Saturday, 29 January 2011

Salvation and Grace.

An inspiring truth

Grace.  No matter what I write about, it always comes back to this single, central, splendid truth.  Maybe because I digress too much, or maybe just because in the end everything is about grace.  I think the latter, J.I. Packer says that:

“This one word ‘grace’ contains within itself the whole of New Testament theology.”

And if you disagree with J.I. Packer, then you’re probably a heretic…

But what does grace MEAN, it can’t be covered in a mere blog post, the subject is too vast and too glorious – a lifetime’s study would not exhaust the doctrine of grace.  However, the impossibility of fully grasping something is a terrible excuse for not starting, so let us briefly scratch the surface of what grace is, and then in more depth consider what grace means for salvation.

A definition of grace

One of the best definitions I’ve heard is that grace is an unmerited gift, from an unobligated giver.  God gives us salvation, something we don’t deserve and which he has no requirement to give us.  We don’t deserve it and we definitely don’t earn it.  Edward Norman said that:

“The whole point about the divine redemption of humanity was that humanity did not deserve it”

That’s important to grasp, grace that you somehow ‘earn’ even just by ‘choosing to believe’ in Jesus is not grace.  It is works.  Works won’t save you, they never can.

So that’s what grace is, God gives.  We don’t deserve it, but he gives anyway.  He gives life, salvation and hope.  But what does grace mean, practically?  What does it mean in regard to our salvation, to our eternal destiny?

Grace means that salvation is absolutely free

Salvation is free.  Like we said in our definition of grace, we can’t earn our salvation.  Instead, God gives us it freely.  This is a unique message indeed, all other faiths claim some form of works based salvation.  Either you have to do certain things or not do certain things.  The Bible says no, all your good works are useless.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean,
   and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
 and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
Isaiah 64:4-9 (NIV)

Isaiah there says that the best things he and the Israelite nation have done are just filthy rags to God, they’re worse than worthless – they disgust Him.

That hits us where it hurts; the doctrine of grace leaves no room for our pride.  There is no room left for pride when your salvation is completely from God.  If you didn’t DO anything, there’s nothing to be proud of; and that hurts.

Grace is humbling, it’s radical and it’s free.  It’s not just generosity, although that is part of it.  Generosity is giving more than we deserve.  Grace is giving us what we don’t deserve.

Think of it like a car, if you wash my car and I give you £5 that’s pretty fair.  If you wash it and I give you £10,000 that’s generous – but it’s not grace because you did something to deserve part of it.  If you steal my car and wrap it round a lamppost and then I give you £10,000 then that’s grace.

Doesn’t that make you want to weep?  We have stolen God’s car and we’ve wrapped it round every spiritual lamppost that we can find.  In repayment, he sent his son to die.  Jesus was crucified in agony for people who deserved to be in his place; for people who didn’t want his gift; for the people who put him on that cross.  That is grace.

Salvation is absolutely full

Grace means that salvation covers everything.  Works-based righteousness means that there would always be little bits you didn’t quite manage.  Grace is different, grace is complete.  This is an amazing thing, it means that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one that cannot receive forgiveness!  Jesus said:

“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Matthew 12:31

Every sin and blasphemy.  Every single one.  Every theft, lie, angry thought and rebellion against God will be forgiven through his grace.  Except for one thing, rejection of the Holy Spirit’s saving work.  The only thing that will not be forgiven is rejecting grace.

Salvation is absolutely finished

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, "It is finished," and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:30

What were Jesus’ last words as he hung there dying?  ‘Sheesh, I hope they manage to do enough good works to make this worth something’?  ‘I sure hope this is enough to save them’?  No.  His last words were a cry of victory: “It is finished!”  It is done! Salvation is complete, it is finished – there’s nothing left to do.  The battle is won, the journey is over.  It is finished.  We are assured our deliverance and welcomed into the presence of God. It is finished.

It is finished.

Salvation is absolutely firm

It is finished doesn’t just mean it’s done.  It means it’s certain.  If it’s finished, if it’s full, if it’s free – what could go wrong?  How could it possibly fail?  God planned it, God executed it and God has finished it – how could anyone fear that they could be lost?  Once saved always saved, there is no room for doubting or fear in the kingdom of grace.

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
John 10:28

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
Isaiah 43:2

Everyone knows that the doctrine of grace means you can’t add to your salvation – but so many forget that it also means you can’t take away from it.  There is nothing you or I can do that would make God forsake us when he has saved us.

The old hymn says it best:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

Some practicalities

Just to briefly outline four of the practical consequences of this beautiful doctrine of grace.

1.     There is hope for the worst of us – if grace is full then there is noone beyond forgiveness.  Jesus says that if only we come to him, he will forgive.
2.     There is humility for the best of us – if grace is free and full then we did nothing to deserve our place with God.  Paul says in Ephesians 2 verse 9 that we are saved not “as result of works, so that no one may boast
3.     There is one place for all of us – if grace is true at all then every Christian will stand before God equal in Christ, there is no favouritism, no ‘better’ Christians.  When Christians meet together there are no ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ people among them.  Just sinners saved by grace.
4.     There is glory for God – If God’s grace saves, God is glorified.  We must learn humility and everyone must honour the glory and majesty of the one who saved them.

An alternative to grace

There is always another option.  You can choose works over grace.  You can stand before a perfect and holy God on the day of judgement and you can tell him of the door you opened for your mum, or the old lady you helped across the street.  You can tell him of the meal you cooked when your friend was ill, you can tell him of the money you gave to Oxfam, or the sponsored walk you did to raise money for Christian Aid.  You can tell God of the times you went to church, or the prayers you prayed, or the passages you read, or your devotion to religious rituals.  You can tell God.

And God will answer.  He will tell you of the times you messed up.  He will tell you of your sinfulness, He will tell you of your rebellion against Him.  God will tell you of a life lived, not for him, but for your own security.  God will tell you of his love, and your coldness.  He will tell you of your arrogance, that you dared to think his sacrifice insufficient, that you dared to think your works enough.

You can tell God of your good deeds.

I will tell him of my sin, I have nothing else.

I will tell him of the fact that I’ve failed, I've never succeeded.

You can tell him of a life lived not as badly as that guy over there.

I will tell him of a life lived worse, because that's the life I lived.

But I will tell him of another life, a perfect life – I will tell him of Christ.

On judgement day you can talk about works but I will talk about grace, about God's love covering my failure and wretchedness.  And the thing is, without grace I would still be relying on my works.  Only God could change my heart, to swallow my pride, however hard I still find that, and rely on his grace.  And such grace it is!

Grace, so free that even I can take it, so full that it covers even my sin, so finished and so firm that there is nothing I could do to lose it.  Thank God for that grace.

Grace, ’tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to mine ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.

Grace first contrived the way
To save rebellious man;
And all the steps that grace display
Which drew the wondrous plan.

Grace first inscribed my name
In God’s eternal book;
’Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.

Grace led my roving feet
To tread the heavenly road;
And new supplies each hour I meet,
While pressing on to God.

Grace taught my soul to pray
And made mine eyes o’erflow;
’Twas grace which kept me to this day,
And will not let me go.

Grace all the work shall crown,
Through everlasting days;
It lays in heaven the topmost stone,
And well deserves the praise.

O let Thy grace inspire
My soul with strength divine
My all my powers to Thee aspire,
And all my days be Thine.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable grace!

Further listening:
Amazing Grace, the original 6 verse version - if you find it online tell me!
For more on the unrepentable sin: Andrew Randall's sermon on Mark 28-30 (linked in the text)

<< My heartfelt thanks to Andrew Randall, now minister at Larbert Old who preached the sermon that inspired this post.  Those four points have echoed in my mind nearly every day since I heard it four months ago.  That talk really showed me grace, like I’d never grasped it before and it changed my life.  I say inspired by, there are a few differences – mainly the inferior quality of my writing to his sermon but oh well. 
Feel free to suggest any improvements/correct any mistakes.>>

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