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A Greater Grasp of Grace

by Victor Knowles

   “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Moreover, the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:19-21 NKJV)

     Several years ago my friend Norm Fox told me a story that I have never forgotten. It illustrates our need to have a greater grasp of grace. Norm was a young boy living with his parents in South Dakota. One day they were invited to attend a tent revival and so they went, taking their aunt with them. When it came time for prayer, everyone got out of their wooden folding chairs and knelt down on the sawdust-covered floor of the tent. The Fox family, however, remained seated.

    As the prayer time waxed in power and ticking of the clock marked the passage of the hour, a rather large red-faced farmer began to beseech the Lord for grace. “Oh Lord,” he cried, “Give me grace! Give me grace!” Each time he besought the Lord for grace he would throw out his big, strong arms. So much so, that Norm’s aunt became rather nervous for indeed the man’s arms nearly encompassed her. Did I tell you that Norm’s aunt was named … Grace! The poor man had Grace well within his grasp but never realized it!

    And that’s the way we are sometimes. We sing about grace, and we read wonderful passages about grace, and we pray earnestly for grace, yet somehow fail to perceive that God’s amazing grace is well within our grasp. The Bible says, “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). “Grace to you from God our Father” is Paul’s favorite greeting in his letters. Grace is a marvelous, magnificent gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9) and it behooves all of us to grasp it with all our might.

      What is grace? We shall endeavor to answer that question tonight.

GRACE IS SOMETHING THAT STOOPS

 The Hebrew word for grace means, “to bend, to stoop.” In the Septuagint (the Old Testament in Greek) it means the stronger coming to the aid of the weaker. In Tommy Dorsey’s great song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” he includes a verse that says, “I am weak, but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong.” Christ is the stronger coming to the aid of the weaker – you and me.

      When I was a boy growing up in Boise, Idaho, I had a problem with understanding math – so much so that I was held back to take 4th grade again. My smarter classmates who went on to 5th grade picked on me and called me stupid. But I had a new friend in my new class, a sturdy Italian boy by the name of Tony Stapello. He took a liking to me and became my “guardian angel” on walks to and from school. If any kid tried picking on me, Tony would light out after them and give them a good thrashing. Don’t think that didn’t endear me to Tony, whom I called my “Italian stallion.” I found out later in life that Tony became one of Boise’s finest – a policeman. That didn’t surprise me at all!

 In the Book of Judges we find God sending Judges to help the nation of Israel time and time again, seven times in all. The stronger (Judges) coming to the aid of the weaker (Israel). But in Christ, God sent not a Judge but a Savior.  Jesus Himself declared, “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47).  I love the old song written by Charles Gabriel.

 “In loving kindness Jesus came, my soul in mercy to reclaim

 And from the depths of sin and shame, through grace He lifted me.”

      I remember going to the circus sponsored by the Shriner’s, a benevolent organization that helps crippled children. At some point the ringmaster would come out and mention the motto of the Shriner’s: “You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a little child.” That’s what Jesus did for us all. We have all been burned by sin, crippled by the curse. But the loving Christ stooped down to heal our hurt and save our souls. Isaiah 53:4 (NIV) says, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering.”

      A chorus puts it this way: “He came down to my level, ‘cause I couldn’t come up to His.” This is what the Incarnation is all about. God was manifested in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16). He took on flesh so that He could identify with us. That’s why His favorite term for Himself was “Son of Man.” He deigned to stoop, to come down to earth, to mingle with the masses. That’s why the Bible says, “And the common people heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37). He spoke their language. He told them common stories (parables). He was not ashamed to be in their midst. 

      Donald Barnhouse observed, “Love that goes upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops downward is grace.” Jesus willingly left the splendor of heaven for the squalor of earth. “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe; only His great eternal love, made my Savior go” (Henry Barraclough). Grace is something that stoops. 

GRACE IS SOMETHING THAT SUBSTITUTES

     Definitions are necessary, but we need a demonstration of grace. The Bible says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What or who best demonstrates grace? A man who never once used the word! The word “grace” appears more than 150 times in Scripture and 101 of these references are found in the writings of Paul. In fact, some have called it the “signature” of Paul. But it was our Lord Jesus who lived it, showed it, and modeled it. He was grace personified. 

    “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And a few verses earlier John tells us that Jesus was full of grace. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). What a great combination! Because He was full of grace He told people the truth.

    The parables of Jesus, without ever using the word, highlighted grace. The Prodigal comes home and receives grace. A wounded traveler is found on the road to Jericho by the Good Samaritan and becomes the recipient of an act of grace (undeserved favor). Even the parable of the unmerciful servant shows that we should show grace to others in small things because of the grace that we have received for greater offenses. 

    The life of our loving Lord was manifested by grace. A woman caught in the very act of adultery is about to be stoned until Jesus enters the scene. And what does He say? “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Liberal theology says, “”Hey, I don’t condemn you either. Everyone’s doing it. Go ahead and sin some more.” But not so with Jesus! He gives her grace (“Neither do I condemn you”) and truth (“Go and sin no more”). Grace is balanced.

    Most of all, the death of Christ shows us grace because grace is something that substitutes. On the cross Jesus received what He didn’t deserve so that you and I could receive what we don’t deserve. Indeed, grace is the unmerited, undeserved favor of God. Long ago someone made an acrostic of the word grace: 

God’s 

Riches 

At 

Christ’s 

Expense

     It’s hard to improve on that. But Scripture does. Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Peter agreed with Paul. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24 NIV). Aren’t you thankful for the selfless, sacrificial, substitutionary death of Christ? 

      In real life I find the true story of Maximilian Kolbe to be most inspirational and instructive.  Kolbe was a Franciscan Polish priest who died as prisoner #16770 in Auschwitz on August 14, 1941. In order to discourage escapes, Auschwitz had a rule that if a man escaped, ten men would be killed in retaliation. In July 1941 a man from Kolbe’s barracks escaped. “The fugitive has not been found!’ the commandant Karl Fritsch screamed. “You will all pay for this. Ten of you will be locked in the starvation bunker without food or water until you die.” The prisoners trembled in terror.  

The ten were selected, including Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance. He couldn’t help a cry of anguish. “My poor wife!” he sobbed. “My poor children! What will they do?” When he uttered this cry of dismay, Maximilian Kolbe stepped silently forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, “I am a priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”

     Kolbe was thrown down the stairs of Building 13 along with the other victims and left there to starve. Hunger and thirst soon gnawed at the men. Some drank their own urine, others licked moisture on the dank walls. Maximilian Kolbe encouraged the others with prayers, psalms, and meditations on the Passion of Christ. After two weeks, only four were alive. The cell was needed for more victims, and the camp executioner came in and injected a lethal dose of carbolic acid into the left arm of each of the four dying men. Kolbe was the only one still fully conscious and with a prayer on his lips, the last prisoner raised his arm for the executioner. (Adapted from Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz). 

     One day I was watching the news on TV and I saw a special report on the man Kolbe died for, Franciszek Gajowniczek. He was showing the reporter a little shrine he had built in memory of Kolbe in his back yard. The simple words on the shrine said it all: “In memory of Maximilian Kolbe. He died in my place.” Tears began to roll down his face as he told the story. Until the day he died Gajowniczek made an annual trek to Auschwitz to remember the man who died in his place.

     Every first day of the week we have the opportunity to do the same. We gather around the Lord’s Table that bears the blessed words “This Do in Remembrance of Me.” We break the bread and drink the cup as we remember with gratitude the Son of God and the Son of Man who died in our place. 

GRACE IS SOMETHING THAT SAVES

     “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). Could it be any clearer? Could Paul have made it any plainer? Grace is something that saves. But saves us from what? Sin. Self. Satan. Death. Hell. 

      The Bible says that all have sinned, and continue to fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But as Will Thompson wrote in his timeless hymn “Softly and Tenderly,” “Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon; pardon for you and for me.” Grace means that no amount of evil you have done is enough to deny you of salvation, and no amount of good you have done is enough to earn you salvation. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the Cross I cling” (Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages”).

      I remember the day I was throwing a ball against the brick church building where my father preached. The ball would bounce back and I would throw it to “first base” to get the “runner” out. But one of my throws was errant and smashed right through a stained glass window! What was I to do? Try to cover up what I had done? Impossible! So I hightailed it straight into to my father’s study. Why? Because I knew that there I would find grace and mercy if I confessed what I had done. And I did.

      I’m so glad that the verses that follow Romans 3:23 (“All have sinned”) tell us the good news of saving grace. “…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25 NIV). Paul later adds this comforting thought. “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 6:11 NIV).

      Several years ago I was preaching to a good number of inmates in the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Brickeys, Arkansas. Before I got up to preach a men’s choir sang, “I’ll Fly Away.” One of the lines in that song says, “Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.” When they were finished and had taken their seats, I said, “I’ll bet you men would really like to do that here, wouldn’t you?” Everyone laughed in hearty agreement. Then I said, “Men, no matter your disgrace, His grace is greater!” Then I proceeded to preach in the grace of God from the text of this sermon, Romans 5:20, “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” I discovered that about 30 of them had made the Good Confession but had never had the opportunity to be baptized into Christ. I told this story that night to a church where I was conducting a revival meeting. Two ladies gave me the money to purchase a portable baptistery from my friend Joe R. Garman, founder and president of ARM Prison Outreach, International in Joplin, Missouri and it wasn’t long until those men were immersed and “free in Christ.” Even though they were still in prison they had found their true “maximum security” in Christ alone.

      God’s grace can save the worst of sinners. The great apostle Paul freely and frankly admitted this. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15 NIV). Indeed, God’s grace is greater than our disgrace! But not everyone believes that.

 My friend Roy Ratcliff taught and baptized Jeffrey Dahmer while he was in prison. No one else wanted to touch him with a 10-foot pole because of his terrible crimes that he had committed.  Roy tells this incredible story in his book Dark Grace. While we were lecturing together at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures a few years ago, Roy told me that when he tells the story of Dahmer’s conversion to Christ the most often asked question he gets is, “Do you really think that God could forgive a sinner like that?” This only shows that we need to have a greater grasp of grace! Why sing “Grace that is greater that ALL our sin” if we don’t believe it is even possible? By the way when Dahmer died at the hands of a fellow inmate in prison, a newsmagazine reported that my friend Roy was the only person who ever visited him in prison. I wonder what the One who said, “I was in prison and you visited me” thinks of that?

Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,

Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;

Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain,

All-sufficient grace for even me!

Broader than the scope of my transgressions,

Greater far than all my sin and shame;

Oh, magnify the precious Name of Jesus,

Praise His Name! (Haldor Lillenas)

GRACE IS SOMETHING THAT SERVES

     Paul continues in that powerful passage in Ephesians 2 by adding this thought: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). We are saved to serve the Savior. This was certainly “the worst of sinners” unashamed testimony. Paul declared, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10 NIV). 

 There is a beautiful story in Luke’s gospel that illustrates the truth that grace is something that serves. Remember how we said earlier that grace is something that stoops? Jesus went to visit Peter. There he found that Peter’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever. They asked Jesus to help her. “So He stood over her [the NIV says, “bent over her”] and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them” (Luke 4:39). Jesus stooped down to heal and she rose up to serve! Isn’t that the way it should be with us?

      A greater grasp of grace will quickly make you a servant of Christ. The transition should be immediate, just like it was with Peter’s mother-in-law. “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18 NIV). Paul should know. He made the immediate transition from sinner to servant in Damascus, the very town he was on his way to imprison Christians! “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). What an amazing transformation! The startled citizens of Damascus took note of this and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” (v. 21). 

      Do you remember the story of Robinson Crusoe? Daniel Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, tells the story of a terrible shipwreck. Cruesoe finds himself marooned on an island, which he names the Island of Despair. One day he discovers that a band of cannibals periodically visits the island to kill and eat their victims! Cruesoe rescues a man on the beach from his fate and scatters his oppressors. The grateful man, who cannot speak a word of English, lays his head on the beach, takes Cruesoe’s right foot, and sets it on his own neck. Symbolically he is saying, “You saved my life and because of that I will be your servant forever.” Cruesoe names him Friday and teaches him English from the Bible and eventually converts him to Christianity. 

It was a “Good Friday” for all of us the day Christ rescued us from sin. In gratitude we ought to say, “Because you saved my life I will be your servant forever.” 

GRACE IS SOMETHING THAT SCHOOLS

     One of the most beloved and most-often song hymns around the world is John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” The second stanza begins, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” I had many wonderful teachers when I was in school: Fern, Barbara, and Frances, to name only three. But the best teacher I ever had was named Grace. Grace taught my heart to fear. And Grace my fears relieved. 

 The Bible says, “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 the present age” (Titus 2:11-12 NIV). Grace saved us and grace schools us. Grace is the greatest teacher in the world.

     Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord because he said “No!” to sin while everyone around him was rocking, rolling, and reveling in sin. Hebrews 11:7 tells us that he moved with godly fear, prepared an ark to save his family, and by his faith condemned the world and became an heir of righteousness. Grace taught him well. He was well schooled by grace. That’s why Peter calls him “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5).

      Archie Word (1901-1987) was also a “preacher of righteousness.” He was dubbed “America’s Foremost Evangelist” in his prime. I was honored to write his biography at the request of his family (Archie Word: Voice of Thunder, Heart of Tears, College Press, 1992). During his revival meeting in Oregon City, Oregon, he was told that one of the young girls in the church was being lured by her older sister, a prostitute, to join her in the prostitution business. Brother Word went to her place of business, pulled out a silver dollar and rapped on the glass counter. Out came the older sister, provocatively dressed. Word asked if he could visit with the younger sister and she said that she wasn’t there. Then, leaning over the counter she leered at him and said in a husky voice, “Wouldn’t I do?” “NO!” Brother Word bellowed. Grace had taught him to say “No!” to sin. Many fallen preachers today wish they had been schooled by Grace to say “No!” to worldly passions. 

      Friends, please do not receive the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1). Do not continue in sin so that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). Do not fall prey to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about back in the 1940s: “cheap grace.” In his book The Cost of Discipleship he wrote, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 

      A greater grasp of grace will help us understand that grace has stooped to love us, unconditionally; has substituted Someone to die for us, vicariously; has saved us for all your sins, marvelously; empowers us to serve God, joyfully; and is schooling us how to live today, righteously. Grace will also cause us look at ourselves more honestly and see others more compassionately. A greater grasp of grace will make us more gracious.

      In his 82nd year of life, John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was still preaching. When someone suggested that he should retire, he replied, “What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can still speak? My mind is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”

 Let’s stand and sing, “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.”

 

Victor Knowles is co-founder of Peace on Earth Ministries and fills pulpits on a regular basis, preaching God’s Word.




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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10