Alfred Place Baptist Church

The Grace of God (2)

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8

We are considering the perfections of God and we return on this occasion to the subject of God’s grace, and my theme is that it’s because of God’s grace that sinners are redeemed. The best of people who become Christians or the worst of people who become Christians have to acknowledge with total sincerity, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” It is the mighty power of God’s grace – his omnipotence working redemptively – that is the reason for our salvation, not because of any works that we had done. Redemption has been accomplished by God’s grace, and redemption is applied to us by God’s grace. Let me use that useful distinction to consider how God’s grace is responsible for our redemption.

1. OUR REDEMPTION HAS BEEN ACCOMPLISHED BY GOD’S GRACE. 

This is so at every single level. For example Paul is speaking of the wonderful reconciliation of ourselves and God. That bringing together was achieved by Jesus Christ alone. No longer the alienation and estrangement, we Christians going on ignoring God, and his wrath shown towards us for our wickedness. Now there is fellowship and friendship, and Paul explains how this has come about; “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cors. 5:18). Every bit of the reconciliation is from God. That’s the explanation. It is God’s handiwork and God’s engineering from the first to the last.

Where did the idea of redemption come from? Did it originate in a congress of world leaders, hours of discussion and debate, one suggestion after another dismissed, until finally a team from one part of the world brought about this plan, that God would send his Son to this world, and through a virgin woman would become incarnate. He would live a perfect life of obedience and then become the Lamb of God who would take our guilt and bear our punishment in his own body by dying for us, so that God would remain just and a sin-hating God but also be reconciled to favoured sinners by the atoning sacrifice of the lord Jesus as our substitute. So did the big brains hammer out the details? Was there a fierce debate as to the possibility of this, would God accept it or not? And then when the vote was taken, did over 75% agree to it, and so they put their plan to God and suggested he act like this, but a few others formed break-away religions? Was that the way the plan of redemption came about? Was the love that drew salvation’s plan human from first to last in its conception and planning? Not at all! God forbid! The planning was all from God; it was his idea exclusively. We men would never have invented such a scheme. A triune God, the Father being God, the Son being God, and the Spirit being God yet there was just one God, would men have thought up such a deity? We are far too rationalistic to conceive that God could possibly be like that one and yet three. The whole devising of redemption was from God. It dawned on him. He took the initiative. God did not create the quarrel. God did not forge the enmity. God did not cause the estrangement, but God took the initiative in effecting reconciliation. Prior to any human initiative, or to any human sense of need, or any voices of man’s invocation, calling on the name of the Lord, the Almighty in his own sovereignty and discretion set up the tremendous machinery of reconciliation. Oh the love the drew salvation’s plan!

What did God do? He chose to provide the instrument of reconciliation. It was not going to be the sacrifice of a pure man such as Daniel. It was not even going to be an archangel like Michael or Gabriel. Let me tell you a story; Jehovah spoke to Abraham about his only son Isaac. “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac whom thou lovest and offer him on the mountain for a burnt offering.” And without a whimper of shock and refusal Abraham set out with his son and with kindling and with a firepot. As they were approaching the summit the boy asked his Dad, “Father, here’s the wood and the fire, but where’s the lamb for the burnt offering?” “My son,” said Abraham, and was his reply with more hope than confidence, maybe yes, maybe no, “My son, God himself will provide the lamb.”

You see what I am saying? God did not initiate the quarrel. It was we who defied God. Our parents Adam and Eve bit it off and swallowed it. But it was God who initiated the reconciliation. God provided the Lamb. He found the lamb in his own flock. Jesus was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth. When John the Baptist spotted him he cried, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Here is God’s lamb, and if that were all then that would be glorious. But where does he find the Lamb? God finds him in his own bosom; the Lamb bears his own image; he is the brightness of his glory. He addresses himself and he says, “Take now thy Son, thine only Son whom thou lovest and offer him,” and there was no voice that spoke to God as the voice addressed Abraham and cried, “Stop! Don’t touch a hair on his head! Lay not your hand on the child!”

God initiated the reconciliation, and God provided the Lamb, and I might go further and I might say, “The providing God is not a different person, nor a different being from the provided Lamb. The Lamb is his fellow, the only begotten Son of the only begetting Father. How utterly incapable we are of exploring this paradox, that God provides the Lamb that God requires, and God becomes the Lamb which God required. The God who said, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission” provided the blood that should be shed, because in the last analysis it would be his own blood that was shed; “Feed the flock of God which he has purchased with his own blood.”

So it is all of grace in the concept of redemption, and still it is all of grace in the provision of the Lamb, and still all of grace in God himself becoming the Lamb and the holocaust who would take our sin into the bottomless pit for ever. It would be all of grace when, as Paul says in that frightening phrase, God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us. The Son of God – sin for us! The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. God did it. It was not that we, sin by sin, like one twig cast on a bonfire after another, acknowledged this sin of action and then that sin of word and then this sin of imagination and then that sin of omission, and one by one we laid on the Lord our sins. No! It was the Father who laid all our sin and guilt on his Son. God paid him the wages of sin. God imposed on him the retribution of sin. It was not we who imputed our sin to Christ. God did that, It was not we who made him our substitute, God did that. It was not we who offered him on Calvary, it was God who gave his own Son. It was God who commanded the sword to awake against the Shepherd. It wasn’t we who got together and refused to spare him. It wasn’t we who delivered him up for us all. It was God! It was the living God. God did it all. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. He provided the Lamb and he became the Lamb, and he offered the Lamb to himself, and he accepted the sacrifice, and he gave strength and voice to the Lamb to cry, “Finished.” Redemption was accomplished by the grace of God alone, and without one contributory work of one single sinner.

2. REDEMPTION IS APPLIED BY GOD’S GRACE ALONE. 

Then God embarks upon a ministry of reconciliation. He becomes a preacher of his own gospel. When? Starting on the very day of resurrection, on the first day of the week the Lord meets with two crestfallen, despairing disciples, all the umph knocked out of them, going back home to Emmaus, the Jesus experiment having failed disastrously. So they had thought and hoped, that Jesus would be the accomplisher of redemption in Israel, but now that could not be because he’d been killed by their own leaders by crucifixion. Then as they slowly crawled home another man joined them on the road, and he engaged them in conversation. He began to quote the Bible to them and he spoke to them giving them an overview of the message of the Old Testament. He told them that Scripture spoke of the Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head, and that he would be the seed of Abraham, one of Moses’ brethren, of the line of David, the suffering servant speaking in Psalm 22 and promised by Isaiah, all the types of sacrifices and offerings pointed to his dying. Another psalmist had said that it would be impossible for him to remain in the grave rotting. Then this man who gave them such a grasp of the message of the Old Testament was agreeable to turn aside and sit and eat with them, and as he broke bread and gave each of them a portion they knew that the man preaching to them was the Lord Jesus, the one they had watched in awe as he multiplied loaves and fishes and from just a few of them filled the bellies of 5000 men. He was the bread of life; the conqueror of death and the one who had indeed come to redeem Israel, and in a moment he had somehow moved away and vanished from their sight. They were so transformed by all he had said to them from the Bible that they turned around and walked back to Jerusalem and joined the ranks of the women in becoming the first preachers of the death-destroying Lord of glory, Jesus of Nazareth.

Then you read of his preaching in other places, in Galilee and by the lakeside, and in the Upper room. You read of him going further afield to preach in the Acts of the Apostles which begins, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). I once heard Professor Murray saying, “I must have read these words at least 40 times, before I spotted the significance of that word ‘began’.” The gospel of Luke was simply a summary of all that Jesus began to do and teach. Acts is a record of all Jesus continued to do and teach. The Lord embarks on this ministry of reconciliation. He becomes a preacher of his own gospel. He addresses the seven churches in what is now Turkey, and he speaks to each one of them about their condition, encouraging and also warning them.

We all know the promise that where two or three are gathered in his name there the Lord is. What do you think he is doing? Is he going in order to be a mere spectator, a fly on the wall – like you would love to be in church close by and hear what they hear on a Sunday, or in a famous London congregation, or in a certain church in New York or in Seoul, in Korea – in the largest church in the world. Is that why the Lord is present, on a fact-finding mission, to check up on what’s going on? He does not need to visit to know that. His omniscience will tell him that. He is there as the prophet of God to address the congregation. He is there as the king to protect and strengthen the congregation. He is there as the priest of God to assure them that he is the mediator between them and the holy God. He is there to teach, to reprove, to correct and to instruct in righteousness. He is there to take the veil from favoured eyes. He is there to illuminate the mind. He is there to remove the stony heart. He is there to wash the whole. He is there to make new creations. That is why he comes where we gather in his name. He comes to apply redemption to those he has redeemed.

Paul puts it like this, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us – as if he were making his appeal by us” (2 Cors. 5:20). Do you understand? The Lord is not merely a spectator, a looker-on. He is thinking, “That man is in real need . . . that boy is very confused . . . that girl is careless and needs to be stopped on her road to ruin . . . that old man needs a wake-up call. I will pour myself into the voice of the preacher; I will use his words and his concerns but I myself will beseech them. That is the way salvation comes; the Lord Jesus speaks to us as the preacher is preaching to us. Paul says that this is the only way sinners can believe; “How can they believe in the one whom they have not heard?” They must hear Christ in the preaching of the Bible. Horatio Bonar knew it. He said, “I heard the voice of Jesus say ‘Come unto me and rest.’” You understand? It was not a vocalized voice that he heard speaking, but he knew one day, as sure as eggs is eggs, that God was dealing with him and telling him that this day was the day of his salvation. That is why Jesus comes where we gather in his name because he is the same Lord of mercy as the one who goes to a Pharisee’s house to speak to Simon there, or to Samaria to talk to a woman, or to a hillside to preach to 5,000. Revival actually is his speaking to 5,000 at the same time. So seek the Lord while he may be found. Where do we seek him? Where his servants faithfully speak in his name. Then call upon him because there he is near! Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and you shall find. Today is the day of salvation.

You will be sitting and thinking to yourself, “Ah, I can see it . . . Oh! So that is the message of the gospel. That is why Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again.” You began by thinking, “That preacher is so eloquent. I feel really touched by what he is saying,” but it was not the man who was speaking to you but Jesus Christ himself. He was visiting you. So do not harden your heart! Tell him, “I do believe, help thou my unbelief.” I am saying that behind all the preparation and prayers and efforts of the preacher there is the authority of God. Behind his implorings there is a yearning God, there is a longing God, one not willing that any of you should perish, pleading and beseeching. That same Lord who in the days of his flesh beheld the city and wept over it is the same today. Jehovah Jesus still entreating, and Paul knew him and knew also his terror, and he persuaded men in Jesus’ name

It cannot depend on human eloquence. It cannot depend on the devices of man, the music, the mic., the tear-jerking stories, the promises of endless excitement and happiness and health. Salvation is of the Lord, in its first stirrings of life and in its nurture and in its fulfilment. It is all of grace. It has to be because of our spiritual state. What mere man is capable of making an unbiased and an accurate judgment about the living God or about his own true state of life?

Have you considered how the Scripture assesses us? For example, it describes us as being in a state of spiritual death. “You were dead in trespasses and sins.” That is what the apostle Paul told the entire Ephesian congregation. What can possibly come out of death? Only putrefaction, decay and dissolution; that is all. I remember I was dragging my feet walking to school one freezing winter’s day as a 12 year old boy with a couple of my friends, and we passed the ruins of a cinema (which ruins littered South Wales towns and villages from the great cinema-building speculation of the 1920s). There on the steps of the cinema a dog was curled up sleeping. I liked dogs, and so I poked it with my finger to rouse it. It could come to school with us. When I poked it I winced and drew back. The dog was as hard as a rock. He was frozen solid. I would never stroke this dog in affection. I would never say to this dog, “Poochy, poochy, come to me!” I would never throw an old tennis ball for this dog and shout “Fetch!” The dog was as dead as dead could be. It was useless my having any expectations that this dog would ever be my companion and do anything for me or be with me again. Now the Bible says that the life of heaven, the divine life, is totally absent from every one of us who is outside of Jesus Christ. Our souls and spirits are dead to God, and the only thing that can change them is a miraculous action from heaven making us alive. That is why Jesus has to be present when his people gather and they listen to his word. Without him nothing gets done! No change in man. No conversions. The stony hearted remain stony hearted. The dead are unresurrected. Why were there these true children of God in Ephesus in Turkey, to whom Paul could say, “You were dead.”? Well, that used to be their state but it is not so any longer. The Jesus who had been taken by two sisters to the place where their brother lay dead and had raised him from the dead had been asked by some people, “Lord, come to Ephesus and be present when your gospel is preached, and in sheer sovereign grace give life to favoured men and women of Ephesus.” It was the Lord’s love that made him answer their prayers and act in that place. Listen! “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” (Ephs. 2:4&5). Grace conceived the plan; grace persuaded us that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world when he gave us life from heaven.

Is that the end? Is that all that grace does in applying redemption to us? No, there is more. God actually gives us the faith we need because God requires it to connect us to Christ. Saving faith plugs us into the living Saviour. It joins us to him in all his offices as prophet, priest and king. We must entrust ourselves to him to be redeemed. What must I do to be saved? A Roman jailer asked the question. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved,” Paul told him. Well, the wonder of the grace of God in the gospel is this, that the Lord who comes where two or three gather in his name, and urges the congregation to believe, actually supplies that very faith to favoured sinners. “For 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.” What is saving faith? It is believing that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and I must place my hand on his head. I must be joined to him, and my guilt and shame and condemnation transferred to him. Put your hand on Jesus’ head. “I cannot do it,” you say. “He would gather me but I will not come to him.” “I will help you,” the Lord Christ says. “I will give you the will power and the energy to lift up your hand and move it and place it on that dear head of his, caring nothing of the needle sharp crown of thorns he wears. That Jesus must be mine. Christ has died, yea rather is risen, yea is even at the right hand of God. Yet at the point of my connection with him all might have ended in failure because I will not and I cannot come. But the Lord draws me and then I am able to come; the Saviour energizes me and I come. My heart is closed to him, but he opens my heart!

We sit under the preaching of the cross of Christ. We may sit under the greatest preaching in the whole world, and there may be an awakening of religious interest in the town at this time. We are privileged to hear the most spiritual, powerful sermons that any man in the world is hearing at this moment, but our hearts remain closed. What happens? What can save us? The Lord moves in again. He homes in on us. We meet in Jesus’ name and the good Shepherd came seeking for his lost sheep, and he who through the preacher preaches to our hearts also opens the heart. God opened Lydia’s heart. The risen Saviour takes the initiative, and how glorious it is to serve such a powerful risen Saviour. He is not some useless bundle of bones covered in dust beneath the Syrian sky. He is the conqueror of death, the one who can make the stones cry out in his praise and we know that he is always being confronted with a closed heart of stone.

When I worked as a wages clerk for the National Coal Board once a year there was a special pay day when overtime and holiday pay came together amounting to more than a million pounds for a dozen collieries. It was kept under guard during the night in an enormous walk-in safe. The safe door was two feet thick with a wheel in the centre of the lock. I don’t think that a stick of dynamite would have been able to have opened it. That enormous safe door reminds me how tightly Lydia’s heart was closed to God. The Lord Christ alone could open it. He alone can take away the resentment and the suspicion that we had had throughout our lives. He removed the scales of prejudice from Lydia’s eyes so that her spiritual blindness towards the Lord Jesus ceased. He made it possible for her not only to be a decent woman, and an intelligent woman, and a religious woman, but to see then what by nature she had never seen hitherto. She saw that the gospel was true. She saw the beauty of Jesus Christ.

Paul reminded the Thessalonian Christians that the gospel came to them not in word only but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much assurance. Now when that happens what is the consequence for the person whose heart has been opened? She receives the word not as the word of men but as it is in truth the word of God. Christ died for our sins, and it is true. He rose on the third day and lives, and it is true. He is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and it is true. Lydia saw the beauty of Jesus and that is the last thing that any unaided man can see for himself. She saw it and she had to have him all for himself. She fell in love with Jesus. She began to think, “Less than Christ would not satisfy me; more is not to be desired. More than all in Thee I find.” She became united to the Lord Christ. After our hearts have been opened we can sing,

“Jesus my husband, lover, friend,
My prophet, priest and king;
My Lord, my life, my way, my end
Accept the praise I bring.”

Thenceforth he is the altogether lovely one. He is the fairest of ten thousand. Imagine a photograph which contains every single person, living and dead, whom you most admire. Like the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band  all the people the Beatles thought were great were placed on the cover of the LP. Whoem have we chosen? Figures from the Old and New Testaments, and then from the history of the church and the world, all the people whose lives have affected ours for the good, our family and our closest friends. We have eventually gathered together 10,000 people in this mega-photograph, all the beautiful and the wise and kind and most loving, but among them all there is one and he excels them all, and as we look at those thousands of men and women then our eyes are drawn back again and again to the Lord Jesus. He is the fairest of 10,000. He is altogether and completely lovely.  Let me tell you; let me brag to you about my Saviour.

i] No man ever spoke like Jesus Christ. And why?  He is no ordinary man.  He is perfect and sinless.  He is the ‘God-man’; ‘God manifest in the flesh’; the eternal ‘Word made flesh’ So he preached the Sermon on the Mount. He spoke words of truth, purity, love, kindness and compassion.  He spoke with divine unction, grace and authority. No one else, before or since, ever spoke like him. He is Creator, God of providence, and Lord of the Universe.

ii] No man ever lived like Jesus Christ. He talked the talk; he walked the walk. His life supported his words. In lip and life, he was perfectly consistent. He brought blessing, healing, comfort and joy to people. His many miracles confirmed his deity.

His tender touch declared the compassion of God. He liberated women from the abusive treatment of selfish men.  He rejected violence as a method of spreading his message.  No life has ever been lived to match the life of Jesus Christ.

iii] No man ever died like Jesus Christ. While his life and preaching angered the religious establishment of his day, nothing could justify the hatred directed at him. He was guilty of no sin.  Expressing God’s mercy to us hell-deserving sinners, Jesus, Saviour of the world, died for our sins. He died, ‘the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3: 18).  In his crucifixion, he breathed nothing but love and kindness to his enemies.  Such dying!  Such love!

iv]. No man ever rose from the dead like Jesus Christ. The stone had been rolled away on the first day of the week. The body was missing. Who in the world wanted it or would have taken it? Certainly not his friends who were shocked by its absence, and certainly not his enemies who placed a guard on it so that it could not be stolen, and yet he rose and appeared to his followers for almost six weeks, talking and answering their questions and eating food with them, inviting them to handle and touch him. He transformed their lives so that they were prepared to die affirming that he lived and was the living God incarnate.

v] No man ever blessed the human race like Jesus Christ. His impact on history is not just keeping his memory alive. The Gospel is the greatest blessing the world has ever known!  It has brought forgiveness, love, joy and peace. Christ has mended broken hearts and lives. He has given hope to those in despair. Through him, the light of heaven has dispelled the darkness of death. He saves from hell. He has liberated individuals and nations.  The Gospel has delivered people from ignorance, slavery, poverty and degradation.  All that is truly good, noble, pure and beautiful comes from him. Christ’s resurrection influence continues still where he is accepted, trusted and served.

Remember in Philippi there were the three founder members of the church and how different they were. One was a prisoner of the evil one, a woman possessed by a spirit who could tell people’s fortunes, by a spirit of divination, and she was delivered by the spirit of purity in the apostolic word. The next was an intelligent woman, an entrepreneur and religious but possessed by a spirit of ignorance and as Paul preached to her she was delivered by the spirit of truth. Then there was a tough army jailer who kept the prison in Philippi but he was possessed by the spirit of fear and was suicidal, but Paul told him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and he was saved.

So we need the grace of Christ to give us life, but more than that, we need his grace to triumph over our corruption and bias against God. Sinners and believers, you know about this experientially, don’t you? You know that there is another voice in your mind, maybe even now, “Wouldn’t it be terribly inconvenient to my lifestyle to become a Christian, to start to listen seriously to the message of the word of God and act upon it, to go to church every Sunday, to become a religious freak? What would my family and friends say?” Do you know anything of that? Don’t you feel that inside you there’s a certain indifference, even some defiant hostility to God, and also a love of dark thoughts and dark attitudes and darkness in general. Look at the cases of murder and abuse and scandal that your eye looks out for and you constantly want to be reading about in the papers. Why do you choose newspapers that major in that sort of thing? We’re all trapped in that kind of syndrome. You do what your buddies do, in other words, what everyone else you know thinks about God – that God doesn’t matter – you are just like them; you too think the same.

We’re not free; we’re in a state of universal bondage. Do you think it’s possible for you – all by yourself . . . all alone, by sheer will-power – to experience a radical revolution of attitude to God and yourself, to totally change so that you love God, and from now on you’re going to do his will exclusively? Impossible! I am saying that you actually need God to ignite the engine of faith, to turn the steering wheel and to point your life towards God, a direction you’ve never taken all your life! God has to start things, to take the initiative and accomplish a change in you before you can make God number one in your life.

We are dead; we are hostile to God, and we are also defiled. So how can holy, pure love for Jesus Christ spring up from within our hearts? Every imagination of the thought of our hearts is only evil continually. So where does this perfect sinless love to Jesus Christ come from? In the Bible a man called Job asks the question, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean thing?” Do you see the image? Who can reach into a dung heap and from its heart bring out a scalpel that is sterile and can immediately be used to perform brain surgery? Can you take a wholly clean thing from the filthy imaginations of our desperately wicked hearts and then do the purest and cleanest thing with it, worship God with clean lips and come into his presence with loving and righteous words that thrill God to hear? God’s grace has to home in on you and change things within you before that can happen, set you free from the dominion of sin, sprinkle your heart with the blood of Christ. That is what grace does. That is why we can pray to God and ask him to change us. First the dead must become alive; the hostile must become loving; the defiled must become pure, and no one has ever done that to himself or by himself. God’s grace must change us.  We have to be born from heaven to enter the kingdom of God. “Create in me a clean heart  O Lord and remew a right spirit within me.” Pray that kind of prayer and continue to do so until you know God has heard you.

17th August 2014   GEOFF THOMAS