A GRACE MANIFESTO – Why Are We So Afraid of Grace?
A GRACE MANIFESTO – Why Are We So Afraid of Grace?
Grace & Holiness
Grace in many Christian circles has become mysteriously controversial. For those brought up in any sort of holiness tradition (like I was), you’re probably even more susceptible to the systemic suspicion that’s aroused if the word grace is used more than two or three times in a single paragraph. Doing so in a sermon would produce a handful of raised eyebrows coupled with an instant inward dialogue containing questions like: “Where’s he going with this? This isn’t one of those grace churches is it? I wonder if he’s one of those hyper-grace preachers? Is he talking about using grace as a license to sin?” (I honestly don’t understand that last question. I’ve observed that people have been sinning for a long time without a license.)
Recently we were sitting on the couch scrolling through our phones when Tina spotted a Facebook post that caught her attention. She read it out loud, and it said something that, had we heard it a little over a year ago probably would have provoked a verbal “Amen” followed by a few affirming emojis to express our support. The post sounded something like this: “We’ve had the grace movement…now, when are we going to get back to a good old fashioned holiness movement?” We both knew that the author of the post meant well, but their contrast of grace and holiness revealed what’s true for many of us – they didn’t really understand either one or how God has designed them to work in our lives after the dawn of the new covenant.
Had I not had my own Damascus Road encounter with the Author of the New Covenant (Jesus) a little over a year ago, I, too, would still be stuck trying to live this New Covenant life with an unrenewed, Old Covenant mind – trying to pour new wine into those old wineskins that Jesus told us about.
It was obvious that, like many of us, the author of that Facebook post had never been taught that grace cannot be watered down to a mere movement. According to Scripture, grace is much more than that – it’s the basis of a brand new covenant that was established with the precious blood of Jesus. For the record, holiness isn’t a movement either – it’s the result of the finished work of Jesus on the Cross and the glorious grace of God working in each of our lives causing us to mature in our new identity in Christ (holy and righteous) once we’ve been born again.
Truth be told, when holiness was embraced as a movement, it was a horrible time for the church. In general, people didn’t get set free from their struggles with sin…they simply got better at pretending they didn’t have any. Our attempts to turn holiness into a movement only served to produce well-dressed and well-groomed men and women who on the outside looked like they had it all together, but on the inside were struggling with lust, pride, addiction, and the shame all of that baggage produced. During that time people were too afraid to share their struggles with anyone in the church for fear that they would be put out of the church. I dare say that more church hurt happened in many Pentecostal/Holiness circles during this period of time than any other in modern history.
Everybody took it upon himself to play the role of his own religious version of the Holy Spirit (which resembled a pharisaical spirit more than the Holy Spirit), and rather than experience grace, forgiveness, and restoration, wounded people were shunned, rejected, and condemned. The place people went to receive help and healing became the place they were hurt the most. And, sadly, in a spiritual sense, they were tortured by self-righteous men and women who took scripture out of context and used overtones of fear and condemnation.
It was never okay to not be okay, so rather than heal from pain, everyone just buried it – for awhile. This is what happens when we try to live a new covenant life with an old covenant mind, and, unfortunately, this Old Covenant mentality still lingers.
In some circles its still celebrated as the thrust of what they call ministry, but its not something to celebrate. The Apostle Paul actually described a few of the attributes of Old Covenant ministry. He wrote that the Old Covenant is, (1) a ministry of the letter that kills, (2) a ministry of death, (3) a ministry of condemnation, and (4) a ministry of fading glory (2 Corinthians 3:6-9). If you go over to his letter to the Galatians, Paul asks those who are abanonding the New Covenant life to go back to the Old Covenant concepts, “Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1 NIV). Not exactly the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.
Despite the fact that scripture clearly states, we’re all “…strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus…” (2 Timothy 2:1 ESV), and that “…we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16 ESV), we “…are justified by His grace…” (Romans 3:24 ESV), we have been saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), and we are “…not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14 ESV), there’s still a sense of hesitation and anxiety among those with holiness roots (like me).
In his book “Streams of Living Water – Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith,” author Richard Foster highlights the strengths and pitfalls of each of the six traditions of Christian faith, the holiness tradition being one of them. The three pitfalls he warns us of in the holiness stream are (1) Legalism, (2) Perfectionism, and (3) Works righteousness (trying to earn God’s love, favor and forgiveness through our own works). I read those words through tears – I could, to some degree, relate to all three in one way or another.
Falling into these pitfalls can produce the worst kind of bondage – the religious kind that convinces us we’re worthless, unworthy, unlovable, and only deserving of punishment. When we start to buy that lie, we begin to seek out Old Covenant preachers who will (spiritually speaking) try to beat the hell out of us on Sunday…and then we actually thank them for it: “Boy, preacher – you really stepped on my toes today! I think they’re bleeding – thank you!”
Why do we do this?
Because somewhere along the way we’ve been convinced that were still living under the curse of the law and that just like an abused wife, we’ve started to believe that our husband loves us, but we deserve abuse. Sadly, because Jesus (the Groom) has been so poorly represented for so long, if the preacher starts preaching to the bride of Christ (the Church) about the goodness of God, grace of God, and love of God, many people who are used to being abused will, just like many abuse victims, leave that church and go find another abusive preacher because they still believe that’s all they really deserve.
Perhaps what we’re really struggling with is our own lack of faith to believe that the same grace extended by Jesus to save us is also powerful enough to transform us, so we take it upon ourselves to play the role of the Holy Spirit and push people into our own idea of what a holiness looks like. And let me be clear that since scripture so clearly states that Jesus is our holiness, I do not believe it’s possible to become more holy. Trying to become more holy is a fools errand. Nothing produces condemnation like telling people to go find something that they already have. I do however believe that just like a little boy grows into a man, so we too after being born again mature into our new righteous and holy identity. You may say I’m splitting hairs, but this misunderstanding of how His transforming work in our lives works, has produced tons of ungodly condemnation. We want everyone’s journey of spiritual growth and development to be quick and clean even though ours is lengthy and messy. But I’ve found that nothing will burn you out or rob you of joy faster than trying to do God’s job for Him.
Yes, I do believe that the church has a responsibility to train believers in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)…after all, that’s our new identity in Christ! But leading from an Old Covenant paradigm has produced a form of spiritual discipleship where leaders attempt to shame people into righteousness and holiness rather than lovingly and graciously train them in it. The scriptures are clear that it’s not fear and condemnation, but rather “…the goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4 NKJV).
Though it’s never stated in this manner, we’ve generally compartmentalized grace to the salvation moment alone, and in doing so we’ve lost the beautiful role of grace in the process of spiritual growth and development. This hesitation has produced a form of grace that’s good enough to save us but not strong enough to keep us as we mature in our new identity in Christ (holy and righteous). In fact, I’ve heard a lot of definitions of “cheap grace” that sound like they were taken directly out of the Old Covenant code and whose tone is full of shame and condemnation. I would like to offer you my own definition of cheap grace:
Cheap grace is a legalistic version of grace that’s strong enough to save you but too weak to keep you while you mature in your new identity in Christ, insulting the cost of the blood of Jesus and His finished work on the Cross.
I am of the persuasion that there’s more to grace – much more; and a lack of proper understanding of grace has left scores of believers viewing their new covenant relationship with Jesus through an obsolete (Hebrews 8:13) Old Covenant lens; and, sadly, it’s producing miserable, discouraged, worn-out and fruitless saints. Suddenly, the abundant life doesn’t feel so abundant, and everybody’s too embarrassed to admit that the joy and peace promised by Jesus is really hard to come by. Why? Because when we lose or minimize grace, we lose and minimize the results that understanding grace produces in our lives. The Greek lexicon defines word for grace (Charis) this way:
“…the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.”
It’s with this definition in mind that we must rediscover the grace of God. It’s not only strong enough to save us, but it keeps us, strengthens us, and increases our Christlikeness over time.
I had my own encounter with the New Covenant a little over a year ago, and it’s forever changed my life and ministry. Up until then the words of Jesus in Luke 22:20 MEV, “…This cup is the new covenant in My blood which was shed for you…” were basically just a scripture that I thought we used once a month for communion Sunday. But they’re so much more than that! I was born again when I was 18 years old and for the next 25 years a cloud of Old Covenant perfectionism, legalism, and works righteousness grew over me.
As the years rolled on the cloud just kept getting bigger and bigger. My prayer life had become a self-righteous badge of honor. Reading through the Bible in a year every year for 25 years also became, to me, a source of earning something from God. Maybe He would love me more, anoint me more, use me more than He does now. It made me rigid, subtly fearful, and in many ways spiritually insecure. I was counting more on my knowledge of the Word than in the finished work of Christ (the Word) on the cross. It was often subtle in how it showed up, but I knew it was there and my wife knew it was there also.
But over a year ago Jesus began to show me something in His word. He revealed the New Covenant to me. He showed me through His word that the Old Covenant was a covenant based on the law, producing condemnation but the New Coveanant is based on His grace and the finished wok of Christ on the cross. To His glory, this revelation is transforming my life, family, relationships, and ministry. My motivations have changed, my joy meter is on the upswing like it’s never been before in 26 years of being a believer, and I’m learning how to live, lead, and love from a place of rest. And for the record, I still pray and read my Bible, but not becuase I have to – because I get to! Not to get Him to love me more, but becuase He already does.
My preaching has evolved. I’m no longer an Old Covenant preacher/leader preaching to dead Adam (the old sinful identity of unredeemed man). I now preach to the new creation! The born again identity within redeemed man. I train people in rightouesness (their new identity in Christ) rather than point to how messed up they are trying to guilt them into willfullly conforming (which is always temporary at best). The Old Covenant is all about trying to conform to the law from the outside in. The New Covenant is all about being transformed from the inside out by the work of the Holy Spirit. And in the 16 years of preaching and leading I’ve never in my life seen so much transformation in the lives of God’s people. I’ve had people in their 70’s and 80’s approach me aftere church and with tears in their eyes say “Thank you pastor. For the first time in my life, I feel loved by God…I feel free.”
On my own, through God ordained relationships with others who have also walked with path before me, and in my Masters Degree program, I’ve spent the past 14 months studying the New Covenant which Jesus established with His blood. Day by glorious day I’m being transformed, and despite having read through the Bible 25 times cover to cover, the Scriptures have never been so alive to me…I’ve been born again – again!
I pray that what I’m sharing here will help you discover, remember, or rediscover God’s glorious grace. I pray that we’ll all become less suspicious and more thankful for this divine gift of grace. I pray that you’ll be able to talk freely about grace without having to contrast it with some form of law out of a sense of fear of being misunderstood. My hope and prayer is that you, too, will be set free from the heavy yoke of the Old Covenant arrangement between God and man that Jesus fulfilled for us, and give yourself permission to walk in the abundant life that Jesus came to give us. Grace is more than just a mere attribute of Jesus – it’s the very character of God.
What About Hyper Grace?
So let’s talk about the idea of hyper grace. The letter to the church at Ephesus was written by the Apostle Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome sometime around A.D. 61-62, and the primary theme of this letter is the “cosmic reconciliation in Christ.” Jesus has truly made all things new through His sacrificial death and Resurrection. Regarding the concept of grace in Ephesians, Kevin J. Vanhoozer describes this letter by writing, “No New Testament writing more joyfully celebrates God’s grace in the gospel than does Ephesians, nor does any contain so rich and concentrated a vein of theological gold.” Let’s start mining for this grace gold in the second chapter of Paul’s letter where we see God’s grace set front and center.
Ephesians 2:5-8 (NIV) 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparablerichesof his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
Grace is mentioned three times in as many verses. Paul makes it plain – we have been saved by grace and grace alone. While we are dead in our transgressions, we, upon placing our faith in Christ, become recipients of God’s amazing grace. Romans 11:6 ESV says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
We cross over from death to life, but not by our self-righteous efforts. No amount of legalistic embrace of Old Covenant adherence, perfectionism, or earning righteousness through our works produced this salvation. We can take no credit for our new life in Christ or the consequential transformation that follows – it’s all a result of God’s grace being poured out in abundance. The Message Paraphrase Bible says it this way, “Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!” (Ephesians 2:7-10 MSG)
In holiness traditions, we typically don’t have any arguments at this point, but we generally don’t spend too much time here either. Ephesians 2 is often given a Sunday morning treatment that’s equivalent to a theological drive-by for fear that people might take this grace thing too far. But the tragic result is that we haven’t taken it far enough. In 2018 a study was conducted by the American Psychological Association of the relationship that both legalism and grace have upon mental health.
What they discovered was that those who had a higher view of grace scored lower on measures of depression and higher on measures of self-compassion. On the other hand, those who adhered to a legalistic view of God by “…leaning on their own good works and placing law above the Gospel of grace…produced a connection to perfectionism, shame, anxiety, depression, and scrupulosity (the obsessive fear of sin).”
In short, a healthy biblical understanding of God’s grace produces followers of Jesus that are happier, more fulfilled, and self-forgiving. Legalism – not so much. Sadly, the legalistic view of grace seems to stop at the sinner’s prayer, leaving people, while saved from their sins, feeling less than raised up. They’re often left to squander in their own perception of a lack of righteousness, always looking upwards trying to attain something that God, through His grace has already given us.
The fact of the matter is that the moment we receive Christ and are born again, we are holy, righteous, and redeemed because Christ now dwells in us. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” ( 1 Corinthians 1:30 NIV). In fact, as far as taking things too far goes, God took it so far that positionally we’ve been seated with Christ in heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6) the very moment that we receive Jesus and His forgiveness of our sins. Not 4 weeks from now when we graduate the church growth track. Not 6 months from now when we stopped cussing at our neighbors or 12 months from now when we’ve stopped most of our bad habits. Nope – the very moment we receive Jesus we’re seated with Christ in heavenly realms!
So, what’s Jesus’ goal with grace? According to Ephesians 2:7 it’s to keep generously lavishing it upon us in the ages to come: (1) the age of the New Covenant (now) and (2) the next age of eternity.
So what does all this have to do with hyper grace? This is where things get really interesting, and I encourage you to fasten your seatbelt because in verse 7, Paul writes, “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” There are two words in this verse that we must understand to really grasp God’s idea of grace: (1) incomparable and (2) riches. The word incomparable is the Greek word hyperballon (this is where we get the English word hyper) which is defined as “a degree which exceeds extraordinarily a point on an implied or overt scale – ‘extraordinary, extreme, supreme, far more, much greater, to a far greater degree. ”
The word “riches” Paul uses to describe God’s grace is ploutos, and it’s defined as “a high point on any scale and having the implication of value as well as abundance – ‘great, abundant, abundantly, greatly, extremely.’
It turns out that God’s grace is actually hyper grace after all!
For the sake of clarity, Paul describes the continual outpouring of God’s grace as extraordinary, extreme, supreme abundance!
According to the Bible, God’s grace is hyper grace, and, if you’re like me, you probably feel a little conflicted reading that because you grew up always hearing that term in a negative sense. It was always explained as being unbiblical and producing a greater desire for sin, but it turns out the only horrible, unbiblical thing was that inaccurate explanation. The fact of the matter is, Biblical grace is hyper grace that supplies more than you could ever need. It’s a grace that never runs out or stops working in your life! It’s a grace that’s not only strong enough to save you but to keep you while you’re maturing in your new identity as a new creation in Christ – Praise the Lord!
The grace of God is so much more than just the salvation moment. This hyper outpouring of God’s abundant goodness and transforming power reaches into the depths of our hearts and begins a metamorphosis that supernaturally produces the kind of good works that James writes about in James 2:17. The evidence that we’ve put our faith in Jesus is that we start producing good works because of His grace working in our hearts!
Most of my life, I always heard that scripture taken out of context. It was always taught as though we’re saved by grace, but if you want God to keep loving you then you have to prove it through self-righteous works. But that’s not what James was saying at all. Putting our faith in the finished work of Jesus results in our possessing all of the grace needed to produce those good works and ultimately the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is what John Wesley identified as sanctifying grace, which he describes as “…God’s work in one’s life that increases one’s resemblance to Christ.” So what’s my point?
My point is that the fear around the term hyper grace in those who are familiar with the holiness tradition is based not upon good theology but rather a misappropriation of that term. As we learned in Ephesians 2, God’s grace IS hyper grace! Conversely, any so-called grace that produces a greater desire for sin is no grace at all (if you’re stuck in leaglism, that’s probably the only thing you’ll quote from this article). True grace is a working grace that produces in us more and more of the image of Christ. The Apostle Paul helps us understand this concept well in 1 Corinthians 15:10-11 (NIV):
10 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. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul is addressing a myriad of issues including “…the nature of human sexuality, the nature of spiritual gifts, and the nature of resurrection….” It’s no wonder Paul had to address such a wide variety of issues in the church since Corinth held such a prominent position at the time. It turns out that Corinth was the seat of the Roman governor and “…had a population larger than Athens.”
At the heart of his letter, however, is the same message that Paul writes about over and over again – the foolish message of the Gospel. In the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation, Kevin Vanhoozer describes it this way: “The theological core of this letter is his reiteration of the heart of his preaching – the feeble and stupid message of the crucified Christ, which nevertheless proves to have power and wisdom no human eloquence possesses, since it is the power and wisdom of God himself.”
The Gospel is of course a Gospel of grace. It was this grace that Paul points to in 1 Corinthians 15:10 as the source of what caused him to be the Apostle, man, and servant he had become, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” This grace transformed his life! He was a harsh, religious persecutor of the church, to the point of murder or at the very least the approval of murdering believers. Now he was completely sold out and transformed in his lifestyle and theology – and grace is what Paul points to as the reason for this change!
Here we see two aspects of God’s grace: (1) grace working inwardly and (2) grace producing outwardly. It was the inward working of grace that allowed Paul to become the man he had become – the man who would list for all of us the fruit of the Spirit under the inspiration of the same, “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no [Old Covenant] law” (Galatians 5:22-23 NASB).
This is the man who would define what real love in action looks like in the thirteenth chapter of the same letter. This was once the murdering, persecuting, hellbent Saul of Tarsus who, after encountering Jesus and receiving His grace, would experience not only a name change, but also an identity change. Grace produces in us a change that all of our human effort trying to keep the law could never produce.
You see, the law is man-focused, whereas, grace is God-focused. The law is full of demand, but grace is full of abundant supply. Under the law man spent his life trying to achieve righteousness, but under grace, God extends His righteousness to man. Under the law, Paul (like we do) was constantly striving to be good enough; but under grace Jesus finished the work on the Cross and invites each of us to enter His rest. Under the law, God visits (and punishes) the sins of man, but under grace He forgives our sins and actually refuses to remember them anymore! The law drove man to become succesful, but grace redefines success and calls man to be faithful. Grace produced in Paul the image of Christ and a transformed nature – he was a new creation within, and it’s the same with you and me.
But grace didn’t stop there because whatever Jesus accomplishes on the inside will eventually produce fruit on the outside. Paul said that it was because of the grace of God that he was able to labor the way he did. In fact, he describes his work with acknowledgement of supernatural assistance as he writes that “…I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 15:10 NIV). Some have accused Paul of bragging, but that’s not what I hear. I hear a transformed man trying to describe the outward working of grace in a person’s life.
This is empowering grace or what I often refer to as the pace of grace. Whether we are in a season of moving fast or slow, either way the grace of God supplies exactly what we need in that season. Some translations say that Paul “labored.” The word labor is the Greek word ekopiasa and means “to engage in hard work, implying difficulties and trouble – ‘hard work, toil, to work hard.” Paul isn’t pointing to his amazing ability – he’s highlighting the impossibility of his doing what he did without God’s amazing grace. We’re all only able to do what we’re called to do by grace and grace alone. His grace is an empowering attribute of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and enables us to do in His strength what we could never do in our own.
Grace or hyper grace isn’t something to be feared…it merely needs to be redefined and understood. As a recipient of God’s grace myself, I’m so grateful that grace is hyper grace. It not only accomplished something within me, it enables me to accomplish His will through me.
God’s Nature Is Grace
God didn’t suddenly become full of grace after the cross. As we study scrpiture it’s easy to discover that grace is a part of His very nature. At first glance, Genesis 6 may seem like a bleak well from which to draw on the theme of God’s grace, much less grace as His very nature. It appears to be the story of judgment upon the earth. After all, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created…” (Genesis 6:6-7 NIV). So, where’s the grace? It’s often from texts such as these that one is tempted to draw a very incomplete picture regarding God’s nature. We read through moments of judgment like these and come to the conclusion that God is a very angry God, and we should all be afraid.
This kind of fear becomes a motivating factor in our lives and produces an unhealthy manner in which we relate to the Lord. This fear-based form of faith has produced many of the legalistic ideas and filters through which we understand God, and it has kept us from seeing the gracious nature of God from the very beginning. This, in turn, impacts every other relationship in our lives. The way we relate to God ultimately affects the way we relate to other people. This is why whenever I used to talk about grace I would first qualify my statement so that I wouldn’t be misunderstood by my peers.
Referring again to the research that grace and legalism have on mental health, this study has proven that “those with a more legalistic form of self-righteous, fear based relating to God produces an inability to care for oneself or help people resolve conflict in marriage.” Why? Because this way of understanding God creates a deep sense of shame in the hearts of those trying to please the Lord with their lives.
It’s been said regarding Martin Luther that “…Luther’s attempts to overcome his spiritual psychological concerns by becoming obsessively and compulsively more religious, he came to understand the impotency of his legalistic beliefs and practices and the transformative power of grace.”
At first glance Genesis 6 gives us a version of an angry God with a short fuse, and whoever steps out of line runs the risk of feeling His wrath (or at least that’s what many believe). But a closer inspection of this passage reveals something else entirely regarding the nature of God. Genesis 6:8 NIV tells us that “…Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The word favor is the Hebrew word that’s also translated – grace. Here we see God’s grace put on display as He identifies someone who can, in a way, stand in the gap. Oftentimes, God’s grace shows up in the form of good leadership – someone with the courage to trust and obey God even when it’s not the popular thing to do.
We also see the grace of God in the fact that He gave Noah a blueprint to build a boat that would take 120 years to complete. That’s 120 years of waiting for humanity to repent and turn back to God. That’s 120 years of people walking past Noah’s boat project, asking questions, hearing the message that God gave Noah, and still rejecting God’s will. Every time they walked past the Ark’s construction site, there stood a visible testimony against them. This was God’s blatant offer to mankind to repent and make things right – it was 120 years of grace. I am of the persuasion that up until the moment the door of the Ark closed, there was an opportunity to appeal to the graciousness of God, yet they rejected it.
To read the story of Noah as only an account of judgment would be a tragic mistake – God extended His grace to all people through His servant Noah, who in some ways could be considered a type of Christ. After all, he’s called both righteous and blameless, and Genesis 6:9 says he was careful to walk with God. Noah was, in a sense, a type of Christ who was preparing something that would save mankind; and just like Jesus he was rejected and ignored by the world – he was not received among his own. This typology is another proof of God’s nature of grace – He always had a plan to redeem mankind through one man – His Son Jesus.
The Depth of His Grace
Nehemiah offers us a rich sampling of God’s grace despite His people’s rejection and rebellion. Nehemiah captures this with some pretty graphic details:
16“But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. 17 They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, 18 even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies. 19 “Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness” (Nehemiah 9:16-19a NIV).
Nehemiah gathers God’s people together for a time of confession. They wear sackcloth and put dust on their heads to represent their repentance (9:1). They read from the Book of the Law in the presence of all the people, highlighting the great distance God’s people had fallen from His glorious standard (9:3). The text actually says that they spent a quarter of the day reading from the law and another quarter of the day confessing their sins.
This creates the backdrop for the prayer that Nehemiah is about to pray, which is the text above. From his prayer we learn that grace is not something that suddenly existed after the Cross – rather, grace is the very nature of God. Look closely at Nehemiah’s prayer: despite the fact that our ancestors became arrogant, stiff-necked, and prideful – the Lord did not abandon them (9:16).
Though they refused to listen and failed to remember all the Lord had done, He would not abandon them (9:17). Though they rebelled against God by appointing a leader to go back to bondage and slavery, the Lord refused to abandon them (9:17). Even when they went so far as to create a false idol and call it god, and they committed what Nehemiah describes as “awful blasphemies” (9:18), the Lord responded with forgiveness, grace, compassion, and abounding love (9:17). There are very few places in all of Scripture where the grace of God is put on display so clearly as it is in this passage. Here, man’s deplorable behavior is placed in stark contrast to God’s abundant grace, proving the divine reality of God’s unending love, His desire to forgive and His selfless yearning to be in relationship with His creation. But it didn’t stop there.
God didn’t merely refuse to abandon them – He kept guiding and protecting them while they traveled through the wilderness (9:19). In fact, Nehemiah says the Lord never failed to guide them. Hold that in contrast to the legalistic idea that the reason we can’t hear God or that God seems distant is a result of our own failure or indifference to God…because the law always places the emphasis on man, but grace places the emphasis on God. In the words of Paul, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13 NASB).
Yet God didn’t stop even there! Nehemiah continues in v. 20: “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna…and…water for their thirst.” God kept providing for their needs despite their rebellion. Lastly, Nehemiah points out that God continued to do this for 40 years. They lacked nothing, and their clothes never wore out (9:21). This is how God treated the people who created false idols, rebelled, ignored God, and blasphemed. THIS is amazing grace, undeserved privilege, favor, and the abundant love that characterizes our Father.
Am I suggesting there’s no conequences for our decisions? Absolutely not! If you place you hand in a hot fire you will get burned. But if we think that God’s going to stop loving us becuase of our shortcomings and failures on our jounrey to becoming more Christlike – we’re sorely mistaken.
Just like in Nehimiah 9, God was extending grace to you long before you ever surrendered your life to Him. That’s a great reason to stop and give Him thanks for His amazing grace! Paul said, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10 NIV)
The great difference between the Israelites in the wilderness and our present day journey is that God isn’t just with us – He now dwells within us! The Christian life is no longer about our conforming to the rigors of the law – it’s about the Holy Spirit’s transforming our hearts from the inside out.
Day by day we’re going from glory to glory as Christ is being formed in us (2 Corinthians 3:18). His character and the fruit of the Spirit are becoming apparent as Jesus patiently and lovingly heals the brokenness in our hearts and helps us to see ourselves as the new creation we truly are – redeemed, holy and righteous! His grace doesn’t promote sin – it’s what allows us finally to stop sinning!
In the words of Paul, “…sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14 NIV). The grace of God sets you free to become the version of you that Jesus created you to be! God fully knows you and fully loves you. Despite your brokenness, because of His amazing grace, He’ll never leave you, forsake you, or give up on you. You’ve been saved by grace.
Travis, are you one of those New Covenant grace guys now? Yeah – I am. And whether you realize it or not, you are too. We all are.
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