In a smoke filled room in Oxford, some Dons were engaged in debate about the differences between the word religions, when suddenly another Don -C.S Lewis- walked into the room. One Don asked him:
“Jack (his nick-name) , what is the difference between Christianity and all other world religions?”
To which the great C.S Lewis replied (probably whilst puffing on his pipe!):
“That’s easy, it’s grace!”
Grace is a word that is awash in our culture, we call our daughters Grace, Bishops are called “your Grace”, people compliment people by calling them graceful and those that don’t behave well are called a disgrace. Often meaning gentle and pleasing behaviour, and yet this is so short of what the Bible actually means when it talks of grace.
Grace means God’s undeserved goodness and favour towards us, it is grace that meant although we are sinners and fallen short of God’s glory yet because of God’s great goodness and love, he himself took our punishment and died for us in our place. Someone once described GRACE as an acrostic for God’s Richs At Christ’s Expense.
Paul talks of Grace like this in Ephesians:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph.2.8).
All other world religions have people stretching and straining to reach an almost unattainable God, whereas Christianity has a God who reaches down to us, as one of us.
All other religions are self improvement theories based around “pulling yourself up by your boot-straps”.
Grace meets us where we are in the mess, but loving us so much that it doesn’t leave us there.
Grace means that nothing we can do can make God love us anymore, nor cause him to love us any less.
Grace is something that we struggle with, as we like to think of ourselves as good people, we like to think that we contributed something to our salvation rather than being lost with no means of salvation save through the cross of Christ as a great old hymn so neatly puts it “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling!” -when we take communion we come with empty hands, we bring no bargaining chips to the table, in fact God says in the book of Isaiah that “even our good deeds are like stinking rags”!
One thing I find interesting is reading Paul’s letters he is that some of his harshest words are given not to the people behaving badly but to the God-fearing Galatians that are very religious but have drifted from salvation by grace alone to works, and Paul is clearly furious at the betrayal of the heart of the Gospel.
The removal of grace from the gospel in Paul’s opinion means that it is no longer the gospel, no longer good news.
Grace, is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ, because grace is at the heart of the Godhead.
Danielle Strickland talks of “Pharisees anonymous”. Pharisees were this very dutiful religious group that prided themselves on their good works, S/Paul used to be one. As Christians we can be a bit like the Galatians and turn from the grace of God and unleash our inner-Pharisee, we need to liberate ourselves from our inner Pharisee, and find our freedom and identity in God’s grace.
The author Brendan Manning in his book the Ragamuffin Gospel talks of the choice Christians face is not the choice the Jews faced at Easter between Jesus and Barabas, no one intentionally chooses to follow a murderer, but between Jesus and Caiaphas the High Priest -smug religious piety versus the undeserved but humbling grace of God.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Which are we?