Grace and Peace

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 ESV

As is obvious from the book’s title, this is a second letter written by Paul to the congregation of the church in Thessalonica. There may have been other letters written as well, but they were not included in the Canon of Scripture. There is no indication as to how much time had passed since Paul had written his first letter, but it is clear that he had received new information regarding the spiritual state of affairs in Thessalonica and he felt compelled to pen his response.

Paul was still in Corinth, some 358 miles away, when he heard the latest report concerning affairs in Thessalonica. Driven by his pastor’s heart, but hindered by the distance between them, Paul immediately put pen to paper in an effort to clarify the confusion that had entered the church through false teachers. This was a constant problem for Paul and the other apostles. As soon as they proclaimed the good news regarding salvation alone through Christ alone, others would appear on the scene, declare themselves to be teachers, and begin offering what Paul elsewhere refers to as “different gospel.”

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 ESV

These “false” teachers were propagating their own version of the truth, adding to or taking away from the message concerning Jesus that Paul and the rest of the apostles had been divinely commissioned to preach. But as Paul told the churches in Galatia, these individuals were to be treated as enemies of God and as threats to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:8 ESV

But before broaching the subject of the doctrinal controversy going on in Thessalonica, Paul addressed his audience in his usual gracious manner, expressing his strong affection for them and complimenting them for their “steadfastness and faith” in the face of all the persecutions and afflictions they were having to endure. The members of the Thessalonian church were still relatively new converts to Christianity and they were living in a predominantly pagan culture heavily influenced by both Greek and Roman culture. Located on a major trade route, Thessalonica was a cultural melting pot and enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. As the capital of the Roman province of Macedon, it also benefited from the protection provided by Caesar’s powerful legions.

But all of these factors made Thessalonica a particularly hostile environment for those who had chosen to place their faith in Christ. While considered a rather pluralistic society, there was strong resistance to Christianity from the Greeks as well as the small contingent of Jews who called Thessalonica home. The small but growing band of Christ-followers were feeling intense pressure from all sides as they attempted to live out their new faith under less-than-ideal conditions.

But Paul, writing on behalf of his ministry companions, Silvanus and Timothy, compliments the Thessalonians for their steadfastness and perseverance under fire.

We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. – 2 Thessalonians 1:4 NLT

While the circumstances around them were difficult, these faithful few were not giving in or choosing to give up. In fact, Paul emphasizes that they were handling the pressure with remarkable poise and persistence.

…your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. – 2 Thessalonians 1:3 ESV

Paul opens his letter with his usual salutation, declaring his desire that they enjoy the ongoing benefit of God’s grace and peace. While Paul used this same phrasing in many of his letters, it should not be seen as some rote and therefore, meaningless line. He meant what he said. His desire that they experience God’s grace or unmerited favor was real. For Paul, the grace of God played an indispensable role in every believer’s salvation, but also in their ongoing sanctification. Without the benefit of God’s grace, no one could come to faith in Christ.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. – Romans 3:24 NLT

And God’s grace continues to play a vital role in the believer’s transformation into the likeness of Christ. He graciously provides each and every believer with His indwelling Holy Spirit, who provides the power required to live the Christian life. And Paul warned the believers in Galatia just how futile and foolish it is to try achieve spiritual maturity without God’s grace, as demonstrated by the Spirit’s enabling power.

After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? – Galatians 3:3 NLT

Paul knew that without the ongoing benefit of God’s unmerited favor, the Thessalonian believers would never experience the fulness of joy and the abundant life Christ promised to give them.

But he also knew that the peace of God was another essential resource in their ongoing spiritual transformation. In his letter to the churches in Philippi, Paul described this peace as that which “exceeds anything we can understand” (Philippians 4:7 NLT). And he assured them that God’s “peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

When Paul commended the Thessalonians for their faith and love, and complimented them for their steadfastness and faith, he knew that it was all attributable to the grace and peace of God. He was at work in their midst. He had saved them and He was also sustaining and supporting them as their spiritual journey continued. Paul was fully convinced in the reality of God’s ongoing participation in the life of every believer, a belief he expressed boldly and often.

Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:7-8 NLT

The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 NLT

The Thessalonians were in good hands. They had everything they needed for living the godly life because of the grace of God the Father. And as Peter reveals, Paul was not alone in this confident assertion.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. – 2 Peter 1:3 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Good, the Bad, and God

34 To crush underfoot
    all the prisoners of the earth,
35 to deny a man justice
    in the presence of the Most High,
36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
    the Lord does not approve.

37 Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
39 Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

40 Let us test and examine our ways,
    and return to the Lord! – Lamentations 3:34-40 ESV

Jeremiah was painfully aware that the nation of Judah stood fully and justifiably condemned before God. They were guilty as charged and their fate had been ordained by the hand of God. It was the just and righteous punishment they so thoroughly deserved. And while God had graciously delayed His judgment for generations, He had not forgotten His promise to punish His chosen people for their rejection of Him. Their spiritual infidelity had become so pervasive that He could no longer allow them to defame His holy name through their unholy actions.

Jeremiah reminds his fellow citizens that God had not been blind to their behavior. He had seen it all. And He had grown tired of their blatant disregard for His holy law. They had long ago forgotten what it means to live in obedience to God’s law. The admonition delivered by Moses to the Israelites while they were still in the wilderness had been clear and compelling.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the LORD your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. And you must always obey the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good. – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 NLT

And yet, over the centuries, God’s people had failed to live in a way that pleased Him. They made it all about themselves. God became little more than a cosmic Genie in a bottle, whom the Israelites turned to when all else failed. They had long ago forgotten what it means to fear God, treating the Almighty as if He was just one more god in a long list of possible options. And over time, their outward behavior stood as evidence of their unbelief. Their actions condemned them.

And Jeremiah had spent years pointing out the glaring wickedness of their ways.

“Among my people are wicked men
who lie in wait for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind.
They continually set traps
to catch people.
Like a cage filled with birds,
their homes are filled with evil plots.
And now they are great and rich.
They are fat and sleek,
and there is no limit to their wicked deeds.
They refuse to provide justice to orphans
and deny the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?” says the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?” – Jeremiah 5:26-29 NLT

And now, Jeremiah reminds his fellow sufferers that they had received the just recompense for their sins against God.

If people crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the land,
if they deprive others of their rights
in defiance of the Most High,
if they twist justice in the courts—
doesn’t the Lord see all these things? – Lamentations 3:34-36 NLT

They had lived their lives as if God was blind or oblivious to their actions. But now they knew that He had seen it all and He had held them accountable. Everything that had happened to them was the direct result of God’s sovereign will. It had not been a mistake. It had not been the result of poor timing, bad luck, or the fickleness of fate. It had been the providential plan of God Almighty.

Who can command things to happen
without the Lord’s permission?
Does not the Most High
send both calamity and good?
Then why should we, mere humans, complain
when we are punished for our sins? – Lamentations 3:37-39 NLT

The people of Judah couldn’t blame Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians for their problems. They had been little more than instruments in the hands of God. They had been His chosen means for delivering His divine judgment against a stubborn rebellious people. The people of Judah had been punished by God for their sins against Him. And they had no cause to complain.

For years, they had lived in a state of overconfidence, basking in the goodness of God’s blessings, while regularly disobeying His commands. They thought they were immune from judgment. As God’s chosen people, they lived with a false sense of security, wrongly assuming that they were divinely protected from harm. But disobedience always leads to discipline. They were wrong to assume that their unique relationship with God made them untouchable by God. If anything, God was holding them to a higher standard. He had expected them to live lives that were distinctively different from all the other nations around them.

But their behavior had brought shame to the name of God. Their actions reflected poorly on His character. As His children, they bore God’s name, but they had failed to live up to their calling as His sons and daughters. Now, they were suffering the consequences for their blatant disregard for His holiness.

“For I, the LORD, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:45 NLT

Their holiness was not an option. It had been God’s expectation from the moment He had chosen Abram out of Ur and promised to make of him a great nation. His descendants would be God’s chosen people, unique among all the nations of the earth. And their relationship with God, determined by His law and regulated by His sacrificial system, was to have set them apart as holy and wholly belonging to Him. But their lack of holiness had left a black eye on God’s character. And now they were suffering because of it.

So, Jeremiah calls them to examine their lives and to understand that their current circumstances were ordained by God and were for their own good.

…let us test and examine our ways.
Let us turn back to the Lord. – Lamentations 3:40 NLT

God had blessed them. Now, God was punishing them. But it was all for their good. And Jeremiah wanted them to learn the invaluable lesson that both the good and the bad come from the hand of God. And both are conditioned upon the love of God. He disciplines those whom He loves. But it is often difficult for us to recognize God’s love when it shows up as correction. It feels like anger. It comes across as rejection. But as Jeremiah stated earlier in this same chapter.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning. – Lamentations 3:22-23 NLT

As God’s children, we must learn to recognize His love in all the circumstances of life. From the good to the bad, the enjoyable to the painful, the indescribable to the inexplicable, God never falls out of love with us. And, like Job, we must learn to see that God’s love never fails, whether we fail to understand it or not.

“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Standard For Forgiveness

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” –  Matthew 18:23-35 ESV

In an effort to drive home His message regarding forgiveness, Jesus told His disciples a parable. It’s important to remember that this whole section of Matthew’s gospel had begun with an argument among the disciples about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were obviously thinking that Jesus was going to set up a kingdom on earth where they would rule and reign alongside Him. That’s why the two brothers, James and John, had asked Jesus to do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Their perception of the kingdom was all about power, position, and prominence. But Jesus was attempting to show them that it was about character and conduct. The day was coming when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, but that would not take place until after the Great Tribulation – an event reserved for the end of the age. In the meantime, those who would become members of His spiritual kingdom were to lives marked by humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus had come to change the hearts of men and, as a result, their outward behavior. Rather than arguing about who was the greatest, the disciples should have been introducing others to the Messiah. They should have been following the example of Jesus by serving the needs of those who were burdened by the cares of this world.

One of the marks of a follower of Jesus Christ should be a capacity to forgive others as they have been forgiven by God. Peter wanted to put a limit on how many times he should have to forgive a brother who sinned against him. He chose the number seven. But Jesus raised the ante by stating, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). In essence, there was to be no limit. Just as God puts no limit on the number of times we can come to Him for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had prayed, “May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:30 ESV).  Solomon went on to give a list of what-if scenarios, describing situations in which the people of God might sin against God and then call on Him for forgiveness. Because he knew it was inevitable that they would sin.

“The time will come when your people will sin against you (for there is no one who is sinless!) and you will be angry with them and deliver them over to their enemies, who will take them as prisoners to their own land, whether far away or close by. When your people come to their senses in the land where they are held prisoner, they will repent and beg for your mercy in the land of their imprisonment, admitting, ‘We have sinned and gone astray; we have done evil.’ When they return to you with all their heart and being in the land where they are held prisoner, and direct their prayers to you toward the land you gave to their ancestors, your chosen city, and the temple I built for your honor, then listen from your heavenly dwelling place to their prayers for help and vindicate them. Forgive all the rebellious acts of your sinful people and cause their captors to have mercy on them.” – 1 Kings 8:46-50 NLT

Solomon greatly desired that God would extend forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances involved or the number of times a request was invoked. Unlike Peter, Solomon wanted God to place no numerical limits on God’s forgiveness.

Like Solomon, we expect God to forgive us, regardless of the nature of our sin or the number of times we ask. Which brings us to Jesus’ parable. He used a story to drive home His message about forgiveness and life within His kingdom. A certain king called together his bondservants, requiring them to settle their debts with him. In this parable, the debts symbolize sin. The inference in the story is that all of the king’s bondservants owed him something. Remember the words of Solomon: “for there is no one who is sinless!”

One particular bondservant owed the king 10,000 talents. To understand the magnitude of this man’s debt, you have to realize that, at that time, a single talent was equivalent to 20-years wages for a servant. This man’s debt was astronomical and beyond his capacity to repay. So, the king ordered that the man, his family, and all his possessions be sold in order to recoup some of the loss. But the man begged the king for leniency. He knew he was at the king’s mercy and, in spite of the magnitude of his debt, he asked the king to give him time to come up with the money.

This was an absurd request. The servant and the king both knew that repayment was impossible. We are not told how the servant amassed such a debt, but his ability to make restitution was well beyond his means. The king, in an attempt to cut his losses, determined to sell the man and his family as slaves. But the servant begged the king for time, vowing to pay his debt in full. Amazingly, in a display of pity for the man’s predicament, the king “released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27 ESV).

Don’t miss that last part. It is essential to understanding this parable. The king didn’t give the man extra time. He didn’t lower the interest rate on the note or decrease the amount owed. He forgave the man’s entire debt. He wiped the slate clean.

But rather than rejoicing at this incredible news, the forgiven man immediately accosted a fellow servant who owed him money. This man’s debt was a hundred denarii. A denarius was worth a single day’s wages for the average servant. From the debtor’s perspective, it was a lot of money, but nothing when compared to the amount the first man had owed. And yet, the forgiven servant demanded immediate payment. He wanted the debt settled at once. And his fellow servant responded just as he had, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But rather than pass on the grace and mercy he had been shown, the man had his fellow servant thrown into jail.

When the king was informed that one of his servants had been jailed, he was surprised and angered. Calling in the ungrateful servant, the king told him, “Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33 NLT).

This man had been forgiven a great debt – one he could have never repaid. The king had given him what he did not deserve and what he had not asked for: Complete forgiveness of his debt. But then the man had turned around and had refused to extend forgiveness to someone else. It was the apostle Paul who stressed the need for believers to forgive as they have been forgiven.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32 NLT

It’s important to notice the punishment meted out by the king. He has the man thrown in jail “until he should pay all his debt.” The inference, based on the size of the debt, is that the man will spend an eternity in jail. Even if he was still able to earn a normal day’s wage, it would take him 200,000 years to repay the debt.

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on His disciples by announcing, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 ESV). Was Jesus announcing that eternal punishment awaits those who refuse to forgive? Was He teaching the possibility of the loss of our salvation? It would seem, based on the context in which Jesus told this parable, that He is simply trying to stress the extreme importance of forgiveness. It is to be a cardinal characteristic of the true follower of Christ. And it is those who recognize the degree of their sin debt and the remarkable grace of God’s forgiveness, who will be willing to express their gratitude by extending forgiveness to others. A man who has been forgiven much, but who refuses to forgive others, has never fully recognized the magnitude of his own sin debt. He is driven by pride, not humility. He is marked by arrogance, not gratitude.

At one point in His ministry, Jesus had his feet washed by a woman whom Luke referred to as immoral. The shocked Pharisees called her a sinner. But Jesus stated, “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love” (Luke 7:47 NLT).

Our sin debt is great. It is beyond our capacity to repay. And yet, Jesus died on the cross in order to ransom us from that debt. He paid the price we could not pay. And our gratitude for what He has done for us should show up in our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Grace For Godliness.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. – Titus 2:11-15 ESV

Paul has just given Titus detailed descriptions of the kind of conduct he is to expect from those who have been exposed to sound doctrine. But now, Paul makes it clear that it is not the teaching of sound doctrine that produces life change. An understanding of theology doesn’t save anyone. A good grasp on doctrine will never earn anyone a right standing with God. And it can’t truly transform anyone’s behavior. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day knew doctrine and theology, but Jesus regularly referred to them as hypocrites. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures, that prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, but failed to recognize Him when He stood right in front of them. The reason Paul emphasized the teaching of sound doctrine was because he knew that God had equipped each and every believer with the capacity to apply that doctrine to their lives and experience true life change. And it was all because “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2:11 ESV). This is a clear reference to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Paul made a similar reference when he wrote his second letter to Timothy.

For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News. – 2 Timothy 1:9-10 NLT

God showed us His grace by sending His son to provide us with a means of salvation. And notice what Paul says: God saved us and called us to live a holy life. That is exactly what Paul has just finished describing to Titus: what a holy life looks like for each and every believer in his local congregation. From the oldest to the youngest, male and female, and even bondservants, there was an expectation of godly behavior made possible by the grace of God. Jesus came, not only to bring salvation, but sanctification, and Paul describes it this way: “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12 ESV).

In other words, the salvation provided for us by the grace of God and made possible through the death of His Son, is not to be viewed as some kind of entry ticket to heaven. It isn’t a future pass into His Kingdom that has no present significance. No, Paul makes it clear that the grace of God includes our present and ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ. We are to grow in godliness – in the present age. Paul even seems to indicate that heaven is not to be our hope, but the return of Jesus Christ is. We are to “look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed” (Titus 2:13 NLT). It is the hope of that promise that should motivate us to live godly lives here and now. But it is the grace of God that provides us with the power we need to pull it off. The apostle Peter reminds us: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

Jesus Christ died for us, not just to get us into heaven, but to redeem us from the power of sin. And that process begins in this lifetime, not the next. Paul clearly states: “He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds” (Titus 2:14 NLT). Committed to doing good deeds when? In heaven? No, right here, right now. Jesus Himself stated: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). That abundant life begins at the point of salvation, not when we arrive in heaven. It is an ongoing process of transformation that takes place from the moment we place our faith in Jesus as Savior, and it will continue until He returns or the Father takes us home at the point of death. And Paul was so confident in God’s promise to transform each and every one of His children into the likeness of Christ, that he told the believers in Philippi: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Titus was to teach these truths to his people. He was to demand that they live lives of godliness, not in their own strength, but in the power and grace of God. Life change is possible. Character transformation is expected of each and every believer. And as far as Paul was concerned, a lack of change within the life of a professing believer was to be met with rebuke, not indifference. The author of Hebrews told his audience, “You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food” (Hebrews 5:12 NLT). Paul had to tell the believers in Corinth, “when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT). Spiritual growth in the life of a believer is not optional. Life transformation is an undeniable expectation and unavoidable outcome of the grace of God. Jesus did not die to leave us like we are. He set us free from slavery to sin. Paul provides the believers in Rome with these powerful words of reminder:

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. – Romans 6:12-14 NLT

The grace of God has set us free from the power of sin. We live under the freedom of God’s grace as provided by the death and resurrection of His Son. And Paul goes on to say, “Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living” (Romans 6:17-18 NLT). We have been given the grace to live godly lives. So, let’s do it.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Generous Grace.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.   2 Corinthians 8:1-8 ESV

Paul had been overwhelmed by the reception of his previous letter, even though it had ended up causing the Corinthians some serious sorrow. That sorrow had led to their repentance and they had responded in grace, love and gratitude. Now Paul takes the opportunity to appeal to that same grace in order to enlist their help with a pressing financial concern. For nearly five years, Paul had been actively soliciting funds from the churches he had helped establish throughout Macedonia, Galatia, Achaia, and Asia Minor. This money was being sent to help Hebrew Christians living in Judea, where they were suffering from the effects of a famine as well as the poverty that came as a result of their conversions to Christianity. Many had lost their jobs, been ostracized by their families or were having a difficult time trying to do business with their Jewish neighbors. Paul was constantly requesting that the churches over which he had influence, would participate in providing financial aid to their brothers and sisters in Judea. And Corinth would be no exception.

Paul began by informing the Corinthians of the generosity displayed by the churches in Macedonia, a neighboring region. In referring to the Philippians, Thessalonians, and Bereans, Paul was adroitly using comparison to make his appeal to the Corinthians. He points out that their neighbors to the north “have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2 ESV). And this was in spite of their own “extreme poverty.” Paul says, “they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will” (2 Corinthians 8:3 NLT). Not only that, they begged Paul for the opportunity to give. This was not the first time the Corinthians had heard about the need in Judea. Paul had raised this topic with them before in his first letter. He referred to it as the “collection for the saints” (1 Corinthians 16:1). But either the Corinthians had begun to give and then stopped, or they had never fully gotten behind the effort to begin with. Either way, Paul is now appealing to them to allow the grace of God to flow through them as it had done with the believers in Macedonia. Paul had a strong sense of community and unity when it came to the body of Christ. He wanted each congregation to understand and embrace their connection with and responsibility to the other fellowships located all around the world at that time. They were not to view themselves as independent entities, isolated and removed from the larger context of the family of God. They were to see themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing a common bond with believers all around the world. And Paul wants them to know that God desired to use them to extend His grace to the believers in Judea. Paul had even sent Titus to encourage their participation in this fund-raising effort. 

Paul reminds them that they are a gifted church. They excel “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness” (2 Corinthians 8:7 ESV). Paul had told them in his first letter, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift” (1 Corinthians 1:4-7 ESV). Now he wants them to add to their resume of giftedness this “act of grace.”  Paul tells them, “I want you to excel also in this gracious act of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7b NLT). But he doesn’t want them to do it under coercion or as a form of compliance to a command. It must be done in love. Giving without love is ultimately self-motivated, in order to get attention. Or what is given is soiled with selfishness, regret and sense of reluctance. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus taught, “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get” (Matthew 6:1-2 NLT). If you give in order to get praise, that is the only reward you will receive. That is what led Paul to write in his first letter, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV).

The giving of the Corinthians was to be an extension of the grace of God, flowing from Him through them and to the believers in Judea. God’s grace is anything but selfish and self-centered. It is an expression of His love. So in giving to the believers in Judea, the Corinthians would be showing the love and favor of God through their willing generosity. Giving was to be seen, not as an obligation, but as an opportunity to love others as they had been loved by God – generously, undeservedly, and graciously. In his first letter, Paul had sternly reminded the Corinthians, “What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7 NLT). They had become arrogant and prideful, seeing themselves as spiritual superior and blessed by God. Paul scolded them, “You think you already have everything you need. You think you are already rich” (1 Corinthians 4:8 NLT). But all that they enjoyed had come from God. It had all be a result of the grace of God. Their giftedness was God’s doing. Their salvation had been the result of Christ’s death, not their own merit. The reality of their indebtedness to God should have created in them a sense of gratitude that manifested itself in gracious generosity. Their giving was to be a reflection of the joy they felt for all that they had been given. We love because He first loved us. We give because He has given to us. We bless others because He has graciously blessed us.


Only By God’s Grace.

So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts.

Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. – Ephesians 6:21-23 ESV

For the first time in his letter, Paul turned his attention to himself. He had written the letter while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial. He had been arrested in Jerusalem having been accused by the Jews of defiling the temple by bringing Gentiles into it (Acts 21:28-30). The Jews had been so incensed at Paul that they were going to kill him, but he had been rescued by Roman soldiers. Paul ended up defending himself before the Sanhedrin, the Roman governor, King Agrippa, and eventually was shipped off to Rome because, as a Roman citizen, he had appealed for a trial before Caesar. So while under house arrest, he had written this letter to the Ephesians. In fact, Paul wrote many of his letters while physically detained in Rome. He made very good use of his time and continued to minister to the churches he had helped to plant.

Paul had a special place in his heart for the believers in each of the cities to which he wrote. He saw them as his spiritual children. He had a pastor’s heart for them, worrying about their spiritual well-being and knowing that they were all under spiritual attack from the enemy. That is why he wrote his many letters. He wanted to educate, encourage and instruct them in the faith. He desired to see them grow in Christ-likeness and continue to spread the good news of Jesus Christ around the world.

Paul knew that the churches to which he had ministered so faithfully worried about him. They were concerned with his well-being. They each felt a certain sense of dependency upon him as their spiritual mentor and father in the faith. So Paul regularly kept them updated as to his condition. With everything else going on, he did not want them to have to worry about him. So he told them he would send Tychicus, “the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” to bring them up to speed. It seems that Paul used Tychicus in this way quite often (Acts 20:4; Colossians 4:7; Titus 3:12; 2 Tiomothy 4:12). He was one of Paul’s constant companions and was able to travel to these various cities and keep the believers there informed as to the current status of Paul’s imprisonment and trial. Paul’s main purpose in sending Tychicus was that they might be encouraged. He did not want them worrying about him. He knew that they did not need any more distractions or discouragement than they already had.

Paul loved others. He cared deeply about them and was willing to do whatever it took to see that they grew in faith. He could be hard on them, pointing out their weaknesses and flaws. He could also be passionately compassionate, encouraging them in their weakness and calling them to not lose faith. Like a loving parent, Paul wanted what was best for his children, and he was willing to sacrifice his own life to see that the flock of God was healthy and whole. Paul was the consummate shepherd. Paul shared the heart of Jesus, who said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV). As a matter of fact, prior to heading to Rome to await his trial before Caesar, Paul had called for the elders from Ephesus and told them, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock – his church, purchased with his own blood – over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders” (Acts 20:28 NLT). And Paul had lived out that admonition in his own life – all the way from Rome. Paul had lived out the calling for elders penned by the apostle Peter.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly – not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. – 1 Peter 5:2 NLT

And in keeping with his role as a shepherd, Paul closed out his letter with a prayer for his flock in Ephesus. He prayed for three things: peace, love and faith. Peace is not an absence of trouble, but an awareness of God’s presence in the midst of trying times. Peace also can mean harmony between individuals. Paul knew that there would be plenty of potential for turmoil in the churches of Ephesus, because churches are comprised of people. And he knew that peace was going to be necessary if they were going to grow together and experience the unity that God desired for them. But peace is only possible when love is present. Mutual love is what brings about peace. The sacrificial, selfless love Paul for which Paul was praying is unifying, not dividing. It is healing, not hurtful. It is other-oriented, not self-centered. But the kind of love Paul is talking about is only possible through faith in Christ. It is not a self-manufactured kind of love, but is a natural expression of the love that God has for us by sending His own Son to die on our behalf. “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). In fact, all three of these attributes – peace, love and faith – come from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. They are divine gifts to the church and they are to be used for the mutual edification of one another.

Paul closed his letter the same way he opened it, with an emphasis on the grace of God. “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” (Ephesians 6:24 ESV). The grace of God, His undeserved favor, is the most remarkable thing any of us have ever received. But it is easy to lose sight of His grace and mistakenly assume that we somehow deserve His love. We can end up thinking that we are worthy of His forgiveness and capable of living the Christian life in our own strength. But Paul would have us remember that it is the grace of God that made our salvation possible. It is the grace of God that makes our sanctification achievable. It is the grace of God that makes loving He and His Son feasible. All that we are and all that we do is made possible by the grace of God.

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin!

Losing Our Grip On Grace.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. – Galatians 5:1-6 ESV

In these verses, Paul makes it clear that the rite of circumcision was one of the big issues facing the Gentile believers to whom he wrote. They were being pressured by the Judaizers into believing that their salvation was incomplete unless they agreed to be circumcised. In essence, they were being told that they needed to become Jews before they could become believers. But Paul warns them that there is not end to this slippery slope down which they are about to slide. If they give in to the demand of circumcision, then they will be required to keep the whole law. By accepting the idea that obedience to the law is necessary for their salvation, they are placing themselves back under the full weight of the law. As we saw in an earlier blog post, the apostle James made this point painfully clear: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10 ESV).

The issue for Paul is that of freedom in Christ. He says that it is “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). Most of us, when we think of our freedom in Christ, focus on our freedom from sin and death. And yet, Paul speaks of another freedom we enjoy because of our relationship with Christ. “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:5-6 ESV). Does our release from the law mean that the law was somehow evil? Paul answers that question rather emphatically. “By no means!the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:7, 12 ESV). What Paul is telling his readers is that the law is no longer to be viewed as a mandatory code of conduct or as a set of rules that must be obeyed to gain a right standing with God. We have been freed from that pointless pursuit. Paul spent his lifetime preaching the believer’s newfound freedom in Christ. That freedom includes our release from having to pursue justification through adherence to the law.

Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.” – Galatians 3:11-12 NLT

Paul did not want the Galatians to fall back into slavery. At one time they were slaves to sin and under the control of Satan himself. They had no other choice. But when they had accepted Christ as their Savior, they had been released from their captivity. But now they were risking falling back into slavery – slavery to the law. If they turned their backs on the grace offered through Christ and the justification that He alone could provide, they would be willingly allowing themselves to live according to their own self-reliance and their ability to keep God happy through rule-keeping. To do so would be to fall away from grace, and Paul was not willing to sit back and watch them do that. It is not that Paul believed they would run the risk of losing their salvation. That is not what falling away from grace means. He is simply saying that they will be walking away from God’s sole method of salvation and justification: His undeserved and unearned grace as offered through His Son by means of faith. In Paul’s theology, faith in God’s grace gift of His Son would result in good works and a willing adherence to His commands. In the minds of the legalists, it was the exact opposite. Man’s adherence to God’s law would earn him a right standing before God and was, if anything, as important as faith in Christ.

Paul gives us the key difference between a life that is grace-focused and one that is law-based. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5 ESV. It is by the Spirit’s power that we are to live, not our own. And it is He who provides us with the faith necessary to eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. We don’t manufacture faith. It is a gift provided to us by God. It is with the Spirit’s help that we have “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). That was the author of Hebrews description of faith. God’s indwelling Spirit provides us with the supernatural ability to believe in things that have not yet happened and to trust in those things we can’t even see. It is by faith that we believe we will be sanctified by God. We can’t see the end result. We can’t even see our sanctification taking place in real time. But we believe that God is doing what He has promised to do. Paul wanted believers to have a certainty and an abiding assurance that God had not only saved them by faith, but He was busy perfecting them by faith. And one day He was going to finish what He began by glorifying them by faith. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

God doesn’t need our help to make us holy. He simply asks for our complete reliance upon Him and our willing obedience to what He calls us to do, even when it doesn’t make sense.

 

Stand Firm in God’s Grace.

Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it! She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace be to you all who are in Christ. – 1 Peter 5:12-14 ESV

At this point in his letter, Peter begins his closing. It would appear that he has had help in putting his thoughts in writing from Sylvanus, which is probably a reference to Silas. Sylvanus is the Roman form of the Greek name, Silas. So as Paul had done in many of his other letters, he dictated his thoughts to Silas and he wrote them all out. But it seems that Paul took up quill in hand and wrote these final sentences on his own. He states, “I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12 ESV). HIs personal, handwritten conclusion to the letter was to act as his seal of approval, affirming its content. And the “true grace of God” to which he refers encompasses all that he has said in the last five chapters.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 1:3-7 ESV

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:24-25 ESV

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. – 1 Peter 3:8-9 ESV

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. – 1 Peter 3:18, 22 ESV

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. – 1 Peter 4:1-2 ESV

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. – 1 Peter 4:12-13 ESV

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. – 1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV

Peter has exhorted and declared that all of what he has written in this letter is the true grace of God. And he tells them one last time, “Stand firm in it!” The grace, mercy, love, power, faithfulness and sovereignty of God are to be the foundation on which we stand. It is God’s unfailing plan of redemption, as made possible through His Son’s death and resurrection, that forms the solid ground on which we are to find the firm footing for our faith. We will suffer for the sake of righteousness in this life. We will discover that living for Christ in a fallen world is difficult and requires confidence in the presence and promises of God. Our motivation and inspiration must come from our belief in the grace and mercy of God. We must believe as Paul did. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). We must listen to the words of Paul when he wrote, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13 ESV).

It is by or according to God’s grace that we were saved. His grace is the means by which we are being sanctified. His grace, His undeserved, unmerited favor towards us, keeps us safely and permanently as His children. All that we are and all that we have is according to the grace of God. And it is on that grace we are to stand. He is not yet done extending His grace to us. There are more blessings to come, more promises to be fulfilled. We must constantly remember the words of Peter as he closed out this letter.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. – 1 Peter 5:10-11 ESV

When reading this final paragraph from Peter’s letter, I can’t help but recall the words from the old hymn, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less
by Edward Mote, 1797-1874

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

His oath, His covenant, and blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When every earthly prop gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne!
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

 

Vessels of Mercy.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” – Romans 9:18-26 ESV

In this section of chapter nine, Paul continues to defend God’s sovereign prerogative to show mercy based on His will, not on any merits or worthiness of men. The fact is, all men are under God’s divine wrath and subject to His holy judgment, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT). All mankind is deserving of God’s righteous judgment of death. And yet, Paul has reminded us, God has shown mercy to some. Again, not because they deserved it, but simply because God, in His mercy and grace decided to do so. And Paul knew that this merciful and gracious action of God would be misconstrued and misunderstood by some as unjust and unfair. Paul was fully aware of those within his audience who would question why God could be so hard on those whom He had not chosen to show His mercy. Paul knew how their minds worked, because he had probably struggled with the same questions at one time in his life. He had more than likely pondered the question of how anyone could find fault with Esau, if God chose Jacob over Esau based on nothing more than His own will. But at this point in his life and in his relationship with God, Paul knew better than to question the sovereign will of God, which is why he warned his readers, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20 ESV). Paul was using the Old Testament Scriptures to argue his point. He quoted from the prophet Isaiah. “What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” (Isaiah 45:9 NLT).

This is all about the sovereign will of God. In our world, we have made man the center of our universe. Everything revolves around us. We see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation and focus all our attention on our ability to accomplish great good, while always recognizing our capacity to commit all kinds of evil. We live in a merit-based society where the good we do gets rewarded, while the bad we do gets punished. And we expect God to judge us in the same way. But Paul’s whole point thus far in his letter has been to stress that salvation is based on faith alone. His thesis statement for his letter is found in the opening chapter. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV).

From God’s divine perspective, all men are guilty and stand before Him worthy of His judgment and wrath. And yet, God chooses to show mercy on some. And while we may see that as somehow unfair, Paul would have us consider, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Can God, the creator, not do what He wants to do? Is He not free to show mercy on whomever He wants to show mercy? What Paul is doing is inviting you and me to see things from a different perspective. He is asking us to remove man from the center of our universe and put God there in his place. The fact is, all mankind is deserving of God’s judgment. Even Israel, God’s chosen nation, could not live in obedience to His law or remain faithful to Him. And while God would have been fully just in destroying them for their rebellion and unfaithfulness, He showed them mercy instead. He could have exhibited His wrath and revealed His power in destructive judgment, but instead He showed patience – time and time again. He “endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:22-23 ESV). God had a plan. He had made a promise to Abraham that He was going to keep. He was sending His Son as the Messiah of the Jews and the Savior of the Gentiles. God was going to show mercy, allowing some to come to a saving knowledge of His Son, not based on their own righteousness or human merit, but on their faith in His mercy as expressed in His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross.

God sent His Son to the Jews first, but most of them refused Him. And yet, there were those among the Jews who did believe. And there were Gentiles who placed their faith in Christ as their Savior. God showed His mercy on some, even though all deserved His wrath. He chose to forgive some. All in fulfillment of the prophecy found in the book of Hosea: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people.’” Our problem is that we get hung up on God’s wrath and miss the unbelievable nature of His mercy. The fact that God shows mercy to anyone should amaze and astound us. None of us are deserving of it. When we come to fully comprehend our guiltiness and the fact that we deserved God’s wrath, and yet were shown His mercy, we can better appreciate the magnitude of the gift we have received.

The Free Gift.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. ­– Romans 5:15-17 ESV

Adam’s sin brought death into the world. And his sin, and that of Eve, was the result of disbelief. They doubted God’s word. When the serpent spoke to Eve in the garden, he got her to question the veracity of God’s word. He planted seeds of doubt in her mind and it led to disobedience. Doubt resulted in disobedience. Disobedience resulted in death – for all. But Paul delivers the great news regarding the good news of Jesus Christ: “The free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin.” Adam’s sin brought death. God’s free gift brought righteousness. Adam’s sin brought condemnation. God’s free gift brought justification. And the free gift that Paul is talking about is the grace of God made possible by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. He speaks of this same amazing gift of God’s grace in his letter to the Ephesian church. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ­– by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV).

Adam’s doubt in God brought disbelief in God, and that disbelief led to disobedience and death. But the faithfulness of Christ to the will of His Father resulted in a life of obedience, even to the point of death. Paul describes it well in his letter to the Philippian church. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). Jesus’ obedience to the Father resulted in justification for all men, not just Himself. His death paid the penalty for the sins of all men, for all time. Adam’s sin brought the reign of death to mankind. Christ’s sacrifice ended the reign of sin. John wrote, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). Jesus Himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24 ESV). The free gift that Paul speaks of is free, but it must be accepted. It requires belief in the message of God’s grace as offered through the death of His Son. Any hope we have for being seen as righteous and acceptable in God’s eyes is found only in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Adam’s sin brought death and condemnation to all mankind, but Jesus brings the offer of eternal life and no condemnation to any and all who will place their faith in Him as their sin substitute and Savior. In chapter eight of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV).

Many struggle with the idea of imputed sin. They find it unfair that one man’s sin could have infected and impacted and entire race of people. That we would be held responsible for a sin committed by one man all those years ago seems to make God out to be a tyrant. But it is not as if we stand guiltless and innocent before God. The sin of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, and it didn’t take long for it to take root. Adam’s own sons inherited his sin nature. Cain murdered Abel out of a heart of jealousy and anger. And Paul reminds us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). It is not like we are standing before God with our hands clean and our hearts free from sin and rebellion against Him. Adam’s sin brought God’s condemnation against sin into the world. Death became the penalty for man’s disbelief and disobedience. But God brought the cure for man’s inescapable and inevitable death sentence. He sent His Son as the payment for the sins of all men. He satisfied His own wrath against sin with the life of His own Son.

The first Adam could not remain faithful to God. He doubted God. He disobeyed God. But Jesus Christ, the last Adam, lived a life of obedience and faithfulness to God, fully meeting His righteous requirements and fulfilling His law. Which is why Paul writes, “‘The first Adam became a living being’; the last Adam a life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45 ESV). All Adam could pass on to us was his human nature and, along with it, his sin nature. Paul continues, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47-48 ESV). With our belief in God’s gracious and merciful gift of His Son, we become new creations. We receive new natures. We become children of God, no longer enemies, alienated and under His wrath. We find ourselves standing in His presence covered in the righteousness of Christ and freed from the condemnation of sin and death. Not based on anything we have done to earn it, but solely on the free gift of grace made possible through Jesus Christ.