“…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 3:23-24
In our exploration of the aspects of forgiveness that Principle 6 urges us to consider and act upon we realized that making amends to those we’ve hurt is logical because our conscience told us it was the right thing to do even before we got saved. But forgiving those who’ve hurt us does not come naturally. We usually have to make ourselves do it. What I find to be a blessing is the fact that our Heavenly Father doesn’t have to make Himself forgive us because mercy, love and forgiveness will eternally be characteristics of the kind of God He is. Those wonderful traits are enveloped and defined by the word grace. Grace embodies the unmerited love and favor of God toward all men and women. Principle 6 wraps amends and forgiveness together in one package so that, as we work steps 8 & 9 of our recovery, we continue to become more like our faultless mentor, Jesus Christ. After taking a thorough moral inventory of ourselves we should yearn to be transformed into people who generate and pour out as much grace to others as possible. Once we’ve experienced the miracle of God’s grace, we’ll want to share it with everyone. Paul explained in Titus 2:11-13; “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” As I look back on my own life I find it impossible to wrap my head around why the great I AM would bother with me at all, much less love me unconditionally. I’m a self-centered mess. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The ultimate test of our spirituality is the measure of our amazement at the grace of God.” If he’s correct then I and all my friends in the Celebrate Recovery ministry have been given a high grade on that test because we’re truly amazed. When we least deserved His help the same omnipotent God who created the universe reached down to where we sat broken at our rock bottom point and rescued our wicked souls. We know firsthand what saving grace feels like and it’s indescribable.
Few words in Christianity are as inspiring and none have as much impact because we believers know that without it we have zero chance of spending the rest of forever in paradise. Charles Spurgeon likened it to an overpass when he said, “The bridge of grace will bear your weight, brothers and sisters. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yes, millions have gone over it. Some have been the worst of sinners and some have come at the very last of their days but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them, trusting in the same support. It will bear me over as it has for them.” And it’s not just preachers or folks in recovery who respect the importance of grace. Rock star Bono of U2 is quoted as saying, “Grace defies reason and logic. God’s love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.” If we attempt to explain what grace is we inevitably run into a brick wall. Anne Lamott wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” John Powell said, “We cannot ‘psychologize’ the grace of God. God’s actions are outside and above our human sciences.” What I do know for sure is that we don’t deserve to be made white as freshly-fallen snow by the blood of Christ and there’s nothing we can do on our own to merit that honor. Grace must be accepted on faith alone, just as our belief in the sublime goodness of God must be. As Philip Yancey put it, “God loves people because of who God is, not because of who we are.” Therefore you must rid yourself of any notion that you’re entitled to anything even vaguely resembling divine mercy. We humans tend to think too highly of ourselves but, as Isaiah 64:6 indicates, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Therefore we must “…set our hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:13) Imagine walking with others of your ilk through the Pearly Gates as Brennan Manning did when he wrote, “There we are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith. My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
Grace is a gift given to us by God. You may ask, “Why does He do that?” There’s a saying, “He did it out of the goodness of His heart” and I think that sentiment covers it nicely. Grace is the most expensive present you’ll ever get. Yet it can’t be bought, borrowed or stolen because it’s free. As Romans 3:24 says, we“…are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Bear in mind that grace is only possible because Jesus sacrificed His precious life to provide it. Now, if you’re anything like I used to be, the whole atonement thing didn’t make any sense to me for a very long time and it held my commitment to Christ at bay. My know-it-all mindset spewed out gems like “If God set this whole deal up in the first place why was the cross necessary? He’s omniscient; he could’ve made it totally unnecessary.” I wrestled with my own limited understanding of the doctrine of atonement most of my life until I came across a jaw-dropping statement in one of Billy Graham’s books. He asked me to envision what a tabloid would do with this headline; SINNER PARDONED – GOES TO LIVE WITH JUDGE! That stunned me because, when it comes right down to it, that’s what grace implies. Grace is radical and scandalous! I came up with a scenario that helped me grasp the profundity involved.
Picture in your head the one you love most on this earth. Now imagine that something tragic happened to them and the person responsible appears in God’s courtroom and you’re in attendance to make sure justice is served. How would you feel if God the great judge looked at you and said, “I’m pardoning this guilty man because I love all my children equally and, besides, he was just having a really bad day.” No doubt you’d respond with unbridled outrage, yelling “Say what?” You see, God is, indeed, love, but He’s also the God of inerrant justice, absolute truth and infallible righteousness so a verdict like that one would run contrary to everything He’s taught us to believe about Him. We know that’s not going to happen. So what if, instead, he looks you in the eye from His seat on the bench and says, “You have every right to want this man to suffer for what he did. I said the penalty for sin is death and I meant it. However, I love this man I created and he’s really sorry so I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. There’s an unrepentant serial killer in the jail down the hall. He’s incorrigible and he’s headed for death row. I assure you, he’ll have no qualms about taking this man’s place.” You’d blow your top and scream, “Say what? That’s not justice!” You’d vehemently argue that, even though the disgusting creep sitting in stir may be a sin-filled monster and all, he had nothing to do with what happened to your loved one. That option wouldn’t be acceptable and you’d defiantly let His Majesty know it. So what if God turned to you and, with a sigh says, “The bottom line is this: I do love this person who hurt you so badly. But he’s repented of his sin and he’s humbled himself before me, begging for mercy. Therefore I will not condemn him. What would you have me to do?” In a fit of unrestrained anger you shout up at God, “Since you’re so enamored with this horrible scumbag, I dare you to put your money where your mouth is. YOU suffer and die for him!” God nods and says, “Okay. I will. I love him that much.” Imagine how relieved the guy on trial would be! Well, here’s the kicker: You are the one on trial. Your sins are as ugly as murder. Your iniquity cut into someone else’s heart like a knife. You’re the guilty party and you know your sins deserve to be deemed nothing less than unforgivable. But because God incarnate, Jesus Christ, paid the price for your crimes, grace spares you from the harsh sentence the judge would otherwise have certainly handed down. The atonement became a done deal that dark Friday afternoon on a wooden cross outside of Jerusalem. I get it now.
It’s not about us, though. It never has been. It’s about God’s glory and always will be. It’s not what we’ve done but what He did for us because, yes, He’s that magnanimous! Paul wrote in Romans 5:1-2; “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.” What it means for us is that no one is so far gone they can’t be redeemed. The devil’s arms may be long but our Savior’s arms are ever so much longer. Jerry Bridges said, “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” The sparkling fountain of grace our Father in heaven provides will never run out of life-restoring water. We can drink our fill. I came across a quote from Nancy Spiegelberg I could relate to: “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to you with my empty cup, uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known you better, I’d have come running with a bucket.” All our lives we’ve heard the expression, “If it sounds too good to be true then it probably ain’t.” But while that adage should be heeded when it comes to things this fallen world offers, in the matter of God’s grace we have to trust Him, surrender our apprehensions and, as they say in poker, go “all in” with our faith chips. Paul Tillich wrote, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance, to accept that God loves me as I am and not as I should be, because I’m never going to be as I should be.” Be encouraged by Hebrews 4:16; “Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.” Elizabeth Scott said, “Grace is my favorite word. Something you can pray for. Something God can grant. Something you can obtain. Perfection is out of reach. But grace – grace you can reach for.”
In the Celebrate Recovery ministry sometimes we see people relapse and it’s not always due to temptation’s lure. Often it’s because of an overwhelming sense of unworthiness they feel when they realize they can’t hold up their end of the bargain and they give up trying. Timothy Keller addressed that situation thusly: “The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinning and sinful, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope – at the very same time. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more electrifying and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin.” In other words, maintaining perspective regarding how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go is vital. Recovery is a road that must be travelled one day at a time. Lacey Mosley said, “I’ve learned recently to love imperfection a lot because it shines such a big light on God’s grace. And if someone has grace for you that’s when you feel their love the most. They see you for who you are and they love you anyway.” God’s grace doesn’t dictate, it liberates through the power of Christ. Ephesians 1:7 reads: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” Rejoice, you’re no longer a slave to sin!
Yet be careful not to take grace as license to do as you please because “all is forgiven.” First of all, that frame of mind would indicate that you haven’t grasped the depth of what being a follower of Christ means just yet. If your conversion is genuine the idea that you’re now free to sin without being held accountable should never stroll through your mind. Romans 6:15 reads, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Absolutely not!” David Platt said, “The gospel does not prompt you to mere reflection; the gospel requires a response.” This can be confusing for some because God’s forgiveness, as Joseph Prince preached, “is not given in installments.” Christ paid a heavy price for you. In full. Paul stated in Philippians 1:6; “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” You’ll give up on yourself long before God will. God may be a conservative when it comes to His laws, but He’s a liberal as far as dispensing grace. Thus to flaunt God’s generous nature is a dangerous act. R.C. Sproul wrote, “God’s grace is not infinite. God is infinite, and God is gracious. We experience the grace of an infinite God, but grace is not infinite. God sets limits to His patience and forbearance. He warns us over and over again that someday the axe will fall and His judgment will be poured out.” If you think of your Heavenly Father as a codependent, enabling parent then you need to retreat a few steps and pore over what the Bible says about those who think they can take advantage of God. Just be honest with Him. Confess, as John Newton did, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
What our Lord wants us to do more than anything is to hand out grace to others the same way we received it from Him. Free of charge. Charles Swindell preached, “Grace is a gift of the humble to the humiliated. Grace acknowledges the ugliness of sin by choosing to see beyond it. Grace accepts a person as someone worthy of kindness despite whatever grime or hard-shell casing keeps him or her separated from the rest of the world. Grace is a gift of tender mercy when it makes the least sense.” May gracious become the word others use to describe Christians most accurately.