Amazing Grace is one of those classic songs that just seem to keep growing in status. In my youth, a little while ago (blatant lie!), it made the charts more than once and today it is loved by people of all ages. I can remember as a teenager, hearing a lady sing it as a solo in church and all the way through I was fighting to suppress a laugh. The Pastor had asked her to sing the song, she had a good voice and sang it very well but I’m afraid it was all lost on me for one simple reason; the lady’s Christian name was Grace. All the way through the song I was longing for the Pastor to finish things off with the phrase, ‘Thank you Grace that was amazing’ or ‘That was Amazing Grace sung by amazing Grace’, sadly, he said something along the lines of ‘Thank you er… sister’.
I’ve been thinking about grace for the last few days – the idea not the person – and once more I have to conclude, it is a truly amazing concept. Amazing and also misunderstood both by those who are not Christians and sadly by those who are. I don’t think the grace of God can ever be completely understood but perhaps I can outline some ideas.
What is Grace?
To put it simply, grace means undeserved favour. All of us have gone our own way and rejected God and so deserve to be excluded from his presence forever. Yet in his mercy God has chosen to be gracious, to show forgiveness and reconcile a people to himself. There is a price to be paid for this reconciliation and it was paid by Christ on the cross. Christ suffered for us, he suffered physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and that means that the Christian is not defined by his or her failings, they are defined by God’s grace. Someone has said that grace means;
Why is Grace Misunderstood by Non Christians?
Grace is misunderstood because it is ignored. We like the idea of a meritocracy, where merit is rewarded and we get what we deserve. ‘If I’m really good, or at least better than most others, then surely God will receive me.’ The problem with this common misconception is that as far as we’re concerned, God is too good and we can never be good enough. When I say God is too good, I mean that he is so holy and righteous we can never hope to relate to him by ourselves and we can never be good enough because all of us have fallen short, not of our standards but of God’s. All of this means that the only hope for human beings is grace, to rely on God’s love and mercy clearly demonstrated on the cross. Then it becomes a matter not of what we do but of what Christ has done.
Why is Grace Misunderstood by Christians?
Perhaps I’m overstating things a bit to say that many Christians don’t understand grace, since to be a Christian at all you have to understand a little of the idea. I’m thinking of the correct response to this grace. We know that grace does not mean licence – the thinking that since I’m not saved by what I do, I can do what I like and live a sinful life. We also know that what we do (our works), has no impact on our salvation. If God couldn’t love me more and couldn’t love me less, what then is the appropriate response?
For some, the word grace means relax. ‘God’s love for me doesn’t depend on how often I attend a fellowship, read the bible or give to the church; therefore, I can relax in the love of God. While I’m relaxing I can look at those who are burning themselves out in Christian service and be content in the knowledge that they do not really understand grace because if they did, they’d obviously be relaxed like me.’
I think there is a generation of believers who think this way. They attend a service on Sunday, provided there isn’t anything more pressing, but prayer meetings in many churches are empty and midweek events are poorly attended. We live in an age where there is a wealth of material available to study scripture, more than at any time in history, but knowledge of scripture in the Church is sketchy.
The problem with the ‘grace = relax’ theology is that it flies in the face of the New Testament. Paul, the person who wrote more about grace than anyone else in the bible, taught what can only be described as the opposite point of view. In his great Epistle to the Romans having spent eleven chapters explaining the doctrine of salvation, his response is one of worship. First through an outpouring of praise;
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
Then in a call for a life of service and self sacrifice;
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1)
The same message is also found in his Epistle to the Ephesians;
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 3:20-4:1)
Grace is God’s wonderful free gift but it isn’t cheap, it cost the Lord Jesus everything and when we fail to take it seriously, we are in grave error. Paul speaks of having an obligation (Romans 1:14), of feeling compelled to preach (1 Corinthians 9:16) and of preaching with a resolve (1 Corinthians 2:2), not very popular teaching today but it is biblical.
We look at those who have ‘over done it’ and are worn out and we view them with pity. ‘If only they really understood grace, they would have no need to burn themselves out like that.’ There is a case study of a man who had burned himself out in the service of others in Philippians 2; Epaphroditus. Paul sends him back to his home church not with a stern warning or an in instruction to the elders to take him aside and sort out his theology, rather he writes;
“Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.” (Philippians 2:29-30)
It seems there is a sort of mindset where we come along to be entertained. A division between the performers and the audience, as if every church gives a performance once a week which can be taken or left and if the performances drop there is always a better one somewhere else. This thinking is a departure from the picture we see in the New Testament.
The Church is the ‘Body of Christ’, he is the head and we are the different parts of the body, all of which are important. We are different and we serve in different ways but we serve the same Lord and have the same goal. It is the point made by Paul repeatedly through his letters including just after the reference to offering our bodies as living sacrifices in Romans 12. In Ephesians after spelling out the fact that we are saved by grace through faith, Paul then writes;
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
If we accept that God has prepared good works for us, the next question is surely; ‘what am I doing to serve God? He has graciously provided for all of us a setting for that service and it is the church, his body. Sometimes we see the church as a number of concentric circles with different attitudes ranging from a person who never considers God to someone committed to the Lord and his people and involved in a service. I know it’s a little simplistic but it illustrates church life. I believe God desires to draw us further towards the centre. If you have never experienced God’s grace you can do it now, give your life to Jesus Christ. You may find this website helpful It’s really important to speak to another Christian and let them know. They will be able to pray with you and answer some of your questions. You could also contact me through the comments option.
If on the other hand you are a Christian, perhaps God is calling you into a deeper relationship in following Jesus and sharing his passion for people.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)