September 10, 2005

Grace Is a Five-Letter Word

1539 story4 capome of the most important things in life are so close that we look right past them. We may go through life and never really "get it."

Like grace. With regret I acknowledge that it took me a large portion of my ministry and a larger part of my life to follow Paul's model for preachers: to resolve to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Much--far too much--of my speaking, teaching, and writing focused on the good instead of on the vital.

I recall some of the pretty little sermons I fashioned early in the ministry. Yes, I worked hard on them, plowing through commentaries, developing exegesis, following the homiletical models from class, inserting illustrations and quotations, polishing introductions, inserting transitions, practicing the conclusions. Often I chose obscure passages, unfolding the riches of the Word.

And people said nice things to me afterward. I expect they received a blessing, because God can use even a donkey to utter His message. But from this vantage point, with a long, varied, and hugely fulfilling ministry behind me, I confess to thoughts of what might have been.

For quite a few years now--I cannot tell you when I made the change--I have focused on grace on every occasion that I am invited to share with the people, whether by word or by pen. And the change has been dramatic: uplifting Jesus as crucified, risen, interceding, and soon returning has always--always!--blessed the people and refreshed my soul. At home or abroad, to audiences of thousands or handfuls, young or old, rich or poor, the proclamation of the God who loves us with a love stronger than death, wants us to be with Him forever, and spares nothing to make it happen never fails.

1539 story4How come it took me so long to see the light? Why does the simple message of grace bring with it such power?

Because, I think, when we uplift Jesus, the person of the preacher recedes "in the light of His glory and grace." No longer pretty, clever little sermons. No longer learned expositions of obscure passages. Only the incredible out-of-this-world story of grace.

And because the Holy Spirit never fails to move preacher and people when grace is made the focus. The office of the blessed Paraclete is to testify to Jesus, glorifying Him (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14). Some of us spend much time praying for the Holy Spirit. Good; but simply proclaim Jesus, making Him first, last, and best, and we are assured of the Spirit's presence.

Of Jesus, the Word made flesh, the beloved John wrote that He was "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14), and that "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (verse 17).

Grace is a five-letter word: J-E-S-U-S.

Over the course of the centuries some followers of Jesus have seen grace as a four-letter word. The Judaizers who came to Galatia behind Paul bitterly attacked him and his message of salvation as a pure gift. Martin Luther stirred up a hornet's nest by teaching Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone. And in 1888 the young Adventist preachers E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones incurred the wrath of "the Brethren" (but not Ellen White) when they argued that our salvation is by grace alone, not by grace plus law-keeping.

Today, some Adventists are still leery about an emphasis on grace. "Cheap grace!" they're quick to cry. But there's nothing cheap about grace: it cost the life of God's own Son.

Grace runs against the grain of our nature. We want to be able to claim a part, be it ever so small. Our pride rebels against the idea of an absolutely unmerited gift, so in subtle ways we add to grace.

The opposite distortion is to forget that the gift brings a claim. Grace finds us in the mud, but doesn't leave us there. Grace transforms. Grace elevates. Grace empowers. Grace enables us to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

Grace makes us like Jesus.

So, my fellow preacher, I invite you to the insight I was slow to learn: in every sermon, no matter what the topic--whether salvation, Sabbath, or sanctuary--make grace central. "Divine grace is needed at the beginning, divine grace at every step of advance, and divine grace alone can complete the work" (God's Amazing Grace, p. 220).