1. The problem statement
The struggle between the grace of God and sinful Christian living is not an unknown battle in the church.
This struggle raises urgent questions: if a Christian is living only by grace, what about our sins? Does the grace of God mean that grace covers all our sins? Must we be more lenient towards Christians who sin? Will an appeal for a holy, Christ-like living according to God’s will, lead to an underestimation of God’s grace in Jesus? When do we fall back to “righteousness” by keeping the law, against which Paul so furiously warned us?
What is the outstanding marvel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ?
Where is the line between grace and responsible holy living?
2. Abundance of grace
John wrote one of the most important portions in the Bible on the grace of God: “The Word became a human being and, full of grace (steadfast or kind love, love in action) and truth (faithfulness, Jesus himself was the truth and He revealed God truthfully to us), lived amongst us (pitched his tent amongst us). We saw his glory (greatness), the glory He received as the Father’s only Son… Out of his fullness we all have received, grace upon grace (we experience one expression of God’s grace after another from his fullness). For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side (bosom, heart, closest to Him) has made Him known (explained God)” (John 1: 14, 16, 17).
Jesus, who came from the heart of his Father, revealed his Father to us. This is the most authentic and accurate revelation of God, but it is also, according to the content, the most astonishing truth of God’s attitude towards people.
Whatever you try to say about the content or truth of these few verses, one must first consider the source of the content, who is the Giver of the grace and what is the substance of the grace and truth?
3. Old Testament covenant fulfilled in Jesus
To comprehend the meaning of “grace upon grace” we may attempt to understand it from an Old Testament perspective.
God made a covenant with His people. On the one side of the covenant was a loving God with his everlasting faithfulness that reaches to the heavens; on the other side were his people with their ever recurring unfaithfulness which reached a breaking point during the times of the great prophets. This covenant became a sinking ship on the rocks of God’s people’s sins and unfaithfulness.
“Grace upon grace” means that God in his holy Son Jesus, became man. He also became the second partner in the covenant. He took our position in which we had failed. He paid with his death for our sins and became a faithful and true partner of his Father’s covenant. “Grace upon grace” is the truth of God on both sides of the covenant so that we may experience God’s goodness and love.
Grace is sometimes explained as faithful love or kind love or love in action. This abundance of grace is the result of God’s immeasurable love. Paul prayed that the Holy Spirit may take us on a journey to comprehend God’s love in Jesus Christ, but then he concluded: “that surpasses knowledge,” (Eph 3:19). God’s love is greater than we can ever think or imagine. We are not saved by our own works, or any merits we think we deserve, but by God’s abundance of grace alone.
4. Grace is always without merit from our side, no self-righteousness
Salvation from beginning to end is a gift of God’s grace, it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that a sinner can be reconciled with God. This is one of the greatest Biblical truths which people, right trough the history of the church, tampered with and which they changed to all kinds of moralism, legalism, human self-righteousness, and a holiness consisting of human merits. This will always be a strategy of Satan, a very dangerous one, coming to us camouflaged as an angel of light. Let us be clear on this Biblical truth: all people are sinners and cannot save themselves, they can only be saved by faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Even their possibilities to go to heaven are based on grace and not on merits.
5. The grace God offers us in his holy Son Jesus Christ is more than: a free-of-charge deal, it is a total new life
However, grace is much more than ‘pasella’, a free-of-charge deal. Grace is God’s miracle in Jesus Christ. It is God in action in Jesus, changing humanity and the world to something totally new. It is nothing less than a new creation, a new reality, a dominion established once and for all by Jesus Christ. To understand this you must also understand the meaning of “truth” that goes with grace.
6. Grace and truth
Truth may correctly be understood as the truth against the lie. In addition, according to the gospel of John it is much more, it is: the world of God, the world of truth, light and life against the world of the devil, the world of the lie, darkness, sin and death. The devil is the father of the lie. Jesus brought the truth of God. Jesus, as God himself, revealed the truth of who God really is. According to John, Jesus himself is the truth in everything He did for us, in His death and resurrection.
“Grace and truth” is the subject matter of God almighty coming to the world in the life of Jesus and what He did for us. It is everything Jesus stands for. When we accept this it becomes quite clear that: when grace is only a free of charge business without the changing power of Jesus that changes a sinner to a person with a new lifestyle, there is no grace at all. In the New Testament the grace of Jesus is always His power through the Holy Spirit working in Christians to empower them and to change them to the image of Christ.
7. Grace changes a Christian to be an active participant. The changing power of grace
In this changing event of grace a Christian becomes an active participant. You find a marvelous example in Philippians 3:12: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
What Jesus Christ did in His death and resurrection is a fact (indicative). This fact is miraculously applied by the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life. This new life created through Christ, makes a Christian a true and genuine covenant partner, a partner who wants to – and is able to comply to his part of the covenant, to obey God’s commands (imperative): “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Phil 2:13). A Christian becomes a genuine partner who loves God and has decided to obey God and serve Him vigorously. God takes hold of a Christian, enabling him to constantly hold onto God. This human effort is made possible by God’s intervention of grace that precedes our effort.
Grace is God’s enabling power that helps people to always say no to sin and yes to a Christ-like living, much more, in fact to enable them to live a holy life. In other words, somebody who experiences God’s grace, is not judgmental towards others, but is serious about the reality and seriousness of sin.
8. The disastrous reality of sin versus a life in the grace and truth of Christ
Paul has another argument why a life built on God’s grace cannot be tolerant towards sin. He asked the question: “shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” His answer was clear-cut: “God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” His argument is that sin brings a bondage to the devil and he becomes your master, while a Christian is freed from the bondage of sin to serve the Lord as his new Master.
It is two different worlds and lifestyles: one of bondage to the devil and sin, darkness, evil and rebellion against God; and the other one of freedom, of Christ in us and the Holy Spirit working Christ’s resurrection power and holiness in us, and eternal life.
To the Ephesians Paul wrote that we are saved by grace and that: “for we are God’s workmanship, created (recreated) in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (2;10).
How is it possible to be sitting with Christ in heaven, to be in Christ and to have all his fullness in us and still keep on living as a sinner with the perception that God’s grace gives us an okay.
Christians who really experience God’s grace will always be serious about the fear of the Lord and Christ-like living.
9. End times
In this struggle between grace and righteousness, there may be something to consider that Paul warned us against during the end times: “for the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim 3:3). We may have such a desire to influence people positively for our church that we twist the truth. There is a daring and amazing arrogant attack on Biblical truths today.
May the good Lord of grace keep you close to Him. Enjoy your preaching.