I have heard it over and over again, “Grace is giving someone something that he does not deserve.” When I hear this, it is said often to describe the giving of salvation from God. This way of viewing grace is a good starting point for our understanding. When we leave grace here, it insinuates two very dangerous things for the church. First, that God is merely a gift giver. Second, that God is primarily concerned with making sure people make it to heaven. God is a gift giver and He does desire to see all people repent and receive life, but when we see God’s grace as something so small, we are left with the sort of shallow Christianity we witness in many local churches today.
Just picture this for a moment with me. You visit a church. The church seems loving and you get involved. Inevitably, people begin to condemn you because you are not good enough, Christian enough, you don’t dress correctly, you are not growing a ministry, you aren’t contributing, you went somewhere they did not agree with, you are not like them, etc… Imagine for a moment that someone comes to know Christ. Because the church sees God’s grace as merely the giving of something that is not deserved, they are quick to recognize the salvation of a sinner. Tally up the salvation score card so we can brag about our numbers at the next associational meeting! If that person doesn’t become perfect according to their definition of perfect, they are quick to condemn and turn against that person. This is the church that limits the younger generation because of perceived lack-of-experience or the older generation because that generation prefers the old way of doing things. A local body that has this view of grace will bring in a perspective pastor. They will vote him in if he is a skillful preacher. As soon as he makes a mistake, begins doing things in a manner they don’t like, gets too old or speaks conviction into their lives, they will begin complaining, gossiping, and slandering him. It is in this type of church that the pastor’s children are expected to be superhuman, never sinning or doing the wrong thing and always looking proper. This church will see someone in need and say things like, “I’m willing to help them if only they would try and help themselves.” I have a friend and her brother’s car broke down in front of a church building as people were being dismissed from worship service. Not one person asked if he needed help. How small is our view of grace that we would acknowledge it, and then claim that, somehow, people must meet God half-way by their own merits (whether experience, faith, or works)?
Once we grant Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone) and Solus Christus (Christ alone), both the logical and biblical view of grace becomes abundantly clear for our lives and for the local church. Grace is, perhaps, not as small of a thing as we have made it.
Deuteronomy 30:1-14 HCSB
“When all these things happen to you — the blessings and curses I have set before you — and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. The Lord your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers. The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. Then you will again obey Him and follow all His commands I am giving you today. The Lord your God will make you prosper abundantly in all the work of your hands with children, the offspring of your livestock, and your land’s produce. Indeed, the Lord will again delight in your prosperity, as He delighted in that of your fathers, when you obey the Lord your God by keeping His commands and statutes that are written in this book of the law and return to Him with all your heart and all your soul.
“This command that I give you today is certainly not too difficult or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven so that you have to ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven, get it for us, and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’ And it is not across the sea so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea, get it for us, and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’ But the message is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may follow it.
Grace in Scripture
This part of the story, as with every part of the story in Scripture, does not exist apart from its context. In chapter 29, we learn two very important things that prepare us for this passage. First, without God’s renewing of the human mind, eyes, and ears, people are unable to understand, to see, or to hear the things of God. Second, God has predicted that this generation of Israelites (the generation of promise) will rebel against Him. In Judges 2, we witness this rebellion and we witness the pre-incarnate Christ shepherding His people despite the sin of the nation.
In verse one, here in chapter 30, through verse nine, the language is descriptive. God, through Moses, is predicting what will happen. The people will be scattered in different lands as punishment for their sin. They will turn back to God and, once again, with all of their hearts and souls. God will deliver them. God will prosper them and multiply them more than their fathers. God will circumcise their hearts so that they do love God with all of their hearts. God will rejoice over them. Thus, we learn the first thing about God’s amazing grace. It is unmerited because it depends completely and entirely on God. God’s grace is consistent with and follows from His glory and declares Christ alone as preeminent. So, when we say that grace is giving something that is not deserved, it is true but the definition does not even begin to capture the depth of God’s amazing grace. It is even dangerous if we choose to stop at merely recognizing the gifts given by God’s grace.
In this passage of Scripture, and in the entirety of the Pentateuch, we notice a very specific pattern. People, in their freedom, rebel against God. God, for His own glory and by His grace, delivers His people from their own rebellion. Grace is not only the means by which the people of God are given a gift. Grace is the means by which God delivers the entirety of a person’s being from the clutches of Hell and transforms that person. Just as this generation of Israelites, there is nothing any one person can do to merit such a grace because God’s character requires that He receive all glory. From Genesis through Revelation, then, we encounter quite a different story of grace than that represented by most religious organizations; those who say that, in some manner or another, we must match God’s grace with our own merit. This got so bad in the middle ages that the Roman church even sold merit from some ethereal treasury to people so that they could fund their building projects. Today, we try to preach merit in order to affect some sort of behavior modification with our children or anyone else. Both behavior modification and the giving of indulgences (or their equivalent) are entirely contrary to the grace of God, who receives all glory.
God is saying very plainly to this generation of Israelites. You will rebel, I will draw you back to myself, and I will deliver my people from their rebellion. Again, I want to match what we see in the Old Testament with what is given in the new.
For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.
In Ephesians 1, Paul writes that God chose us (believers) in Him from the foundation of the world and that the elect have been predestined according to His own purpose and His own will. This would be the case also with the generation of promise. God was describing their willful rebellion, and His rescuing them from sin. There is no work that we can do to merit the grace of God. For every preacher, church member, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, ministry leader, volunteer, deacon, elder, etc…, salvation and position are gifts purely by grace and not of merit. We have no room to boast because the grace of God is so enveloping. This means that we have no room to judge others on the basis of merit. If we really believe in biblical grace, we understand that we are to do everything we can to build others up in that grace. Paul even states that good works are prepared ahead of time by God’s grace for those who have been created in Jesus Christ to walk in.
Soli Deo Gloria
How amazing is the redeeming grace of our God! How humbling is this grace! How freeing is this grace for our entire person! Why would we ever want to limit grace to simple gift giving?
In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace. Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.
What then? Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened…
Again, we witness this idea explicitly stated in the text of Scripture. We are chosen specifically by the means of God’s grace, not by any merit of our own. If we try to add merit to grace in any manner, grace ceases to be grace. Paul even spoke concerning his understanding of the the Old Testament text. God was preserving a remnant, those who were elect. The rest of Israel, those who were not elect, had hardened hearts toward God by their own choice. Grace is not simply the giving of an undeserved gift. It is the full-on preservation of a people for God’s own glory alone! How much deeper will our worship be to the God who preserves us when we realize how dependent we truly are on Him and when we come to grips with the truth that we contributed nothing whatsoever to our salvation and our preservation? God is so worthy of our worship and none of us are worthy of worship to any degree. Only by God’s grace can we be delivered and God sheds His grace on us in this way. In far too many of our local churches, we describe a grace that is something other than the grace of God entirely, causing our ‘religion’ to look like a majority of religions in the world.
Even James (Chapter 1:2,18) begins with God, through new birth and sanctification, producing faith in the individual. That faith produces good works and is proved to be dead without them. The unmerited grace of God, fully enveloping and transforming those who are elect, is where the faith of the individual begins and by which the person’s faith is carried into eternity by Christ. Sola Gratia!
Grace in a regenerate person
The sad commentary on cultural Christianity is that it is most often not marked by a biblical view of God’s amazing grace. Have we truly been impacted by God’s grace as people who are called by God’s name today? In verse six, we encounter an amazing idea in the Old Testament. Through the adversity caused by willful human rebellion, God was circumcising the hearts of the His true people. This circumcising of the heart is what enabled the individuals to love the Lord with all their hearts and souls and to have life.
Without describing in detail what circumcision is, the cutting off of flesh at birth was a picture of the circumcision of the heart. It was a losing of sensitive flesh whereas the circumcision of the heart was the cutting off, by God, of sinful, fleshly desires. Just as we saw Paul describe in Romans 11, God was preserving a remnant for Himself by circumcising their hearts and making it possible for His true people to love Him with all of their hearts and all of their souls. We can’t even boast when it comes to our spiritual growth. The circumcision of our hearts (i.e. sanctification) is a work of God by grace so that He will receive all glory and that Christ may be preeminent. The Apostle Paul even referred to a thorn in his flesh that reminded him constantly that he was unable to boast.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9
Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
This thorn was given to him so that he would not exalt himself. These thorns, whether physical ailments, personality struggles, seasons of life, or enemies, are given for a purpose: that we might remember God’s grace to be entirely sufficient. Preachers don’t find their identity in preaching, teachers in teaching, members in membership, artists in art, performers in performance, fathers in fatherhood, spouses in marriage, gamers in games, and so on. Take everything away and God’s grace is sufficient. God gives us hindrances to remind us of this fact. This means that every calling on our lives, every office we get to serve in, every disciple we get to make, every child we get to raise, every success we get to experience, is given not because we have deserved it and not because of our merit, but purely by God’s amazing and all-sufficient grace. By this grace He gives us faith. By this grace He opens doors that no one else can open. By this grace He gives little or much according to His own will. In Romans 12:3, Paul even writes:
For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.
God distributes a measure of faith to each one by grace. All of the sudden, when Jesus speaks about giving more responsibility to those who are faithful with little, we know that God has supplied that faith in the first place through His own work of sanctification by His own grace. When Jesus finished this parable, He looked to a group of Pharisees and accused them of trying to add merit to the grace of God:
You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight (Luke 16:15).
There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope at your calling — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift.
Do we recognize the pattern throughout Scripture? Glory to God alone! Christ alone! By Grace alone! How humbling, how freeing, and how empowering this truth is! The church doesn’t need me. God doesn’t need me. My wife doesn’t need me. I don’t need me. I need Christ and I worship God because He has supplied my need by grace alone. This means that other people don’t need us or our way of doing things, as great as we might think ourselves or our tactics to be. God gives us a role in His kingdom only by His grace. We get to marvel at His grace and revel in His grace. When I think about it, I am so speechless. The individual who is under grace has every reason to share that grace with others and no reason to condemn. In fact, if God is the grace giver only He has the authority to withhold that grace from anyone and we would do good to recognize that authority. This gives us the freedom, as individuals, to love and to seek understanding unconditionally. Sola Gratia. Without this grace, we are unable to really be Christians at all.
Grace in a genuine local church
The doctrine of God’s glory manifesting in His grace has some huge implications for the genuine local church. First, it is God’s grace alone that produces the visible local church. We tend to begin with our works, our strategies, our desires, and our ability to build. God’s grace makes all that seem so small. God begins with His own glory. Christ shepherds His people. Then, we get to see God’s grace produce Christian community. Any other means produces a club or a merely moral, ritualistic congregation. The God who is working all things together is making Himself evident in the true church and in genuine local churches.
Concerning the generations, it means both young and old are called and qualified, being given a measure of faith by God’s grace alone. The moment we discriminate on the bases of age is the very moment we have not recognized the overwhelming depth of God’s grace. I think the same goes for any sort of hateful discrimination. It is no wonder Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Let no one despise your youth; instead, you should be an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” It is by God’s grace that people of all ages are saved, preserved, and given places of service in God’s kingdom. We can trust that God knows exactly what He is doing. There are many times when I think myself too young to pursue the calling that God has placed on my life. This is a lie. God’s grace is sufficient, not my experience and certainly not the length of time I have been on this earth. This also means that as I age, I will never be able to think others to be too young.
As we seek to have biblical offices in the church, it means trusting in God’s design for those offices. God will place individuals in those offices by grace. Therefore, we treat those individuals as brothers and also with much grace. If we condemn on the basis of performance, we create a system of merit and send a very clear message about what kind of ‘church’ we are. We reveal just how our belief in God’s grace has affected us.
When we consider socio-economic barriers: grace! When we think about helping those in poverty: grace! As we raise our children: grace! As we practice church discipline: grace! If we find that we are waiting and waiting for God to show us what is next, we know that we have been given this season by grace and to remind us of the sufficiency of God’s grace!
Truly, if God’s grace is an ocean we are all sinking. We should be overcome with awe-inspiring joy at the thought that God has shed His grace on us for no other reason than that He would have us dwell in His glory forevermore! He loves His people in such a way that while we were still sinners and unable to merit His grace, He raised us up. He builds His church. How wondrous! How humbling! How freeing! How transforming! How uplifting! How clarifying! How God-glorifying! How joy enabling! How great is our God!