In his historical novel based on the life of Lincoln, Gore Vidal pictures a cabinet meeting when it was evident that the South would be defeated and Lincoln’s advisors began to make plans for after the war. When asked how he planned to deal with the Rebels, Lincoln said, “I will treat them as if they never left.”
Grace is forgiveness that forgets. Grace is favor in absence of merit. Grace is love that stoops. With those who do not deserve anything, grace gives everything for nothing (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Donald Barnhouse said, “Love that goes upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace.” The Old Testament word for grace (chen) means “to bend.” God condescends to men of low estate (cf. Romans 12:17), runs to meet sinners (Luke 15:20), and loves the unlovable (Romans 5:6).
What kind of grace does God have ready for man’s needs?
There is abundant grace for flagrant sinners
NBA basketball teams commit 20.15 fouls in an average game. Once in a while a violation is deemed sufficiently dangerous that it is labeled a “flagrant foul.”
Many sins are committed in an average week, but some—racism, drug addiction, prostitution, armed robbery, spouse abuse, alcoholism, molestation, murder, compulsive gambling, adultery—society might deem “flagrant” sins. Are such dyed-in-the-wool sinners salvageable?
Grace is unaffected by the degree of sin, as Jesus was unaffected by the degree of illness in those He healed.
Grace salvaged the “chief of sinners.” If there had been a tribe of sinners, Paul figured he would have been their chief; nonetheless the grace of the Lord was “exceeding abundant” toward him (1 Timothy 1:14–15).
Grace salvaged publicans and sinners. Jesus worked among those shunned by the religious elite (Luke 7:34). Although publicans and sinners did not think that religion was for them, Jesus taught that “good” people, such as Pharisees, did not have a monopoly on religion. In fact, the self-righteous were left out of the kingdom while many formerly unrighteous made it (Matthew 21:43). Jesus came not “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13).
Grace salvaged pagans and moral delinquents. There was no Las Vegas, Rio, or San Francisco in the Roman Empire, but there was a Corinth. Its citizens were widely known for immorality. Evangelizing there struck fear into the seasoned heart of the veteran missionary Paul (Acts 18:9–10; 1 Corinthians 2:3). Surely, he thought, I’m wasting my time here. But the Lord knew what Paul did not.
Those whose names were written on police records would soon be written in heaven (Philippians 4:3); those who frequented bars and bathhouses would soon prefer the communion of the Lord’s supper and the Lord’s people. On any given Sunday, on those church pews would sit former fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, covetous people, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners (1 Corinthians 6:9–11; cf. Colossians 3:5–8; 1 Peter 4:3).
Gospel teachers recognize that the gospel is powerful enough to reach today’s worst sinners (Romans 1:16). In meekness each patiently instructs those who oppose themselves, considering himself and thinking that “by the grace of God I am what I am” (2 Timothy 2:25; Galatians 6:1; 1 Corinthians 15:10). Where might many Christians be
Gospel teachers recognize that the gospel is powerful enough to reach today’s worst sinners
- If they had not had believing parents;
- If they had been born into deep poverty;
- If they had not been taken to Bible classes as a child;
- If they had an unbelieving spouse;
- If they had a physical handicap or learning disability;
- If they had been abused as a child or sexually exploited as a teen or adult;
- If they had a mental illness;
- If they had suffered from depression;
- If they had grown up in an area where the church was not planted;
- If they had parents who were alcoholics or drug addicts;
- If they had not had parents to warn of bad friends or restrain from rebelliousness?
Since “there but by the grace of God go I,” each worker reasons, “there by the grace of God, I go” (Mark 16:15–16).
Sin is powerless against the gospel in a committed heart.
- It takes the drunkard from his bottle;
- It takes the pornographer from his websites;
- It takes the homosexual from his nightclub;
- It takes the smoker from her cigarettes;
- It takes the thief from his loot; and
- It takes the addict from her needle.
So do not fret if you fall into the “flagrant sinner” category. The gospel is for you. The church is for you. God is for you (cf. Romans 8:31). Do not judge yourself unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46). All people everywhere can repent—and all people everywhere should repent, for there is coming a day of judgment (Acts 17:30–31).
The gospel is for you, and people can change.
People can change. Never use the excuse that you have been in sin too long. Change may not be easy, but you can do it through Christ who will strengthen you (Philippians 4:13). Take a step in the right direction, and He will help you finish the journey.
There is necessary grace for ordinary sinners
With such grace to offer, one would think that church buildings would fill every Sunday and that ministers would have to take appointments to fill requests for baptisms. But there are no lines or backlog. Why?
The reason is that most persons do not understand that they need grace. They think, “Bad people need grace, but I’m a pretty good person. I’m not perfect, but I’m better than most.”
most persons do not understand that they need grace.
Lincoln said, “We have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us” (National Day of Prayer proclamation, March 30, 1863). Flagrant sinners see themselves as too bad for grace, while ordinary sinners see themselves as too good for grace. Both are wrong. One overestimates his sinfulness and underestimates God’s grace; the other overestimates his goodness and underestimates God’s holiness.
The question is not, “Am I better than other people?” but, “Have I ever sinned?” One does not have to feel lost to be lost. One does not have to break all of God’s laws to be a lawbreaker; he only has to break one: “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Most criminals in prisons are there on a single conviction.
Paul discusses the three types of people—the immoral (Romans 1:18–32), the moral (2:1–6), and the religious (2:17–3:18)—and concludes that without Christ each class stands guilty before God (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Every person needs grace, for there is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:9–12).
Naturally, it is better to be a good person with high morals, but when compared to a holy God, any sinner is wretched. “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6; cf. 6:5; Luke 5:8). The Empire State building is much taller than the FedEx Ship Center next to it. But which is closer to the moon? Technically, the top of ESB at 1250 feet is closer than the top of FedEx, but does it really matter from 240,000 miles? In the presence of thousands of miles, there is no appreciable difference in hundreds of feet (cf. Isaiah 59:1–2).
Any sinner is lost. Being a good person does not erase sin. Being a nice guy does not mean one will be saved at Judgment. Nearly every person saved in the book of Acts was already deeply religious or impressively moral. But each was lost without the gospel (cf. Acts 2:36; 10:2; 11:14).
To go to heaven a person must believe in Jesus (Acts 16:31), repent of his sins (Luke 13:3), confess Christ (Romans 10:10), be baptized to wash away his sins (1 Peter 3:21), and be faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10; Titus 2:11–13). Eternity has no middle ground: to miss heaven is to go to hell. The way to life is narrow, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:14). Whatever else you do in life, be sure to be in that few.
There is remedial grace for penitents
God gives “more grace” (James 4:6) as we need it. He does not deal with us “according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).
David once fell. He lusted for Bathsheba and murdered Uriah. Confronted by Nathan, he repented and pled with God: “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2). God granted him grace (Psalm 32:1).
An early church member was guilty of scandalous sin—a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. Paul instructed the church to withdraw its fellowship from him if he did not repent (1 Corinthians 5). He did not and they did.
Later, he came to his spiritual senses and repented. Paul wrote back of God’s grace and forgiveness, saying church members ought now to forgive him, comfort him, and confirm their love toward him (2 Corinthians 2:6–8; cf. Romans 14:1, 19; 15:2, 7; 16:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
The same welcome awaits returning prodigals today—encouraging words (Ephesians 4:29), invitations for meals and social activities, and restoring to active service in the church (2 Timothy 4:11). If you have wandered, come back (Acts 8:22; James 5:16). You will be welcomed with open arms.
There is daily grace for all Christians
The grace of God teaches Christians to live soberly, righteously, and godly (Titus 2:11–13). Yet Christians sin (1 John 1:6–10). Thus God’s grace requires holy living, and holy living requires God’s grace.
Most Christians would confess to sins of thought, word, or action each day. They are even unaware of some sins and need grace for “secret faults” (Psalm 19:12).
Secret sins can be
- Sins we know we commit that others do not know (e.g., hatred or lust in the heart).
- Sins that others know we commit that we do not know of (e.g., offending someone who did not tell us).
- Sins unknown to us and others, but known to God (e.g., sins of omission).
Sin—any sin, all sin—requires grace. How can grace be obtained so frequently? “Come boldly unto the throne of grace” to “obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
There is beginning grace for young people
Youth is synonymous with inexperience. Inexperience is synonymous with mistakes. Some mistakes are sinful. We understand then why David prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth” (Psalm 25:7). While teens are often among the most dedicated soldiers in God’s army (1 John 2:14), many could join with Jeremiah to confess that “from our youth even unto this day” we have not obeyed the Lord (Jeremiah 3:25).
Youth are capable of enlisting, resisting, and persisting, so available grace and inevitable mistakes are no excuse for bad behavior (Romans 6:1–2). Solomon urged, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Young faith is pure and exemplary (1 Timothy 4:12), but when youthful sins come, and penitence follows, God is there with grace.
There is sufficient grace for the old
Life’s final stretch can be fraught with concern. Senior saints wonder, “Have I done enough? Since death and judgment cannot be far off, how will it go for me? When my health goes, who will take care of me? If my mind fails, will people take advantage of me?” The psalmist prayed: “Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth” (Psalm 71:9; cf. 71:18).
Grace is reassuring at such times. An aged Paul writing his final book was confident in God’s grace: “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him” (2 Timothy 1:12). When Paul’s body was failing, Jesus told him, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2 Corinthians 12:9). David observed, “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Psalm 37:25; cf. 92:13–15).
Justin Holcomb, in On the Grace of God, tells of Abraham Lincoln going to a slave auction. Appalled when he saw a young woman on the auction block, Lincoln bid until he won. After paying the auctioneer, he said to her, “You’re free.”
“Free? What’s that mean?” she asked.
“It means you are free,” Lincoln answered, “completely free.”
“Does it mean I can do whatever I want to do?”
“Yes, free to do whatever you want to do.”
“Free to say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes, free to say whatever you want.”
“Does freedom mean that I can go wherever I want to go?”
“It means exactly that you can go wherever you want to go.”
With tears of gratitude, she said, “Then, I think I’ll go with you.”
This story—perhaps apocryphal—illustrates what God did. He bought us with a costly sum—the life of Jesus (Ephesians 1:7). When Jesus paid for us, He set us free—and if the Son “shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).