Trying to live according to a set of rules (the Ten Commandments, godly principles, doing the right thing, etc.) is essentially driving on a dark night—in a foggy mist—crashing from the guardrail on one side of the road to the one on the other.
It’s when the collective damages from our many failures becomes overwhelming that His grace begins to appear. And that is His plan.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
For us grace-lovers, one of the greatest faith-moments ever experienced was realizing that those rules with their associated penalties really weren’t intended to be our guide. It was such welcome news that we began telling our friends about this freedom—calling it “grace.” But that’s as incomplete as telling a child about a colorful rainbow and saying that it’s “red.”
Grace is often defined as: “unmerited favor” and it’s explained through the triplet: “Justice is getting what we deserve; mercy is not getting what we do deserve and grace is getting what we don’t deserve.”
That adage also identifies a believer’s progression:
Grace is an attitude of unconditional kindness toward a person who’s in need. It’s expressed through helping actions—with no desire for repayment.
Determining what makes us acceptable to God is the point of a familiar Bible story. It’s found in Numbers chapter 21.
God was taking the Israelites to the land that He promised them through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They experienced His miracles along the way: escaping slavery, crossing through the Red Sea, receiving the manna and winning the battle against the Canaanites. Yet, the traveling seemed endless and they began grumbling against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.”
In response, He sent fiery serpents among the grumblers. They bit the people and many died. Moses interceded so God told him “Make a bronze serpent, attach it to a pole and raise it up. Whoever looks up to it will live.” And those who looked up to it did live.
Jesus made that old story current and relevant by saying “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Why that reference?
The ground represents the human heart and the serpents are its motives. Ours are fiery; they characterize our wicked, deceitful ways—and without intervention, they will lead us to our eternal death (from Jeremiah 17:9). It was Moses’ law that predicted Jesus would be God’s necessary intervention. His Son’s motives are altruistic (portrayed by the bronze serpent); He was worthy of being lifted up on the cross above Moses—saving us from death by giving new life. (We will look at the connection to Satan and the ground a bit later.)
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14)
I asked the question “Who’s over you?” If you are trying to do good and not do bad, you are looking up to a law that defines them—and it simply defines guilt and the associated penalty; it can’t prove innocence. (In their case it was the Law of Moses; our embedded one serves the same purpose.)
If you are trusting in God’s grace, you are looking up to Jesus. You are under one or the other. It can’t be both. And wavering between them is disastrous. Jesus explained that with His cloth and wineskin parables.
The transition from the Old to the New Covenant would take place when He, the Bridegroom, would be taken from them. (They are at the end of Luke chapter five.)
He first used the example of patching an old item of clothing with new fabric, saying that the old would be ripped apart by the new. Next was putting new wine in an old wineskin, saying that the new would burst the old right open.
The clothing represents righteousness like the fig-leaves and the animal-skin coverings in the garden. The Old Covenant provided righteousness by works under its Law and the New provides it by faith in Him. The wine represents the blood of the covenant. The Old relied on animals’ blood and the New relies on His own.
The two covenants are totally incompatible: the New would overcome the Old—He would supersede Moses.
The Law must come to an end in a person’s life for grace to be a reality. Else, like the leaven that works throughout a batch of dough, the never-ending works required by the Law will overtake him—he will rely on them for God’s (and other people’s) acceptance.
We use that word to describe things in our world. In dance, grace is the smooth gliding movements across the floor. In music, grace-notes are the brisk accents that engagingly carry the listener between chords. In gatherings, social-grace is the ability to pleasantly (and peacefully) join in conversations and activities with others. In nature, it’s the seemingly effortless motion of trees swaying, water creatures swimming and birds soaring.
God’s grace refers to His relationship with us from the time we are saved here on earth to when we are holding hands with our loving Bridegroom at the marriage feast in heaven. He has made every provision for our interactions with Him to be smooth, gliding, engaging, pleasing, inoffensive and effortless. It’s up to us to believe that to be true and enjoy even this time with Him.
Sure, our initial understanding of grace was that the Law’s constraints on our behaviors have been removed. However, as we grow in faith, we find that grace is synonymous with His total acceptance of who we have become: new creations in Christ, a part of His body, joined together with Him.
“I’m sorry, please have mercy and please don’t give me what I deserve.” Essentially that is what we ask when a policeman stops us for a traffic violation. And it’s what we begged from our parents, teachers and supervisors when we got caught doing something wrong. However, that can’t be how we relate to God—not if we believe that Jesus really, already did everything to reconcile us. Asking for mercy is going back to the Law and denying what He did—it’s falling from grace (from Galatians 5:4).
“It’s just not fair, I deserve justice.” It does sound right and it’s natural to feel that way after being wronged. We want everyone to know we aren’t guilty and we want that other person to suffer the penalty of our choosing. It’s what our flesh craves but it’s not God’s way. (That is the subject of the remainder of Galatians chapter five.) Wanting justice is evicting God from His throne as Judge.
God simply wants us to trust Him. He is working out every detail of this life (using the pleasant and the harsh) for our good (from Romans 8:28).
“Grace and peace to you” is a greeting found in the first few verses of most of the New Testament letters. Together those two words, grace and peace, describe God’s goal for a believer’s life. However, at least an introduction to grace must come before peace can be attained.
It might not be called that in the Old Testament, but it’s remarkably depicted in the familiar stories:
Living in grace through faith is trusting that there is nothing you can do to mess things up between the two of you. You can relax and rely on His friendship, His companionship during your troubles, His provision for your needs, His work in your heart and the hearts of those dear to you, His Spirit’s presence in your every breath, His profound love for you. Literally, you are the love of His life.
Let’s not forget what changed. The time was over for dramas and pictures from the Old Covenant with earthly mediators presenting earthly sacrifices for earthly sins. Jesus, the One who was pictured by it, was born, crucified and raised to new life. Through that, God has revealed Himself so that we can understand and know Him personally—intimately.
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)
His proving ground for maturing you in grace is right here on earth. It’s achieved through experiences—individually, and as a family member, a worker, a neighbor, a friend, an ambassador of Christ.
God isn’t rating how good or faithful you are. Instead He is proving that He is totally trustworthy—that He is necessary and sufficient for every bit of your life.
As you go through your day and recognize Him at work on your behalf, not always doing things the way you want, and often leaving you wondering what is next, you have an opportunity to increase your dependency on Him and experience a wondrous result: “the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension” (from Philippians 4:6-7).