Growing In Godliness Blog
Finding Grace in a World Full of Ungrace – Part I
By Tom Rose
[Note: The article that follows draws heavily from two books by Philip Yancey which are referenced at the end. In an effort to help describe grace, this author uses a new word to contrast everything that is not grace, which he simply terms ungrace.]
We speak of grace often as if we fully understood it, but do we? More importantly, do we believe in it and do our lives proclaim it? Most of us have grown up with many values based on what sociologists call the “Protestant Ethic.” It can be described in phrases like: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; the early bird gets the worm; no pain, no gain; there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and stand up for yourself! However, each of these are examples of “ungrace”. Indeed, most institutions run on ungrace and their insistence that we earn our way. Over time, we build up a resistance to grace – partly because it is unearned (and doesn’t seem fair) and partly because it is shockingly personal to the individual who receives it.
Aware of our inbuilt confusion about grace as well as our difficultly to explain it, Jesus chose to teach about it frequently – most often in the form of parables. The three stories in Luke 15 (about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) seem to make the same point. Each underscores the loser’s sense of loss, tells the thrill of discovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation. It is only when we pause and allow their meaning to filter through our minds that we are confronted with their astonishing message and begin to realize how thickly our veil of ungrace obscures our view of God.
For example, can you image a housewife jumping up and down in glee over the discovery of a lost coin (Lk 15:8-10). Now that image is not exactly what comes to one’s mind when we think of God. Yet that is exactly the picture Jesus insisted upon. In effect He is asking us, “Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? Well, when one of my creatures pays attention to Me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost.” The message is clear: God will go to any length to bring us home. How far will He go? All the way to Calvary. God gave us His Son as proof that He has not given up on us. That’s grace!
Grace is unmerited, undeserved, unconditional love of God toward man. Grace is what every sinner needs, but none deserve (see Rom 5:8). Unconditional love is a difficult concept to grasp. By grace, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Truly, God’s goodness toward us was not based on any thing we had done – or would do in the future. He acted freely and without expectation of receiving anything of equitable value in return. It was unearned kindness. Indeed, grace is the essence of the gospel as it puts the “good” in the Good News. It provides healing to those who hurt, help to those who struggle, and hope to those who despair.
Here is an important concept, though: while salvation is by the “riches of His grace” (see Eph 1:7), it is not by grace alone. Paul, in Eph 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” The giver and gift are so involved that the gift cannot be handed over unless the recipient is involved. Grace is God’s part; faith is man’s part.
Read the The Parable of the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), then pause to notice the role of each character. God is the master of the house, Christ is the foreman, the laborers are the disciples, the vineyard is the church, and a denarius was the ordinary pay for a day laborer. Whereas the first group of workers agreed to a set wage, the others merely trusted the master to give them “whatever is right” (see v. 4). Now at the close of day, the early hires were dirt covered, sweat drenched, energy depleted, hands throbbing, back aching, and denarius deserving – everything the latecomers were not! The foreman was told by the master to pay the wages beginning with those hired last. As each worker stood before the foreman they each were given a denarius – regardless of the time they started work. Predictably, the story has those who get more than they deserve, those who think they deserve more than they get, and a jealous reaction arises. However, no one received less than he initially expected, and some received more. The master had not made the early hires equal to the latecomers; rather he made the latecomers equal to the early hires.
Many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day’s work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, and the employer’s strange behavior baffles us. However, unless we step outside the world of ungrace we risk missing the story’s point. God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell! Grace cannot be reduced to generally accepted accounting principles. In the bottom-line reality of ungrace, some workers deserve more than others; in the realm of grace the word deserve does not even apply.
Jesus did not want His followers to be haughty, nor did He want them to have an employee mentality. It is not so much for so much. Rather, they should focus on work, not wages; service, not seniority; production, not position; trusting in God’s goodness at the end of the day and not comparing themselves to other workers. From our Protestant Ethic background, we reach a troublesome dilemma as few things seem more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals! But this is the ‘New Math’ of grace. The master did not give the latecomers what they deserved; he gave them what they needed. It was not based on merit, but mercy. Moreover, if we care to listen, there is a loud whisper from the gospel that we, as believers, did not get what we deserved. For each of us as His children deserved punishment and got forgiveness. We deserved wrath and got love. We deserved a debtor’s prison and got instead a clean credit history. We deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance, but He left our world to return to His and set the table of grace, beckoning us to come to His banquet feast.
It should be noted, however, there is one aspect of the Protestant Ethic that is affirmed by the scriptures. Phil. 2:12-13 admonishes us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling…for it is God who is at work in you. No one is too bad to be saved, but some are “too good” to be saved because they have a self-righteous attitude. They tend to look down on others, think too highly of themselves, and feel that God owes them something. Then there are others who are unwilling to make the effort to change their lives and to put in the work to grow in Christ. Nevertheless, God will always do His part to make you into the person He wants you to be, if you will work, too.
In summary, grace remains the last and best word to describe what God has done for each of us. First, grace is free only because the Giver Himself has borne the cost. Second, grace makes its appearance in so many forms that it is difficult to define. However, something like a definition of grace in relation to God would be: grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. Yet, grace alone does not save us; grace is God’s means by which – if we choose to obey His commands - we may be saved. Third, grace alone melts ungrace. Finally, Christians are saved by grace in order to serve by grace.
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own;
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart;
Then, Lord, shall I fully know –
Not till then – how much I owe!
For the above article, ideas and phrases were selected from: Grace, by Aaron Erhardt, Louisville, KY: Erhardt Publications, 2015; God’s Amazing Grace: The Sweetest Sound of All by Wilson Adams, Murfreesboro, TN: Courageous Living Books, 2015; What’s So Amazing About Grace” by Philip Yancey, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997; Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
By Paul Earnhart
Job, out of his wretchedness and deep anguish, once declared, ”Man that is born of women is of few days and full of trouble" (14:1). It may not be the whole story, but it is a significant part of it. Early and late, all of us will face some heartbreaking adversities. The presence of so much pain in life has caused some to question even the existence of God. The trap in that is that we are arguing against God by a standard which cannot exist without Him.
The adversity in human life is real, not imagined. The Bible deals forthrightly with it. Solomon speaks plainly in Ecclesiastes not only of the presence of pain but the absence of justice in life "under the sun." Most all of us have felt that knowing the why of all this suffering and who or what is behind it might help. It is altogether human to probe into such things, but we need to recognize the limitations of our own knowledge (Deuteronomy 29:29).
In the fall of the year before He died, Jesus and His disciples came upon a beggar in Jerusalem which moved the disciples to ask, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?" (John 9:1). They presumed that physical tragedy was always a result of divine judgment on sin. Jesus' answer, "Neither . . . but that the works of God should be revealed in him" opened up a much broader perspective on suffering. This man's suffering had a purpose. The disciples had seen it only as a consequence.
Where does suffering come from? From several sources. It can come from God, in the general suffering and death unleashed in the world after man sinned (Genesis 3:16-19; Romans 8:20), or in specific cases to humble or strengthen (Job, Miriam, Numbers 12:1-10, Manasseh, 2 Chronicles 33:10-20, and even Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:7).
It can come from Satan, through God's allowance, as illustrated in the case of the horrific suffering of the righteous Job. Even Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was "a messenger of Satan" which God used for very different purposes than the Tempter intended.
It can come as the inevitable fruit of our own sins. "The way of the transgressor is hard" (Proverbs 13:15). Sin has its temporal consequences--physical, emotional and social.
Yet, at last, unless there is some direct link to our sin, it is very difficult to know the exact origins of our adversity. And that is just as well, for far more important than knowing why we are suffering is our response to it. Adversity, regardless of its source, is one of God's most effective tools to deepen our faith in Him and transform our lives. So said the Psalmist: "Before I was afflicted I went astray. But now I keep Your word . . . It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" (Psalm 119:67,72). As C. S. Lewis once observed, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, and shouts at us in our pain". And as Scripture observes, "Whom the Lord loves He chastens" (Hebrews 12:6).
The anguish of Christ on the cross reflects the influence of God (Isaiah 53:6), and Satan (Luke 22:3,4) and our own sins (1 Peter 2:24). Yet it was our Savior's trusting response to this awful suffering that enabled God to work by it something transcendently wonderful. So it will be with us, if we choose our response to suffering wisely--especially when we don't understand why. "For our light affliction, which is for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17). At last, like that ancient blind man, what we suffer here is in order that "the works of God may be revealed in us."
Add To Your Faith
By Randy Case, Jr.
Growth is a requirement for all Christians if they desire to be pleasing to God. The Hebrew writer rebuked the brethren for not growing as they should. The writer states that they ought to have been teachers, but they still needed the milk of the word and were unable to handle solid food (Hebrews 5:12-13). They failed to apply themselves to spiritual matters. Therefore, they were still in need of teaching and were unable to teach others.
Many individuals put on Christ in baptism, but they do not grow as the Scriptures command. God demands Christians to develop certain characteristics. The book of 2 Peter was written to encourage Christians to continue to grow spiritually. Peter tells us that we must add certain things to our faith (2 Peter 1:5). Faith, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), is the foundation. Peter gives us seven qualities that are extremely important in 2 Peter 1:5-7. As children of God we must possess virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. Virtue is defined as moral excellence. Knowledge is spiritual discernment or understanding what is morally right or wrong. Self-control indicates discipline. Steadfastness refers to patience and the ability to maintain self-control. Godliness is characterized by a God-like attitude, doing what pleases Him. Brotherly kindness denotes a fondness and caring for individuals. And love seeks the best for the object of our affections. Peter states that these characteristics must be found in us and they must increase (v. 8). If these abound, then we will not be ineffective or idle as Christians.
In Galatians 5, Paul gives us a list similar to Peter’s. Paul describes the “Fruit of the Spirit” as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Love is the foundational element upon which everything else stands. It is an “agape” love, which is the highest form of love. The joy that we are to have is not based on outward circumstances. A Christian’s joy comes from knowing that they have the hope of heaven as promised by the Creator, despite their situation. We must have a peace with God, with ourselves and with others. This peace is a tranquility of mind that no one outside of Christ should have. Patience indicates being long tempered. We must seek to be kind to all, willing to help those in need, especially Christians. Goodness refers to moral excellence that does not tolerate error. Christians have a standard to live by and that is found in Scripture. Faithfulness is a characteristic that simply carries the idea of being loyal. Our loyalty and allegiance must be to God in EVERY circumstance that we encounter. Gentleness or meekness is strength under control. And self-control requires us to restrain, or keep, ourselves from giving in to Satan’s temptations.
Baptism is an important part in obtaining salvation. But, it is only the beginning. If we fail to develop the characteristics that Paul and Peter talk about, we become near-sighted, forgetting that we have been cleansed from our former sins (1 Peter 1:9). We should never be satisfied with our present growth. Let us always add to our faith!
Everything I Needed to Know About God I Learned... Throughout My Life?
By Mike Cox
"What hinders me from being baptized?" This is the question that the Ethiopian Eunuch asked Philip in Acts 8:36 as they had been studying the Bible together. One of the big hindrances to obeying the Gospel that I have heard throughout my time as a Christian, is that people feel like they don't know enough to be baptized. This even applied to me before I became a Christian. What exactly is it that one needs to know to be baptized? How much does one need to know to be baptized? Not as much as we may think.
There are things that we need to know and come to terms with before we make the decision to become a Christian. We must first hear God's word (John 5:24), and we must believe (Mk. 16:15-16) in God. In doing so, this means that we have to acknowledge that we have sinned. Romans 3:23 says, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". We then must repent (turn away) from our sins (Mk. 1:14-15). Philip tells the Eunuch in Acts 8:37 that "if you believe with all your heart you may" be baptized. This is followed up by the Eunuch's confession of his belief in Jesus Christ and subsequently his baptism in verse 38 of Acts 8; Acts 2:21 and Mk. 16:16 are also commands for baptism. When we do this there is a level of commitment involved which can also be hindrance to some when they are considering becoming a Christian. We must then remain faithful until death (Revelation 2:10). This can seem like a daunting task when we feel we don't know enough about the Bible or we are overwhelmed with the expectation that we must live perfectly and without sin. As previously mentioned, we all have sinned and will sin. We all sin, but the difference between believers and non-believers when we sin is seen in how it affects us and how we try to not repeat that sin. We strive to live righteously.
We have a lifetime to learn of and about God and what is required of us. We all must start at the beginning. First Peter 2:2 references a time period where Christians are "newborn babes", that "desire the pure milk of the word", that we may grow. Does a star athlete start out at the top of his sport? No, they obtain a higher level as they learn and apply what they have learned. This is the same principle for Christians. We must apply what we've learned about God's word and expectations throughout our lives. We must mature as Christians and have a greater level of understanding and purpose. If our expectation is one of perfection from the start, it will be a daunting task to follow God and get to Heaven. Keep in mind that all have sinned and those that make it to Heaven will do so because they made the choice to make a commitment to follow God - and they kept it. The second part of this is God's grace that is bestowed upon us; God's unmerited favor given to us even though we sinned. Hebrews 11 highlights some of the faithful followers of the Bible. Even they had their struggles with sin. It is important to note that while God's plan may have occurred through these people, they weren't perfect either.
As previously mentioned we know very little at the beginning. If we keep this in perspective and strive to grow as Christians and grow closer to God, we CAN get to Heaven with God's grace. As Paul said in Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". This goes for us as well. No master craftsman ever started out that way, it occurred over time as they learned their craft. Being a faithful Christian is a life long journey to draw nearer to God and ultimately dwell with him in Heaven.