We are now entering the time of year when we as a church look to the upcoming year, when we reevaluate all of the ministries in the church, and when each of us as individuals reevaluate our stewardship of God’s gifts given so freely to each of us – our abilities, our time, and our finances. We do this for a very good reason. We need, every now and then, to stand back and examine our lives, each aspect of our life in relation to God to determine if He would desire to use us in a new or different way, or if He would desire that we give more of our time, skills, and even our finances to the work of His glorious Kingdom.
I have always been made uncomfortable with so-called “financial campaigns” undertaken by the churches I have ministered in. My discomfort is caused by the fact that I find these “campaigns” more of an act of coercion than enticing the people of God to experience the unbridled “cheerful giving” mandated by Scripture.
The typical emphasis of most “financial campaigns” is to urge the members of the congregation to tithe, to give the 10% of our finances which God’s Word calls us to give. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in God’s Word, my family is committed to tithing, but I do have a problem in asking a child who plays with Legos to build a Cathedral, I have a problem in asking a person who has only finger painted stick figures to etch the Mona Lisa, and I have a problem asking one of my little league baseball players to unseat Mark McGuire as the home run champ. I also have a problem with preachers guilting folks into reluctantly, hesitatingly, and begrudgingly giving 10% of their money when they have never drank deeply of the sweet grace of God.
For many of us, our eyes have never been opened to the glorious grace of God spilled over from the throne of grace into our lives. The problem is not so much with our willingness to tithe as it is with our inability to see and experience grace in all of its abundance and glory. For so many believers who have never truly experienced God’s grace, the call to tithe of our finances is nothing more than another rule to make us feel guilty and another hand to keep us living like a pauper. For those who have never swam in the deep seas of God’s grace the call to give of their time to serve others, to teach a class, to work with the children, or to visit those who are sick or sorrow-filled is simply another job to do and not a joy to be experienced.
For the next two weeks I want us to focus on grace in all of its glory and grandeur. I truly desire that each of us come to know the unmerited grace of God so that we might fall at the feet of our Savior and give not a check or an hour, but our very lives. This will never happen until our eyes are opened to God’s grace given to you and me. Oh, we can be intrigued with Jesus and feel compelled to give a little of our time and money, we can be moved by the love of Jesus and give lip service to the King on a part-time basis, when it is convenient, we can be stirred sentimentally by the memories of our childhood where we experienced the joys of Vacation Bible School or Summer camp, but we will never fully surrender all that we are and will ever be until the heavens are parted and we are able to look into the throne room of grace.
One of the reasons for the American people’s lack of understanding concerning the grace of God is that we have cheapened that costly gift. We’ve turned God into our buddy, a bellhop who cavorts around seeking to console our every whim. We’ve heard a lot of God’s love, but in actuality it is nothing more than an infatuation that seeks to make all of the subjects “happy” no matter the concessions that God has to make. In some respects God is in need of “Kingdom pollsters” who can travel throughout all of creation to see what the people want so as to be happy. I praise God that He would never resort to that lunacy, to lowering Himself to some politician’s position, but that He has determined that His holy, costly love, is what we need rather than giving us what we want.
Another reason we’ve never truly come to feel the full impact of God’s grace is because we’ve never been driven to our knees in despair. We have no awareness of the holiness of God. Many of us honestly believe we can “up” God’s stock with what we have to offer Him. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need a good dose of despair, we need to come to the end of our rope, we need to come before the mirror of our sinfulness, give into our shamefulness, and cry out in utter helplessness before we can ever fully appreciate the grace of God. We need to see through the eyes of those great saints who have gone before us, those who’ve come face-to-face with their own sinfulness, their utter despair, and yet have come to know the abundant, eternal grace of our living God.
This morning, the Lord has laid upon my heart His great grace, not the “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke about some fifty years ago, but the costly grace God has made available to you and me. So that we don’t cheapen the grace of God, we must clear away the societal superstructures that celebrate the festivity, happiness, and sweet release of God’s grace without the ugly, horrifying scenes of sin and a Savior hanging on a cross.
Let’s take a look at Paul’s letter to the Romans,
1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we? also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10For if, when 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! 11Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-11 NIV)
Is that not the most beautiful word of hope that you have ever heard? Paul, in writing Romans, communicates to us very clearly that sin is real, pervasive, and terminal. No one escapes the consequences of sin – we are all going to die. That is bad news, but before we hear the Good News, before we really understand the sweetest of God’s grace in the way Martin Luther understood it, we need to fully understand the bad news.
Not only have we sought to make God our buddy and to do away with our own sinfulness, but we have sought to eliminate the demands of a holy and righteous God. You can talk with folks today who have been Christians for decades and yet have never really studied the Old Testament. When you ask, “Why?” they are quick to tell you that they love the grace and mercy found in the New Testament. The Old Testament is too bloody, too judgmental, and God is painted with too harsh, too dark of a palette.
This is not a new phenomenon. It is interesting to learn about how the Bible as we know it came into being. The Bible is a book that is made up of many separate letters that were circulated in all the churches and accepted as Holy Scripture. They were accepted until a man named Marcion came along and put together the first formal edition of the Bible. It was a very strange Bible: The Old Testament was missing, as were most of the Gospel materials along with all but a few of Paul’s sentences. Marcion’s working principle was this: Any reference to the explosive, hot-tempered, ill-willed Deity that thundered from Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament must be eliminated because the gracious, merciful Deity Jesus revealed to us is totally and completely different. I dare say Marcion was wrong. God is holy, has been holy, and will forever remain holy and righteous no matter how we rewrite our theology.
We Serve A Holy God. From the beginning of time God is holy. His ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts our thoughts. We can be thankful for that folks. God is not petty, He is not proud, He is not peculiar, He does not show partiality because of the name you earn in society or your financial portfolio – God is holy. God does not change with the fads of society, His moral absolutes have not slid into the gutter simply because the 60’s have come and gone, and His purity will never be tainted through bribery, compulsion, or coercion. Let me give you a few examples of God’s holiness.
1 The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. 2 Great is the LORD in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations. 3 Let them praise your great and awesome name-he is holy. 4 The King is mighty, he loves justice-you have established equity; in Jacob you have done what is just and right. 5 Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy. 6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel was among those who called on his name; they called on the LORD and he answered them. 7 He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud; they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them. 8 O LORD our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds. 9 Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the LORD our God is holy. (Psalm 99 NIV)
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5″Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5 NIV)
15But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16 NIV)
It’s okay for God to be holy, completely different than us. That’s why we have heroes isn’t it? Someone we can worship, but not really identify with because they are so much more awesome than we are. The problem for most folks today is not that God is awesome, it’s that he says, “Be holy because I am holy.” God’s perfect purity and holiness commands of us perfect purity and holiness if we are going to be in fellowship with Him. When we hear those words we shudder because we know deep in our hearts that we are far from perfect. Most people would never use the word, “holy” to describe themselves. This leaves us with the problem.
God’s Law, given in the Old Testament, was given to prevent us from destroying ourselves. It was given to impart life to all of His people, but the people quickly learned that the Law was incredibly high moral ground. Any of us who have held the Ten Commandments in high esteem know that keeping these ten laws are impossible. The Ten Commandments will break us in our self-righteousness when we feel their full weight. We are people whose vision is set on a course that is quite different than the vision of the King. We too easily get distracted by the glitz and grandeur of this world and lose sight of the high calling of God. This leads us to our second point.
The Sinfulness of Humanity. Throughout history Bible teachers have taught a doctrine, a set of teachings that draw attention to what they call the depravity of humanity. What this means is that we are hopelessly out of synch with God’s will for our lives. Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All of us, each and every one have fallen short of the glory of God because of our sin. That is bad news. I understand more than most just how bad that news is because I know my own sinfulness. I am not trying to hide from who I am. I can easily echo the words of Paul when he says,
18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-24 NIV)
Since time began there have been people who have tried to write out the bad news. Our day is no different. According to popular opinion today, we are not bad people, we are good people who simply need a twelve-step program to correct what our parents have done to us. Over and over again we hear confirmation that our ills are not due to our sinful hearts, but to other contributing factors. This all began in the Garden of Eden when Satan enticed Eve to “become like God.” Chuck Colson says,
Ever since it has encouraged us to believe what our sinful nature wants us to believe – that we are good, getting better through science and education, and can through our own efforts become perfect, masters of our own fate. We can be our own god.” (Chuck Colson, Loving God, pg. 96)
Individuals commit crimes because they are forced to, not because they choose to. Poverty, racial oppression, slums, hunger – these are the real culprits, which, if they can be overcome will insure the perfection of humanity. Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General of the late Lyndon B. Johnson, once said, “Poverty is the real cause of crime.”
After the L.A. riots, scores of leaders from all ethnic groups came out of the woodwork to announce that the assaults, lootings, and killings were due to lack of employment, being disenfranchised, and feelings of hopelessness. The brutal pictures that came over our television sets were not the fault of those perpetrators, but of other factors. No sin was involved.
Former President Ronald Reagan, while he was in office, was quick to quote from Anne Frank’s diary by saying, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
The late Richard M. Nixon was quick to quote Alexis DeTocqueville when he said, “America is great because she is good and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” Nothing could be further from the truth! The reason America is great is because God’s hand of grace has been set firmly on this nation and that is the one and only reason America continues to exist. Paul said, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of a holy, righteous, and perfect God – All.” Even Americans!
The Law, rather than correcting our sin, has made our sin more apparent. Once again, the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:7-13,
7What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. 13Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. (Romans 7:7-13 NIV)
Sin is horrific. Once our eyes are opened to the fact that sin has so tainted us that we can have no hope of fellowship with a holy God, then we are left despairing. Despair fills our hearts and minds because we know that God is a holy Judge and that when we stand before Him we will have no defense.
This is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks for modern-day people. I meet all kinds of people who say to me, “Don’t tell me about a God of love. I know you Christians believe that you are going to Heaven, but where does that leave the rest of us? I know where – Hell. How could a loving God send folks to eternal separation from Himself in a place called Hell?” Those who understand these first two tenets of the Christian faith – the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man do not struggle so much with the divine judgment of God. Hans Kung, the great Catholic theologian once wrote,
The real mystery of iniquity, the real puzzle, is not that a holy and righteous God should exercise justice. What is mysterious about a Holy Creator punishing willfully disobedient creatures? The real mystery is why God through generation after generation after generation tolerates rebellious creations who commit cosmic treason against His authority.
For those of you who have not noticed yet, this is bad, bad news. Who can save us from our dilemma? Who will secure our deliverance? I’ve got Good News for you!
The Grace of God. We will close this morning’s study where we began.
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10For if, when 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! 11Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11 NIV)
For my friends who question the love of God in light of the possibility of spending eternity separated from this holy and righteous God, I have an answer – God has opened the way for you to have fellowship with Him this very morning! Our fellowship with God has nothing to do with what we have done to catch His attention; it has everything to do with what God has done to make us a holy and righteous people through Jesus our Savior.
My question to you is this: If you came to a fork in the road and you knew not where you were going you would need help to stop and assess the two paths. Take a look to your right. On the right you will notice that the road is lined with beautiful flowers, teeming waterfalls, and scenery like you have seen before. Every sight you take in beckons you to come on in. On the left you will see nothing but decay, degradation, and dismal darkness that no one can ever escape. Which road will you choose? My friend you should know the answer to that question. God’s holiness will never change, but He has provided for you and for me a path that leads to life, eternal life, and the road leads right to the cross where we can gaze into the eyes of grace personified – Jesus, the Lamb of God. Jesus has opened Heaven’s gates for even me! Choose grace!
Many years ago the monks in the monastery where Martin Luther lived would go to the confessional day-after-day to confess their sins to the Father confessor. While the other monks would confess their sins by rote, Martin Luther was plagued with his own sin. When Luther’s turn would come around he would go into the confessional, not for a half an hour or for an hour, but for two, three, or even four hours at a time. He would sit and confess every sin he had entertained during the last twenty-four hours. Finally, one of the Father confessors said, “Brother Martin, stop this preoccupation with peccadilloes. If you are going to confess something make it a real sin.” He went on, “What is this, do you not like your work in the monastery?” Finally, the Father confessor got the impression that whatever Martin Luther was, he was sincere. Martin would tell how he would leave the confessional at the end of his confession and feel clean before God because of his confession. That would last until he had taken a few steps toward his daily activities and remember some sin he had left unconfessed, once again he would feel filthy before a holy and righteous God.
We may think that Martin Luther was obsessing, but what you need to know is that before Martin ever began studying theology, he was a student of Law. He took that sharp mind that was well read in human law and he applied it to the Law of God. Martin would study the Law of God, the demands of perfection, and examine himself in light of the character of God, the holiness of God, and God’s righteousness. With all of that in clear view, Martin would hate what he saw in himself. He began to even hate the righteousness of God because his guilt was manifest before his eyes in all its ugliness.
Then one night he was preparing for a lecture. He was reading the book of Romans and he read these words, “For the righteousness of God is revealed by faith, and the just will live by faith.” Suddenly, Martin’s eyes were opened. God revealed to him that God provides righteousness – graciously and freely – to those, all of those, who will put their trust in Jesus. Martin said he finally discovered,
Anyone who puts their trust in Christ receives the covering and the cloak of the righteousness of Christ. It broke into my mind, and I realized for the first time that my justification, my station before God is established not on the basis of my own naked righteousness which will always fall short of the demand of God, but it rests solely and completely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ which I must hold onto by trusting faith. When I understood that for the first time in my life I understood the Gospel. I looked and beheld the doors of Paradise swung open and I walked through.
Martin had been introduced to the grace, the magnificent grace of God, that accomplished for him what he could never accomplish for himself. Isn’t God’s grace amazing? Won’t you invite Jesus into your heart as Lord and King this very morning?