|CU: Talks: 8/10/98||Back to the Past Talks listing|
It seems so sensible and rational and logical. The cool are affirmed and accepted. The beautiful are sought after. The talented go far. If you’re none of these things then, what are you expecting? A nerd at Top Of The Pops! Two left feet replacing Michael Owen in the England attack! A failure at GCSE getting accepted for a post grad in nuclear physics! Come on! No, it is a world where the first are first and the last are last. We live in a graceless world.
Such a world however leads to inferiority complexes, insecurities, a sense of alienation, the stress of always trying in vain to impress and a fakeness and shallowness that is keen not to let people know what we are really like. So logic leads to many illogical acts in everyone's constant struggle to be the first and avoid being the last.
Into the midst of this graceless act comes a most rare and strange concept. Unnatural and certainly not of this world. Into this graceless world comes an irrational idea, a revolutionary concept, a scandalous possibility. Grace. Favoured without your own merit. Love unearned. Acceptance as you are. Salvation not by what you do but by what someone else does in your place. It seems irrational - surely there is no such thing as a free lunch. Revolutionary - what a radical concept that the last should be first. Scandalous - the scoundrel gets the prize. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the Christian faith. This is our only hope. It still has to do with righteousness, "but now," as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, "a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known, to which the law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe". By the cross of Jesus Christ sin is dealt with and we can be the receivers of God's amazing grace.
So you might think or suppose that the Church would therefore be an alternative way to live from the world outside. Here would be a place of grace in which we could all relax from the world of striving. Yet, sadly, it seems that even in the Church the first are still first. There are not many bin men being voted as elders and not many lawyers taking out the bins. In a place where grace is the core of belief it is still what you achieve that gets your recognition and gives you a sense of belonging. Sadly, even within the Church, life is all about behavioural patterns to be conformed to, activities to be attended and theological systems to assent to. This leads within the Church to people who are bound to the chains of religious slavery and burdened down under a weight of Pharisiacal guilt.
Yet Jesus whole ministry was about communicating and giving this grace. If we look at the parable of the landowner in Matthew 18 we find that the landowner is giving the same wages to the workers who worked the last 15 minutes as he is to those who worked 12 hours. This is economically irrational, revolutionary and scandalous. If we look at the story of the Prodigal Son we find a wild living son who has squandered all that his father had lavished on him returning to what should in the world's terms be a shocking judgement. Yet, what does he get? A father running down the lane to throw his arms around him and throw a party for him. This is socially irrational, revolutionary and scandalous. Yet so often in the Church we are those who become the older son in the story who mutters about the father's outpouring of grace.
There are many other instances in Jesus parables and life where irrational, revolutionary and scandalous things happen. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep to look for one. Two puny coins in an offering plate is seen as way more than the rich man's generous contribution and a jar of perfume is poured out over Jesus in a seeming wasteful extravagance. Then there is the prostitute, caught in the very act of adultery and brought out before he who claims he'll judge the living and the dead. Let the lightning strikes begin. But no. Instead Jesus asks the perfect to continue with the stoning and when left without anyone claiming such a high standard of living he tells the woman that he doesn't condemn her either. What is going on!
Grace. That is what is going on and that is what we've been doing without in the Church. It seems to me as if there is a net strung from the roof of our Churches and it is full to the very brim with the grace that God wants to pour out over his people and yet we prevent anyone from pressing the switch to let it fall, because of our rational, conservative and scandal free ways.
We do struggle with the very concept of grace. We are saying as we read this. "Hang on Stockman are you saying that we do not have to do anything". You are saying, "Steve this is dangerous stuff. Are you telling them they can do what they want? Come on now, big lad, qualify it." The truth is I cannot. Grace is a dangerous and risky teaching but it is the very thing that our evangelical faith is built upon. "Grace through faith - not by works so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2v8). It is the wondrous doctrine that Luther discovered after striving all his life to earn his salvation. It is our only hope in the whole wide world. Martin Lloyd Jones once said that unless people misunderstand your preaching as a licence to do what you like then you are not preaching the Gospel. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel. Woe to those who have misled you, by their preaching, to not have the possibility of such a misunderstanding.
The Parisees just couldn't accept it. The Church in Galatia got a blasting from Paul for diluting it. It's what most of Jesus parables are about. It was what most of Paul's letters are about. To not grasp it suggests to me three things. Firstly, you have not an understanding of grace. It means "unmerited favour" not "unmerited favour for a little while before merit kicks back in." We are so keen to make sure our evangelism is sound, in stressing not be works but all of God's grace. Then somehow once saved we are dragged into a discipleship that leaves grace at the entrance door and goes back to a legalistic works salvation.
This leads to the second misconception. That is that grace is only the ticket that gains us our salvation. It is so much more than that. Grace is the engine of our entire Christian life. It brings us into a new life and then goes on to bring us to maturity in our faith. So , you see, it will change the things we do, not because we try our best to change but because it will be the power that changes us. As Paul said to the Philippians "I am confident that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion". After salvation the responsibility does not come back to our legalism but carries on by His grace. The changes within us are not the fruit of our working but the fruit of the Spirit.
Finally, it means we have a warped view of God. A graceless God who again is watching our actions to see if we merit His love. Salvation is all about what God does for us. We do not deserve it. It is all about His unbelievable love. "God demonstrated his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." It is the desire and joy of his heart to redeem us, to restore us, to rebuild us and to redirect our lives. His work of grace within us will make us never be the same again.
So do we need to reassess? I believe we do. As a University Chaplain, my most frequent problem with students is not that they are lost to drink or drugs or sex or peer pressure. It is that they do not know that God loves them. It is also often those from the most evangelically sound Churches who know it the least. They are weighed down by a burden of guilt, they are bound to a slavery to legalism. They live in a graceless Church and are taught of a graceless God. It is not Christianity. It is a perversion designed in the pit of hell and implemented by the devil himself. We need to be aware and we need to be forgiven when we are the criminals of gracelessness. We need to be healed when we are its victims. We are all victims and criminals and only his grace will set us free. It is an irrational idea, it is revolutionary concept but is a scandalous reality because of Christ's death on the cross. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Go receive it and live it.
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