Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:2 (NIV)
Every letter from the Apostle Paul begins in this way. One is tempted to think that this is some reflex greeting. Far from it! In these short words, the Apostle Paul revealed two words that were central to his whole way of looking at and relating to God. Today we want to focus on a much used but often poorly understood word – GRACE.
For some the meaning of this word is just a short little prayer one tacks on at the beginning of a meal – God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. After all, we call it, “saying grace.”
For others, they have a phrase they’ve memorized that helps them have a pigeonhole for the word: God’s unmerited favor. Or another phrase that helps them remember the meaning is the acronym G.R.A.C.E. – God’s Righteousness At Christ’s Expense or God’s Rewards At Christ’s Expense. These touch on the core of the word Grace, but one can know these things and still have a shallow grasp on Grace.
Understanding the distinction between three key words will help us understand Grace more fully: Justice, Mercy and Grace. Very simply…
Justice is “Getting What I Deserve.” The old saying, you do the crime, you serve the time, fits in here.
Mercy then is “Not Getting What I Deserve”: One is released from the punishment that is coming to him or her.
Grace is “Getting Better than I Deserve and More than I Could Never Earn.” Grace goes way beyond mercy. Not only is someone let off the hook of the punishment that was owed, now that person is given great blessings, blessings beyond one’s ability to earn or ever repay them.
Let me tell you a story that might illustrate this. Suppose my daughter Hope had committed a pretty serious crime and the punishment was a $1,500 fine and up to seven years in prison. If she got justice, then she’d have to pay the fine and serve at least five years in prison and so forth.
Suppose the judge looked at the situation and saw that it was Hope’s first offense. He saw that she was remorseful for her crime and willing to pay restitution. So the judge exercises his authority and gives her mercy—she gets three years probation with time served, a $500 fine and 300 hours of community service. This is mercy because she is getting less than what she deserved.
Now suppose that the judge knew me and, in fact, owed his salvation to my ministry in his life. He decides to give Hope grace. He gives her probation without any other penalty. He decides to give her a brand new start, so he sends her off to college at his expense (tuition, housing, the works), finds her a job and buys her a car. This approaches the meaning of the word grace. There’d be no way that she deserved this. In fact, she deserved to go to jail. There would be no way that she could repay it.
Did you notice that I said that this approaches grace? It’s not quite there, certainly not in the sense that God uses it for His Amazing Grace toward us as human beings. To get this illustration to begin to fit God’s grace, we need to subtract the idea that the judge knew me and owed me something. Then we need to add in that Hope was his enemy; that Hope committed her crime against the judge or someone in his family. Now we start to see what grace is.
Romans 5:6, 8 & 10 shows us God’s grace toward us. What do we see here? Three things are mentioned about Jesus choosing to die for us. 1) Christ died for human beings, while we were still powerless and couldn’t save ourselves; 2) Christ died for human beings, while we were still sinners and not even looking for a Savior; and 3) Christ died for human beings, while we were enemies of God and only deserved His full-blown wrath and punishment.
Because of God’s Grace, Jesus chose to die for us that we may know God’s love and forgiveness, instead of His judgment and wrath. Where once we deserved to tread lava in the Lake of Fire (justice), God not only removes our punishment (mercy) but gives us a personal relationship with Himself, eternal life and heaven on top of everything!
That’s Grace. Isn’t it Amazing? Now, how much grace does God give us? What is the extent of this grace? Look at the words that God uses with this word Grace in Ephesians 1:7-8. He calls it glorious, and He says that we have “forgiveness of sins in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”
These words demonstrate that God’s grace is an overflowing grace. It is glorious and rich. I love that phrase “the riches of His grace that He lavished on us.”
What does it mean to lavish something on? Who here likes meringue pies or cream pies? Have you ever gone through a buffet line and there’s a meringue or cream pie, but it looks almost like it’s dried up? It’s this skimpy little slice with hardly any filling and a smear of topping. Isn’t that disappointing?
Now suppose the pie maker had “lavished” filling and topping onto this pie. If you saw the whole pie, it would almost be overflowing its pie tin. When you move it over to the table where it is to be cut, you are breathless, looking at the top and hoping it won’t spill over. You cut through the top two inches and you’ve finally hit the topping. An extra high pie tin was used to hold all the filling! You slip the piece out and put it one a plate and, “Oh, my! Now that’s a slice of pie!” You wipe your hand across your mouth so you don’t drool down your shirt. Now that’s what I mean by “lavished!”
God’s grace is immeasurable. The old hymn sings, “Grace, grace, God’s grace! Grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace, grace, God’s grace! Grace that is greater than ALL my sin!”
Now this is something to sing about! If this is what God is like, wow! He is worth singing about! In fact, this opening to this letter to the church in Ephesus is a song. While the Apostle Paul was stuck in Roman custody, thoughts of God filled Paul with overflowing praise. He couldn’t help but go on and on about God’s goodness and kindness, His extravagant grace and forgiveness.
Now I’ve read a lot of letters from prison or jail and this is seldom the tone of these letters. Usually the person incarcerated fills the letter with complaints: complaints over nothing to do, complaints about the food, complaints over how few visits there had been and how few people write. These complaints are then sprinkled with pleas for assistance of one type or another.
But Paul’s example tells us that we can rise above such things. He writes to his friends on the outside, focused on the greatness of God and His grace, and he sings this song of joy in spite of his circumstances. Like him, no matter what our circumstances we can sing and praise God. How? Focus on grace and be amazed at what is ours through the blood of Jesus, through no merit of our own. We have received rich blessings, blessings so good that we could never earn them or deserve them. They are freely given us in the Lord Jesus Christ! Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like you and me!