The Heart Of It All (Part 5): The Grace Gift & Our Assurance of His Love
Christian claim #5: “Who for us and for our salvation came down, was incarnate, and was made man; He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father.”
On May 12, 2013, Maya Angelou appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. The award-winning American poet sat opposite Oprah and began to describe a pivotal moment in her life which centers around the realization of God’s personal and unfathomable love.
A man named Frederick Wilkerson handed her a book and asked her to read aloud. Listen as Angelou tells the rest of the story:
I read, “God loves me.” And he said, “read it again.” I said, “God loves me.” He said, “read it again, read it again.” And finally, I said, “God. Loves. Me.”
There was a pause as a deep stirring of emotion overwhelmed her. Then, she continued:
“It still humbles me, that this force, which made leaves and fleas and stars and rivers and you, loves me — me, Maya Angelou. It’s amazing! … That’s why I am who I am. Yes. Because God loves me and I’m amazed at it and grateful for it.”
Jim McGuiggan, the prince of preachers, once began a sermon on grace with words along this line: You may be loved by parents, friends, children, or a spouse. But no one has ever loved you like God your father, and Jesus Christ your Savior. You may look in the mirror and see someone that appears unlovable. But God–who knows our hearts–knows you better than you know yourself, and he assures you, “I. Love. You.” We are tempted to think that if we don’t quite measure up, God will just give up on loving us. But in words as blazing as the sun, he tells us there is nothing–no thing, no one, no situation–that can separate you from his love for you.
Who then can ever keep Christ’s love from us? When we have trouble or calamity, when we are hunted down or destroyed, is it because he doesn’t love us anymore? And if we are hungry or penniless or in danger or threatened with death, has God deserted us? No…despite all this, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us enough to die for us. For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels won’t, and all the powers of hell itself cannot keep God’s love away. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, or where we are—high above the sky, or in the deepest ocean—nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ when he died for us (Rom 8:35-39 TLB).
Words are not God’s only love language toward us. He confirmed it in blood, when He sent his own son to Calvary. For those who had their act together? For those who “measured up?” Not a chance. He died for us in our brokenness, ungodliness and sinfulness. For God so loved the God-forsaking world that he sought whatever means possible to restore our relationship. Even the voluntary death of Christ in our place and on our behalf. Can’t you hear him crying out to us? “Nothing can separate you from my love for you.”
And what difference does it make to believe in such love? What powerful doctrine results? Philip Yancey offers us a clue with the following story:
During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh that’s easy. It’s grace.”
Most religions speak of humanity chasing after God; yet the Judeo-Christian story tells of a God who comes chasing after humanity. And the biblical doctrine that speaks of God’s manifest love toward us in offering his unmerited favor, granting us access to his heart and his power, claiming us as his children, and promising us a glorious future, is simply called “grace.” It cannot be overemphasized. God’s love is limitless; and his grace is amazing.
Everyone is Looking For It
John Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” in 1779. But two hundred years later, Judy Collins walked into a church building and recorded an a cappella version, which rose to #1 on the pop music charts. What’s so amazing about grace? Simply put: Everyone is looking for it.
There is a rumored story that the agnostic actor W. C. Fields was once caught in his dressing room reading the Bible. Embarrassed, Fields snapped the book shut and explained, “I’m looking for loopholes.” Maybe so, but I suspect he was looking for grace.
If everyone is looking for it, and God has offered it, we would suppose that every person whose ever darkened the door of a church building, or simply met a Christian, has heard it. Yet, strange though it may seem, nearly 30 years ago at the Faulkner University Bible Lectures, Franklin Camp was asked if he was to do it all over again, what would he do differently. He replied, “I would preach more on grace.”
Read the pages of church history. One of the most popular sermons of the 18th century was entitled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I have no doubt that the lesson was delivered with sincerity and conviction, out of a desire to help us come to terms with the darkness of our sin in the light of God’s righteousness. But some quotes from this sermon typify a common misunderstanding about the character of God. The sermon depicts God holding us by our ankles over the fires of hell, waiting for us to mess up, so that he could let us fall into the fire, and thus be vindicated in his Holy purity, too Holy to be in the presence of our sin. Listen as the author attempts to describe how God “looks upon you”:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you…His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire…you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.
Scripture doesn’t describe a God who holds us over the fire; it tells of one who hold out his arms to snatch us from the flames.
I understand the need to describe–in the starkest terms–the lowliness of humanity given our sin problem. I’ve tried to do this in a recent post. But no description of creation ought to present a jaundiced view of the lovely character of our creator. My reading of Scripture, and experience of grace, compels me to cry out: “that’s not my God!” The God whom Christ urges us to call “father” is different altogether. What does the cross tell us? John 3:17 has long been in our Bibles. Mark this down: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” My God is in the saving business. In the person of Jesus Christ, he came to rescue lost, sinful humanity. God “so loved” a lost world, that he offered his own son not only for our sins, “but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NIV). Yes the Lord detests the evil that separates us from him; but God delights in His creation. Scripture doesn’t describe a God who holds us over the fire; it tells of one who holds out his arms to snatch us from the flames. If God loved you that much before you had anything to offer him, what could make you think that now, in your struggles as one seeking after Him, he could love you less?
The gospel is good news. And what good news it is. God loves you. He is FOR you. He Believes in you. And He finds value in you.
Here’s a bold statement: I believe everyone (and everything) wants to believe—longs to believe—there is something beautiful about them, there is something sincere and honest and valuable. And I believe only those who have been transformed by the message of God’s grace can see it.
For the Apostle Paul, this was a message he wanted every Christian to remember. In the book of Ephesians, Paul lists 43 “commands”—duties and responsibilities of the Christian. Now, Ephesians has 6 chapters. Take a close look at 2:11 where Paul commands his readers to “remember”—not a very difficult command is it? Note it well, because it’s the only command in the first 3 chapters of the book. When the inspired author wished to list 43 things we must do for God, he reserved 42 until after we hear what God, in Christ, has done for us.
What Grace Does FOR Us
Just where were we when God decided to create us and love us? Humanity was just a figment in the imagination of God. May I remind you of that amazing passage found in the first chapter of Ephesians, beginning in verse 3:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace (1:3-7 ESV).
To be loved by your parents is truly a wonderful feeling. But to be adopted—to be loved by those who simply chose to bring you into a loving family, without compulsion—is perhaps a love that knows no equal. For Paul, this illustrates what God did for us.
But you may say, “God is truly wonderful. But talk about me for a change!” In chapter 2 Paul turns to you and me, and the portrait he paints is not pretty. By God’s infinite wisdom and love he chose to create us, and we lived in our arrogance. He chose to love us, and we spit in his face. He chose to save us, and we hid in the darkness. But the light of God is stronger than the forces of darkness. Will you read with me, from Ephesians chapter 2?
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (2:1-9 ESV)
Let’s take an honest look at ourselves: what are we worth? We know our own list of sins and embarrassing facts. But I have good news! Even when we had nothing to offer him, by His great love he reached down and pulled us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places! The grace of God changes us!
What Grace Does TO Us
1. It Changes Our Condition
First, the grace of God changes our condition. Scripture gives us a remarkable, incomparable story–the story of a grace that is unmerited, undeserved, unachieved, and unattached to my ability to perform. “For a good man some would die,” said Paul,”but God showed his love toward us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And we are now “justified freely by his grace” (Rom 3:24 NIV)!
To appreciate why this is so, Rick Atchley offers a memorable illustration involving a set of legal scales. Many people assume the secret to a happy fulfilling life (for here and the hereafter) is to do more good things than bad, making sure you tip the scales in favor of the good. The problem is that the weight of our sin is such that no amount of good deeds can outweigh the gravity of our ungodliness. We simply do not have what it takes to fix the problem deep within ourselves, and no list of good deeds can erase the stain of our sin. Besides, a list of good deeds–no matter how long–fails to meet the standard of God’s righteousness. His standard is perfection (Matt 5:48), and only a perfect, sinless sacrifice can fix the problem. Neither you nor I fit the fill. And a lifetime of trying will only confirm this to you. “Yes, all have sinned,” writes the Apostle Paul; “all fall short of God’s glorious ideal” (Rom 3:23 TLB).
But there is good news! “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21 NIV). Here’s the way the Living Bible spells it out for us: “For God took the sinless Christ and poured into him our sins. Then, in exchange, he poured God’s goodness into us.”
That is why the story of grace is packaged with tears of joy. One day we will stand with Jesus in eternity and be found holy, righteous, and acceptable. And the ground of our right-standing with God is the finished work of Christ on the cross.
In Philippians chapter 3, Paul spends 3 verses describing his great “performance” under the law of Moses. But in verse 7, he concludes this way:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith (3:7-9 NIV).
I like the way the Good News Translation puts it: “I no longer have a righteousness of my own…I now have the righteousness that is given through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is based on faith.” There is a wonderful debate about whether this passage means our new righteousness is a gift that God gives because we put our faith in Jesus, or whether its a gift that comes to those in Christ because of the faithfulness of Jesus. The great news is that both readings free us from the spiritual neuroticism of thinking God’s love for me or my ability to stand before God is based on my perfect performance in every right thing. Instead of leading us into perpetual neuroticism, the gospel gives us the peaceful assurance. Christ provides our access to the throne of God; and our willingness to trust in His finished work becomes the basis of our right standing with God.
Listen to Titus 3, beginning in verse 3:
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (3:3-7 NIV).
Even our lives of faithful service flow out of this free gift of grace. “He has saved us and called us to a holy life,” says Scripture, “not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim 1:9 NIV). God did not choose to give us a ladder whose rungs provide a way for us to save ourselves; instead, he provided a cross through which He saved us from ourselves.
God did not choose to give us a ladder whose rungs provide a way for us to save ourselves; instead, he provided a cross through which He saved us from ourselves.
It is easy to confuse two different senses of the word “righteous.” The word can mean “right living” or it can mean “right standing.” There is no doubt that the gospel calls us to “right living” (Psalm 119:172; 1 John 3:7; Rom 14:17; Matt 5:48). In a future post, we will see that obedient discipleship is not some unimportant “good work” that we offer to God as a kind gesture or afterthought: it is the very thing to which we are called, the pattern of life into which the Spirit directs us. But when Scripture speaks of “right standing” with God, it speaks of a free gift. No one has “right standing” through a checklist of good deeds. For everyone falls short of the glory of God, and no one is righteous by that account (Psalm 143:2; Rom 3:20-24; 5:1, 9; Gal 2:16; 5:5; Phil 3:7-9). James Harding, for whom my university is named, once made this point well: “Let no man, therefore, comfort himself with the reflection that he who does right will be saved; for no man, in the church or out of it, does right” (see here, p.247).
It is a great day when we realize that the “righteousness of God” that allows me access into the throne room is not my innate perfect ability to do everything right; it is God’s giving me a standing, a position that was earned for me on Calvary’s tree. In Jesus, God chose not to give us a ladder whose rungs provide a way for us to save ourselves; he provided a cross through which He saved us from ourselves.
2. It Changes Our Value
Second, it changes our value. Myra Brooks Welch illustrates this well in her memorable poem, “The touch of the Master’s hand.”
It was battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin, but held it up with a smile;
“What am I bid for this old violin? Who’ll start the bidding for me?
“A dollar, a dollar.” “Who’ll make it two?” “Two dollars. Who’ll make it three?”
“Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three…” But no,
From the back of the room, a gray-haired man came forward and took up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin, and tightening up all the strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet—as sweet as the angels sing.
The music ceased, and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low, said:
“What am I bid for the old violin?” And he held it up with the bow.
“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two? Two thousand! And who’ll make it three? Three thousand once, three thousand twice, going and gone!” said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried, “I just don’t quite understand.
“What changed its worth?” Then came the reply, “The touch of the master’s hand.”
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us,” writes John, “that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NIV). We now have boldness to come before the throne of grace as the very children of God. Is there any greater value?
3. It Changes Our Perspective
Finally, God’s grace changes our perspective, doesn’t it? God told the Israelites on no less than 3 separate occasions on the journey to Sinai: “I did not choose you because of your looks, your strength, your ability to perform, or even your righteousness. In fact, you are a stiffnecked and stubborn people! I chose you…because I love you.”
Jeff Walling tells the story of once overhearing a lady tell the song leader, “You know that song that begins with the words ‘years I spent in vanity and pride?’ Well, I can’t sing that song, because, you see, I didn’t spend years in vanity and pride.” Jeff says he wanted to ask her, “How about right now?” Twice in the New Testament, the Bible writers quote Proverbs 3:34: “Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly.” C. S. Lewis advised, if anyone would like to acquire humility, here is the first step is to realize that you are proud.”
God by his grace rescued us from darkness so that he could change the way we see. God wants to fill the world with his grace, by using each every one of us. But it takes a recognition that we stand in need of God’s grace.
The story is told of a soldier in Napoleon’s army was scheduled for execution, when suddenly that boys mother fell down before the feet of Napoleon begging for mercy. “Your son does not deserve mercy” answered Napoleon. “I know,” replied the mother, “If he deserved it, it would not be mercy.”
There is a reason Peter describes our Father as “the God of all grace, who called you into his eternal glory in Christ” (1 Pet 5:10 NIV). In the story of the cross we find, as Isaac Watts phrased it, “amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.”
Yancey concludes his book on grace by relating the following story that took place in Wembley stadium, London.
Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, had gathered together in celebration of the changes in South Africa, and for some reason the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act…
For 12 hours groups like Guns ‘N’ Roses have blasted the crowd through banks of speakers, riling up fans already high on booze and dope. The crowd yells for more curtain calls, and the rock groups oblige…
Finally, the time comes for [Jessye Norman] to sing. A single circle of light follows Norman … as she strolls onstage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless … A voice yells for more Guns ‘N’ Roses. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly.
Alone, a cappella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, very slowly:
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.
A remarkable thing happens in Wembley stadium that night. Several thousand raucous fans fall silent before her aria of grace.
By the time Norman reaches the second verse … the sprano has the crowd in her hands. By the … third verse … several thousand fans are singing along, digging far back in nearly lost memories for words they heard long ago.
When we’ve been there, ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
What happened that night in Wembley stadium? The same thing that happens when we hear the message of unconditional grace. When you know you need it, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you’ve done or what you’ve been, you find yourself longing for the sweetest gift ever bestowed. A gift freely given…and freely offered.
(Photo credit: Christus segnet die kinder, Lucas Cranach, 1545; Metropolitan Museum of Art)