We are saved by grace. Yes, I know, you have all heard this. One of you even sang, “Amazing Grace” at Grandma’s funeral. Nonetheless, we all need to hear this again and again—sometimes in new ways. Sadly, much of church history is a story of God’s people forgetting and then remembering that we are saved by grace. Unfortunately, the drift toward legalism and salvation by works has been as regular as the tides. We are always coming home to God’s grace.
Guilt and shame have a black hole gravitational pull that bends and swallows light, so it is easy to forget our salvation is free. We also have an enemy who again and again whispers lies to us about how all our sins and failures disqualify us. Sometimes the stain of our sin seems too deep scrape off with a broken bottle.
The news that our salvation is a gift is much of what is good about the gospel’s good news. It is easy to overlook how good. Too often church kids confuse meeting people’s expectations with being saved. Often Christian parents (probably even me) make salvation and “being good” seem like the same thing. When this happens everything gets backward. Instead of obedience being a joyful response to the free gift, it becomes a dull duty performed to earn salvation. When we get grace wrong, we give up because we can’t be good enough for God. Church kids also discover that sin, in the short run, offers many pleasures. And we all weary of trying to be good.
The good news, however, is that we are not only saved by grace but changed by grace. When we look at ourselves and see our utter inability to change ourselves, when our defilement seems irreversible, and our identity and our sin are hopelessly entangled, God offers grace. God also offers us death—the death of our false and polluted self. By grace, God offers us a new self. As you guys get older and move around, you will discover that wherever you go, there you are. Only God can set us free from the sinful self that ruins everything. And, this change is free. It is a gift.
We are also set free by grace. We are ransomed by Christ from our jailer. God sets us free from every kind of bondage—sinful habits, rotten attitudes, and terrible addictions. God is a chain-breaker. When we are unable to help ourselves, He sets us free. Sometimes we wrongly think that we must get free before we can return to God, but the grace of God meets us right where we are and begins cutting the chains that make us miserable.
The goodness of grace should surprise and delight us. Do you remember when we all hiked through the desert at the Anzo-Borrego State Park? We wandered up a creek lined with cactus and sagebrush. It was hot and dusty, but we rounded the corner in the canyon and discovered a pool of water surrounded by fan palms. A little water fall that poured over a boulder fed the pool. Some of you grabbed old palm leaves and slid down the boulder into the pool. I hope grace is like this for you—but living water that satisfies our deepest thirst.
So how can we tell if, even as believers, we have missed the truth of God’s grace? We can check our gratitude level. When we realize that salvation and transformation is a free gift, thanksgiving explodes in our hearts. Worship becomes a joy instead of a chore. Gratitude for the free gift becomes the engine that powers our obedience.
We can also test our love level. The love and acceptance we see in the eyes of Jesus takes our eyes off ourselves. And isn’t that liberating? Mean and self-centered Christians (we have met a few) don’t grasp grace. If we recognize how utterly unworthy and undeserving we are and see how overwhelmingly merciful God’s grace is, we can’t help but extend grace and kindness to others—even the most undeserving. We have to show the grace we have been shown.
Perhaps the final test is humility. Grace takes away every boast. That’s why Paul, the guy who perhaps did the most to build and expand the church, insisted that he would boast in nothing but “the cross of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Legalism, salvation by works, has a terrible one/two punch. When you fail to be good enough, you are filled with shame. If for a moment you succeed in being good, you are filled with pride. Grace frees us from both. Grace makes us humble but happy followers after Jesus, daily seeking ways to give grace to others and glory to God. In case you missed it, this is a great way to live—and its free.