Let’s briefly explore grace together. Before we go any further, perhaps it would be helpful for us to define the word – grace. What is grace specifically? You may be surprised to know that Jesus never used the word itself. He just taught it and more importantly, He lived it. The Bible never gives us a one--statement definition. In Old Testament Hebrew the term meant -- ‘to bend, to stoop.’ Over time it came to include the idea of – ‘condescending favour.’ On occasion, royalty has made the news because someone in the ranks of nobility would stop, kneel down, touch, talk with, or even pray with a commoner, that’s grace! There is nothing in the commoner that deserves being noticed or touched or blessed. It is because of grace in the heart of that royal person. The late Donald Barnhouse used to say: “Love that goes upward is worship, love that goes outward is affection, and love that stoops is grace.”
Every time the thought of grace appears, there is the idea of its being undeserved. In no way is the one receiving grace getting what he or she deserves. This unmerited favour is being extended simply out of the good pleasure of the heart of the giver. Another thing about grace is that it is absolutely, totally free. You will never be asked to pay it back, you couldn’t even if you tried. Most of us have trouble with that thought, because we work for everything we get – but grace come to us with no--strings attached.
Intuitively, most of us feel that we have to ‘do something’ in order to be accepted by God and people. So grace sounds a startling note of contradiction -- of liberation, and every day I must pray anew for the ability to hear its message. During an influential period of my Christian walk, I spent four years in a Bible College. I met a lot of godly people there. I also spent a lot of time in good bible preaching churches, but as I look back on that time I have to say I learned very little about grace. Yet it is grace that stands at the very center of the Christian message. The apostle John summarized the ministry of our Lord by saying, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
What’s So Amazing About Grace? The story is told that during a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating the possibilities. Was it the incarnation? No, other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. How about the resurrection? No, other religions had accounts of return from death too. The debate when on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. ‘What’s the rumpus about?’ he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace!’ After some discussion, all those gathered had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight--fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, the Muslim code of law – each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.
Grace is the unmerited favour or kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving. It is a free gift to those who desire the exact opposite and it is given to us while we are without hope and without God in this world. Grace comes to us in two dimensions -- vertical and horizontal. Vertical grace centres on our relationship with God. It is truly amazing because it causes a great surprise or wonder and is astonishingly impressive. It frees us from the demands and condemnation of the law. It brings hope to the sinner, the gift of eternal life, along with all its benefits. This vertical grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more than He already does.
No amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from Bible colleges and seminaries, and no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes can earn us favour with God. Grace also means that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. No amount of racism, pride, pornography, adultery, or even murder can diminish the love that God has for us in and through Christ. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.
Horizontal grace centres on our human relationships. It is wonderfully charming and kind. It frees us from the tyranny of pleasing people and adjusting our lives to the demands and expectations of human opinion. It silences the guilt and removes our self--imposed shame and it liberates us from our desire to control or judge others.
In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey shares a story about a prostitute who came to a friend of his looking for help. The woman was in bad shape. She was homeless, sick, and unable to buy food for her two--year old daughter. In tears she confessed that she had even been using her daughter in sexually abusive ways to support her own drug habit. The friend could hardly bear listening to this sordid story; she knew she was legally bound to report this case of child abuse. What stuck with me about the story was the woman’s answer to a question this friend had asked her. ‘Have you ever thought of going to a church for help?’ she asked. She said she would never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed the woman’s face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.” Perhaps her response says more about her than it does about the church…but it made me wonder. In New Testament times, women like this fled to Jesus, not away from Him. In fact, the worse people felt about themselves, the more they saw Jesus as a safe refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Do the down and out who flocked to Jesus, feel welcome among His followers?
The world hungers for grace and everyone both wants and needs grace. The world desperately needs to see the reality and sincerity of our lives that have been changed by the God of all grace! In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul says -- ‘And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?’ The answer to that first question is: nothing. In spite of this, there was boasting going on in the church at Corinth, which was totally contradictory to reality in Paul’s thinking. If all you have is a free gift from God -- that’s what grace means -- then you can’t boast as if it were not a gift. Grace eliminates boasting -- save in the cross of Christ, which is the ground of grace.
Amazing grace, how sweet the reality!