It would be monumentally presumptuous of me to suppose I could set the world straight on the subject of God’s grace when there is so much disagreement among people who are much smarter than me. I certainly don’t understand all there is to know about this most amazing thing called grace. I believe I know a little more about it than I did when I started preaching many years ago, but by no means can I claim to know all there is to know about it. When we speak of grace we are speaking of the infinite, the mind and heart of God. How can a mere mortal fathom the vastness of the eternal One?
I am not talking about the definition of terms. Anyone can look the word up and get the basic meaning of “gift” or “favor.” I am talking about how this “gift” applies to my life and to yours (Ephesians 2:8). How does grace “work?” This is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects for human beings to “get a handle” on. This is especially true of people who have been convinced that their salvation is almost altogether up to them and are trying their hardest to live the best, most pleasing life before God that they possibly can and are continually in doubt of their salvation.
When we speak of the grace of God we ultimately must understand it in terms of the sacrifice of Jesus as the perfect lamb of God offered up for out sins. The depth of God’s love and mercy expressed in such an offering is incomprehensible to us. We can only exclaim with Paul… “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
That grace, once we accept it by faith and through it receive forgiveness of sins and standing before God as His children is operative in countless ways in our lives. If we ever lose sight of this fact we will without doubt fall into error through our misunderstanding and misapplication of this wonderful subject.
There are two extremes we to which we can go in our efforts to understand and explain the grace of God. First there is the extreme of license. This view sees grace as a blanket that covers (and excuses) all our sin. People who have this view are like the people Paul referred to (probable rhetorically) in Romans 6:1. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” This misunderstanding could have arisen from Paul’s teaching like the statement he made just two verses earlier; “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” (Romans 5:20 ESV).
Paul’s answer to this mistaken application of his teaching follows in Romans 6:2ffwhere he reasons that the Christian has died to sin, been buried with Christ in baptism, has been raised to a new kind of life and as a willing slave of Jesus can no longer live as a slave of sin. Sin is inconsistent and incompatible with this newness of life we have in Christ because of God’s grace. We just can’t go on sinning – period.
The other extreme is a legalistic approach to the Christian life. To people who take this view, grace is just too good to be true. For these it is all about balancing of the scales of justice – more a tit-for-tat kind of thing – God gives so much, we do so much and voila! Saved! Those who take this view are like the workers in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-16 who were upset with the landowner because he paid all the workers the same amount even though some had only worked a short while. Their sense of fairness was outraged – things didn’t balance out. But the lord of the vineyard replied to them… “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (v. 15).
The application Jesus was making is this; God’s grace does not conform to man’s sense of fairness or justice. He is more than fair! He is more than just! This is what grace is about. It is not about our finite understanding, it is about the infinite character of God. His grace is an expression of His character.
To think of grace as requiring human supplementation through law-keeping is, as Paul said, to nullify – to cancel or make of no effect – the grace of God.
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21 ESV).
That is a serious charge. It means that we underestimate God and overestimate man. It means that we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. It means that we think we can or have kept the law perfectly so as to merit our salvation. Such is the height of arrogance!
Paul was one who really understood grace. He understood it, not from an abstract theological standpoint, but from experience. He referred to himself and his experience of grace in this way…
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV).
And even though he became the great apostle to the Gentiles he maintained that sense of unworthiness due to his experience of grace.
“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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 was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10 ESV).
With Paul, it was all about grace. He had been on both sides. He had been the extremely legalistic persecutor but now was on the side of grace – and there is no doubt where he stood when he wrote this passage. With him, both his salvation and his life of obedience and service were matters of grace. Paul would take no credit for all he did in the Lord’s service. By grace God was working in and through him to accomplish His purposes.
More to come….