The Wonder of Grace

Dr. Brian Allison

It was a catastrophic human tragedy. This past week, fourteen thousand people died in an earthquake in Turkey. Astoundingly, a few days after that shattering devastation, a small boy was found alive under a heap of rumble. How do we explain that, on the one hand, thousands of people perish in a moment, and, on the other hand, one small boy survives such carnage? Why did not this small boy die as well? I am sure that many answers may be offered, but one answer is that this small boy is alive today because of God's grace. In fact, you are alive today, and sitting (or standing or lying) reading this message because of God's grace. According to 1 Peter 5:10, our heavenly Father is "the God of all grace." Every form of grace, every kind of grace, every expression of grace, ultimately finds its roots in the heart of God. He is the source of ALL, not simply some, grace.

The wonder of grace

There is no more joyous theme in the whole of Holy Scripture than the theme of grace. The story of the Gospel is the story of grace. With a cursory reading of his writings, we quickly realize that the apostle Paul reveled in the grace of God. His epistles are laced through and through with this theme. 1 Thessalonians 5:28 reads, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." The apostle uses this term 'grace' about one hundred times in his epistles. Moreover, in his epistles, the apostle customarily begins and concludes by referring to grace. We may say that everything he had to say is sandwiched by grace.

With this epistle to the Thessalonian believers, Paul ends with a benediction, a wish-prayer, whose content is grace – "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." Again, grace was a critically central issue for the apostle. It was not a peripheral or side matter; it was not an incidental topic; but rather, it was absolutely foundational and essential for all that he taught concerning the Christian life and experience. In fact, someone has said that grace is the key note of Paul's theology. No doubt, as a Christian, you probably have heard much about grace; it is often referred to. Yet, we can hear about it so often that it no longer speaks to us afresh. Having been schooled in sound doctrine, extending over a number of years, we may hear or read these common terms, without being aroused, nor constrained, to worship God. As you read this message, I invite you in the quiet of your heart to ask God to speak to you afresh about this wonderful and glorious theme, so that you may not receive the grace of God in vain as you read about the grace of God. Ask Him to impact you with this truth even though you have heard or read about it so often. In truly understanding the grace of God, there is spiritual restoration and revival. Everything we are, everything we do, everything we will be, as Christians is because of the grace of God. Throughout all eternity, we will ceaselessly revel in the riches of God's grace – "to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved ...according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us...in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1:6,7b,8a; 2:7).

Grace flows from Jesus Christ

So, Paul offers this fitting prayer for these Thessalonian believers – "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." I suppose that there is no more fitting prayer than this. There is no greater good, no greater blessing, that we can do for another fellow believer than asking God to bestow His grace on him or her. Notice that this grace belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ – "...of our Lord Jesus Christ." He is the source of this grace. This grace flows from Him. We find a similar phrase in 2 Corinthians 8:9a, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor."

The apostle John writes, "For the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ." Our Lord Himself commenced a new dispensation in the economy of God. In His very person, He revealed the marvelous love and goodness of God. Moses was given the responsibility and role of being a mediator, a conveyor of the Law of God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, manifested in the fullness of time, has communicated the saving grace of God. Christ is the conveyor of divine grace, not only by what He said, but in who He is. The wonder of saving and sanctifying grace, which was prophesied in the Old Testament, came to realization in the incarnation, and through the ministry, of Jesus Christ. Earlier in this chapter, verse 14, John writes, "And the Word [the revelation, the cosmic mediator] became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Again, Christ did not simply possess grace, He was not simply the vehicle of grace, He did not simply manifest grace, He Himself, in His very person, is the fullness of grace, because He is the fullness of God. Christ is the embodiment of the divine nature, which includes intrinsic goodness; and here is a mystery of the kingdom – God in His very person is grace; and He brings that grace to us in His very person. Further, Jesus Christ, in the mystery of His Spirit, gives us grace.

Jesus Christ gives grace

Jesus Christ is the source of grace. It comes to us as an expression of His love. Therefore, it is a gift; and so, we rightly talk in terms of God giving us grace. Accordingly, Paul could say in Romans 12:3,15, "For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith...But I have written very boldly to you on some points, so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God." Paul uses this kind of language not only in reference to himself – he recognized that he was always a recipient and a debtor to grace – but also in reference to believers. So, 1 Corinthians 1:4 reads, "I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus." This grace is given not simply at conversion, but it is given to us every day as we live the Christian life. In fact, we can only live the Christian life by His grace; every day we need grace. Grace must define our daily walk. Grace interprets the nature of our relationship with God. Grace informs the reality of our experience of Christ. Without grace, we are lost.

Everything that we are as Christians, everything that we can do as believers, everything that we may experience as the disciples of Christ, is determined by divine grace. God's grace, for instance, determines our effectiveness and success in Christian service. There is absolutely nothing that we can accomplish for God apart from His grace. Recall the apostle Paul's personal testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:10, "But by the grace of God I am what I am ['Everything that I am as an apostle, everything that I am as a preacher, everything that I am as a believer, I am by the grace of God], and His grace toward me did not prove vain [no, I responded to that grace, I opened myself up to that grace, I let that grace teach, convict, instruct, chasten, rebuke, and break me]; but I labored even more than all of them [he is not bragging; he is simply stating a fact, but he is not taking the credit], yet not I [lest you have the wrong idea], but the grace of God with me." You may ask, "Paul, how do we explain the fact that hundreds were converted through your ministry? How do we explain the fact that you have given wisdom, instruction, and counsel to many? How do we understand the fact that you can pray without ceasing? How do we understand the fact that you were willing to give up everything for Christ and count it all as rubbish? How do we understand the fact that you left behind position, status, and family? How do we understand the fact that you have a passion for Christ and that you pursue him every day with your whole heart, and that you count it joy to suffer for Him, and will eventually give up your life for Him? You are an amazing fellow, Paul. You are extraordinary; you put me to shame, O great apostle." Paul's answer to these questions is this, "Do not look at the man, but look at the God of the man. I have nothing of which to boast. I will tell you why I have been able to do what I do – grace, and nothing but grace!"

Maybe you are wrestling in your spiritual walk. Maybe you have become frustrated, especially when you consider other Christians and they seem to be doing so well. Maybe you have become discouraged or disappointed in the ministry because there are few converts. In our church, we have been going to the homes in our community for about eight months. We have visited hundreds of homes; and do you know how many known converts we have seen? None – door after door, conversation after conversation, and no visible fruit. What keeps us going? We remain obedient to the Lord because this is what He has told us to do, recognizing that it is all of His grace. When God reveals and manifests His grace (and He has a mind of His own and His own time frame), people then will be saved. This affirmation does not mean that we do not seek Him and cry out to Him. We better do that, saying, "Lord, give us converts; we want converts for Your glory. We will have no peace until You give us converts." God wants us to call upon Him. But at the end of the day, when we do see a convert, it will not be because of our slick Madison Avenue approach, or our programmed polish, or our clever techniques. No, it will come about because of God's grace alone; and we will rejoice in that and praise Him. God's grace is never frustrated.

Sufficient grace for everything

So, Paul knew where his success lay. It did not lie in training (though that may be helpful), it did not lie in reading, it did not lie in market research, it did not lie in managerial savvy. It lay in grace. Paul was wholly and completely dependent on grace. And we, as believers, are wholly and completely dependent on grace. For example, 1 Timothy 1:14 reads, "And the grace of our Lord was more than abundant [more than enough to meet all my needs, all my perplexities, all my exigencies, all my problems, all my struggles, all my frustrations, all my disappointments], with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus." Even our faith, and the power and effectiveness of our faith, is rooted in grace. And not only that, every inclination, ability, and expression of the highest love is the result of grace. So, you may be struggling in your faith, saying, 'Lord, if the truth were known, there is unbelief in my heart; if the truth were known, Lord, there is hatred in my heart. I feel bitter towards that person." Let this be a source of confidence and peace for you – Paul says, "The grace of God was more than abundant, and faith and love accompanied that grace." That is how grace was particularly revealed in the heart of Paul. Personally, I cannot truly believe unless God helps me to believe; I cannot truly love unless God helps me to love; and that is why I need to cry out to Him for grace. But there is more than enough. Thus, we read in 2 Corinthians 12:9a – the divine answer came to the apostle Paul – "My grace is sufficient for you." Consider also 2 Corinthians 9:8, "And God is able [He has infinite power, He has eternal strength, He is the sovereign Lord] to make all grace [nothing lacking] abound to you, that always [not sometimes, but always] having all [not some, but all] sufficiency in everything [not simply in some things, but everything], you may have an abundance for every good deed."

My Christian brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ is not only able to pour out His grace upon you, but He is willing. He is a good God. Jesus is pleased to give you His grace; and if He does not give it to you, then you are just beating your head against the wall. Believe that Christ is pleased to give you grace to meet your particular need. We all have needs. Some have very pressing needs. Some are at a crossroads – either to win or to bust. Or, perhaps, the 'last straw' has come, and you cannot go on any more. Remember, you have to come to the God of all grace. That is your only hope; and He is pleased to give you abundant, abounding grace. There is absolutely no need that is beyond the reach and the help of His grace.

Grace is power

How are we to understand this grace? What is this grace that invades our lives? What do we mean by grace? Theologically, we may define grace as unmerited, undeserved favour. Let me give you an illustration. Lisa Michelle Lambert, who received wide public attention, was convicted of a brutal murder. She slashed the throat of a romantic rival in 1991. She was sentenced by the state of Pennsylvania to life imprisonment without parole. Lisa and her lawyers, through some clever maneuvering, were able to have the case heard by a federal judge. The federal judge threw out the case on the basis of an apparent massive cover up by the Pennsylvania law enforcement. The judge gave Lisa Lambert a reprieve, and released her from jail, even though there was overwhelming substantial evidence contradicting such a decision. From the point of view of the citizens of Lancaster, and of the Pennsylvania law enforcement, the judge's decision was a case of gross injustice; but it was also a situation of unmerited, undeserved favour – she was let off the hook. She deserved retribution, yet she was let go scott free. She received grace. Grace is unmerited (you cannot work for it, you cannot earn it), undeserved (you have no claim to it, it is not owed to you) favour. (Incidentally, the federal judge's ruling was overturned by the appeals court; Lambert is back in jail.)

But this definition of grace may sound too abstract. Practically, what is grace? In terms of the rubber hitting the road, in our actual experience, in our practical day to day living, how are we to understand grace? Grace is the manifestation of the power of God; it is experienced by believers in inner strengthening and enablement. So, Hebrews 13:9 says, "It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace." That is what grace does in the human spirit. Again, 2 Corinthians 12:9,10 reads, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness [part 'a' of this statement parallels part 'b']. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with my weaknesses...for when I am weak, then I am strong."

Grace is the power of God concretely revealed in our lives. Maybe you are afraid. Is something causing you to fear? Is the bill collector knocking on your door? Are you wondering how your son or daughter is going to fare? Well, how can grace reveal itself here? It will strengthen and give you boldness. Or maybe you have to make a very important decision this coming week. How can grace reveal itself here? It will give you understanding, helping you to discern the issues and possible consequences. Or maybe you are grieving right now. Are you grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling weak in spirit? God's grace to you may be manifested in ineffable comfort and peace. Or maybe you are struggling with anger. Did you blow up at your wife or husband yesterday? You do not have to feel defeated, for His grace can overcome and remove that anger, and give you meekness, a forgiving spirit, and humility. Or maybe you need wisdom as you struggle with the direction of your life or the perplexity of a situation. I recently had an opportunity to speak with a Zen Buddhist. I prayed for grace, "Lord, give me wisdom to answer this man;" and that is exactly what God did. I experienced the truth of Proverbs 15:23, "A man has joy in an apt answer, and how delightful is a timely word!" I experienced the grace of God working itself out in my mind by enhancing my intellect and strengthening my memory, allowing me to recall facts and articulate them in a way that this Zen Buddhist was moved and challenged. Let us heed the exhortation of 2 Timothy 2:1, "You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus."

Receiving God's grace

Consider finally, the last phrase of our text, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." His grace can always be with us. We need His grace to be with us; but there is a condition for receiving the grace of God, even though it is free, that is, when God actually gives it, it is free, it is unmerited, and unearned, but He is pleased to give grace practically conditioned on a certain attitude. What is the practical condition for receiving grace? – humility. So, James 4:6 reads, "But He gives a greater grace [Wow! He not only gives grace, but He gives a greater grace]. Therefore it says, 'GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.'" Of course, this speaks of dependency, which underscores our need of the ministry of the "Spirit of grace" (Hb. 10:29). Are you a humble person? Did you have to be heard this past week? Did you have to give the last word? Did you have to make sure your views were understood? Did you react with impatience because you wanted to make a point and you could not handle the resistance or opposition? If so, there is no grace for you, my friend. God opposes the proud, the arrogant, the haughty, the self-sufficient, the self-reliant, but He gives grace to the lowly.

But, what is the practical means for securing this grace? – prayer. Hebrews 4:16 says, "Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." How was your prayer life this past week? Prayer opens the floodgates so that free grace may fully flow. Prayer is the posture of dependency.

Though there is much grace to be received, you can receive the grace of God in vain. Now, I believe in the sovereignty of God as much as anyone does – we cannot resist or thwart Him – but we can fail to allow God's grace to fully work itself out in us. 2 Corinthians 6:1 reads, "And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain." We are to respond to this grace and let it have its perfect work, and not waste, nor despise, it. We are to accept and act upon this inner strengthening and achieve God's best for us. God's grace does not circumvent our wills and the power of choice. Maybe God came to you this past week through His truth with conviction, and the prompting of the Spirit, to pray or to ask someone for forgiveness; but sadly, you turned away and chose disobedience. That is receiving the grace of God in vain. It is your choice.

My final word is to my non-believing friend. You are not reading this message by chance, but by appointment. I have been talking about grace, but your actual reading of this message is a means of grace to you. You have read about God and Jesus, and about His love and His goodness; and now I ask you, are you going to respond, repent, and return to your Creator? Or are you going to receive the grace of God in vain? Realize that even your believing in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is by grace – "...he helped greatly those who had believed through grace" (Acts 18:27). I am asking you right now to believe; and if you have a sincere heart, and if you feel your need, and if you cry to God for help, God will give you His grace. Come, there is more than enough grace.