001
There is no greater theme than grace. It's rightly one of the church's great obsessions, but we face the danger of being so familiar with it that it loses its impact. We want to go back to the bible and see Amazing Grace against its proper backdrop. To do this, we need first to remember that God is sovereign (he can do as he wishes and owes us nothing). Then we will define four terms:
The word ``holy'' means ``set apart'' or ``separate''. It implies not just an absence of sin, but the utter antithesis of sin. It is one of the unique characteristics of God.
Holiness and sin cannot co-exist. When Isaiah saw the vision of God in his temple, his immediate response was awareness of his own sin, and horror:
`Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; The whole earth is full of his glory.'At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
`Woe to me!' I cried. `I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.'
This is not because Isaiah was particularly more unholy than anyone else - probably quite the reverse - but because of the innate sinfulness of fallen humanity. It's crucial for us to understand that even the very best that we can do is corrupt and foul in God's eyes:
Justice means getting what we deserve for our sin from a Holy God. The Old Testament is full of examples such as the ends of the reigns and often lives of various kings of Israel and Judah; and Nebuchadnezzar's degeneration into a wild animal in Daniel 4:29-33. In the New Testament, we see God's justice on Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:3-10; and also on Herod in Acts 12:21-23.
It's important that we understand that God's justice is just. We get what we deserve. He is not cruel or capricious. He judges correctly.
Mercy means not getting what we deserve for our sin. Mercy is God's decision not to punish us as we deserve.
But grace means much more than that. It means not only that we don't get what we deserve, but also that we do get what we don't deserve!
Grace has been tritely but accurately described as God's riches at Christ's expense.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved. 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.
First - ``because of his great love for us'' - God shows mercy by forgiving our ``transgressions and sins''. Instead of the death that we should rightly receive as reward for our sins (``The wages of sin is death'' - Romans 6:23), we are made alive with Christ.
Then he goes even further. Rather than merely showing mercy by cancelling the death penalty, God shows grace raising us up with Chist and seating him in heavenly places. Not only to we not recieve the punishment that we do deserve, we so receive the reward that we don't deserve.
Paul is very very clear that all of this is God's doing: we're saved not by faith but by grace (through faith) - in other words, by something that God does rather than something that we do. And even the faith through which grace works is from from us, but is a gift from God.
There are two mysteries here. Firstly, why does God offer grace? The bible invites no other understanding than this: that God is rich in mercy because of his great love. It's his nature. That's what he's like.
The second mystery is this: how can God give grace? How can a holy God give grace to sinners when sin is such an offence to him? This is perhaps the most awesome thing of all. Logic tells us that God can only love us in our saved, sinless state; but this is not how he has acted:
All that we can say is that God has chosen to give us grace, and he is sovereign. Even when we were contaminated and infected with sin, he saw something in us to love.
How effective is grace? Totally effective, always and for everyone, no matter what they have done. There are no exceptions! For someone to think that they are too far gone to be reached by God's grace is to think that their sin is stronger than Jesus' sacrifice. What arrogance! What stupidity!
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time, he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.
The sacrifices made by the Old Testament priests were limited in scope, time and power. In contrast, Jesus' sacrifice is not limited in any way.
What are the mechanics of grace? How can Jesus take our punishment? This is complicated, and there are lots of different ways of looking at it. C. S. Lewis discusses several of them in his excellent and much-quoted book Mere Christianity. But here I just want to look at one:
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.
As we are participants in Jesus' death, so we are freed from the ``contract'' that we had with sin, and from the Devil's demands on us. Our new life is lived in Jesus: ``I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me'' - Galatians 2:20.
Sin and death no longer have no power over those whom Jesus has made free. God has pronounces us innocent: no-one can pronounce us guilty. The right response to a Christian who complains, ``but I feel so condemned'' is simply, ``But you're not.''
Once we understand that our salvation is entirely of God's doing, there is no room for us to fear losing it. Who is powerful enough to take us out of the hand of the Father?
### ``once saved, always saved.''
This is a whole subject in itself, which we can't go into here in any depth. However, in a nutshell: the right way for us to see ourselves is as God sees us, because God sees correctly. To see ourselves as greater than we are or less than we are is equally sinful and stupid, as though we are better able to judge ourselves than God is.
When we understand grace, we understand how God sees us: as people who have no intrinsic merit (and who, in that sense, have no reason for pride); but who he has chosen to make perfect in Jesus (and who, because of this, have no reason and indeed no right to feel anything less than perfect confidence in ourselves.) ``Sober judgment'' means accurate judgment, not false humility!
How could we possibly understand God's grace and not worship him?
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/basics/grace.html.