“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” 1 Corinthians 1:4
What does the “grace of God” mean to us? What does “grace” really mean to us, in practical terms?
The description of grace familiar to most people comes not from the pages of the Bible, but from the words of a hymn. ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me’, wrote John Newton, the slave trader turned priest.
John Newton was not like one of those preachers who speak of their past as being full of sin and wrongdoing when everyone knows they had led very ordinary lives. Newton really was a wretch; his words were no overstatement. He had experienced the depths of human life in the slave trade: degradation, exploitation, violence, casual killing, and yet God reaches down to him to pull him out of this darkness. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’, he wrote, reflecting a confidence in the power of God to bring him out of where he has been.
John Newton had faced death at sea, he had expected to drown, he had been lost to this world, but he was saved from death, from the dangers, toils and snares. He recognized, in the words of his hymn, that the hand of God had been present protecting him, guarding him, guiding him, long before he had even acknowledged God’s presence.
Newton found in Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2, Verses 4-8, lines telling him that even when he was at his worst, at his lowest, at the furthest possible point from God, God was still there, that God’s grace was saving him. Saint Paul wrote, ’But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’.
When John Newton wrote that, ‘grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home’, Saint Paul would have understood what Newton was saying. Writing in the Second Letter to Timothy, Chapter 1 Verse 8-9, Paul says, ‘join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time’.
Before the beginning of time: God’s grace is there before the beginning and will be there after the end. God’s grace is outside our time. John Newton was confident of God waiting for us beyond our time, ’Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace’.
God waits for us, not that we deserve it, not that anything we have done means we merit a place with him. Writing to the Philippians in Chapter 3 Verse 7-9, Paul says, ‘whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith’.
Saint Paul says has no righteousness of his own; if Paul, the most devout and conscientious of men, has no righteousness, then how do we appear to God? John Newton knew we had no righteousness, that we deserved nothing and that we were owed nothing, yet, in the words of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans Chapter 5 verse 8, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’.
I find grace the hardest Christian teaching to accept; preaching about it is one thing, living it is another. Within our Protestant tradition, and within the community in which I grew up, there is a very strong work ethic, the feeling that you should always be doing something. I cannot sit and do nothing, even spending time reading books or writing sermons can be stressful. I need to be out and about doing things, calling at the hospitals, out on the farms.
But why all the frenetic activity? To earn God’s approval? God doesn’t ask for constant activity. Salvation is not something we earn. God’s promise to us rests on his grace, it does not rest on how many things we do.
Yet if you read most Christian publications, they are full of all the things that people are doing, about events and activities and plans. Churches are judged not on what they are, but on what they do. Read all that is going on and it is very easy to lose sight of God’s grace, to feel that if only we did more or we tried harder, then we would somehow be closer to God. It might say in Ephesians Chapter 2 Verse 8, ‘It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast’, but Christians are very good at boasting. The church is very caught up with ideas of numbers and success, it is not very good at grace.
Grace means that God loves us for nothing; something that is not easy for us to accept. It challenges our natural pride; it makes us think about our faults and failings. If we are not worthy of God’s love in our own right; if we haven’t earned it, if it has to be given to us for nothing; then there must be a whole lot wrong inside us. This is not an easy thought when we feel that we live upright, decent and respectable lives. Yet the question we must answer is whether or not we accept this grace, this free gift to us. We cannot earn our own salvation, it comes only by grace.
Encounters with grace can be disturbing; encounters with God can be disturbing. Do you remember when Jesus first meets with the fishermen in Saint Luke Chapter 5? They have been fishing all night and they have caught nothing and Jesus tells them to try again, so they do, and they pull in a huge catch. Saint Luke tells us, in Chapter 5 Verse 8, ‘When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’’
Grace can make us feel like Simon Peter, we can be afraid when we meet with God, afraid of what he sees in our hearts, afraid of what changes he might expect from us. We might wish that God would go away
God knows what we are like. He knows every thought and every action. He knows ever word and every deed. We cannot escape God. The only question is whether we accept him, whether we accept this free gift.
John Newton understood that no matter how bad he might be, God loved him for nothing.
God’s promise to us rests on grace—it is ours to receive.