We are saved by grace

Lake Shore Church, Chicago, IL – 06-04-2003


Key idea: When I begin to understand grace God can kill the sin in my life.


Principle 1: We use the word “grace” so loosely that it often lacks power or meaning.


I’m sure that everybody in this room, has heard, sung, and memorized at least the opening verse to “Amazing Grace” by John Newton. Please forgive me as I repeat the stanza here today, to refresh our memory and to focus on what we mean by “grace.”


Amazing Grace

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.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.

And Grace, my fears relieved.

How precious did that Grace appear...

the hour I first believed.


As I reflect on this verse, I wonder what would it tell me about grace if I didn’t know the English language and were studying it for the first time? First, I think I’d wonder if it was grace that saved me, or the sound of grace. Many of us sing this verse without thinking about it, but we don’t sing it as though it were grace that saved a wretch like me, but the sound of grace that saves me. But I quibble, this is one of those kinds of misunderstandings that we hear little children making, right? When we sing this song we should be affirming that it’s grace that saved me, nothing else, right? So, this first line, at the very least, teaches us that grace saves us.


Second, I might surmise that grace is a tool or instrument of fear. The line says that “grace taught my heart to fear.” I have heard grace used and misused many times in my life, but I have to confess, it’s only in this song that I am told that grace teaches us fear.


Fortunately, the next phrase tells us that grace also, paradoxically, relieves us of the very same fear that it taught us to experience in the first place. So, if I ignore the apparent contradiction, I might conclude that grace is an instrument of peace, or assurance, calmness.


And, finally, I would note that grace has an appearance, and that it’s precious. But since we’re reading a hymn, which is essentially poetry, I can’t assume that this is a literal appearance. So, I conclude that grace, whatever it does, is dear, valuable, and precious.


To sum up, grace saves us, teaches us fear, relieves fear, and is precious.


But does that really tell me anything about grace, what it is, or what role it plays in the believer’s life? Or, despite the very real emotions this psalm evokes, does it’s use of the word “grace” only further confuse us?


Maybe you’re heard of the clever memory device to help your remember what grace is (which should be a clue, in itself, that people have a hard time understanding grace—we need mnemonic devices!): GRACE = God’s riches at Christ’s Expense.


Is that it?


In preparing for this sermon, I asked my lovely wife, “Since you’re a Christian of many years and sat in church all your life, can you tell me what you think grace is? Can you define it for me?” She thought about it a minute or two and replied, “I know what I’m supposed to say, that we’re saved by grace. But, honestly, I don’t know how to define it.”


Just as I suspected.


Now, before you think I might’ve put my wife on the spot just to prove my brunette superiority over a natural blond, and so you don’t think I was trying to embarrass my wife, I want to make it clear, I wasn’t testing her, I was testing a very intelligent Christian’s understanding of one of the core concepts of the Christian faith. My lovely bride, Jennifer, can read in one day what it takes me two or three days to read. Over the years we’ve both taken a few of these little IQ tests and, in the spirit of good, clean, marital competition, we compare scores. Friends, she gets better scores than me all the time.


Actually, maybe she should be up here now, and not me! Sweetie…?


Anyhow, so she wouldn’t feel alone, I went online and searched out various definitions of grace to see if anybody else out there had a clearer idea than we did about what it means. Here’s a sampling of quotes you might have heard, and some that are new to you:


"We only know what grace isn't; it isn't license" – Provided by the anonymous leader of the theology department at a large church.


"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,/ courage to change the things which should be changed/ and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other." – Given by Reinhold Niebuhr, popularized by the Alcoholics Anonymous "Serenity Prayer."

"[Grace is] the outward expression of the inward harmony of the soul." – Thus wrote, William Hazlitt, English writer, essayist


Ernest Hemingway famously said, "Courage is grace under pressure."


Jewel, famous pop star, songwriter, and poet, mused, “I'm becoming more and more myself with time, I guess that's what grace is, the refinement of your soul through time.”


Even one of the twentieth centuries’ most influential theologians, Karl Barth, seemed to make up his own definition: "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God."


So, even more confused at the end of my pop-quotation search than when I started, I thought perhaps I could rely on the wisdom of the everyday man in the pew. I fired up American Online and found some good A/G folks to answer my question, what is grace?


AndrSil3: I think grace is the free gift of salvation of God. Salvation is free, you don’t have to pay, this is grace.


Carkeys37: God's mercy on our life because of his love for us (mercy by giving us his Son). I guess.


KERMEYS: God’s grace is his forgiving nature, his steadfast love, the totally undeserved mercy that he gives to his children.


Doppler5: Boundless compassion for someone that surpasses all of their shortcomings. It took a moment to really think about it. But as we know, His grace is truly amazing


AlisaPerne1986: Honestly; I just always hear the pastor telling me I have god’s grace... I really don't even know the definition, so I really couldn't define it for you.... I feel stupid.


ANGELPIC7: Rich, of course God's grace is an "undeserved favor." We cannot earn His grace by our goodness or merit. His Son Jesus died on the cross in our place and that is radical or extreme grace. In our society, grace seems extraordinary.


Author65: Grace would be God's unfailing love and sacrificial love for mankind demonstrated by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, shed willingly without hesitation in order to provide a way for man to enter Heaven. For by grace (the definition above) we are saved. We are saved because Jesus gave His life willingly in order to provide salvation for mankind.


So, here you have it. Pick one:


The free gift of salvation

God's mercy

God's forgiving nature, love, and mercy

Boundless compassion

Don't know

An "undeserved favor"

God's unfailing and sacrificial love


Now, thoroughly frustrated and confused I turned to the end-all-arguments source of word mastery, The American Heritage® Dictionary. I looked up the first most common uses of the word “grace”, and this is what I got:


1. Seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement, form, or proportion.

2. A characteristic or quality pleasing for its charm or refinement.

3. A sense of fitness or propriety.

4a. A disposition to be generous or helpful; goodwill.

4b. Mercy; clemency.


So, what is it? What, after all, is grace? How are we to understand it? If everybody seems to have a different idea of what grace is, how are we to make sense of verses like Romans 8:9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith...not by works” How does grace save us if it’s merely spiritual englightenment, nirvana, or effortless and charming movement?


Let’s turn to scripture and see if we can’t find out.


Principle 2: My salvation is entirely the work of God, not anything I have done.


Ephesians 2:1-10 (NIV)

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.


I have looked closely at this passage, and if you will follow through it with me, in your Bibles, I will highlight the core ideas so you can see clearly the chain of thought Paul is providing for us. This may be helpful in helping you trace through the ideas to grasp the central idea. I’m not planning to add to or take away from what Paul has written—I only want to use an x-ray snapshot to help you see the skeleton of this passage:


1 We were once dead in sin

2 and followed the ways of the world,

and followed Satan,

and were disobedient,

3 and gratified the cravings of a sinful nature,

and followed sinful desires and thoughts,

and deserved God's wrath.


4 But God loves us

and is merciful,

5 and made us alive when we were dead.


6 God himself lifted us up to his throne beside him

7 to demonstrate his grace and kindness.

8 Therefore you were saved by God’s grace.


It required faith.

But God provided even that, too.


9 We were not saved by our own effort

And we have nothing to brag about.


10 We are now God's workmanship.

Created to do good works

which he prepared in advance.


When you look at it this way, it seems clear to me that it is God’s grace that saves us—not our faith. Because even our faith in God, our faith in Christ, and our faith in his sacrifice for us is only possible because God made it possible by his grace.


Now, I want to be clear on this. The Bible makes it clear that faith is required to enter into the Kingdom. Without faith, there can be no salvation. Yet, I also want to be clear on this one point: before God lifted us up to sit with him as heirs to the throne we were dead. We could not muster enough faith to save us on our own. Only God’s grace makes that possible.


Now, we’re still dancing around the central issue I started this whole message out with: just what in the world is grace?


The answer is in verse five: “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved”


That phrase at the end there, set off in your NIV bibles by the dash, explains the phrases that go before it. We see God has great love for us and is rich in mercy so he acted on his love and mercy. God’s love and mercy demanded that he act, and his action was to bring us to life and set us down with Christ on the throne. That’s grace.


Grace is the demonstration of God’s love and mercy for mankind.


Principle 3: God’s grace saves me from sin and his wrath by bringing me to faith.


Now, when I was in Bible college, and later in seminary, whenever we high-browed academics studied such theological concepts as God’s grace, his love, and his mercy, some wag would eventually raise the question, “But what about the Old Testament God of wrath and Judgment? Where’d he go? What about the Old Testament laws and all the slaying that went on?” If me or my fellow academics were brave enough, we might even suggest, “If God is the same today, yesterday, and forever, and if God would never contradict himself, or deny his own nature, what happened to his anger?”


And this is the beauty of God’s grace. This is the beauty of the how his love and mercy compels him to act on our behalf: God’s wrath, holiness, and justice are always satisfied. As Paul said in verse five, he made us alive with Christ. And then he says in verse seven, his grace was expressed to his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.


You see, it is only because Christ bore the wrath of God for all of mankind’s sins by dying on the grace that God’s demands for righteousness and justice are satisfied. This is more than just another Christian cliché or theological jargon. Remember how we traced the skeleton of ideas through this passage? Paul spent a considerable amount of time building the foundation for God’s righteous demands by describing how the Ephesians and how all Christians once lived: we were objects of wrath. Not just any wrath! We were objects of God’s wrath. What changed that? Faith alone didn’t resolve God’s wrath. Love doesn’t satisfy his wrath. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross settles the matter. Christ gave himself for us, taking on himself the full weight of God’s wrath and justice so that we wouldn’t have to. This sacrifice was part of God’s plan, and is the evidence of God’s love, kindness, and mercy, so that we wouldn’t pay the price because, really, the only price we could pay is an eternity in hell. The only person who could pay the price of our sins and not be banished from God’s sight forever was Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father because we are, by nature, evil and sinful. But Christ was not. Only Christ--who is perfectly sinless—only Christ could bear the punishment for our sins and still sit on the throne because he did not sin.


That is why Paul says here that God made us alive with Christ because the work of the Cross was not finished with Christ bearing the burden of our sins. The work of the Cross was not even finished when Christ died. No. The work of the Cross was finished when God raised Christ from the dead to the throne--and when we enter into God’s grace, we are spiritually resurrected with Christ. (Incidentally, this is why water baptism is such an important ritual for the believer, because it affirms in a physical way what has already happened spiritually, and it identifies us as being reborn as new creatures in Christ just as Christ was raised from the dead.)


God’s mercy, love, and kindness provided Christ to pay the penalty for my sins, in full, so I wouldn’t have to. And even while I’m still dead in sin, God’s mercy, love and kindness makes a way for me to respond to him in faith, so that I can become a child of God.


That’s grace.


Principle 4: Knowing what I’ve been saved from and responding to God’s grace completely changes who I am and how I behave.


I’ve said all that to lead up to this: Look again at what Paul says we were saved out of:


Being dead in sin

Following the ways of the world

Following Satan's program,


Cravings of a sinful nature

Following sinful desires

Following sinful thoughts,

Completely deserving God's wrath.


Now, when you look at this list, it looks pretty grim. But a lot of Christians, seeing this, will automatically think, “But most of that really never applied to me.” Maybe that’s even occurred to you, here, today. After all, if you were born and raised in church you might not think you were ever really in service to Satan. Maybe you’re guilty of following a few teeny tiny little “ways of the world,” but you were never really disobedient, right? Maybe a little passive-aggressive from time to time, but “cravings of a sinful nature?” C’mon, what’s giving in to a little temptation from time to time? Anyways, you know, Paul’s talking about real rank sinners here?

Maybe these thoughts flitted through your mind so fast that you weren’t even aware of them. Maybe you didn’t have any of these thoughts, but, nevertheless, when you read this passage, you don’t really recognize yourself in the description of sinners here? If not, you’re probably like a lot of Christians today who’ve lost touch with the reality of God’s righteousness and his wrath toward sin of any kind.


I have a friend named Kathi who came to faith a couple years ago as a direct result of God’s miraculous, providential grace. Kathi was a practicing Wiccan--she was a hardcore witch who didn’t believe in God, rejected him in all his forms, and regularly defeated Christians when they tried to argue her out of her position. She was dead in sin and was a card-carrying member of Satan’s plan, even though she didn’t realize it.


Then one day God began knocking on her door, invading her dreams, and giving her no rest. Her hearing began disappearing and her life at work took on more and more stressful dimensions, and through it all, Christ was appearing to Kathi in her dreams at night, saying, “Follow me.” Each night she had the dream, she would deny Christ and wake up knowing she had denied him. For her, it was the right thing to do. But God’s grace was at work to bring her to faith. Remember how I said that we are sinful and evil by nature and that we can’t even must up the faith to respond to God in the first place, and that it is God’s grace that even makes it possible.


Finally, Kathi challenged this Jesus who was nagging her night after night. She threw down the gauntlet and said, “If you’re really who you say you are, you can solve this technical problem I’m having at work,” and that was that. She went back to sleep and went to work the next day, thinking nothing of it.


Until the Lord answered her prayer. As she finished checking her email she discovered an item in her inbox with a full and complete resolution to her problem. It was an answer to a question she had sent out two, three months earlier, and only now, at the exact hour that she challenges God for an answer, here it arrived in her inbox. Over the next 24 hours, Kathi’s resistance melted before the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of God’s mercy, love, and kindness. She responded to God’s grace and came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. I know, because I’m the one who sent Kathi the answer to her prayers, without ever knowing what was going on a thousand miles away.


Now, Kathi looks back on her life, and she is filled with gratitude to God, she is overflowing with thankfulness and amazement that where she once pursued a life that was so full of death, misery, and pain now she is full of live, joy, and peace. She would never turn back, not for anything. Kathi wants nothing more than to get to know God better, and better, and to lead enslaved Wiccans to life in Christ.


Meanwhile, she wonders why Christians who’ve tasted and seen that the Lord is good, are so apathetic, never doing the good works God has planned for them. She cannot fathom, for the life of her, why fellow believer’s aren’t telling all their friends about God. She doesn’t understand why they don’t hunger for the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, and—for a tie—she wondered if maybe there was something wrong with her.


No, no there’s nothing wrong.


We’ve either just forgotten what is was like to be dead and miraculously resurrected from a spiritual grave, or we never really accepted God’s generosity and our faith is more like “mental assent” than it is true belief and trust in Christ’s work.


Call to action:


Max Lucado has said, “Grace understood is holiness desired.” Do you long for greater holiness in your life? Are you tired of trying to live up to a set of legalistic demands and wish it were somehow easier to live a godly life? Do you wish you felt more gratitude for what God’s done to save you from his wrath—even through you grew up in church since you were old enough to sleep under the pew?


Here’s the truth: Salvation is not cheap. Discipleship is not easy. An easy faith is not a godly faith. Following Christ is hard. God has called us to do good works. Christ demands obedience; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” he said, “Only he who does the will of my Father” (Matt. 7:21). And, elsewhere, "If you love me, you will obey what I command." (John 14:15). Finally, Jesus’ brother, James, wrote, “Faith without works, is dead.”


So, silently now, please do a quick survey, inventory your life. Are you controlled by God’s spirit? Are you “out of control” and nurturing sin? Are you truly grateful and thankful to God for the gift he’s given you? Are the gifts of God’s grace at work in your life? Are you obedient?


This isn’t a sermon about trying harder, working harder, doing more, getting “good” at the “God thing.” Remember, this is a sermon about grace, and here’s the really good news: you were created to do good works, and God’s going to help!

Paul says in Titus 2:11-14, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”


And again in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”


That’s grace.