God’s Amazing Grace
THE BIG IDEA: The greatest miracle in the Kingdom of God is when someone encounters Jesus as their Savior. We are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith in Jesus. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done.
“Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazin’ grace.” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel).[i]
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One of the most popular, well-loved hymns of all time is Amazing Grace, written in 1779 by an English pastor named John Newton. The first verse says, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Almost everyone in the world knows the lyrics to this song, but have they personally experienced that amazing grace in their own lives?
Perhaps one of the most impacting stories I have ever heard about grace came from Philip Yancey’s book What’s so Amazing About Grace?
“I heard (this story) from a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago: A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old… She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story… I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried, “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like the prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.”[ii]
I am reminded of a true story, something that happened to my mom back in the seventies. She had been attending a church in Regina for several years and one day, the pastor and one of the deacons came by for a visit. They started asking my mother about her relationship with my dad. Although they were still married at this time, they had been separated for a while. Mom told them about how my father was an alcoholic, how he had often cheated on her, how he did not support our family, and drank all of his money away. He was never home, and wasn’t a good husband or father. To make a long story short, the pastor and deacon told my mother that marriage under God was eternal, and she wouldn’t be able to get into Heaven without her husband. That meant she was going to go to hell. Mom was so hurt, angry and betrayed by this pastor. As a single mother, she had gone to them for support and received nothing. Needless to say, she never darkened the door of a church for twenty years.
I’m so happy to report that shortly after I got saved, my mom started attending church again. She was a prodigal daughter who found her way back to the Father’s House. One of the highlights and greatest privileges of my ministry was water baptizing my mother at Bible Fellowship. Praise the Lord!
Both of those stories still grip my heart and cause me to cry: There’s something wrong in the church today. I attended a church once that did not understand the grace of God. One Sunday morning, the worship team had decided to resurrect that old song, Amazing Grace. I was shocked to see how they had changed the words to this classic hymn. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.” Unbelievable! They wouldn’t even acknowledge the truth of Romans 7:24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” There was one time that pastor was preaching, and he literally said from the pulpit, “If you ever catch me in the foyer before church, and I ask you how you’re doing, I don’t want to hear all of your problems and troubles in your life. If I ask you how you’re doing, I only want to hear you say, ‘Praise God, I’m on top and I’m rising’!” Something is wrong in the church today!
I thank God for a good friend of mine who introduced me to two books that radically revolutionized my understanding of God’s grace and Christianity. The first one is called All of Grace by Charles Spurgeon. He wrote: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. It is a very surprising thing – a thing to be marveled at most of all by those who enjoy it. I know it is to me, even to this day, the greatest wonder that I have ever heard – that God should ever justify me… Our Lord Jesus did not die for imaginary sins. His heart’s blood was spilled to wash out deep crimson stains which nothing else can remove.”[iii]
It’s a terrible thing that contemporary preachers shy away from speaking about sin and thereby rob people of the most amazing joy and peace that can be found in Jesus when they confess their sins to Him and find forgiveness. People need to realize that they are lost sinners before they will ever be compelled to call on the name of Jesus to be saved from their sins. In the words of a fiery old preacher: “It is time for preachers to start telling sinners there is still a King who saves, a cross that bleeds, a hell to shun, and a heaven to gain!”
The second book that impacted me was called The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. Its subtitle is “Embracing the unconditional love of God.” The revelation of God’s grace in this book was a breath of fresh air to me. I have read this book more times than any other book I own (other than the Bible, of course). I want to share with you a quote from his introduction:
“The Ragamuffin Gospel was written with a specific reading audience in mind. This book is not for the super-spiritual… It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules rather than run the risk of living in union with Jesus…
The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out… It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace… It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents… It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God… It is for anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the way.”[iv]
The one quote from this book that most revolutionized my understanding of Christianity was this one: “Morton Kelsey wrote: The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” When you go to church, you don’t have to dress up to try to impress God or anybody else. Church isn’t a museum for saints. It’s not a place where you have to put on your best suits and dresses and a plastic smile. No. The church is a hospital for sinners. But it was neither Brennan Manning nor Morton Kelsey who originated this concept – it was Jesus Himself.
Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to be merciful; I don’t want your sacrifices.’ For I have come to call sinners, not those who think they are already good enough.” (Matthew 9:12-13, nlt).
Do you feel like your life is a grave disappointment to God? Do you feel burned out, beat up, discouraged? Do you feel like giving up? Do you have doubts and questions about whether or not God could love someone like you? If so, then the truths in this chapter will encourage you. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve messed up or how badly you’ve sinned, Jesus died for you. He didn’t come for those who think they’re good enough already, Jesus came for those who are hurting and broken. He came to save us, help us, and change our lives. Therefore, the grace of God is the most important topic in the Bible.
So few people understand God’s grace. If we really understood His grace – that God’s love and acceptance of us is totally unconditional – it would change everything. We shouldn’t be too surprised by the fact that people don’t understand God’s grace today, because they had this problem in the early church as well.
Beware the Spirit of the Pharisee:
“While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians: “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question… When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry. But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses. So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question. At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God, who knows people’s hearts, confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave him to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he also cleansed their hearts through faith. Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (Acts 15:1-11).
If you’re familiar with the life of Jesus, you know that the Pharisees attacked and criticized Jesus and His disciples all the time. I’d love to be able to tell you that after Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead that the church never had problems with the Pharisees again. However, not too many years later, we see the spirit of the Pharisee is still alive and well. Jesus told us to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” (Luke 12:1b). The leaven of the Pharisees is their false teaching that says salvation is something that must be earned by good works.
Who were the Pharisees? They were “a sect that seems to have started after the Jewish exile. In addition to Old Testament books, the Pharisees recognized in oral tradition a standard of belief and life. They sought for distinction and praise by outward observance of external rites and by outward forms of piety, and such as ceremonial washings, fastings, prayers, and alms giving; and, comparatively negligent of genuine piety, they prided themselves on their fancied good works.”[v]
When the Pharisees tried to add good works to God’s grace in the means of salvation, how did the church respond? They said, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” What is grace? Our English word grace comes from a Greek word, charis, which means the good will, lovingkindness and undeserved favor of God.[vi] There’s absolutely nothing that we can do to earn God’s grace, favor or love.
This thought might ruffle some of your religious feathers, especially if your belief system has been tainted by the spirit of the Pharisee: There is nothing that you can ever do to make God love you more, and there is nothing that you can ever do to make God love you less. God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners! God didn’t wait for us to get our lives cleaned up before loving us. This is why the Gospel is called Good News!
For the two thousand years of the history of the church, there has been this group called the Pharisees who have been fighting against God’s grace. In the church today, the Pharisees don’t have the long flowing robes or the big beards that they did in the first century, but they are no less deadly. The spirit of the Pharisee is still alive and well. We need to watch out for and guard against that spirit.
A Look at the Spirit of the Pharisee in Matthew’s Gospel:
- 9:11 – they criticized Jesus for hanging around with sinners.
- 12:2 – they judged Jesus and His disciples for ‘working’ on the Sabbath.
- 12:14 – they plotted and schemed how they might destroy Jesus.
- 15:6 – they made God’s Word ineffective because of their traditions.
- 15:7 – Jesus called them hypocrites, or pretenders.
- 15:8 – they worshiped on the outside but their hearts were far from God.
- 15:12 – they were offended by Jesus’ teaching (Pharisees are easily offended).
- 23:4 – they bind heavy burdens on other people, but won’t help them to carry them.
- 23:13 – they don’t enter the Kingdom of God, and hinder others from entering, too.
- 23:14 – they act very spiritual and try to get other people to follow them.
- 23:23 – they follow the rules of the law legalistically, but they don’t care about people.
- 23:34 – they kill and persecute men of God (they attack pastors and preachers).
We need to beware the spirit of the Pharisee, because they will try to hinder us from experiencing God’s grace. They will pile rule after rule on us to try to make us acceptable to God. It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ to say no to the spirit of the Pharisee.
Another book that really impacted my life was a textbook for our Concepts of the Church class in Bible College. The book Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness was written by a fellow Foursquare pastor named Jerry Cook. He said, “Jesus hung around with sinners, and if we’re too holy to allow people to blow smoke in our faces, then we’re holier than Jesus was.”[vii]
We have people who attend our church who have a cigarette before church on Sunday mornings. I first heard about it because someone complained to me, “Pastor Chris, there are people who smoke right outside of the church!” I wondered why this person had an issue with the cigarette smokers. Was it because they were afraid of smelling smoke, or because they were afraid of the image of our church? “What kind of a church has people smoking outside of the church?” A grace church. A church that says, “You don’t have to be perfected in holiness before coming here. You don’t have to have every bad, negative or sinful habit removed from your life before we will accept you.” I have adopted Jerry Cook’s motto and philosophy of ministry to our church: “If you come around here, we’re going to love you – unconditionally, always, and under every circumstance.”
When I attended Bible College, there were a lot of extra-biblical rules that the students had to abide by, including a dress code. The men were required to wear ties and the women wore skirts or dresses for chapel times. During regular classes, blue jeans were not allowed. In an effort to obey the letter of the law (if not the spirit), many of the guys would go out and buy green jeans or red jeans or black jeans. Hair length and style were also regulated, especially for men. On one occasion, a bunch of the guys were hanging out in the dorms and decided to get out the hair clippers to give each other a mushroom cut. (If you don’t remember that hairstyle, the sides and back of the head were shaved, and the hair was left longer on top). Obviously this was a violation of the school rules, so a meeting was quickly called by the President of the Bible College, a very intimidating ex-police officer. He said, “What’s going on here? These haircuts are not our Bible College’s standard!” One of the guys looked around at everyone – who all had the same haircut – and said, “Apparently it is.” We were bad.
I don’t hold this up as a positive example to follow – we were wrong in not submitting to the rules of our Bible College. My point is that when you become legalistic about keeping the law, one of three things is going to happen. First of all, you’re going to get discouraged because you can’t keep all of those man-made rules. You’re going to fail. “I want to do right, but I can’t – it’s too hard.” The second possibility is you’re going to become a pretender, following the rules externally when others are watching. Or the third danger is that legalism can lead to rebellion, and that’s what we were doing. The more man-made rules you add to the commandments in the Bible, the more opportunities you are going to give people to fail. It’s time to return to grace.
A Look at God’s Amazing Grace:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
“God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, nlt).
Grace is defined as: God’s undeserved favor, spiritual blessing, mercy, and lovingkindness. It is God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Spurgeon said, “Because God is gracious, therefore sinful men are forgiven, converted, purified and saved. It is not because of anything in them or that ever can be in them that they are saved.”[viii] Too many churches are ignorant of the concept of grace, and teach a salvation by penance or good works. They don’t realize that Jesus paid the price for our salvation, and our sins have already been forgiven. Salvation is all of grace. When Jesus died on the Cross, He said, “It is finished.”
Some people reading Ephesians 2:8 might come to the part that says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” and conclude that faith is a good work that we must do to be saved. However, read the whole verse in context: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” If you believe in Jesus, that faith itself is also a gift from God. First Corinthians 12:3 says, “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” If you have called on the name of Jesus and trusted Him to be your Lord and Savior, it is only because God gave you the gift of faith. It is all of grace; you can’t take credit for it.
What sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world is the concept of grace. Every other religion tells you that you must do something in order to earn salvation. Only Christianity boldly declares that the love of God is totally and completely unconditional.
Pastor Charles Stanley, the founder of In Touch Ministries, once told a story about a test he took in school. When he sat down at his desk, the teacher said, “Before you begin writing the exam, read all of the instructions first.” Many students ignored that suggestion and jumped right into the exam. The students sighed and groaned as the test went on, because it was very difficult. Stanley said that when he got to the end of the test, it read, “Now that you’ve read through the entire test, you have a choice. You can go back and complete the entire exam, or simply sign your name on the paper, hand it in, and you’ll get an A.” You can imagine how the students felt who had been working so hard on completing that test. This story is an amazing picture of grace! The people who read the fine print realized that it was all a gift; it wasn’t something that you had to work for. Too many people are working so hard to try to get God to love and accept them, when the fine print says, “The price is paid. It is finished. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, receive His free gift, and you will be saved.”
Pastor Chris Jordan
[i] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel. (Multnomah Books, 2005).
[ii] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan Books, February 2002).
[iii] Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace. (Moody Publishing, March 2009).
[iv] Brennan Manning, ibid.
[v] The New Testament Greek Lexicon.
[vi] The New Testament Greek Lexicon.
[vii] Jerry Cook, ibid.
[viii] Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace. (Moody Publishing, March 2009).