To answer the question, “What is God’s grace?” I could tell so many stories about people transformed by God’s grace. But I’ll “borrow” one story from the Alpha Bible in One Year notes to begin to answer this question.
Living on the streets
“‘Big John’ had been living on the streets of London for almost 10 years. Before that he had spent over 9 years in prison. Most of his teeth were missing. He was addicted to methadone. His nickname on the streets of London was ‘Big John’ because he was a big guy who had once boxed for the Army.” (So starts the story in the Alpha Bible.)
Apparently, this man, ‘Big John,’ showed up at the night shelter for homeless people sponsored by Holy Trinity Brompton Church. He came with a friend known as ‘Little John.’
Grace began to “chase him down.” The volunteers at the shelter were very kind and it touched John. He wasn’t used to being treated that way.
Moved by their goodness, ‘Big John’ began to go to church and then attended the Alpha program (a program for people to learn more about Jesus). ‘Big John’ came to believe in Jesus. The Holy Spirit poured into him.
God’s grace brought healing to John
In his excitement about his new community, the HTB Church, John would gather other friends from the street and bring them to services. He became known by a new name, “John the Baptist!” A man he met in the church managed property and helped John find a place to live.
Another church member was a dentist and volunteered to replace John’s teeth. Forgiveness found John’s family as his relationship was healed with his mother and his daughter. He began to build loving bridges to his grandchildren.
This story of John on the Bible in One Year website ended with these words: “Following Jesus is life-changing. He constantly turns people’s lives around. He turns despair into joy (Psalm 30:11).”
That’s what grace looks like.
John had multiple marvelous and healing things happen to him. He found shelter, kindness, faith in Christ, Holy Spirit empowerment, new teeth, a new home, a relationship with estranged family members. Wow! How amazing is God! He made these things happen in John’s life; John who had been an addicted prison inmate, and then a homeless man on London’s streets.
Had John done anything to deserve these things? No! But one of God’s primary characteristics is grace. He is a “giving Father” to us. Grace is what He does – constantly.
So let’s continue to answer the question, “What is God’s grace?” with a definition of grace.
What is the spiritual meaning of grace?
The Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible defines grace this way:
It is “favor or kindness shown without regard to the worth or merit of the one who receives it and in spite of what that same person deserves.” (p. 443)
John did not deserve all the kindnesses that happened to him, many would say. He used drugs. He had been in prison. The streets were his home and he contributed virtually nothing to anyone. Perhaps he was a friend to others like him on the street. But that was all you could say to be positive about him.
However, God, whose very nature is mercy and generosity, pursued ‘Big John’ to make him into the man He intended for him to be.
5 more truths about grace
1. Grace in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, God constantly showed grace to a rebellious people. There are so many examples of the people turning away from Him. They worshipped a golden calf in Exodus after God delivered them from Egyptian slavery. In the Book of Judges, again and again, the people turned away from obeying God to “doing as they saw fit.” The history of the kings of Israel and Judah are full of worship of other gods and immorality.
But God brought the people into a Promised Land. He sent them Prophets. They had His Word. And still they turned away. Yet again and again, when they repented, God would show them grace and rescue them.
2. Grace in the New Testament
The ultimate act of God’s grace was when Jesus came into the world. No longer would the people have to sacrifice bulls and sheep to atone for their sins every year. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. The bible says, “…so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and He will appear a second time not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.” Hebrews 9:28 (NIV)
A verse we see so often is John 3:16. “…God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus was the ultimate gift of grace
Some translations say, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” NET Bible
In other words, God could have loved the world in various ways, but His ultimate grace and love were expressed in only one way: Jesus. Jesus, “full of grace and truth,” came and died in our place. We were the sinful ones. He was innocent, but nevertheless, He chose to die on the cross for the world. He satisfied the just need for payment for humanity’s lawlessness.
People have never been able to keep God’s laws. Still today, we cannot do it. So we trust in the righteousness of Jesus covering us, making us right with God even today. “We believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved…” Acts 15:11 NIV
3. Grace needs to be received
The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us to receive the grace of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 12:1, the Bible says that, “…no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
God gives us grace and helps us to fully take His gift. Our problem is that sometimes, after saying, “I’m convinced! Jesus is God. He did die for us (and for me). I’m going to follow Him,” we lose our way. We forget how powerful the actions of Jesus – to die on the cross and rise from the dead – are. Bit by bit, we go back to acting religiously and trying to do things to please God. We stop receiving grace and we begin to carve out our own righteousness path.
The problem is that this kind of thinking isn’t Christian. That’s why discipleship teaching is SO important. We need to keep hearing what the grace of God is – in teaching, preaching, our own Bible study. Or, we start trying to earn our place with God again, and we don’t know how to live as a disciple of Christ.
We’ve got to live by grace!
4. We must show grace to others.
I am often surprised how unforgiving many Christian people are. Unaware of their own flaws, they look on unfortunate people whose sins are very “out there” and hard to hide like ‘Big John’ described above and disdain them. There are posts way too often on social media of someone looking down on someone else for their failures. And sadly the sneering one claims to be a believer.
Jesus told a story of two men who came into the Temple to worship. (Luke 18:9-14) The Bible’s account starts this way, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…'”
God’s Grace makes us right with God
Jesus said that the Pharisee stood by himself and bragged to God, “God I thank you that I’m not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus then said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee thought his own efforts made him gloriously righteous before God. He didn’t hear his own hard heart, coldness, and lack of compassion – all sinful attitudes. “He stood alone,” considering himself too good for others – again sin. There was no mercy in him to help the struggling tax collector find his way to God.
5. Grace is the way of the Kingdom
As God treats us, we are to treat others. Jesus taught about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, doing more than what is expected in order to help others, etc. He taught His disciples then and would teach us now that the way of the Kingdom of God is to give and give and give. Not enable others in their sin – No! But teach, witness, pray, share, and do as much as we can to show grace and lead others to the life we’ve found – if we’ve found it – in Jesus.
I once heard a preacher say, “In other religions, you do and do and do and do, and never know if you’ve done enough or done it right so that your god or gods are pleased. But in following Christ as a disciple, if you have said, “I believe you, Jesus. I trust you, Jesus,” the matter is settled. You are saved by His grace. And if you continue to pursue being His follower, seeking the meaning and way of discipleship, He will gracefully help you to grow in spiritual maturity.
John Newton (1725-1807), an atheist, a reprobate, and a slave trader almost died in a storm at sea. He begged God to save his life and he would change. He became a man of faith in Christ, a helper of William Wilberforce in the battle to end slavery in England, and the man who would write the song, Amazing Grace.
We still sing it in churches at the top of our lungs, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”
There is nothing sweeter than the grace of God finding us.
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