Philip Yancey begins his wonderful book entitled, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, with this gripping story he heard from a friend who worked with the down-and-out in Chicago. His friend said,
“A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old! – to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
“At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.'” (What’s So Amazing, p. 11)
I think this is one of the most enlightening and pivotal stories I have ever heard because it says so much to me about what the church is and what the church ought to be. Yancey goes on to point out the contrast between the life of Jesus and the modern church. People like the prostitute in this story flocked to Jesus, but they avoid the church like the plague. Somehow in the course of 2,000 years, we have managed to turn that upside down. Today people who are in desperate straights, sinners in situations like this woman, find the church to be the last place they want to go. Philip Yancey suggests that what we have missed is what Jesus had – grace. Jesus exuded grace. Then Yancey suggests that the church all too often does not show the grace of God.
Christians have a reputation for being less than grace-filled. Mark Twain used to say he put a dog and a cat in a cage together as an experiment, to see if they could get along. They did, so he put in a bird, pig, and goat. They, too, got along fine after a few adjustments. Then he put in a Baptist, Presbyterian, and Catholic; soon there was not a living thing left. (Yancey, p. 33) Christians often have the reputation of be un-graceful, of being far too hard on one another rather than being a people of grace.
What is grace? We use the word all the time. “Many people ‘say grace’ before meals, acknowledging daily bread as a gift from God. We are grateful for someone’s kindness, gratified by good news, congratulated when successful, gracious in hosting friends. When a person’s service pleases us, we leave a gratuity… A composer of music may add grace notes to the score… New York publishers have a policy of ‘gracing.’ If I sign up for twelve issues of a magazine, I may receive a few extra copies even after my subscription has expired… We insult a person by (saying) ‘You’re a disgrace!’ A truly despicable person has no ‘saving grace’ about him.” (What’s So Amazing, Yancey, p. 12-13)
We use the word all the time, but what does it mean in a religious context? Grace means “unmerited favor.” Back in my college days, I learned the acrostic for the letters in the word = God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. The Oxford Companion to the Bible says, “Grace names the underserved gift that creates relationships and the sustaining, responding, forbearing attitude-plus-action that nurtures relationships.” Grace makes our relationship with God and other people possible.
In the Bible, all kinds of words are used to describe this characteristic. Grace is primarily a New Testament word. In the Old Testament, we find words translated “favor,” “mercy,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “love.” Some translators of the Old Testament made up a new word to translate that great Hebrew word hesed. The invented the word “lovingkindness.” God’s lovingkindness is grace. I wonder if we are known for our lovingkindness.
Some key passages of Scripture include these:
Exodus 33:19: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
Exodus 34:6: “Yahweh passed by before him, and proclaimed, “Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth.”
And that great benediction from Numbers 6:24-26: “Yahweh bless you, and keep you. Yahweh make his face to shine on you, and be gracious to you. Yahweh lift up his face toward you, snd give you peace.”
Our text for today says, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) Grace is a word that runs throughout the Bible.
We must know our sin before we know grace. Martin Luther said it this way, “Now the true meaning of Christianity is this: that a man first acknowledge, through the Law, that he is a sinner, for whom it is impossible to perform any good work… The second step is this: If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come by works: but God has sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him. He was crucified and died for you and bore your sins in His own body.” (Martin Luther, Christian Believer, p. 91-92) When we realize our sinfulness, then we are ready to receive the wonder of God’s grace.
Philip Yancey suggested in an article for Christianity Today that the church should learn about grace from the recovery movement. The folks in Alcoholics Anonymous already know that grace follows an acknowledgment of our sinfulness. One alcoholic once told Yancey, “I have to publicly declare ‘I am an alcoholic’ whenever I introduce myself at group. It is a statement of failure, of helplessness, and surrender. Take a room of a dozen or so people, all of whom admit helplessness and failure, and it’s pretty easy to see how God then presents himself in that group.” The dynamic of grace is throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
“Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, reached the unshakable conviction, now a canon of twelve-step groups, that an alcoholic must ‘hit bottom’ in order to climb upward. Wilson wrote to his fellow strugglers, ‘How privileged we are to understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness, that humiliation goes before resurrection: that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of spiritual rebirth.’ The Apostle Paul could not have phrased it better.
“Early in the AA program, two groups divided over the issue of perfectionism. One, an offshoot of the Oxford Group, insisted on ‘Four Absolutes’ and required its members to commit to a strict Christian creed. The other, led by Bill Wilson, started with a dependence on grace, an acknowledgment that its members would never achieve perfection. Absolutes, said Wilson, either turned alcoholics away or gave them a dangerous feeling of spiritual inflation. Over time, the perfectionist Oxford Group shriveled up and disappeared; grace-based AA has never stopped growing.”
I think that model is significant for the church. There are lots of churches in this world, and you have been to many different kinds of churches. Some churches are grace-filled churches; others are more like that Oxford group. The experience of Alcoholics Anonymous is that grace is the thing that changes peoples lives.
Yancey says that one alcoholic wrote him saying, “I know that I can go out and start drinking today and …. have all the sex I want with all the women I want and live in a state of continued drunkenness for quite some time. But there is a catch. I know firsthand all the misery and guilt that comes along with it. And that is something I want no part of. I have experienced guilt and misery so extreme that I didn’t want to live anymore at all–and that, my friend, is why I would rather not have to take advantage of God’s generosity in being willing to forgive me once again should I go that route… Plus, in my present life, every now and then I think I do manage to do God’s will. And, when I do, then the rewards are so tremendous and satisfying that I get kind of addicted to that closeness to God. There is a common saying in AA: ‘Religion is for people who believe in Hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.'” (Lessons From Rock Bottom, by Philip Yancey, Christianity Today, 7/11/00)
I think that last line is a profound statement, and it marks the separation between some churches and other churches. Some churches are for people who believe in hell, but I hope and pray that our church will be for people who have been there. It is only grace that transforms lives. Sometimes people criticize our church because we are not hard enough on sin. I believe that being hard on sin does not change people’s lives. Only grace changes people.
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Consider this illustration. Here is a fourth grade boy in school who is unruly because of the turmoil in his personal life. He is always breaking the rules and always getting in trouble. What do you think that child really needs? Do you think he needs someone to be stricter on him and punish him more? Or do you think that child needs someone to love him and care for him until he is transformed?
Here is a girl in the same grade. She is very withdrawn and shy. How do you change her behavior? Do you stand her up in front of the class and insist that she become more outgoing? Or do you accept her and convince her that she is someone of worth and value? Only then will her life begin to transform from the inside out.
Punishment can change our outward behavior, but it doesn’t transform the heart. In one of Paul Tillich’s most famous sermons he said the secret to Christianity is accepting the fact that we are accepted by God. That is the grace of God that suddenly transforms our hearts.
Jesus would tell us that the only transformation that matters comes from the inside. The Old Testament was filled with laws and commandments. Jesus said that the only commandment you need is to love God and love your fellow man. That is all the commandment you need. When we experience the grace of God, we find our lives changing and we want to live differently.
I pray that we will be a church of grace, but grace is not cheap nor easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this wonderful paragraph contrasting cheap grace with costly grace:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, Christian Believer, p. 95)
Grace is what the church should be all about. Most of the things that the church does, someone else can do better. You do not have to be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. If you really want fellowship, join a bridge club. If you want to do service to the community, join Rotary. If you want to impact your community, join the chamber of commerce. The only thing the church can do better than any of them is grace. The one thing the world cannot do is offer grace.
People are starving for this kind of grace. Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story about a Spanish father who decides to reconcile with his son who had run away to Madrid. Now remorseful, the father takes out this ad in the El Liberal newspaper: “Paco meet me at Hotel Montana Noon Tuesday All Is Forgiven Papa.” Paco is a common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the square he finds eight hundred young men named Paco waiting for their fathers. (What’s So Amazing, Yancey, p. 37)
The world is hungry for the one thing the church is called to offer – grace. If we will live up to the grace of Jesus Christ, sinners will no longer say, “Church? Why would I ever go there? They’ll just make me feel worse.” Maybe sinners will learn to say, “Church! I can go there and find grace.”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2001, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.