We talk about it and sing about it. Grace is at the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Grace is God’s “undeserved gift” toward us that we do not deserve. Here is something you can count on: The better you believe yourself to be, the less grace you will think you need. The more self-confident you are, the more convinced you will be that you could get by even if God were stingy with grace. All you need is some help from God and a bit of personal determination. But our need is much more desperate, for grace finds us “dead in… transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). The fact that God’s grace alone is able to rescue us confirms that it is powerful enough and merciful enough to meet us where we are and bring us into the presence of God. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were 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” (verses 4-6).
Grace is a gift that sets aside all human merit. It does not simply give us a hand; it gives us a resurrection. Grace means that God takes the first step toward us. Then our small step of faith is simply a response to what God has already done. Grace means that God speaks a word, gives us spiritual life, and fits us to stand before Him. He descends the ladder we were trying to climb, scoops us up, and takes us all the way into His presence! Grace is all one-sided. If God’s rescue program had included our efforts, grace would be diminished, and salvation would not be wholly the work of God. Our self-effort will be put on a shelf labeled, “Unsuitable For Use.”
If you think that people are flocking to accept God’s grace, it’s not so. Intuitively, we think we have to have some part in our salvation, do some good work, or perform some deed that will make us worthy of God’s grace. We compare ourselves with others and end up thinking we do not need God’s grace because we are so good, or we reject God’s grace because we believe ourselves to be too bad. Some people think to themselves, If you knew what was in my past…you’d know that I’ve sinned too badly to accept God’s grace. They are convinced that God is so mad at them that no matter how much grace God extended, He would never accept them. They do not understand that their despair is intended to drive them to God rather than away from Him.
When you come to Christ, you do not come to give, but to receive. You do not come to be helped, but to be rescued. You do not come just to be made better, though thankfully that does happen, but you come to be made alive! Nor do we make a promise; we come to believe His promise. It is His work and not our own that gives us the gift of grace. Jesus told a story about two men who went into the temple to pray. The religious Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
If we think he was bragging, let’s remember that he believed in a certain kind of grace. He thanked God that he was not like other men; he knew that his good works were done because of God’s goodness toward him. I can just hear him saying, “But for the grace of God, there go I!” If he was better than others, God deserved the credit. In contrast, the tax-gatherer who was nearby was so overwhelmed by his sin that he would not even lift his face to heaven. Instead, he beat his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (verse 13).
Christ then said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 14). Yes, both men believed in God’s grace. The self-righteous Pharisee thought that God’s grace was only needed to do good deeds. God’s grace, he thought, helps us do better. The tax-gatherer saw God’s grace differently. He knew that if he was to be saved, it would take a miracle that only God could do. He didn’t just need help; he needed the gift of forgiveness, the gift of reconciliation. Only if grace were amazing could he be saved.
The Pharisee said, “God, if you help me, I’ll do better and save myself!” The tax-gatherer said, “God, You save me, or I’ll damn myself!” Those who think they can contribute to their salvation think that God’s grace is wonderful, but only the humble who see themselves as God does believe that His grace is amazing indeed. The difference is between those who know that God has to do it all and those who think they can help Him out. No wonder that John Newton, who was a great sinner, knew he needed special grace if he was to be forgiven. For him and for us, grace is truly amazing. This Sunday at South Side we will talk about the amazing grace of God! Worship begins at 10:45, and we hope to see you there!
Barry Pettit is lead minister at South Side Church of Christ in Washington Court House.