A Definition of Grace
By The Rev. Alex Stevenson
“Amazing Grace,” shall always be my song of praise. For it was grace that brought me liberty I do not know just why He came to love me so He looked beyond my fault and saw my need. I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary. To view the cross where Jesus died for me; How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul, He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
What is Grace? We talk about it. We sing about it. We say it’s amazing! We even name our churches and our children for it. In 2003 and 2004 it was the 13th most popular name for baby girls. Grace is one of the most popular names for Methodist Churches. But what is it?
Once there was this little boy and the preacher was visiting his mother. She had known the preacher was coming and had made some cookies for them to eat while he was there. Of course that made the little boy very happy and he was eating away at those cookies while the grown-ups talked. Then he came to the last cookie but as he was getting ready to put it in his mouth he dropped it. Well he was not going to let a perfectly good cookie go to waste so he picked it up and was going to eat it, but his mother stopped him and said, “Don’t eat that it has germs on it.” And the little boy in frustration stomped his feet at said, “Germs and Jesus, Germs and Jesus, that’s all I ever hear and I ain’t never seen a one of them.”
If we are going to talk about it then we need a good working definition – we should know what it looks like. The dictionary definition of grace is “unmerited Divine assistance given for justification, regeneration or sanctification.” That says a lot. It is free gift that is not earned or purchased. It is from God. And it enables us to be saved and to grow in faith. That definition is fine a good, but what does that look like in real life?
Paul is a living example of Grace. Paul the Great Apostle to the Gentiles, the writer of half the New Testament, was not always the servant of Jesus he became. The first time we meet Paul in the Bible he is participating in the stoning of Stephen. Stephen’s crime was that he declared that Jesus was the Messiah. He was the first Christian martyr. Later Paul gets indictments to imprison any believers in Jesus that he can find.
One day Paul was on his way to the city of Damascus to arrest the Christians there. Then suddenly Jesus appeared to him on the road. In a light from heaven Jesus said, “Why do you persecute me.” He was struck blind but after a few days God sent a Christian to Paul to open his eyes and to tell him the Good news of Jesus Christ. It was only after this life changing experience that Paul became the champion of the Gospel that we know him as today.
God could have given up on Paul. Jesus had every right to take Paul’s life just as Stephen’s life had been taken. Jesus could have left Paul imprisoned by his blindness just as Paul had imprisoned Christians. But graciously Paul was allowed to live and to see. In fact God’s grace went even farther. Paul was called to be the one to take the Good News of Jesus Christ beyond Israel and to the nations of the world. He was empowered by the Spirit to lead thousands to Christians to start churches and to write letters that still inspire Christians today.
That’s what Paul is talking about in our lesson today. He says, “though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:13-14) Paul is a living example of Grace. By Grace he was saved from a life of hatred. He was set free to love. He was given more than a second chance. Paul was given an opportunity to make up for all the persecuting he had done.
When I was a teenager we had an old car. It was a 1970 falcon. My sister and I shared it. My Junior year of high school I would drive it to school and back. One day I was driving home from band practice and I was giving a friend a ride home. It was drizzling a little I was going a little “too fast for conditions” and I lost control of the car and ended up hitting a telephone pole.
The car was totaled. Don’t worry—no one was hurt. The car was old so a new bumper and radiator was enough to total the car. No one was hurt and the car was fixable, but I was devastated.
Friday rolled around and I needed to get to the stadium for the football game. I put on my uniform and got my horn and went out to the living room. My sister was sitting on the couch reading a book, my Father was in his chair watching the news and my mother was in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner. I announced, “It’s time to go to the game. Who’s going to drive me?” There was a moment of silence and then my dad said, “I’m not going anywhere. You can take my car.”
That’s what grace is like. God gave us this life. But we go and wreck it. God could have said, “I give you life and you go and use it to do selfish things. You go and wreck it! Well I am just going to take it back. You don’t deserve to have a life anymore.”
God gave each of us a soul that was beautiful. But we go and make a mess of it. God could have said, “You made your mess now live with it. You messed up what I gave you by sinning. You don’t deserve to have a righteous soul.”
But instead God said, “Here is a new life.” Instead of denying us the righteousness we need, Jesus said, “Here is my righteousness, you can have it.” Then he died on a cross for our sins. We didn’t deserve it. We had made a mess of what God had given us before. But God gives us new life!
John Newton is a living example of grace. John Newton was the captain of a slave ship. A lot of people are not aware of the horrors of the slave trade. The crossing from Africa was perhaps the most deadly part of the slave trade. The newly enslaved Africans were treated like cargo. They were packed in as closely as possible. Many died and their bodies were unceremoniously thrown overboard. The shipping company considered them acceptable losses. When John Newton realized his sin, he saw himself as he really was. He was a man with the blood of thousands on his hands. And he lived in an age when many had these same blood stains on their hands.
But God forgave him. By the blood of Christ he was washed clean. He didn’t deserve it but God gave him that forgiveness by grace. In praise to God he write a song, perhaps you have heard it?
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.
God’s grace is amazing. It took wretch like John Newton and used him to write a song to inspire many. It took a murder like Paul and used him to lead a world of sinner to salvation. And it has taken us, sinners and wretches that we are, and given us new life. That is my definition of “grace!” What’s yours?
Copyright 2008 Alex Stevenson. Used by permission.