[I am indebted to former Principal Macleod for the approach and much material in this sermon]
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.
2 Timothy 1:9
We are studying the perfections of God and on this occasion we are going to examine the grace of God. Grace is God’s determination to save an innumerable company of people and change every one of them into the likeness of his Son Jesus Christ. Grace is Omnipotence that has made up his mind to glorify rebel sinners. This grace has a number of characteristics.
1. GOD’S GRACE HAS A PURPOSE.
You see it in our text, that “God . . . 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.” You see how the terms ‘calling’ ‘purpose’ and ‘grace’ are all joined together in this verse. God has a plan and all his dealings with us and the world are in accordance with the immutable plan. The Southern Baptist preacher Rolfe Barnard was taking special Easter meetings at short notice (because of the illness of the scheduled preacher). It was a large fashionable church in the South and compounded by the fact that on this Sunday they were dressed to the nines for the Easter Parade. He looked at them without admiration seated there in their Easter bonnets, and after some silence he muttered that he didn’t know why he was there that Sunday but he supposed it had something to do with the purposes of God. “Can any of you tell me what Romans 8 and verse 28 says?” he asked, and the future preacher, Henry Mahan, then a student, raised his hand and said, “Every thing works together for good to them that love the Lord.” Rolfe Barnard set his eyes on him and asked, “Is that what the text says? Listen, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’” And he screamed out the word ‘purpose’ so loudly that many an Easter bonnet trembled. He proceeded to speak to them, that Easter Sunday morning on the purpose of God in salvation, telling them how Romans 8 and verse 28 is followed by verse 29, “For whom he did know he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son,” and for Henry Mahan the whole direction of his life was changed when Rolfe Barbard came to town. What is God’s purpose?
i] Grace is God’s determination to make all the people he foreknew and gave to his Son to become Christlike. So grace is not contented with the forgiveness of our sins, or with giving us a new heart, or clothing us with the righteousness of Christ, or with adopting us into the family of God and making us his sons, and joining us to Jesus Christ, but grace is concerned with making people like God, making them as holy as he is, and releasing them from serving and loving sin. Grace is not going to rest until every one it embraces are a perfect transcript, morally and spiritually, of the Lord Jesus Christ. All the divine energy and all of God’s creativity is focused on doing this, that when we see the exalted Lord we shall be like him. God is committing himself and all his resources to this tremendous enterprise of making each one like Jesus, as loving as he is, as joyful as he is, as gentle, and good, and contented, and self controlled, and filled with peace as the last Adam himself. It is an incredible vision of our future, the hope that every believer has whose life has been touched by grace.
Here is a clear passage on this theme that confirms that what I have said to you is true; Ephesians 5 and verses 25 through 27, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” That is the destination to which God’s grace will bring every one of his people. If you have been taken off the broad road and put on the narrow way then that is where you are headed. If you have left the City of Destruction then that is what lies before you in the Celestial City. That is the goal of the weakest lamb in the flock of Christ, to the sanctification and washing and cleansing of the church, and its presentation to God by Christ absolutely spotless.
Consider it again in the great benediction that closes the letter of Jude, “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen” (Jude 24-25). There again we have this emphasis on the Christian one day being without a single fault. That is the great accomplishment of God’s grace, the destiny to which God is taking you, his determination to make you like Christ. In all such emphases we are looking beyond regeneration and justification and conversion and adoption to the ultimate objective of total transformation and transfiguration, a conformity to the image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to another as by the Lord who is the Spirit.
ii] Grace is also determined that Jesus Christ should be the firstborn among many brethren. In other words, God’s purpose is to make a new community, an alternative society, a fellowship of men and women whose life is the Lord Jesus, who say, “for us to live is Christ.” In other words the constituency of the redeemed does not exist for itself; it exists so as to be the fraternity in which our Lord and Saviour is magnified and esteemed as the head, and the altogether lovely one, where he is pre-eminent. This is the household of God with many brothers, and they are many brethren in order that Christ be the first born. He has pride of place; he is the exclusive number one. This body has been created by grace and it is being led by the Good Shepherd to the destination of transfiguration, in order that it be a community of worship and adoration, because God in eternity determines that there will be a fabulous symphony singing the Song of Moses and the Lamb. There will be heard the tremendous sound mentioned in the book of Revelation, a noise like the sound of many waters, as melodious as a harp, perfectly blended singing from the lips of 10,000 times 10,000 and thousands of thousands and all of them are brethren, a community joined in perfect harmony of heart and voice and they are all singing the same theme of praise to Jesus. “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11). “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise” (Rev. 5:12).
That is where the world will end. It is not going to end as Bertrand Russell described, as a vast, cold, dead rock silently moving endlessly through space. It will not end as Shakespeare’s tragedies all end in heart-ache and despair. It will not end where the writings of Sartre, and Kafka, and Hemingway, and Steinbeck ends. It will not end where Lord of the Flies ends, but it is going to end in singing. That again is God’s great objective, to make us a community where Christ sings God’s praise amongst the brethren God has given him. But there is still another objective to the grace of God, the supreme goal.
iii] Grace is determined to regenerate the whole heavens and the earth. God creates not only new born souls, and a new born humanity but a new universe, new heavens, a new earth in which righteousness dwells and also those conformed to the image of Christ. This is the true theology of hope, not that philosophical system with that name of Kaseman and Moltman, but this promise that God is going to call into being a new cosmos which shall be in all its glory and all its beauty, the inheritance of the Son of Man and all the children whom he has been given by God. How can I claim that? Because the apostle Peter tells us, “in keeping with God’s promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:14). Are you looking for that and diligently longing to be found in peace in that day, with no fear of annihilation, or condemnation because of what Jesus Christ has done? You have been made a new creation; old things are past away and all things have become new. By the Holy Spirit you have become a part of this new creation, and so you are a stranger here, a pilgrim with no permanent residency. We are under judgment in this groaning world, but we are looking for and hastening on to the coming of the day of the Lord.
So this is the purpose of God, to make us like Christ, to baptize us into a new body of the redeemed, and to make a new heavens and earth which will be redolent with the righteousness of Christ. God’s supreme purpose is to bind together everything in his holy child Jesus. That is the great divine mystery to comprehend everything in Christ. All the different elements and powers and potencies and kingdoms in the universe are to be joined to the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth. That is the supreme commitment of God’s saving purpose, and that is our hope and goal.
And you? Do you have a supreme purpose to live for? Do you have a chief end? Surely you are not satisfied with being a drifter? Look at the few famous Welshmen of the last century – I am thinking of Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton – and how tragic were their lives and how premature their deaths. Did they ever find a purpose in life? How easy to criticize those entertaining and creative men. What of the Welsh academics, the school-teachers and bankers and judges? Far more of them and even more lost! The grace of God sets before mankind an objective that is glorious and eternal. It tells us that for this end we were made. “Live for this!” it tells us. So the grace of God has a purpose for the world.
2. GOD’S GRACE IS INVINCIBLE.
i] Grace is the determination of God. There were people whom Christ was determined to seek and to save. There was a woman in Sychar in Samaria whom Jesus went to meet by a well, and as a result of his going there she believed that surely he was the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. There was a disciple named Peter who had a huge fall into swearing, lying and denial of Christ, but Jesus would not let go of him. His grace was invincible. There was Jesus’ supreme enemy, Saul of Tarsus who was a cruel persecutor but the living Jesus met with him on the road to Damascus and said to him, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” And he whom the early church considered the last man to become a disciple fell before Jesus and became a disciple. So it was that a libertine Augustine, and a slave trader Newton, and a cursing tinker Bunyan, and a convicted murderer, Son of Sam, and the son of the leader of the Muslim group, Hamas, were all found by the good Shepherd and invincibly saved, and millions like them, but most of all many of you, and even me. Nothing could thwart or frustrate his great purpose.
How can I say that? I can preach it to you all because it is rooted in God’s eternal commitment. God has made up his mind on doing this from all eternity, to give to his only begotten Son such honour and glory as to make him the head of all things to the church, and the head of the church, and none shall fail to be present in the great day of all those whom God the Father has given to God the Son. All of them in Zion shall appear, and that means a great commitment on God’s part of everyone for whom he is their end. His whole heart is in it. He has made up his mind, and nothing can thwart his purposes. He has said, “I shall be your God” and he shall be such. “You shall be my people,” he says, and every one of them will be. The bush burns in Horeb, but it is not consumed. Grace is tested and resisted, but it is not destroyed in its goal. It is invincible because of God’s total commitment to the salvation of his people. I am saying that omnipotence is totally determined. The Almighty has committed every divine attribute, and every divine prerogative, and every divine function. It is the commitment of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost. It is the commitment of all the hosts of heaven, the innumerable company of angels, of principalities and powers, of things present and things to come, of height and depth and every other creature to save each one of these believers who are as vast in number as the sands on the seashore.
That is why God became incarnate in Christ. That is why our glorification was enfleshed in the God-man. That is why in Jesus dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. With him nothing is impossible, as Lord of providence and God of redemption. He has power over the winds and waves, power over disease and demons and power over death. He cannot fail. He will give the blind sight, and unstop the ears of the deaf. He will remove the heart of stone that defies and he will make it a heart of flesh that believes. God will hold nothing back; he will not even spare his only Son to save us. He will give him to die and rise for us and with him as his supreme gift to us he will also freely give us all things.
ii] Grace is the strength of God. Grace is not sentiment; grace is not God’s sweetness and light. Grace is power acting to redeem. Grace is what the Lord said to Paul when he was humbled and perplexed by the thorn in his flesh throbbing away, distracting and weakening the preacher. Paul cries to God for mercy that he might take away the thorn. He has seasons of prayer to that end, but God’s totally adequate reply is that his grace is sufficient. What is that grace? Paul says that it is God’s strength coming upon our weakness so that we can cope. It is power to change every circumstance, to strengthen every weakness, to cheer every distress and lift every burden. So we can climb every mountain and carry every burden by the all-sufficient grace of God.
So the Lord is sovereign to decide not to take away a certain burden – the thorn in the flesh – but he will provide the wherewithal to handle it in a way that glorifies God. So Paul is able to live with it. God’s grace is super-abundant. It is hyper grace and that makes Paul more than a conqueror. God’s omnipotence and God’s grace are synonymous. It is the commitment of his invincible energy. So when we say about ourselves that we are being kept by grace we are not saying that we are being gripped by a great sentiment, or that we are the object of a great heavenly mood, but that the might of the God who created the heavens and the earth by a word, and who raised the dead, that power is making us more than conquerors, and all our hope of keeping on, and trusting, and looking, and believing, and hoping, and persevering is in God’s grace. And all our hope of being changed into the image of Christ, and of being a part of the new creation, the new heavens and earth, is derived from that same power. I suspect that for many of us ‘power’ and ‘grace’ are concepts kept in two different compartments, but that is not the case in the word of God. In the Scripture there is the closest possible relationship of the divine might and the divine pity, and I am underlining this fact again and again; grace triumphs because it is God’s omnipotence, grace given to help us in our times of need.
iii] Grace is the enthronement of the Lord Christ who is the great Mediator of grace. The Lamb who once took away our sin, is now sitting in the very midst of the throne. His reign is no symbol of his power. He is the most powerful being in heaven on earth. All authority in heaven and earth and hell has been given to him, all other powers must submit to him. His session at the right hand of God is not only eloquent to us of his centrality in the universe, and the blessedness of the position that is now his after all he’s endured, it is eloquent to us of his unchallengeable supremacy. ‘Jesus’ is the name high over all in heaven or earth or sky. The Lamb who died in shame now is highly exalted. The head that once was crowned with thorns is now crowned with glory. He wields a sceptre over heaven and earth. He will judge the world; he will assign to all men their destinies. He can move heaven and earth; he will lead Satan by the nose; he will cast him into the bottomless pit; he will recreate the entire universe again just as there is nothing around, above or beneath us that he did not first make. Every force in the cosmos is at his command – physical, intellectual, psychical, spiritual – they all shall sweetly obey his will.
Grace is invincible because Christ is unchallengeable. He sits in the heavens and he does whatsoever he pleases. His throne is impregnable and so grace is invincible. We need to be aware that it is not that there are some segments of the church that are under his control, but all of the professing church has to answer to him. Every principality and power in the world must answer to him. It is not just that when we are zealous and abounding in the work of the Lord that then he is reigning over us but he reigns over us when our hearts are cold and our minds are bored. Our entire lives and everything that touches us is under his control. All matter, of course, from your fingerprint to the solar system, from an eyelash to a galaxy is under his sway. If you can think it, if you can conceive it, then it is under his control. What is beyond human comprehension, and what is a source of wonder at even this moment by the saints in glory – all that is under Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, the Potentate of time, the Ruler of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime. Grace is invincible because of the supremacy of the Lamb.
Remember how no man was found worthy of breaking the seals and opening the great book of the decrees of God, and there was despair in heaven at the possibility that there would be no one in charge of our futures, that chance and the devil would determine the course of history. Then one appears who is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and he prevails over everything else imaginable. He takes his grip on the will of God for the creation and he becomes the supremo who turns the pages of our histories. History is his story. The pages turn at his speed, and they unfold his purposes. There will be difficult passages, and we may struggle to see Christ at work in our own sadnesses and losses and crosses. But we walk by faith not by sight. What he’s doing we may not always understand, but we will know one day. He is leading us all the way. Our times are in his hands. He is going before us. He is taking us through the darkness. He who can break our hearts can also heal our hearts. He gives and he takes away and we bless the name of the Lord. So let us trust in the invincible grace of God. He will keep us fast for our Saviour loves us so.
Think of the mighty flood and all eight men and women were safe aboard as well as all the animals while the sea and the storm raged on. But they were all totally secure for Noah has built the ark exactly according to God’s design, and finally God shut them all in. Maybe his wife and his boys were hyper cautious or even nervous, Ham wants to check the door, Shem wants to see that the window is water-tight, Japheth wants to be sure there are no leaks, but their father assures them that God has shut the door safe and sound. “We are all right. We are absolutely safe.” So we have to take our eyes away from the possibilities of what might happen. Trust the God who has told us to get into the place of safety that he has prepared. In other words to get into Christ. There is no safer place in all the universe than to be in Christ. So God’s grace is purposive (it has an object), and God’s grace is invincible.
3. GOD’S GRACE IS SOVEREIGN.
In what sense is it sovereign? Ultimately grace is sovereign grace because God’s determination to save men and women and transform them into the image of Christ is for these reasons;
i] It is entirely a matter of God’s own initiative. Paul spoke about himself and how he should have become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. He wasn’t a very promising candidate for redemption; he hated Jesus of Nazareth, but he says to the Galatians, “God set me apart from birth, and was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Gals. 1:15). When Paul was a newborn baby in his mother’s arms God took the initiative and set him apart to be an apostle and preacher, and then after years of hatred, there, on the Damascus Road, God was pleased to reveal Jesus to Paul. God was determined to save the persecutor. And the first Christian he met who took care of him, a man named Ananias, knew this and his first words to Paul were, “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous one and to hear words from his mouth” (Acts 22:14). ‘It was all because of God that you have been transformed from a Jesus hater to a Jesus lover.’ So it is with all of us, but never as dramatically as when it happened to Paul. Aren’t we mighty glad that God took the initiative in saving us because if he had had to wait for us to act twisting his hands and wondering whether we would ever believe in him, then God would have had to wait for ever, our hearts being as stony as a rock. He came and he changed our hearts. Again God’s grace is sovereign because . . .
ii] It is entirely discretionary.We read in the Scripture, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he harden whom he wants to harden” (Roms. 9:18). It is saying that the exercise of mercy is optional with God. Think of it, that the whole world consisted of guilty rebels, and yet God showed mercy to countless multitudes of them, more in number than the stars in the heavens; “Come,” he constrained us, “Come and live with me in a new heavens and earth!” How extraordinary! He did not show mercy to one rebel angel. He treated each one with justice, absolutely fairly. He was obligated to be good and straight and just and he was, but to us he made us willing in the day of his power to trust in him.
You would think, hearing some people, that the most obvious characteristic of God has to be his forgiveness. “I can behave as I like, do what I will, and then I can ask God to pardon me and he will;” so people dream. Those men will tell you that the most predictable characteristic of God is his love, that he loved the world and gave his Son, and he did not spare him. “Of course God did that!” they say, as they pass on to something more important. But in the New Testament the mercy of the holy, holy God is a mystery. It is a supreme paradox, utterly undiscoverable. Every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually, and yet he loved them, and this is what he did, he did not spare his Son from crucifixion, and the darkness, and the anathema in order that we stupid people might be spared! ’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies! Wesley calls it a ‘strange design,’ quite unpredictable. Grace is discretionary. It is optional. It is rooted in this, “He was pleased to reveal his Son in me,” and there could be no reason beyond that. “I deserved it,” No. “I worked hard at doing God’s will”? No. His grace met me and stopped me going further on that broad path and led me to the narrow path that leads to life. He did it. It was sovereign because it was God’s initiative, and it was discretionary, and then it is unconditional…
iii] It is unconditional. In other words, it’s not evoked by anything worthy in us, any element of attractiveness or beauty or righteousness in us. Our heavenly Father does not hold a list in his hand and he checks out our lives, ticking the boxes so that we have over half the desired total, intelligence, a good family man, a moral stand on the big issues, giving to charities and so on. No. Our salvation comes out of God’s unconditional love alone for us. God chose the foolish things of the world, the weaklings, the base, the despicable and the nobodies. Not many noble and mighty and wise are among them.
How does God consider the nations of our globe? He sees them as typical of the world, and the world is defined as the lusts of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. That’s the constituency we belong to in the sight of a holy God. Look at the vivid pictures the Bible uses to portray us. One is this – like an unmarried, pregnant mother who gives birth to a baby out in a field and leaves it there, exposed and unwashed vulnerable to an attack by a fox or a vulture. That’s you and me. Another is like a herd of swine and they are wallowing in thick, black mud. That’s you and me. Another is like a pack of dogs eating their own vomit, and that is you and me. Another is a man covered in weeping leprous sores, with no bandages, from the crown of his head to his feet, and that is you and me. Another is a woman who leaves her righteous husband and she sleeps with any man who chooses her until she ends up being sold into slavery to work in a brothel. And that is you and me in the sight of the God before whom the angels hide their eyes and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” In other words there were no conditions that those people attained to enable them to become recipients of grace. They were simply wicked people, and that is why we are very glad that grace is unconditional.
This is the world of men that God has strangely loved in all its revoltingness and all its mass of disqualifications. God determined he would not pour out his wrath upon it and condemn it to outer darkness. He loved it. He would redeem it. He would not cut the cost of its redemption. He would not spare his own Son but rather he would send him to the cross to die under his wrath, to propitiate his holy anger against all that is mean and ugly and vile and cruel, all that is utterly indefensible in the way that men and women live without God, the killing of children, the crucifixion of Christians, the destruction of people and their homes, the indiscriminate bombing of churches, the selling of drugs, the dishonesty of politicians and bankers and police and preachers. God sees all the hypocrisy and darkness of our world but he loves it and will save it from becoming a hell. He will deliver multitudes and will give much common kindness and grace to others so that truly they live quite inconsistently, admiring what is true and fine, but rejecting the most admirable and the finest of men, Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God. Such pathetic men and women were some of you.
iv] It is freely offered to us. Across the mountains of our provocation and the deserts of our indifference utterly unconditionally he came, seeking us out, finding us in our confusion and coldness, and he came to us to offer his Son and his salvation, his heaven, his total pardon for our sins all at Christ’s cost. Believe on him is his word. Believe on my Son is his plea. Believe on Jesus Christ is his entreaty. Believe today is his beseeching. “Why will you die? I know all about you, but I have loved you and brought you to hear this good news. I have a Saviour for you. I have someone who can teach you about God and also about who you are, and about what you must do to be saved, and how you should live. I have the Lamb of God who will take away your sin, who has suffered the judgment and condemnation that you deserve that you might live in peace and fellowship with God. I have a Sovereign Protector for you who is greater than all who are your enemies, the deceit of a lying world, the devil with his fiery darts, the power of sin that makes you do the things you know you shouldn’t do and not do the things you ought to do. You are a pawn in the hands of the flesh, but here is one loving power, a great king who can save you, and he is for you, this teacher – for you; this great High Priest who lives at the right hand of God and can whisper your name and your needs into the ears of his Father the only true and wise God.
This God has brought you here today and he is speaking to you of his grace to sinners. It is not that you are being rewarded today for coming to your senses. It is not that you have been particularly good this summer and so he has decided, “O.K. I will save her.” No, it is that he delights to show his pity to the lost and the dead and the miserable who have not found any purpose in life and know they never will, those who have no God to pray to, those who are afraid to be different and go against the people who show such little interest in salvation through Christ. He touches your mind. He arouses a conviction of sin and need and he says, “Come now to me and I will in no way reject you. You come now and taste and see that I am good, that I am full of grace and truth. Doesn’t that sound wonderful, ‘the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ and it’s here today and for you, without money and without price. Take him! Take him now!
3rd August 2014 GEOFF THOMAS