So Amazing About Grace?
Last Sunday we heard Jesus' story about a widow who kept seeking justice from an unjust judge. She persisted and prevailed. The meaning of the illustration is that our loving Heavenly Father will grant us justice if we keep on praying. (Luke 18:1-8). In the vocabulary of salvation, to be justified means to be brought into reconciliation with persons and with God. The wall of separation has been taken down. Grace has been sought and found.
Today we have read another of Jesus' stories about justification, which begins where last week's text stopped, as Jesus tells about a self-righteous Pharisee and a repentant Tax Collector. Jesus first told the story to people who were trusting in their own righteousness as their way to please God. They were moral and good people, many of them ultra religious Pharisees who not only kept the Law, but added additional rules and kept them too.
You have heard the story told repeatedly, but to remind you, the Pharisee prayed in a scornful and condescendingly proud manner, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." (NRSV). His head was held high as he prayed to heaven and his eyes were fully open as he must have been glancing around to make sure that everyone in an earshot could see him performing his sacred duty. He recognized a sinful Publican standing afar off by himself praying.
The Publican who worked for the despised occupying Roman Empire as a percentage kickback tax collector was repentantly and humbly praying that God might extend mercy. In fact, he felt so guilty that he would not look up to heaven to pray, but kept his head humbly bowed, as we still do when we pray. He beat his chest saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Hearing and seeing both men praying, Jesus said that the humble Publican had found justification and not the arrogant Pharisee.
Although Luke did
not record the reaction of the self-righteous folks to whom Jesus originally
told this parable, and only Luke's Gospel records the stories at all,
we can imagine the anger of some of them, "who trusted in themselves
that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." One
can sympathize with their anger because, after all, they were diligently
living up to the standard of the religious tradition in which they had
been reared. In fact, are not all religions basically a matter of performing
However, some in the crowd that day must have sensed in Jesus' stories that an entirely new age was dawning. They heard Jesus introducing new notions about justification, mercy and grace. Perhaps some from that crowd continued to listen and perhaps later witnessed Jesus' martyrdom and resurrection. Maybe some heard him preach again in Galilee and with the disciples came to grasp this new means of salvation through the Amazing Grace of God.
You see, there was hope for the Pharisees who first heard Jesus' object lesson about what this new concept of justification required. People can change and their hearts can be enlightened to experience a new salvation by grace. The core of Amazing Grace is New Life in Jesus Christ. Through Him we can be forgiven by God and then will want to forgive others.
Our first hymn this morning was "Amazing Grace," usually regarded as America's favorite hymn; although it may be temporarily supplanted by the song we have all been singing in response to our tragedy of September 11th, "God Bless America." John Newton wrote his autobiographical "Amazing Grace" as one whose life had been transformed by Jesus' mercy. He had been a cruel slave trader but Amazing Grace saved "a wretch like him." His tombstone epitaph at Wesley's Chapel in London sums up his new life, "John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy."
Although God has His own way with each soul it seems that the lesson in Jesus' parables is that submission to Christ is the beginning of salvation. Justification by faith comes whenever we despair of trying to please Him by our goodness and throw ourselves on Him for mercy. Amazing Grace is ours as God looks upon us through the merits of His Son Just-As-If we were sinless.
How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
These first two verses express the preaching of the early Methodists that caught hold of millions of hearts in England, America and around the world. It not only changed the lives of individuals, but this theology of grace resulted in the development of what we now know as Western Civilization. The idea of "Progress" in one's spiritual life resulted in a new zeal in the everyday working lives of new industrialists. The development of machines meant that millions had jobs in mills and plants. Many lived by one of John Wesley's truisms, "Make all you can, save all you can and give all you can!" Free Grace resulted in a free market, which encouraged competition in business and a persuasive notion of advancement in every aspect of people's lives. Evangelical Christianity founded great universities as new mission fields were discovered and as converts were taught to move on to a higher level in all of life.
The meliorating love of God's Amazing Grace inevitably leads its beneficiaries into a reformed and more righteous life. See how things come around, salvation does not begin with righteousness, but it comes as a byproduct. As a result of grace we are eager to press on to a higher and higher level of new life in Christ. I hope this is your experience too!
synopsis by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor