I'm really pleased to be with you this evening and to have been given this wonderful subject for us to look at together, What's so Amazing About Grace? This was the title of a challenging book written by Philip Yancey (show book), in which, writing from his own experience in the USA, he suggests that many Christians and churches have forgotten, at least in practical terms, what grace means.
I didn't want to echo the theme of Philip Yancey's book this evening, but rather to look directly at the question of what is so amazing about grace, the grace of God which we have been celebrating using John Newton's great hymn, Amazing Grace.
But I had a bit of a problem. I've only just come back from holiday this past Monday and I had to preach on a different theme on Thursday morning for our communion service at Christ Church, so I was a bit pressed for time. But I had a bright idea. I know someone who was often speaking and writing about grace. I thought that he would be the ideal person to come along this evening and tell you What's so Amazing About Grace. So, instead of preaching a sermon for you I thought I would interview him on the subject.
Paul, welcome, I'm glad you could join us this evening. You preached to lots of people about the grace of God and you wrote a number of letters to churches telling them or reminding them about the grace of God. So can I ask you "What's so Amazing About Grace?"
There is nothing I would rather speak to you about because I have experienced the amazing grace of God towards me. You probably know my story, but let me remind you of it.
My Jewish or Hebrew name was Saul. I trained in Theology under the great Rabbi Gamaliel, being trained not only in the Law of Moses, but also in the many additional regulations by which we made sure that we never got near to breaking any of God's commandments. And I learned it all well; I was top of my class.
We Pharisees were looking forward to the day when the Messiah would return and restore the kingdom to Judah as it had been in the days of King David. We argued that if the kingdom had been lost through our disobedience then, if only we could get all the Jewish people to obey all of God's commandments, perhaps even for just one day, the Messiah would return and restore the kingdom to us. Then, instead of us being subject to this Gentile pagan government, those who were not Jews would be subject to us.
Well, I was a young man in Jerusalem when a man called Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. We all knew that this could not be true he broke the law all the time. He seemed to have no regard for the Sabbath or for the Temple. We soon got rid of him, handing him over to the Romans to be crucified.
But his followers claimed that he rose to life again three days after he was taken down dead from the cross and put in a tomb. I was intent on stamping out this dangerous heresy. I even travelled as far as Damascus planning to drag members of this sect off to prison.
But then this extraordinary thing happened to me. The risen Lord Jesus appeared to me on the Damascus road in all his glory. I did not know who it was at first, but he told me that he was Jesus Christ whom I was persecuting. And he told me that he had chosen me to tell others the good news that the Messiah had come.
Jesus made me one of his inner band of Apostles, just like Peter and James and John. This is what is so amazing about grace. I was the chief of sinners because I persecuted the church of Christ opposed myself to Christ himself but, in his grace (Galatians 1:15), he forgave me, called me to be his own and made me a preacher of the good news concerning Jesus. As I said to the Christians at Corinth, it's only "by the grace of God I am what I am." Amazing grace that God takes the chief of sinners and embraces him as one of his beloved family.
And if God can forgive and accept me, then he is able to do that for anyone.
So that's what's so amazing about grace: God forgives and embraces the worst of sinners as his own children. I'm reminded of the parable Jesus told of the Prodigal Son, of the Father welcoming home his rebellious son. And I'm also reminded of the dying thief to whom Jesus said, "Today you will be with me in paradise." This is amazing grace that God should embrace rebels and sinners.
Yes but that's only the beginning of the wonder of God's grace. You need to begin to understand how it is that a holy God can accept rebels like me and like you. It took me a while to take this in. After the risen Jesus Christ had appeared to me and I had begun to preach and demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, I was forced into a period of inactivity in which I began to understand more of what this means, of why Jesus the Messiah had to die.
We Pharisees had been expecting the Messiah to be another earthly king, even if a very great one. But the vision of Jesus as the risen Messiah made me realise that he was far more that that (Romans 1:4). I came to see that he was the eternal Son of God who came down from heaven to be our Saviour. Imagine what that meant, to exchange his glory for the brokenness of this poor world. As I wrote to my Christian friends in Corinth:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
But that's still only the beginning of the amazing grace of God in the Lord Jesus. Jesus' death on the cross was not a tragic accident, spoiling God's plans, it was the very means by which God dealt with the big problem of our sin and rebellion which separated us from Him. As I said to my friends in Colossae, it was as if God nailed all of our sins to Christ's cross; there he bore the punishment that was due to us so that we could go free. In consequence, as I wrote to my Christian friends in Rome:
"There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" Romans 8:1
This is what's so amazing about grace:
That "The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me." Galatians 2:20
That "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8
So, you see:
"it is by grace [we] have been saved, through faith and even this is not is not our own doing, it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2:8
We have absolutely nothing to boast of. It's all God's doing, and it demanded the costly and willing sacrifice of his own Son.
So I am beginning to understand what is so amazing about grace. We are all rebels against God and he would be quite within his rights to banish us from his sight for all eternity. But because of Jesus death for us on the cross he welcomes all who trust him. He loves us and embraces us with a love that is blind to what we have done. Nothing we can do can make him love us more and nothing we can do can make him love us less. It's not about what we do but about what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.
But doesn't that mean that I could go on living a life of rebellion against him and God's grace would be large enough to embrace me still.
No, I don't think you have understood the amazing nature of God's grace. You are arguing like some of those who sought to undermine my ministry by saying that the message I preached amounted to "lets continue in sin that grace may abound" (Romans 6:1; 3:8). God's grace is far more amazing than that.
God's grace isn't just a free ticket to heaven. The grace of God that streams to us from Jesus' death for us upon the cross is transforming grace, empowered by Jesus' resurrection from the dead. When we trust in Christ crucified we trust in him crucified and risen. We are not only forgiven through his shed blood, we are made new through his risen life.
This was the amazing grace of God that transformed my life. Not only was I forgiven for my past rebellion against God and his Christ, I who once lived a self-righteous life was transformed into someone who wanted only to live as a follower of Christ, living only to serve him and please him.
As I wrote to my young friend Titus:
The grace of God teaches us to say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
The grace that saves is grace that transforms. It moulds us afresh into the image of Christ. This also is what is so amazing about grace.
So God's grace is not just forgiveness. It is that, but it's far more. It's his power in us by his Spirit enabling us to live for him even in the most trying of circumstances.
Let me tell you more of my testimony. The Lord Jesus called me to be an apostle he sent me to tell others about him. But in my ministry I experienced all sorts of difficulties opposition, beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks but one of the most troubling problems was a physical weakness from which I suffered. I felt it was sent to me by Satan who wanted to make it impossible for me to continue my ministry so I pleaded with the Lord for healing. Do you know what the Lord said to me?
"He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
That was an unexpected answer from the Lord. But after I thought about it I began to welcome the realisation of my own weakness. I realised that any effectiveness in ministry was not because of my own ability but only because of God's power at work through me.
"That is why, for Christs sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 12:10
This also is what is so amazing about grace. It's God's power poured into our lives enabling us to live for him.
So the grace of God is experienced not only when we first come to trust in the Lord Jesus but streams to us ever afresh from him to sustain us in the life of following him. I recall now that one of your colleagues, the apostle John, wrote that out of the fulness of the life that is in Jesus we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16). Wonderful, amazing grace.
Yes, that's right. When writing to my friends in the church in Rome I spoke to them about the reign of grace, the power of grace to overcome our sin and enable us to live righteous lives through union with the risen Saviour. We should not underestimate the amazing power of God's grace, it's the same power that raised Jesus from death to life.
But even this does not exhaust the amazing power of God's grace.
When I was a Pharisee we longed for the day when the Messiah would come and Gentiles would bow down to us and acknowledge that we were God's chosen people. Well I had a lot to learn. After my life had been transformed through an encounter with the risen Saviour I began to minister among my fellow Jews, proving that Jesus was the Christ. But my ministry seemed to stir up more trouble than blessing and for some years I stopped ministering. I was in exile in my native city of Tarsus, trying to understand the Scriptures afresh in the light of Jesus the Christ and trying to understand the ministry Christ had for me.
Then one day, an old friend came seeking me out. His name was Barnabas and he wanted me to come back with him to the City of Antioch in Syria. He had been sent there by the Apostles in Jerusalem to find out what was happening. They had heard that there Gentiles, non-Jews, were coming to faith in the Lord Jesus. Barnabas told me that when he had first arrived in Antioch he was filled with joy to see the grace of God at work. Not only had Gentiles as well as Jews come to faith in Jesus Christ, but they were meeting together as one fellowship, eating together and celebrating the Lord's Supper together. This is the power of God's grace; it breaks down the barriers between people and unites them as one body of people in the Lord Jesus. I was delighted to be able to minister to this group of disciples with all the variety of their backgrounds.
But it was difficult for some of my fellow Jewish Christians to stomach this. Even the Apostle Peter when he came to visit us in Antioch was persuaded at one point to eat only with his fellow Jews. I rebuked him openly. The grace of God in the Lord Jesus destroys all human distinctions:
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [ Jew as well as non_Jew -], and all are justified [made right with God,] freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Romans 3:23-24.
The amazing power of God's grace had been at work through my ministry, smashing down the walls that divided people and creating one new humanity in Jesus Christ. I had to remind Christians in Galatia that:
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28
What other power on earth could do this. This is the amazing character of God's grace.
One of the things I did as part of my ministry was to arrange for donations from Gentile Christians around the Mediterranean world to be taken to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It was a practical expression of the reality that the Lord Jesus had made us one new family in him. I called these donations grace in action. They were an expression of God's amazing grace.
And the scope of God's grace takes your breath away. God's purpose is
"to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ." "to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves." Ephesians 1:10, 6
It's this understanding of the amazing grace of God, amazing both in its power and scope, that has driven me in my ministry. As I reminded my young friend Titus:
"The grace of God [that] has appeared offers salvation to all people." Titus 2:11
And as I wrote to my dear young colleague Timothy:
"God our Saviour wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3-4
This is the amazing grace of God that was at work through my ministry and has continued to be at work through all the centuries since. In his grace, God purposes to unite people from every nation, background and language making them one new humanity of brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ. Imagine that. Pray for that. Work for that.
Thank you so much Paul for sharing with us this evening your experience of the amazing grace of God that transformed your life, transformed the lives of Jews and Gentiles under your ministry and is continuing to transform lives today. Is there anything else you would like to add to all you have said about the amazing grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Yes, I'd just like to add a final word which brings together both the transforming power of God's grace and its universal reach.
I spoke of how I had written to Christians in Rome about the reign of grace:
"Just as sin reigned in death, so also grace [will] reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 5:21
God's grace not human sin and rebellion will have the final word. But the triumph of grace will be even more amazing. At Jesus' return, the whole of creation will be transformed and made new:
"For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For [then] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God." Romans 8:19-20
We have already tasted something of the life of the New Creation by the power of the risen Lord Jesus at work in us, but we still eagerly look forward to the day of Christ's return when our bodies shall be redeemed, made at last like his glorious body. We long for the day when our mortal bodies shall put on immortality. Well on that day, the whole of creation shall be renewed; no more suffering, no more pain, no more death. This will be the triumph of God's grace, when grace shall reign in righteousness over all creation and the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
God's grace in the Lord Jesus Christ is truly amazing: amazing in that it can reconcile sinful and rebellious men and women to a holy God; amazing in that it can transform our lives and make us like Christ; amazing in that it can reconcile men and women to one another and heal the relationships that tear our world apart; amazing in that its triumph at Christ's return will be seen in the transformation of all creation.
Thank you so much Paul talking to us this evening. You have helped us to see the amazing nature of God's grace. We want to live by and out of the grace that God has shown us in Christ and we want to treat others we meet with grace that reflects the way in which God has dealt with us. Perhaps I can end by quoting again your words to your friend and colleague Titus:
"The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." Titus 2:11-14
May the Lord help us to live by and in the light of his amazing grace.
Marshfield Chapel, 1/10/2023