Today’s passages: 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 2, John 1:16-17, Romans 6
This weekend, we’re starting a brand new series exploring some of the important words that we use all the time as Christians: grace, faith, hope and love. These words represent key concepts for us in our lives as apprentices to Jesus. They’re also concepts that a lot of us Christians struggle with.
This week’s word, grace, is certainly one of those concepts that a lot of people struggle to get their heads around. What is grace? Why is it that so many of us claim it, and yet fail to show it? Why is it that so many of us long for grace, and yet struggle to believe that it could really be for us? And why, while we’re at it, is the prayer we say before eating called grace?
Simply put, grace is God treating us kindly, even though we don’t deserve it. It’s a bit different to mercy, which is God’s not treating us as we deserve. Mercy is God’s taking our punishment for our rebellion onto Himself; Grace is God being kind to us.
I suspect the reason why we call the prayer before eating grace is simply that we are recognising that our very food is a gift from God. We have food to eat because God has been kind to us.
But what is grace? Is it some sort of quantifiable thing that God has huge stockpiles of? Who is eligible for grace? Is there, as with credit cards, a limit to grace? Following from that, does grace operate on an interest free, grace now pay in eternity basis? Grace is, thankfully, far more incredible than that.
Part of the good news is that we are saved by grace — in His kindness, God wants us to share His eternal life. It isn’t by works that we are saved, meaning that none of us can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9.) But the gift of grace isn’t one that can simply be passively received. Grace has a purpose, and an impact on the lives of those who receive it. Grace can’t be taken for granted; grace, when we really understand it, has a habit of turning our lives upside down!
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes to remind the Corinthian church about the basics of the good news on which they had taken their stand. Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose from the dead on the third day. And He was seen: first by Peter, then to the 12 apostles, then to more than 500 believers at the same time, then to James, then to all the apostles. Finally, says Paul in verse 8, Jesus also appeared to Paul. On the road to Damascus, heading there to persecute the church, Jesus met Paul and turned his life right-side up.
Paul was under no allusions as to his worthiness to become an apostle. By all standards, he should have been disqualified at the starting post — the man who tried to destroy God’s church. But, instead, Paul became God’s apostle to the non-Jewish world… why? Grace!
In his introduction to his gospel, John says that grace and truth came with Jesus (John 1:16-17). I suspect that we can only stand the truth if we’re standing in grace. Paul recognised the truth about himself. Elsewhere, he calls himself the chief of sinners. But God’s grace changed his story around. Rather than smiting Paul (which he deserved!), God chose to invite him into His kingdom, and to use Paul to reach a world in desperate need of God’s offer of grace.
But, as Paul knew, grace is so much more than the initial saving of our souls to God. He says in 1 Corinthians 15:10 that God’s grace was not without effect. Quite the opposite: God’s grace towards Paul saw Paul working harder than all the other apostles. Why? Not because he felt that he had to catch up to the other apostles. I suspect it was because the enormity of what God had done for Paul simply blew him away. And notice also in verse 10 that Paul says that it wasn’t so much he who did the work as it was the grace of God that was with him. Grace, when we really get it, should change our lives. And grace gives us the capacity to serve God.
Grace is a gift that can’t be earned. But God’s grace certainly isn’t opposed to effort. If anything, God’s grace “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 2:12-14)