GRACE FOR LIVING
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Eleven days and nights in a violent North Atlantic storm should have been the end of the Greyhound and its crew. Without a doubt, John Newton had been miraculously delivered. Nor can we forget the bitterly cold weather he and the crew survived at the same time. It was by the grace of God that they made it home.
That perilous voyage presents a metaphor of John Newton’s life and ours as well. Apart from God the dangers, toils and temptations of life would be overwhelming. God in His grace has come to our rescue. Two enemies of our soul have been defeated. God’s grace in salvation has forever liberated us from the penalty and power of sin and death. That salvation can never be taken from us as God has guaranteed it through the death and resurrection of His Son.
Nonetheless, the effects of sin and death are all around. There are demonic forces that would seduce us into returning to our previous way of living. Again, we are protected by God’s grace. His grace for living makes it possible for us to escape from those natural tendencies of human existence.
As we have seen, there is nothing we could do to obtain eternal salvation. We were dead! (Ephesians 2:1, 2). What was impossible for us to do, God’s grace made a reality. In like manner, we still face a life of impossibilities, things that in our own strength we cannot do. God’s grace is for living and that makes possible the impossible. Jesus came to earth to liberate us from death and sin, and to make available all the resources of heaven for our deliverance.
The Slave Trade Culture
Let’s return for a moment to John Newton’s life. Remember that after his encounter with God’s saving grace in that North Atlantic storm, he did not immediately give up slave trading. It would be four years before Newton fully realized the evil of slavery and the sin of his slave trading. As we saw, it was a physical collapse which opened the door for him to see the true nature of his occupation.
Did that mean that because he was not perfect Newton was on his way to hell? No, not at all. God had forgiven John Newton and made him His child there in the North Atlantic. As we explained in the last chapter, that was just the beginning of Newton’s walk in the grace of God. He was just starting his journey. There was more to follow. God’s grace would invade and continue to reshape every aspect of his life.
Newton was surrounded by many prominent individuals, including members of the clergy and political leaders, who supported slave trading. While this does not excuse his own behavior, by himself he could not pull himself out of this pattern of living. For John Newton and for each one of us, that is where God’s grace for living comes to our rescue. It is God’s grace which brings us into harmony with His plan for our lives. It is God’s grace which empowers us to follow God’s will.
In the first verses of Ephesians 2, we learned about our “deadness.” In verses 8 and 9, we found that it was the “grace of God” that brought us to life and to salvation. We now travel further into God’s infinite grace: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advanced for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10.
Through Newton’s experiences in African slave trading, he could understand its wretchedness. When he repented from what he had done, he became a forceful voice against the very sin in which he had participated. In this regard, he was like Paul who worked tirelessly to uproot the church, but as an apostle, he became the great church planter.
God eventually placed John Newton in a pulpit in London where he was able to influence leaders of the British Parliament. Consequently, the Parliament brought an end to slave trading and slavery itself. That was one way God’s grace came into Newton’s living. It is never God’s intention that His grace is only a golden parachute out of hell. Beyond salvation, He has more for His grace to accomplish through our living.
Getting Grace Into Our Living
It was Billy Sunday, I believe, who made a statement that we can all support. Billy was a major league baseball player in the late 1800’s. He was flamboyant both on and off the field. After his conversion, he became an evangelist and probably preached to over 100 million people. His comment came as he watched a drunken man stager across a busy New York City street. Said Billy, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” He knew he needed God’s grace for living his life, daily.
The Apostle Peter, who had his own troubles in following his Master, wrote of our need to grow into God’s grace. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error or lawless (people) and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” II Peter 3:17, 18.
Peter recognized that our only secure position is in God’s grace and that in God, we have everything we need for Christian living. “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” I Peter 1:2, 3.
Other New Testament writers had the same view of God’s grace. The author of the book of Hebrews said it this way: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16.
Paul the apostle reminded two of his associates about God’s grace for living.“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” II Timothy 2:1. “For the grace of God . . . teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age . . . ” Titus 2:11, 12.
As you study these verses, remember that the apostles were writing to Christians, not to unbelievers. These were people who had already experienced the fulness of God’s saving grace.
Each writer declared we need now to appropriate God’s grace in our living. We may inquire, “In what ways?” Two general areas come to mind that need our attention: (1) Grace over the effects of sin; and (2) grace over the effects of death. Let’s look at them separately.
Grace Over the Effects of Sin
To begin, we must testify that when we came into new life through saving grace, God forever removed from us the ultimate penalty of sin. Jesus’ declaration was clear:“I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:28. While we are not yet perfect, the power of sin over our lives has been eternally conquered.
What can and often does remain with us is the effect or presence of sin. Humanly speaking, we are sinful creatures. Sin hangs around. The human heart is still desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:20-23). It is at this point that God supplies His grace to overcome the effects of sin in our living. It is His intention that not only the power, but also the presence of sin is removed from our lives. That is a life-long process for us all.
To see this explained, let’s look at what the Apostle Paul wrote about some people he had introduced to God’s saving grace. Without question, they were in God’s family. These people showed by their living how God’s grace can deliver us from the presence and effect of sin in our lives.
Grace to Conquer Selfishness
One of the most difficult things for children (and adults) to learn is sharing their toys and belongings with others. Why? Because at the core of our beings we are self-centered and selfish. We struggle with it almost from the moment of birth. As a matter of fact, for most of us our first act of defiance is a cry of rage! Having been abruptly removed from the warm, comfortable surroundings of our mother’s womb, we get whacked on our fanny by some total stranger. We are angry! “Well,” you say, ”that’s only natural.” And that’s just the point.
Selfishness is a natural human emotion. We do not naturally desire to give to others what is ours. Thus, selfishness is one of the effects of sin that we struggle with long after we have received God’s saving grace.
How can we overcome selfishness? Is there any way of ridding ourselves of this cruel dictator of our possessions? How can we balance our grasping over things we possess with God’s giving to us everything we own? The Apostle Paul points us to a great example.
For his example, Paul wrote about some people he knew in Greece. He described these people as being in “extreme poverty” and in the “most severe trial.” Have you been there? On that backdrop Paul says “their overflowing joy . . . welled up in rich generosity.” Does this sound normal to you? In “extreme poverty” there was “rich generosity”? Right, it isn’t common in human events! So, what made this unnatural display of generosity possible? God’s grace!
Read as the apostle describes how it happened. “And now, brothers (sisters), we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in their service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” II Corinthians 8:1-6.
Even the Apostle Paul was amazed at the generosity of these poor people. These Christians were giving because fellow believers in Jerusalem were going through famine. He identified the source of their motivation as “the grace that God has given” them. God’s grace made possible the impossible in their lives. They did what is not natural in human terms. To have hoarded their meager resources would have been very normal — and no one would have judged them for taking care of themselves. When God’s grace entered the picture, something quite radical took place.
Grace In Giving
Paul elaborates on his explanation. He declares that God’s grace has been magnificently displayed to all of us.“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” II Corinthians 8:9.
What Paul declared about Jesus was the same testimony that came from John the beloved disciple,“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
What these apostles have told us is that the Lord not only gives us grace, but He showed us how it is to be lived out. The apostles are explaining to us that Jesus Christ is the primary example of the effect of God’s grace in a life. He gave up everything to give us everything.
The Apostle Paul then goes on in the following chapter to broaden the meaning of “living by grace.” He states that “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work..” (Emphasis added) II Corinthians 9:8. That verse is all inclusive, isn’t it? Nothing is left out. Yes, God truly wants us to appropriate His grace in our living. As we do, we will have His grace abundantly applied to our needs so that we may flourish in His plans for us.
In these two verses above (8:9 and 9:8), Paul is letting us know the incredible spiritual resources that are available to us through God’s grace. God generously want’s to forever free us from the power and the presence of sin. He wants us to fully apprehend His grace by growing daily in that grace.
As Paul further explained, something of eternal value will result from their living by grace: God’s glory will be revealed in their lives. Others will be brought to a spirit of praise and worship. Their living was giving validity and vitality to the Gospel of Christ. “Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.” II Corinthians 9:13-15
You ask, Is that kind of living possible today? In our society where status is gained from what we possess rather than what we give, can that happen? No! Never! And that is just the point. None of the results that Paul reported about these Christians in the first century can come from our self-directed efforts.
You see, we tend to give until we feel good about it. These Christians of the first century gave until it hurt. The cross had entered into their lives with authenticity. That made it possible to take in God’s grace and give hilariously. And what a harvest of eternal blessing they reaped.
Yes, these Macedonian believers had it tough. But they had looked at their crucified Leader. He had set the example for them. They understood what was available for them. The joy of their experience is pictured for us in a marvelous poem written by Annie Johnson Flint. We get a sense of God’s intention in Christ toward us.
He giveth more grace
when the burden grows greater;
He sendeth more strength
when the labors increase.
To added affliction
He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials
His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted
our store of endurance;
When our strength has failed
ere the day is half done.
When we reach the end
of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving
is only begun.
His love has no limit,
His grace has no measure;
His power has no boundary
known unto man.
For out of His infinite
riches in Jesus,
He giveth and giveth
and giveth again!
Annie Johnson Flint
The Apostle Peter tells us we need to be ready to see far more of God’s enabling grace in our lives. “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” I Peter 1:13. Are you ready?
Christ Revealed Through Grace
You will recall that when John Newton released himself into the hand of God on that eleventh night of the storm, some things dramatically followed. His foul language and profane living left him—immediately. He had a peace that permeated his soul as much as the North Atlantic had flooded the ship. His life was still in peril and it would be several years before his consciousness of the sin of slavery would grip him. This introduces us to another facet of God’s grace.
Here, we turn again to the Apostle Paul. This time, though, it is his personal experience. He had a recurring illness which remained with him until death. We are not certain as to the nature of his illness. Perhaps it was an eye infection or some other serious problem with his vision. However, the exact illness is not important. The principle is the critical issue.
As Paul relates it, he called this problem “a thorn in my flesh.” Then Paul confesses that “three times, I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” Can you see the picture? The great Apostle Paul, the person who wrote more of the New Testament than any other author. He’s got a problem that is really bothering him. This man of great faith who probably healed hundreds of people prays to God for deliverance from this nagging affliction. Surely, God is going to respond to such a prayer from such a man.
And God does just that. Hear what He tells Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” II Corinthians 12:7-9. In effect, God tells Paul, “I want you to stop praying for deliverance from this affliction. You think it is hindering you, but it isn’t. It is what makes my power effective in your life. That is how My grace functions.”
After God speaks to him and after he has seen God’s working in his life, listen to Paul’s testimony about God’s grace in his life: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, in that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” II Corinthians 12:9, 10. Delighting in weaknesses? I don’t know about you, but I must confess I am not where the Apostle Paul was.
Yet, where Paul was is where God wants to lead us. Trials, weaknesses, insults and difficulties is where God brings in His grace to make our testimony powerful. It is called grace for living. Powerful living is not what we accomplish ourselves. It is God’s grace taking our meager resources of weakness and frailty and turning them into the power of the Gospel.
Paul preached to the people of Galatia while he was sick. Effective? Not in human terms. But God used his weakness to bring salvation to the people of that area. How? Through His own grace. See Galatians 4:12-14. Was it worth it? Ask the Christians from Galatia when you see them in heaven.