If We Don’t Understand Grace…

In the process of trying to know God, we have looked at His unchanging nature, His majesty, His wisdom, His Word as truth and in the previous post we have finished looking at His love for us, some would say His heart.

Now it is time to look at His grace.

Packer feels God’s grace is a commonplace word, tossed around a lot in the Christian church but maybe “grace” does not mean very much to some people.  We use “grace” in the name of our churches; it is staple diet in our Sunday school classes and preachers love to preach about it, but despite all this frequent use, Packer says this: “there do not seem to be many in our churches who actually believe in grace.”

I have been in settings [e.g. religious retreats] where I felt I had a firm understanding of grace and as I tried to comprehend the nature of “God’s riches at Christ’s, expense.” I found myself dumbfounded.  The whole idea of grace is overwhelming when you consider it.  I have seen grown men cry when they realize their sins are washed away because God truly loves them that much.

But a retreat is not “normal, everyday life.”  Packer is very negative as he states his feelings about grace in the church today.  “Many church people….their conception of grace is not so much debased as nonexistent.  The thought means nothing to them….speak to them about the realities to which the word grace points, and their attitude is one of deferential blankness…whatever you are talking about, it is beyond them, and the longer they have lived without it the surer they are that they are at their stage of life and they do not really need it” [Knowing God, 129].

How could this be?  How could we take this seminal idea for granted in the Church today? 

Packer writes that the root cause is a misbelief about the relationship between people and God.  It is a “heart thing” for humans.  We are distracted by everyday life and we have strong feelings about the world; we very easily take God’s gifts for granted.  We know in our minds that we should not be this way but we fall prey to our weak wills and our worldly ways.

First of all, modern men and women think highly of themselves.  Material wealth is the God we worship, rather than the true God.   Having lots of things and lots of money to buy things is much more important than a moral character.  Packer feels that today we very easily excuse ourselves for “drinking, gambling, reckless driving, sexual laxity, black and white lies, sharp practice in trading, dirty reading etc.”   If one indulges and has a bad conscience that is an aberration, a sign of “an unhealthy psychological freak” instead of a normal person.  Instead of thinking that we should make some effort to elevate behavior, too many people assume God is just like us.  He is pretty complacent about the ordinary sins we commit.  This effort to project ourselves onto God is foolish.  Maybe we think we are good folks at heart and that is good enough.  God sees it that way also.

I am not sure about that…

Secondly, today’s man and woman don’t worry much about God’s retribution.  Packer goes so far as to say that they “turn a blind eye to all wrongdoing as long as they safely can.”  Toleration of bad behavior is the norm.  Parents sometimes don’t bother to correct their children.  Teachers sometimes don’t worry about discipline in the classroom.  The general public puts up with vandalism and antisocial behavior, the idea being if we can ignore it, that is the best policy.  I am not sure the Bible reflects this attitude.  When I read it, it seems to point out that God’s retribution is a reality.  When we do bad things, we can expect to be punished.  God judges us and His verdict is real.  Packer says “God is not true to himself unless He punishes sin.  Grace is also real but it is only extended to those who repent with a contrite heart.  It is not automatic.  Habitual wrongdoers don’t deserve anything but retribution until they are ready to turn from their evil ways and lead a better life.  One can never experience grace if doing evil with impunity is the theme of their life.

Next is the idea of works.  There are many in the world today who approach God as they approach their earthly employers.  They work so hard to win the favor of the Lord, piling saintly activity on top of saintly activity until God has to throw up His hands and say “truly you are deserving of My grace.”  Packer has a way of describing this type of person as someone who works so hard at providing evidence of good works, putting God in a position where He cannot say no.  He calls this churchmanship.  Also he uses the term morality.  These words denote the individual who works tirelessly in the church running from job to job, committee to committee and doing everything except maybe pastoring.  Surely God takes note of the hard work, the gifts that are given, the spirit of the worker.  Morality is on public display as the “moral” person is quick to declare the “right way of life” in public places and they work hard to display the “right” behavior in as many places that they can.  Romans 3:20 states “No one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law.”  Workaholic behavior is no guarantee that anyone will receive grace. 

The problem: God sees into the heart of the workaholic and like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean [Matthew 23: 27].

Lastly, Packer explores the idea that strikes at the heart of grace, God’s gift to us.  Many feel that God is obligated to extend grace to us.  It is His job.  Packer quotes a Frenchman whose last words are “God will forgive—that’s His job” [131].  Stop for a moment and consider this attitude.  It is based on the idea that God needs us; we don’t need Him.  It clearly says in Acts 17: 25,  “And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  We cannot claim grace from God.  It truly is a free gift.  What can we expect?  If our behavior is sinful, we can expect justice.  Packer writes “God does not owe it to anyone to stop justice from taking its course.”  Grace does not depend of man’s will or man’s effort; it comes from God’s mercy. 

This is the hardest thing to understand about grace.  It is free.  God does not have to give it to man.  He has total freedom not to extend it.  He gives it because He comprehends the human dilemma.  We are not perfect people and we cannot be.   We can do works to make the world a better place but we can’t do enough work to gain His grace. 

We sin.   Every day, all day long… We sin.

If God gives His grace to us, He does not do it out of obligation; He does it out of mercy. 

I need His mercy, don’t you?  If Packer is right and today’s church is full of people who have “no grasp of grace” we need to change that.  This concept is the defining idea of how God relates to man, how we can approach our Lord and Savior in our weakened human condition and truly ask Him for forgiveness.  If we don’t get grace, we don’t have a chance for salvation.  We don’t have a relationship with our unchanging, majestic, wise, truthful, loving God.

If we don’t understand grace, we don’t understand who we are and more importantly,

We don’t even understand God…

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