Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grace: The Unearned Gift

The foundation of Christian faith is the saving grace of Jesus Christ, that which He offers freely to all mankind. We sometimes think more of the Old Testament as an example of God’s justice rather than His mercy, yet the grace of God is the thread that binds together both the Old and New Testaments. Not only do we have the story of the great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian army being swallowed up by the Red Sea, and such, but we have Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, manna sent by God to the stiffnecked Israelites in the wilderness, David’s considerate treatment of a jealous King Saul, God’s rescue of the defiant Jonah, and His repeated deliverance of a rebellious people as found throughout the Old Testament. Of course the New Testament is brimming with examples of the grace of Christ, with the Apostle Paul speaking of it unendingly.

The fall of Adam had brought upon all mankind both a spiritual and temporal death—being spiritually cut off from the presence of God, and suffering a physical death. It is, therefore, necessary that man be reclaimed from both deaths. That reclamation can only be done, though, by Jesus Christ and through His gracious atonement.

The Meaning of Grace
Let’s take a look at the meaning of the word grace. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible tells us that the Hebrew words for grace are chen (khane) and techinnah (telch-in-naw), meaning favored, pleasant, precious, bestow, merciful, kindness to an inferior, and have pity upon. The Greek word is charis (khar’-ece); it means the divine influence upon the heart, acceptable, benefit, favor, gift, joy, liberality and pleasure. Some of Webster’s definitions state that grace is “mercy and clemency ... the unmerited love and favor of God toward man ... a divine influence acting in man to make him pure and morally strong.”

Simply put, grace is an UNEARNED gift. This unmerited gift is granted by some charitable soul with compassion. It is a merciful favor bestowed upon those who cannot obtain that gift for themselves. In our case, this unearned and loving favor is extended by Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten of the Father. It is extended freely, unearned, and cannot be repaid.

What does it mean to receive an unearned gift? One thing for sure, it doesn’t mean that just because grace comes without human effort, it justifies us in becoming “couch-potato” Christians. It simply means that no matter how much we may work, without grace, we “come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23.) And to obtain that glory, grace is extended to make up the difference.

Faith Plus Works
Now God put us here to achieve something for ourselves. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread...” And a little further we read, “Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground....” (Gen. 3:19, 23.) The Lord didn’t just give Adam food to eat, He expected some effort on his part. But although Adam put forth the effort, God still gave the increase.

In Acts 14:26 we find that Paul and Barnabas were “recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled,” and later we find Paul declaring that he “received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name.” (Rom. 1:5.) We must understand that this grace was received after the obedience to works, not before or in spite of it.

From James we read: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.... But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1:22-25.)

James also put it clearly when he said, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” James continued by saying that if someone is hungry and also has no clothing, it does no good to just tell him to be fed and warm without giving him some food and clothes. James then pointed out that faith, “if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” He continued: “... shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” Then James finished with this eye-opener: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-20.)

These statements of James seems to be in stark contrast to that of Paul’s who said that we are saved by grace, and not of works. As Paul preached to the Ephesians, he said, “... by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9.) And in Titus 3:5 he wrote, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us,...” Because of these and similar statements of Paul, many feel that grace is all that is needed to be saved.

The emphasis on the idea that only grace is sufficient for salvation is a much misunderstood topic by many preachers today. Paul’s statement in Ephesians must be kept in perspective in relation to other scriptures on the subject. They are not to be taken out of context just because we like the sound of them. Paul was not saying that faith and grace were all that is needed for salvation. What is meant in these verses is that we should not be puffed up in ourselves, but rely on the Lord. It is His grace and gift of forgiveness that provide the final saving elements; our works being nothing we can boast about.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he made another statement that is often misunderstood when taken out of context. In verse 9 of Chapter 10 he wrote: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” If this statement is true, when taken by itself, then what about the demons Jesus cast out?

As the Master was casting out devils, one unclean spirit said, “... What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.” (Mark 5:7.) Here a demon confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. Can we believe for one moment that unclean spirit was saved? I don’t think so. Why won’t they be saved? It isn’t because they do not believe, it’s because their works are unrighteous. Remember what we read above, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”

Let’s consider a couple more verses that many point out in an effort to prove that we only need to believe to be saved. In Acts we read, “To him [Jesus Christ] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:43.) And again: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,...” (Acts 16:31.)

There is probably no other doctrine that Satan would have us believe more than the doctrine of sitting back and doing nothing but believing that Jesus will save us just because we believe He will. This is nothing short of “lip service.” Remember, the devils will not be saved, even though they confessed Jesus by name. However, mankind CAN and IS saved because righteous works are an essential ingredient of salvation.

To keep it in perspective we must consider all of Paul’s teachings. To the Hebrews he wrote, “Though he [Jesus] were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” (Heb. 5:8-9.) Doesn’t being obedient imply doing something? Can we obey God without working at it? No, we cannot. Even Jesus had to work at it., for He “learned” obedience.

Let’s take a couple more references from Paul on this subject. In his epistle to the Galatians I believe he is rather clear, for he said, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Gal. 6:7-9.) Does not sowing involve work? It’s clear that Paul was saying, whatever a man DID, or worked at, he shall receive the results of his doing. To the Romans Paul wrote that God “... will render to every man according to his deeds.” (Rom. 2:6.) He also indicated that we must “faint not,” meaning to endure to the end in doing well.

Speaking through John the Revelator, our Redeemer said, “.. behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” (Rev. 22:12.) And in Chapter 20 He twice mentions the importance of works: “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” (Rev. 20:12-13.)

Believing, just because we hear the word, is no great thing. Many can say they believe, and then do nothing about it. We deceive ourselves when we think we can be saved by only hearing the word instead of also being doers of the word. Jesus simply taught, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) The word “keep” implies doing something, not just believing. He also said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21.) It’s apparent that we cannot do the will of the Father without doing something, and doing is simply working.

It appears obvious that if unrighteous works can condemn, then righteous works must have part in our salvation. There are many preachers in the world claiming that all one needs to do to be saved is confess Jesus as their Savior. However, although he may preach and bring another to the knowledge of Christ Jesus as their redeemer, such confession is still not salvation. There must be an effort before saving grace can take effect. We must also do our part with work and faith, and endure to the end, before we can expect the grace of Christ to make up the difference. As Paul said, works alone, without grace, cannot save us, and as James put it, grace alone, without works, cannot save us either, for it is dead.

Falling from Grace
There are those who believe that once they are saved they are always saved. This is not altogether true, as well. The Bible tells us that it is possible to fall from grace. Paul wrote the Galatians, saying, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free...” (Gal. 5:1.) Why should they have to worry about standing fast if they are already saved and set free by grace? Paul went on to say, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (v. 4.) He was trying to explain to them that the law will not save, but only grace saves. He said that when they rely on the law, they have fallen from grace. How can someone fall from where they were not, in the first place? If they were not in His grace, they could not have fallen from grace. They first must have been in His grace before it was possible to fall. You see, they were to do what Jesus said they must do, that is, endure unto the end to be saved. And this is their hope.

Let’s take one more statement by Paul on this subject. He wrote to the Romans: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Rom. 6:1-2.) Grace cannot be where there is sin. When we slip we sin, as all do because we are not perfect as Christ was perfect. When we continue in sin we will not have His grace to save us. In such cases we fall from grace. It is only through our constant faith in Christ, continued repentance, endurance to the end in patience, and by trusting in His grace and redeeming love that we are saved.

Salvation is at the end of the journey, even though we might say we are saved now. The reason we can say that we are saved, as though it is now, is because of our hope in Christ that our salvation is assured when we remain true to Him. It is a looking forward to that day that will surely come because we have been faithful and have endured patiently to the end. It is hope in Him because He has made a promise of salvation to us upon our faithfulness, and He cannot break His promise.

Let’s take an example: Job, looking forward to the physical resurrection as though it was a foregone conclusion, said, “And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” (Job 19:26.) In a way, Job was saying that he was already saved, because he knew that the Messiah would come and fulfill His mission and not falter. He had the faith, and trusted in the word of God. Likewise, we say that we are saved by faith, knowing that Jesus has already finished His work, but the actual diploma is not presented, or the crown is not bestowed, until after we have finished our course. Under the right conditions, we can say that we are saved. Salvation exists, but it just hasn’t been manifested yet.

Grace for Grace
Being mortal, with human frailties as was the Apostle Paul, we come short of approaching the throne of God, even after all we can do. Consequently there had to be a plan, a perfect atoning plan to take up the void in our preparation. Part of that plan was the extending of grace to those who are gracious.

How does that work? How do we merit this beautiful and redeeming grace of Christ? John the beloved wrote, “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” (John 1:16.) From the Apostle Peter we discover that we are to “... Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ....” (2 Pet. 3:18.) We do not just receive grace, we are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of truth.

What, exactly, is this growing in grace, or this grace for grace? Jesus did not receive the Father’s fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness. At first, because He did not have the fulness, He was only the Son, but He became the Father because He eventually received the fulness of the Father. He became, then, both the Father and the Son because He received all that the Father has.

The Savior received a fulness from the Father, but only after He first extended grace to others. As Jesus extended grace to the sinner, He received grace from the Father. As Jesus gave, He received in like manner. Therefore, Jesus received grace from the Father because of the grace He gives to us—He received grace for grace. And as we extend grace (that which is unearned) to another, Christ bestows His grace upon us. Then WE receive grace for grace.

This helps us understand a little more about what Jesus meant concerning His disciples while offering His great intercessory prayer. In John 17:21 we read that Jesus prayed, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us:...” Jesus wants all of His disciples to be one, even as He and the Father are one. Not only that, but He wanted them to be one with both the Father and the Son.

I would like to share a true story concerning those who received grace for grace that might help illustrate this concept. It involves one whom we shall simply call, for the purpose of this illustration, Andy.

Andy had a new and very small custom picture framing business that was struggling to make ends meet. Every once in a while a sweet little elderly widow would come into his shop. Her name was Mrs. Dorset, who would look around, but never buy anything because she lived on such a small pension.

One day Mrs. Dorset brought in a picture of her late husband. In the picture he had a long, full and flowing white beard that was slightly wavy. He had white hair, square spectacles perched toward the end of his slightly bulbous nose, and he was wearing a red Santa Claus Suit. Next to him was a gold candlestick holder which had a curled handle and a lit candle, a red cap with a white fur ball on the end was lying on the table next to it. In one hand he was holding a long curled piece of parchment with the names of children written upon it, and in the other he had a long white feathered quill-pen as he read through the list of names. It was a classic picture of Santa Claus if there ever was one.

You see, for years Mr. Dorset had dressed up like Santa. He would visit children’s wards in hospitals, to orphanages, and would give out small gifts and treats that he kept stuffed in his large pockets. It was his way of serving and bringing a measure of cheer to those in need.

Mrs. Dorset asked, “How much would it cost to frame this?” Andy could see in his mind exactly what it needed to really make it what it should be, but he knew she didn’t have the money for such a frame design. Andy, instead, offered a few other suggestions which were much less expensive, but none really did the picture justice. Mrs. Dorset, with a rather disappointed look, started to leave.

“Wait a minute,” Andy said, “I have another idea.” The sweet little lady returned and laid the picture down once again, Andy brought out the frame and mats that he had visualized earlier. He set up the design and her eyes just sparkled when she saw it. Indeed, that was the right setting for the picture of her husband that meant so much to her.

Mrs. Dorset asked, “How much will it be?”

“For you,” Mrs. Dorset, “it won’t cost a thing, and you can’t talk me down,” Andy said with a contented grin on his face. “You and your good husband have done so much, for so many, for so long, it is my gift to you. Come back in a week and it will be ready.

A week later Mrs. Dorset returned. As she held the picture which was beautifully framed, tears trickled down her cheeks in gratitude. You see, Mrs. Dorset had just received grace for the selfless grace she and her husband had extended to others over the past may years.

The story doesn’t end there, however.

A few months later, Andy had a serious tooth problem and thought he might need a root-canal. He didn’t have dental insurance nor the large down payment that most dentist required, so he wasn’t sure what to do.

One day he mentioned his tooth problem to Jim, a friend of his. Jim told him of a dentist he knew who might be able to help, but the dentist was some two-and-a-half hours’ drive away in another city. Andy thought about it and decided to check it out. Jim called his dental friend and told him of Andy’s problem, and because of a cancellation they were able to set up an appointment for that afternoon.

The tooth did not need a root-canal as suspected. It needed another procedure which saved the tooth. Not only that, but Andy and the dentist found they had much in common, and due to Andy’s financial condition, the dentist did not charge Andy a thing.

During the long trip back home, Andy was wondering why he was blessed in such a way. As he pondered the question, the Spirit whispered: “It is because of the kindness you showed to Mrs. Dorset.”

Unbeknown to them at the time, the principle of grace for grace worked in both of their lives. The dental work received by Andy would have cost far more than the picture frame presented to Mrs. Dorset. As Mrs. Dorset received grace for grace, Andy had also received grace for grace.

The principle is this: what we do for others, our Savior does for us—plus more. And, in like manner, what the Son does for us, the Father does for the Son—plus more.

This grace for grace is nothing more than obeying the second greatest commandment: “...Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt. 22:35-39.) When we love God with all we have, we will want to keep all of His commandments, which include loving our neighbor as ourselves by extending grace for grace.

Trusting in Grace
We live in a world built upon a system of rewards for the work we do. The harder and longer we work, the greater the reward. God’s system is not only built on our obedience—works in this case—but also upon the opposite premise of grace. We cannot work for grace as we do for monetary reward. It cannot be earned because it’s a free gift. No one is deserving of grace, but we extend it anyway.

Many are familiar with Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables. The story centers around an ex-prisoner, Jean Valjean—a peasant who had been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. His struggle, not unlike ours, was a struggle between good and evil.

After being released from prison, he was taken in by a priest and given food and lodging. Realizing that the priest had much silver around, Jean Valjean stole some of it and fled in the night. The next day the local police found him, and recognizing the silver as belonging to the priest, they brought him back for the priest to claim the silver and condemn the thief.

Those who are familiar with the story know that, instead of condemning Jean Valjean, the priest said that he had given the silver to the man and asked Valjean why he did not take the silver candle sticks also. The priest then presented the candle sticks to the thief, and sent him on his way with a blessing.

This bit of grace extended to the thief by the priest—definitely an unearned gift under the circumstances—caused Jean Valjean to consider himself, helping him to travel from evil to good, from injustice to justice, and from nothingness to nobility.

God gives us breath and sustains us every moment of our lives. No matter what we do, and no matter how hard or how much we serve, we will never find God in our debt. We will always be in His, but it’s only through humility that we can recognize that grace. When we come to a realization of grace in our lives, we not only desire to encourage and bless others, but we learn there can be an attitude of acceptance which allows others to reciprocate. When we turn our hearts toward Jesus and from our own interests and glorification, we come to know that all of our substance comes from Him.

Perhaps you have seen one of those “cliff-hanger” movies where someone fell off a cliff, and the camera focuses just on his hand as it precariously clings to a rock sticking out of the side of the cliff. Below him is nothing but jagged rocks about 200 feet straight down. As all you see on the movie screen is his hand holding onto the rock, the rock begins to shift and break loose. As our hearts jump up into our throats and we hold our breath, all of a sudden, a strong hand quickly reaches down and grabs the previously doomed person by the wrist, pulling him to safety. That’s the way it is with the grace of Jesus Christ. We must do all we can, we must hold on tight, but we can’t do it all. We need someone to intervene and save us. Jesus Christ is that someone.

The price has been paid. Grace is free. All we have to do is accept it in faith. It is having faith in Jesus, accepting His offering, totally turning our lives over to Him, trusting in His mercy, humbling ourselves before His presence, and enduring unto the end that saves us. When this is done, after all we can do in faith, then He honors His promise to us. We can be considered saved—but saved only by grace.