Love in Action (8) — Understanding Grace

We continue this morning in our series on “Love in Action”. Because love isn’t something we can just talk about; it’s something we actually have to put into practice. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about loving our neighbors – our actual neighbors. And then, last week, we talked about the importance of seeing other people the way that God sees them. To see not just the problems in their lives the way they are, but to see the potential for who they can become.

This morning, I want to begin by making a statement, and then I’ll spend the rest of the lesson trying to explain why I think this statement is true. I believe that one of the reasons we have difficulty loving people is because we don’t have a good understanding of God’s grace. Or, to put it another way that may be more helpful to us – the better we understand God’s grace to us, the easier we will find it to show love to others.

In Luke 7, Jesus went into the home of Simon the Pharisee to eat a meal with him. While he was there, there was a sinful woman who came in and anointed Jesus’ feet, wetting his feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair. And Simon was insulted by her behavior. He said, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)

Jesus responded to Simon by telling a very short story. He said, “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-42)

I wish that the tests I took in school had had questions like this, because this is no-brainer. The answer is obvious. And Simon gets the answer right by saying it was the one with the larger debt. Jesus then went on to say that this woman had done more to show hospitality to him than Simon had done. And then he said, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

I find that to be a profound statement – the more we are forgiven, the more we will love. Which means the opposite is also true – the less we are forgiven, the less we will love. But it’s evident as you read about the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees throughout his ministry that it’s not so much about how much we are forgiven (in terms of the number of sins) as it is about how much we are aware of how much we have been forgiven. Which I think is another way of saying, the better we understand grace – and, more specifically, the better we understand God’s grace toward us – the easier we will find it to love others.

In Matthew 21, Jesus was teaching in the temple when a group of religious leaders came up to him and questioned his authority. They demanded to know who authorized Jesus to teach the things he was teaching.

And, once again, Jesus responded by telling a story, and then he ended with this statement: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31). Now, as you can imagine, that really irritated the scribes and the Pharisees! Why in the world would Jesus say something like that? Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most immoral folks in Jewish society. When it came to following God, they had obviously blown it and made a lot of bad choices that these moral religious leaders hadn’t made. How could those failures be the ones who were first in line to God’s kingdom?

But, to Jesus, it was precisely the fact they had failed that made the difference. Because one of the things that gets in the way of us connecting with God is our pride and self-sufficiency. Even if we follow all the rules, and do all the right stuff, and pray all the right ways and show up in church every time the doors are opened, we can still miss out on the kingdom if we think that doing all those wonderful things somehow makes us righteous, thinking that we can achieve a relationship with God through our goodness.

But, God makes it clear in scripture that he is most ready to receive us when we are needy and broken. It is in our failures that we most easily find God, not in our great achievements.

Which is why Jesus said the prostitutes and the tax collectors were entering God’s kingdom ahead of the “proper” religious folks. They knew all too well what it was like to be broken and needy. They had been pushed to the edges of society and looked down upon because of their conduct. But, in the great mystery of the gospel, that’s exactly what opened them up to finding grace.

This upside-down dynamic is what this lesson is all about. It’s about getting real enough regarding our own failures to meet the God who wants nothing more than to lavish his grace on us.

Let me give you an illustration: If I were to offer you some cash this morning, and all you have to do to get it is to walk up here and take it from me, I’m pretty sure there would be some of you who would come up here and take the money. But, I also think there would also be a significant number of you who would stay in your seats and not come up to get the money.

And I think there are several reasons for that. Perhaps, some of you would be too embarrassed. The embarrassment of standing up in front of everyone isn’t worth a few bucks. There are others of you who might be afraid that there’s a catch, some sort of a trick. “What’s Alan up to? What’s he going to do to me?” And I’m pretty sure there are some of you who wouldn’t come up here because your wallets are already full. What’s a few more dollars to somebody who’s already got hun¬dreds?

In the book of Romans, Paul repeatedly refers to the grace we have been given by God as a gift, a free gift. In Romans 5:15,

“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”

It’s the same language that Paul used over in Ephesians 2, where he said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

So, if salvation is a gift that comes to us by grace, a free gift, then why is it that so many people are reluctant to receive it? And I would suggest that the reasons people have for not accepting God’s free gift are very similar to the reasons many of you might not accept my free gift of cash.

I think there are some people who are too embar¬rassed to receive the gift of grace. Because to accept forgiveness means to admit sin, and that’s a step we’re all reluctant to take. There are perhaps others who are afraid that there’s some sort of a trick, a catch. There must be some fine print in the Bible. God wouldn’t just give a free gift. And then there are others, no doubt, who don’t really think they need it — “After all, who needs forgiveness when you’re as righteous as 1 am?”

The point is – even though grace is available to all – as Paul says in Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” – even though grace is available to all people, it is accepted by only a few.

Now, I realize that many of us may not be comfortable with the language that grace is a gift, but the scriptures are clear that it is. Paul uses that terminology over and over in Romans 5 and 6. Listen to what he says in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul spends the first few chapters in Romans letting us know that we all have a problem with sin. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jew or a Gentile, where you’re an American or a Cambodian, whether you’re young or old, whether you’re male or female. We have all failed God. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

And the penalty for sin has been the same ever since the Garden of Eden where God told Adam and Eve, “In the day that you eat of [that fruit], you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). Through sin, death entered this world and all of us, because of our sin, experience spiritual death – separation from God.

That’s Paul’s point in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” We’ve all sinned. And we all experience death.

And Paul says, “the wages of sin is death.” We all know what wages are. When you work for your employer all month long and then you go to your boss at the end of the month and he gives you a paycheck for the work you’ve done, I doubt if there is any of you who responds by saying, “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, you are so nice. You are so kind. Thank you, thank you for giving me this money.” No, you wouldn’t do that because that money isn’t a gift, it’s your wages. You earned it, you deserve it.

But if you go to your boss at the end of the month and he says, “I know you earned $10.00 an hour digging ditches, and if I were to give you your wages, I’d have a check for you for $1600. But instead of giving you your paycheck, I’m going to give you a $50,000 bonus check.” Now it’s appropriate to say thank you. We’re not talking about wages any more, we’re talking about a gift. You didn’t earn it. You don’t deserve it. But it’s been given to you. I think we all understand the difference between wages and gifts.

Paul says if God were to give you your wages, you’d get death. That’s what you earned, it’s what you deserve. Here it is! But instead of receiving the wages of sin (which is death), we have received the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it. But it’s been given to us.

And there’s nobody who can say, “I’ve committed so many terrible sins that God’s grace doesn’t apply to me.” No! Paul says in Romans 5:20, “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.”

In other words, Paul says there’s no limit to God’s grace. If you commit a hundred sins, God’s grace covers a hundred sins. If you commit a hundred thousand sins, then God’s grace covers a hundred thousand sins! Wherever sin abounds, grace abounds even more!

But, as I said earlier, we tend to get a little bit nervous when anyone starts talking about grace being a free gift. Because we’re afraid that people will take advantage of God and use grace as an excuse to live however they want to live, to keep on sinning. After all, if God enjoys extending grace, then let’s just keep on doing what we’re doing so God can enjoy himself more and more.

And it’s reasonable to think that people might be tempted to react to God’s grace in that way. Imagine a man who accumulates a pile of debt. He is financially irresponsible, spends way more money than he makes and before he knows it, he has amassed a debt of tens of thousands of dollars. But we have made it very convenient in this country to keep from paying what we owe. We call it bankruptcy. The court steps in and by an act of grace says, “You used to owe $50,000, but now you owe nothing. The debt is wiped away.”

Would it surprise you to learn that there are some people who have gone through bankruptcy and then immediately afterward start going into debt again because they have the mindset, “Why should I be concerned about my debt? In another 7-10 years, I’ll just let the courts wipe the slate clean again”?

So what’s to prevent us from having the same attitude toward God? When we become a Christian, when we are baptized into Christ, we come up out of those waters a new creature. God wipes the slate clean, he forgives us of all our sins. So why not just keep on sinning because God’s going to wipe the slate again? He’s a God of grace. It’s what he enjoys doing.

It’s like the fellow visiting Las Vegas who called the preacher at one church, wanting to know what time the Sunday morning worship was. The preacher was impressed. He said, “Most people who come to Las Vegas don’t come here to go to church.”

The man said, “Oh, I’m not coming to Vegas for the church. I’m coming for the gam¬bling and the parties and the wild women. But if I have half as much fun as I intend to, I’m gonna need a church Sunday morning.”

And I’ve known some people who had that kind of attitude. I’ll just live however I want to live all week long and then come to church Sunday morning and wait for God to forgive me. That’s what he does. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.

But Paul anticipates this line of thinking, and so he starts off chapter 6 by saying, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! (or, as some translations have it, ‘God forbid’)!” (Romans 6:1-2)

For a Christian to even consider doing that is unthinkable. Let me complete a passage I started reading a few moments ago. Paul says in Titus 2:11-12, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”

Paul wants us to know that grace doesn’t encourage us to live any way we want to live. Grace teaches us how to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. So, in Romans 6:2, Paul asks a crucial question: “How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” How can those of us who have been forgiven not live righteous lives? How can those of us who have been loved not show love to others? How can those of us who have been blessed by God not bless others? How can those of us who have been given grace not live graciously? Paul seems stunned that anybody would even consider an alternative!

But, let me get back to my main point of this lesson — The better we understand God’s grace to us, the easier we will find it to show love to others. The Pharisees were some of the least loving people who have ever lived. They were all about following the rules and they gave the appearance of being righteous, but they showed very little grace toward others, very little love.

And I think the biggest reason was because they didn’t have an understanding or appreciation for what God had done for them. They didn’t even feel like they needed God’s grace. They thought they were quite capable of keeping the rules all by themselves.

And so Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Time and time again in scripture, God makes it clear that the way to find forgiveness, the way to get close to God, is to be honest about our shortcomings. Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” (Proverbs 18:23)

Which is very similar to what the apostle John wrote in I John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Now I’ve read that passage countless times over the years, but I don’t know that I’ve ever connected what John says there about being honest with God in regard to our sins with what he has to say in the rest of this letter. As I’ve pointed out several times, one of John’s key themes in this letter is the importance of loving one another.

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18)

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (I John 4:7)

“If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (I John 4:12)

There are over 20 verses in this short letter where John says we need to love one another. But, before he says anything about love, John says, “You’ve got to be honest with God, and admit it when you mess up.” Because if we aren’t honest about our own sins, if we don’t recognize the many ways that we fall short of what God wants us to be, then we can never appreciate God’s grace. And if we don’t appreciate God’s grace, then we will always have trouble loving others.

Like so many of our spiritual problems, it is a problem that is rooted in pride. We tend to think that pride describes someone is who arrogant and they’re boasting and bragging about how great they are. And pride can certainly demonstrate itself that way.

But, for most of us, pride tends to manifest itself something like this: “I love myself so much that I worry about what other people think about me. I love myself so much that I get insecure about who I am, about what I look like, what I say, what I do, and how well I do something. And so, I want to put up a façade, I want to pretend that I don’t have any problems, because I want you to think well of me, I want you to see me as a good person.”

But, the problem is, if I am not being honest with you and I’m not being honest with God, if I spend my time trying to hide who I am and what I’ve done, then I can’t be receptive to the grace that God is extending. And if I’m not conscious of how much grace I have received, then I don’t see much need to extend grace to anyone else.

“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Loving others begins with seeing my own need for God’s grace.

If I were to go around the room this morning and ask you to list the ten greatest Christians of all time, I would imagine that almost every one of you would put the apostle Paul on that list. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has accomplished more than Paul did. And if there was ever anyone who could say, “Look at what I’ve achieved for God!” it would have to be Paul.

But Paul was ever mindful of his need for God’s grace. In I Timothy 1, Paul wrote, “I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy…” (I Timothy 1:13-16)

It is significant to me that Paul doesn’t say, “I was the foremost sinner.” He says, “I am the foremost sinner.” Paul remained constantly aware of his need for God’s grace in his life. And because of that grace and the knowledge that his sins were forgiven, he was able to love others in a powerful way.

The question for all of us as I bring this lesson a close is this – how aware are we of God’s grace in our own lives? How aware are we of our need for God’s grace?

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