ur first hymn this morning was "Amazing Grace," usually regarded as America 's favorite hymn. John Newton wrote this autobiographical hymn 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." One of the Methodist preachers, his tombstone epitaph at Wesley's Chapel in London sums up his salvation experience, "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.
In today's text Jesus tells us about two men praying at the Temple . One man was a self-righteous Pharisee, and the other a repentant Publican, a tax collector working for the occupying forces of Rome . Jesus told this story to an audience of outwardly religious people. They were moral legalists who not only kept the Old Testament Law, but added additional sanctions and kept every one. They were what modern psychology calls “obsessive rule keepers.” They were compulsively following rules for rules sake.
We have heard Jesus' story retold many times, but to remind us: The Pharisee prayed in a scornful and condescendingly proud manner out loud so that all could hear his speech; "God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." (NASB) His head was held high as he prayed to the crowd 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 legal task.
The tax collector's prayer was a humble prayer that God might extend forgiveness and undeserved mercy. 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." Jesus said to those that were in his audience that day that the humble Publican had found justification and the proud Pharisee had missed it.
C. S. Lewis used to say that the prayer that ever penitent must pray is, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
Although Luke did not record the reaction of the folks to whom Jesus originally told this story, we can imagine the anger of some of those, "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 all probability, some in the crowd that day must have sensed in Jesus' story that an entirely new plan of salvation was dawning. They heard Jesus introducing new notions about justification, mercy and grace. Perhaps some from that crowd continued to listen and later witnessed Jesus' martyrdom and resurrection. Maybe some heard him preach again in Galilee and with the Apostles, and thousands of other followers came to understand this new means of salvation through the Amazing Grace of God. We can even hope that the proud Pharisee had his soul reborn as he cried out to Jesus for mercy and salvation. Nearly all of the first Christians were originally Jews, so we can assume that some in the crowd that day later experienced the saving grace of our Lord.
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. It is the magnanimous love of God that makes it happen.
Justification by faith comes whenever we despair of trying to please God by our goodness and throw ourselves on Him for mercy. Amazing Grace is ours as God looks upon us anew through the merits of His Son, just-as-if we were sinless.
Grace 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 "spiritual progress" in every believer's 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, "Earn 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 aspects 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 true righteousness comes as a byproduct of experiential grace. As a result of grace we believers are then eager to press on to a higher and higher level of new life in Christ. By his own witness, the “Amazing Grace” that John Newton experienced kept calling him to move to new levels of spiritual growth as God used him more and more. “ By the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved , restored , pardoned and appointed to preach. This can be our experience too!
sermon synopsis by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor