AMAZING GRACE!

 

Westney Heights Baptist Church ~ February 6, 2005

 

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!

 

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

 

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

 

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.

 

(The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun forbear to shine;

But God, who call'd me here below,

Will be forever mine.)

 

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'd first begun.

 

John Newton

 

Romans 8:31-39 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? 33  Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34  Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. 35  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36  As it is written: "For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." 37  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38  For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39  nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Everything that we have is a gift. All that we are, all that we know, all that we need. Every part of our lives is a gift from God. This was true when we were rebelling against Him and He gave us the essentials of life.

 

Psalm 145:8 The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, Slow to anger and great in mercy. 9  The LORD is good to all, And His tender mercies are over all His works.

 

It is even more true for those who have been saved through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and made children of God.

 

Romans 8:32He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?

 

Yet we see so much of God's grace towards mankind in general and Christians in particular that a great deal often goes unnoticed and it takes a special act of grace to get our attention.

 

We were witness a week ago to the result of one of the single greatest acts of human grace in recent memory: The elections in Iraq. Regardless of your view of the invasion of Iraq it is indisputable that many foreigners have suffered and died so that Iraq could be free from tyranny. Those who placed their lives at risk to accomplish this are heroes of the highest order. This is not a unique event. During the World Wars the Allied armies fought against fascist and dictatorial regimes so that men and women everywhere could be free. Shortly after World War II ended Marshal Aid came into effect through which western Europe received US$13,000,000,000 in aid and grants from the Allies, part of which was directed towards nations with which the Allies had been at war just a few years earlier.

 

These are all examples of human grace, where one person goes out of the way to help an other at their own initiative and cost and often at their own hurt. On a human scale grace is not perfect. I am not here to talk to you about imperfect grace but perfect grace. Grace not of man's devising but of God's.

 

Other examples of human grace abound so why did I choose these particular examples to illustrate divine grace. Why use examples from warfare to describe peace? Why did I not instead use the example of firefighters, policemen and other front line emergency workers who daily risk their own lives to save the lives of others. Or of the men and women who ran up the World Trade Centre towers to bring others down and who died in the process?

 

I used examples from human war because man is at war with God and only God's grace can end the war without the total destruction of man. My argument is that by seeing grace applied by imperfect man to his imperfect enemies to accomplish an imperfect goal we should be able to see that our perfect God is capable of perfect grace to accomplish a perfect goal.

 

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

 

I suppose that the apostle Paul knew a great deal more about grace than a good many Christians do today. Having been saved by God in spite of all he had done to oppose Him, he knew what it was to receive so great a gift so undeserved:

 

Acts 26:9-11 Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10  This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11  And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

 

1 Corinthians 15:8-9 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. 9  For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

 

He also knew the dependence on works was futile:

 

Philippians 3:1-3 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe. 2  Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! 3  For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.

 

and that compared to human works the free gift of divine grace was of unsurpassed value:

 

Philippians 3:4-8 Though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5  circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6  concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7  But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8  Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.

 

Paul threw away all that he had previously valued, all that ranked so highly in the human mind, so that he could accept grace from God. We, however, have a curious inability to simply accept the gifts that others give. We find it more difficult to say "Thank you" than we do to say "I'll try to return the favour." I think, somehow, that we need look no further than John Wayne for an explanation. Not that John Wayne is personally at fault but that the character he portrayed so well in a great many of his movies has precisely the same problem that we do. He is emphatically independent. Although he might tolerate a "sidekick" very rarely does he depend upon anyone but himself. He takes his independence to such an extreme that if his own resources cannot see him through then he does not want any other help. The characteristic which he so ably showed is a caricature of our own imagined independence, our own inability to allow anyone to do something for us without trying to pay them back.

 

In human terms we may well be independent and capable of raising ourselves above whatever situation we are in. But in spiritual terms such independence is imaginary. There is nothing that we can do to change our situation. We are lost in sin and hopelessly so. Yet we have trouble accepting salvation from God without trying to in some way repay Him. We seem to often feel that a gift so extravagant demands some effort on our part in order to justify our receiving it. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

 

We are encouraged to pray for the well being of our brothers and sisters in Christ. When one is sick we ask God for healing. Quite often, when our prayers for healing are not answered according to our hopes, we take a step back and ask "Why wasn't my prayer answered? What did I do wrong that God did not do what He promised?" For Jesus promised to grant our requests:

 

John 14:13-14 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14  If you ask anything in My name, I will do it."

 

Conversely, when our prayers are answered as we hope we might be tempted to think that it is because of who we are or how we are living. In either case it is quite often not our own actions that determine the actions of God.

 

It is quite often not because of anything we have done or have left undone but because God, in His grace is giving us what we need…

 

Romans 8:28-30 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

    29   For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30  Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

God is a God of grace. Grace is an undeserved gift that is freely given to someone in desperate need, often at great personal cost of the one giving the gift. In God's case the gift is His Son Jesus Christ. We are the recipients of that gift and the cost to Jesus was the pain of death and intimate personal involvement with the human condition.

 

in order that we may become more like His Son:

 

Hebrews 5:7-8 who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, 8  though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.

 

When we begin to consider the importance of our actions in our salvation we begin to walk down the road of legalism at the end of which stands a lawyer who uses ritual* as an excuse to justify the grace they have received. Notice that Jesus never criticized the Pharisees for their practice of the ritual of their faith but for their dependence on their own actions to save them. He condemned them for their misplaced faith:

 

Matthew 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

 

The early Church also dealt with legalism…

 

Acts 15:5-11 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses."

    6   Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7  And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8  "So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9  "and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10  "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11  "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they."

 

and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit addressed it very wisely:

 

Acts 15:28-29For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29  that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.

 

The early church, which was initially predominately Hebrew, struggled at length with the union of the faith and ritual of their religion and how these could be applied to the non-Hebrew converts who were being saved. Likewise today we in the established church often struggle with the union of the faith and ritual of our religion as it applies to those who are being saved and entering the Church from lifestyles worlds apart from our own (it is difficult sometimes to welcome with open arms a new believer who carries with them the residue of that from which they have been saved) but there is only one thing that is crucial:

 

Romans 10:12-13 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13  For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved."

 

There is an opposite to legalism that is equally dangerous which is liberalism. Liberalism is the belief that because of grace our actions are unimportant and have no consequence. In legalism too great an emphasis is placed on ritual and not enough on grace. In liberalism too great an emphasis is placed on grace and not enough on ritual. if we begin to overemphasize grace at we begin to walk down the road of liberalism at the end of which stands a hedonist who uses grace as an excuse to justify all sorts of behaviour.

 

Paul confronted liberalism when he wrote that:

 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. 13  Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14  And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. 15  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! 16  Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For "the two," He says, "shall become one flesh." 17  But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. 18  Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. 19  Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20  For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

 

More recently Randy Stonehill spoke against liberalism in one of his songs.

 

You'll be tempted, tried and tested

There'll be wars the devil wins

But God's love is not a license to lie there in your sins

He understands the human heart

His mercy is complete

But His grace was not intended

As a place to wipe your feet

Randy Stonehill, "Angry Young Men"

 

There are many today that teach, just as in Paul's day, that it is not our acts that separate us from God but our lack of faith and that therefore, as long as one's faith is intact one's acts are irrelevant and do not impact upon that faith. Such thought leads to churches where everyone is welcomed and no one is made to change. Yet Paul wrote elsewhere that we are changed, that:

 

1 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

 

A faith that asks the believer to change too much is just as dangerous as that which asks the believer to change too little. The emphasis is placed on the change and not upon the grace that makes the change possible. The ritual of Christianity, the acts of justice, mercy and faith that stem from our redemption, are not unimportant nor are they all important. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that ritual is vitally important  but only insofar as it is built upon the foundation of faith and that we suffer loss if our faith is not acted in our life.

 

1 Corinthians 3:11-15 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12  Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13  each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. 14  If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15  If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

 

The point is that the ritual is built upon something that is already there, it is contingent on our already being saved and that our being saved is verified by our ritual.

 

James 2:20-26 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22  Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. 24  You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25  Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26  For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

 

Getting back to grace as a gift. We often have the idea that our actions in some way reward God for what He has done for us. Returning again to the example of human grace, can the world at large truly pay back those who sacrifice themselves to protect other lives? Would such a payment even be asked? On both counts no. In part because the price is so high there is no repayment possible. More significantly because the sacrifice was not made to create a debt but because a wrong could be made right. This is what God did for you and I through Jesus Christ, He righted a wrong. He reconciled rebels to Himself through His own sacrifice. There is no repayment possible, only devotion.

 

I would like to end this message with something that I wrote in December of 2003: For the longest time I would view myself after my various sins and wonder "What could God want with me." I would try to justify my actions, make excuses that great heroes of the Bible also experienced moments of weakness, and compare myself to my peers in an attempt to make myself believe that I wasn't as bad as I felt that I was. But the fact of the matter is that I was being confronted by my very real guilt, that no matter how large or how small the sin I had broken the law of God. This was not a personal response to a negative burden placed upon me by my church nor was it in response to the ridicule of my friends. It was an awareness of the awesome perfection of God and my sinful state before Him. Regardless of my actions I was personally guilty of breaking His law and was consequently also guilty of the death of His Son Jesus Christ. My greatest problem at the times when I felt such guilt was coming to the realization that God still wanted my company, I felt that He would find me so repugnant that He would abandon me. It was in this way that the enemy sought to move me further from my God. (Remember that our enemy does not please our  desires for our benefit, nor ultimately even for his own, but he pleases our desires in order to alienate us from God for our own destruction.) What I had failed to realize is that Jesus died in my place to bear the very wrath of God which in my guilt I feared...while I was dead in my sin. He did not wait for me to become acceptable before He offered Himself in my place, He offered Himself so that I could become acceptable. His mercy is such that He came to save me while I was utterly lost in my sin, while I was in my death He gave me life and that life has overwhelmed all that my sin continues to do. I am not perfect, nor to I believe that I will ever be perfect on this side of the grave, but I do believe that because of Jesus sacrifice in my place I am able to stand before God as an imperfect man who has been forgiven his imperfection. My sin has been punished on broader shoulders than my own and I have now the promise of eternal life through Christ and Christ alone.

 

This is not to say that it matters not what I do in my life, that my actions have no consequence, but that regardless of what I do I have been made right before God and His condemnation no longer rests upon me. My calling is to live according to His grace, not to minimize the blood of Jesus Christ but to treat it as the treasure that it truly is. The airbags and seatbelts in our cars may protect us in the case of an accident and may even save our lives but that does not give us the license to drive however we wish, we bear a responsibility toward the other drivers around us, our passengers, and ourselves that causes us to drive in accordance with the established rules of the road. Just so we have a responsibility before God to live according to the established rules of creation. Those who would live however they wished all the while counting on the blood of Jesus to satisfy God's righteousness on their behalf crucify Christ again to their own detriment and show their disregard for a salvation so dearly bought. No, I am not perfect, but I struggle to overcome my imperfections and to live according to the holy calling of God, not giving in to temptation but seeking the path of holiness that I might become ever more what God would have me be.

 

* Throughout this sermon I use the word "ritual" to describe the way that a person will act in the name of their faith (by caring either too much or too little for the way that their faith is expressed in the way that they live their lives).