What about grace?
Billy Graham tells about driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his guilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court.
The judge asked, "Guilty, or not guilty?" When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, "That'll be ten dollars -- a dollar for every mile you went over the limit."
Suddenly the judge recognized the famous preacher. "You have violated the law," he said. "The fine must be paid--but I am going to pay it for you." He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! "That," said Billy Graham, "is grace!"[i]
Grace is when God not only pays the fine we deserve to pay, but buys us the best steak ever!
We have all heard of grace. We are all the benefactors of grace. Yet how well do we understand it? As selfish human beings, I think we understand grace just a little less than we understand our own hearts. As self-centered human beings I think I understand grace just a little less than I understand the origin of the universe and the source of life. As a sinner, I don't understand grace at all, but I recognize it when I see it. Whether it is in the story of the prodigal son, the Billy Graham anecdote, or in my own life; the mystery of grace is very real and very powerful.
The Bible has a lot to say about me as a sinner. It says
· I'm one who does evil continually. [ii]
· I'm impure –.[iii]
o Not righteous or good –[iv].
o Full of evil and madness –[v].
· It says I'm wicked and estranged –[vi].
· I've gone my own way –[vii].
· I'm rebellious –[viii].
· I have loved darkness –[ix].
· I am a slave to sin –[x].
· I am a child of the devil –[xi].
o Without fear of God[xii].
o And hostile to God –[xiii].
· I'm spiritually foolish –[xiv].
o Spiritually dead[xv].
o Darkened; alienated; ignorant, having a hard heart, callous; perverted, greedy, and impure. [xvi].
· I'm dead –[xvii].
· I'm defiled.
· I'm unbelieving –[xviii].
· I'm under the power of the evil one –[xix].
· And I'm foolish, disobedient, and led astray, and I am a slave to various passions and pleasures, passing my days in malice and envy, hated by others, and hating others –[xx].
That is God's ungarbled, unvarnished, absolutely, brutally honest assessment of who I am, apart from Jesus.
Now, it doesn't surprise me at all that I'm a sinner. I know that. I admit that. What does surprise me is that God responded to me and continues to respond to me with grace. I can't even in my wildest imagination understand how a guy like me can be loved by God or get into heaven! It is absolutely unfathomable. But that is grace. It is one thing to say Grace is undeserved. It is quite another, I think, to realize that God's grace is exactly the opposite of what I deserve.
Every other religion says you need to be a good person, 'cause God loves good people. Christian grace says, "You are not a good person, however God loves you and desires your love in return. By that same grace, he will change you so that you can be good and live with him eternally." Isn't that unbelievable?
Grace is way beyond our ability to grasp or understand, so let me instead point to 3 experiences of grace. There is only one grace, but we experience it in three distinct ways throughout our lives.
First we experience prevenient grace. "Prevene" is not a word that we often use. You might think of a word that has the same Latin root "INTERvene"- that means to come between. "PRE-vene" then, means to come before. Prevenient grace is the grace that comes before we even know God.
Another way of looking at Prevenient is that it is a form of the word "prevent." Prevenient grace prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to his offer of love. The prodigal son story teaches us that we are never so far away from God that he is not trying to get us to come home to him.
Prevenient grace is the grace that invites us home even if we have forgotten where home is. Prevenient grace is the grace that invites us home even when we have forgotten that we have a home.
John 6:44 says "No man can come to me, except the father draw him:" In other words, no one comes to salvation except that God brings him or her. Before we come to God. Before we are saved. When we are in a far off land, sinning our brains out; it is the prevenient grace of God that draws us, invites us, woos us, and attracts us into relationship with God. God might speak to us through other people, through worship, through the sacraments, through nature or any other means God might find to reach us. The point is God is working before we even know it.
John Wesley says, "No man can believe in Christ, unless God gives him power. He draws us first by good desires, not by compulsion, not by laying the will under any necessity; but by his strong and sweet, yet still resistible, motions."[xxi] Prevenient grace is the grace of God working in our lives before we are even aware that God is working, or that God is.
Our second experience of grace is called justifying grace. This is the experience that most people associate with grace. This is the experience of God seeing us walking up the driveway in all our sinfulness; and throwing his arms open anyway. This is the grace that comes to us only through the cross of Christ. Justification comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ- justification comes to me by God's grace.
Paul writes, "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" [xxii]And in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul wrote: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" [xxiii]
Think about the Billy Graham story I told. Did Graham deserve to be punished? Yes. Did Graham deserve to pay the fine? Yes. Did the judge know that? Yes. Did he pay it for him anyway? … Yes…. That's grace.
Do we deserve to be punished? Yes. Do we deserve to go to hell? Yes. Does God know that? Yes. Did he save us anyway? Yes…. That's justifying grace.
We are brought to God by prevenient Grace, accepted, and forgiven by God by justifying grace . . . and finally, we are made more like God, by sanctifying grace.
After we are saved, we become disciples and the rest of our lives is spent in the process of learning to be the person God wants us to be. Learning to live more like Jesus. We experience God's gracious presence transforming us into the person God intends us to be.
In sanctifying grace, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice in our communities, we strengthen our capacity to love our neighbor. Our inner thoughts and motives, as well as our outer actions and behavior, are more and more aligned with God's ideal will for our lives.
The story is told of a young girl who accepted Christ as her Savior and applied for membership in a local church. "Were you a sinner before you received the Lord Jesus into your Life?" inquired the pastor. "Yes, sir," she replied. "Well, are you still a sinner?" "To tell you the truth, I feel I'm a greater sinner than ever." The pastor asked "Then what real change have you experienced, then?" "I don't quite know how to explain it," she said, "except I used to be a sinner running after sin, but now that I am saved. I'm a sinner running from sin!"
Sanctifying grace is God's energy in our lives helping us to run further and further from sin. And of course, the further we get from sin, the closer we come to the sinless one, Jesus Christ.
John Wesley described this as going on to perfection. Not that he believed that we would become perfect in this life.
Wesley was clear that Christian perfection did not imply
· Perfection of health
· Or judgment.
· Or freedom from temptation
· Or sinlessness
· But rather perfection is the state of choosing not to sin. Or desiring not to sin.
In Matthew, Jesus says "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."[xxiv]
Paul writes Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own[xxv]
Sanctifying grace is God actively working in us to perfect us in love.
What about grace? Prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying or perfecting grace. One God, one grace, but three experiences of that one grace. No matter where you are on your journey of grace, remember God said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." [xxvi]
May God's grace go before you. May God's grace chase behind you. But most of all may God's power work on your weakness as his grace works in you.
[i] Progress Magazine, December 14, 1992.
[ii] Genesis 6.
[iii] Proverbs 20
[iv] Ecclesiastes 7
[v] Ecclesiastes 9
[vii] Isaiah 53
[viii] Isaiah 65
[ix] John 3
[x] John 8, Romans 6
[xi] John 8
[xii] Romans 3
[xiii] Romans 8
[xiv] I Corinthians 2
[xv] Ephesians 2
[xvi] Philippians 3
[xvii] Colossians 2
[xviii] Titus 1
[xix] 1 John 5
[xx] Titus 3
[xxi] Wesley's NOTES ON THE NEW TESTAMENT
[xxii] 2 Corinthians 5:19
[xxiii] Romans 5:8
[xxiv] Matthew 5:48 ESV
[xxv] Philippians 3:12-15 ESV
[xxvi] 2 Corinthians 12:9