Ephesians 2:8-10 & John 1:10-18
January 3, 2016
At Christmas ten days ago, we celebrated such “good news of great joy” that you’d think we’d never forget it or distort it. But, alas, we somehow manage!
What is this “good news of great joy”? It is that the Son of God crossed the threshold of this benighted, sin-sick world, took human flesh and shared all our troubles, finally to die in our place and make a way for us to have a great life here and now … and an even greater one in the hereafter! It is that, out of a loving concern for our welfare way out of proportion to our worthiness, the Son of God came from outside our world inside of it in order to do everything that needed to be done to save us and fulfill us forever.
Our first scripture today says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And our second scripture tells us that Jesus, “full of grace and truth”, came to make a new and glorious life possible for everyone, apart from any contribution from them, and solely due to His “grace upon grace”.
What is “grace”? It is unearned favor, undeserved kindness, unmerited generosity – in gratuitous and ridiculous extravagance.
Unfortunately, we like to sneak in the illusion that what is in fact a sheer gift is actually something we can take some credit for – by, say, wisely choosing to put our trust in Jesus, humbly admitting our need of God’s help, or faithfully doing what the Bible tells us.
Sometimes the way we use scripture encourages this wrong turn of thought. For example, Revelation 3:20 gives a picture of Christ’s seeking a renewal of fellowship with believers who have lost interest in keeping up a friendship with Him. It reads, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” In his classic artistic rendering of this scripture, painter William Holman Hunt deliberately draws the door on which Christ is knocking without an outside knob. He did that, he said, to convey the truth that the door must be opened by the person on the inside, that – to avail of Christ’s offer of friendship – an individual must choose to act in response to His overtures.
Evangelists have long used Revelation 3:20 to address, not the situation of believers who have lost their connection with Christ, but that of unbelievers who have never had that connection. The evangelists want to urge people to open the door to their hearts to Him, because He would never enter their life without their invitation. But such an emphasis suggests that whether that relationship happens is at that point entirely the individual’s responsibility, a product of their doing.
Yet, though we experience the striking up of a friendship with Christ as the effect of our free decision, the Bible teaches that it is in fact all God’s doing. For Colossians 2:13 describes the situation this way: “When you were dead in trespasses … God made you alive.” In other words, the person on the inside of the door is spiritually as dead as a door nail, and no corpse can get up to open a door, let alone hear that someone is knocking!
If you we tried to depict Revelation 3:20 by a video rather than a static painting, we’d show Jesus climbing through an open window, putting that corpse’s cold lifeless hand into His, turning the knob with it Himself, and throwing open the door so that God’s life and light would surge in and in a flash of Easter glory resurrect that dead man into a new man bristling with energy.
When Jesus was teaching His disciples, He spoke to even them as dead men walking. He said to them that “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” and then he told them straight on, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
We like to imagine we did something to make ourselves “savable”, telling ourselves that at least we recognized the truth, admitted our wrongdoing or took the leap of faith. Yet, in truth, we could do none of those things unless God had unplugged our ears, opened our eyes, illumined our minds, moved our hearts, solidified our wills and made us alive with faith. We are indeed “saved by grace” and it is “not our own doing”.
It is all God’s doing from beginning to end. That’s why the Bible describes Jesus as both “the author” and “the finisher” of our faith. He creates our salvation from scratch and develops it until it is full and mature. Yes, each step of the way we have to do something: put in our so-called “contribution”. But the wise among us understand that whatever we have to put in is what God in His grace first gave us and that our every contribution is but a product of His prior initiative, and thus something responsive and derivative.
If ever we catch ourselves being “hyper-responsible” and becoming so consumed with our doing our part that we leave no room for God to take part, we have lost our grip on the faith life of living by “grace upon grace”, and we are missing out on its greatest blessings.
Since God got us on His team in the first place, wouldn’t it make sense to turn to Him for the insight and strength to play our position on it well? Wouldn’t we view, say, our faithfulness in spiritual disciplines or our commitment to community service as just exercising another capacity He gave us by grace? Wouldn’t we emphasize – as, say, we seek to reconcile with an alienated sibling, get along with a difficult co-worker, make good on an important New Year’s resolution, or take on City Hall – trusting more than trying harder and praying more than performing better? Wouldn’t we feel the Christian life as a happy and hopeful dependence on Someone entirely dependable rather than as a grim and determined work of diligence we have to grind out on our own?
To live by “grace upon grace” is to bear in mind that God both justifies and sanctifies us, both calls us in the first place and keeps us to the last. Truly the life of faith is one of letting go and letting God!
Yes, we will be laboring. Yes, we will be making sacrifices and enduring pains. Yes, we will be knuckling down and giving our best. But we will do all that, not as those who are not full of themselves, but as those who are trusting, grateful, joyful and wildly in love with Someone who blesses us wildly out of proportion to our deserving. Living by “grace upon grace” is a thing of grace itself!