Reading Time: 10 minutes

Grades vs. grace

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scriptures: Matthew 5:1; Galatians 3:23-29

Do you remember the story of Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mortals? For his transgression, he was chained and tortured by Might, Violence, and Hephaestus, servants of Zeus. And so the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus makes Hephaestus say to Prometheus, “Such is the reward you reap of your man-loving disposition… Many a groan and many a lamentation you shall utter, but they shall not serve you. For the mind of Zeus is hard to soften with prayer.”

There have been times when I’ve wondered if Hephaestus was right. Times when God felt distant from me, days when my prayers seemed to ricochet from the ceiling unanswered, when it seemed clear to me that I must do more to merit the attention and help of the Almighty. That I must be more religious, keep more rules, do more to impress God. Many of you have been there as well. But we were wrong.

John Claypool once called the church a community of grades rather than a community of grace. This morning we’ll explore the difference, as we begin studying the Sermon on the Mount together. We’ll see this Sermon as grades, and then as grace. And we’ll choose which Sermon we want to hear this fall. And which faith we want to live.

The sermon as grades

Consider first the Sermon on the Mount as grades. Religious legalism. Spiritual rules and dogma. That’s how the religious people of his day heard Jesus. And how many religious people hear him still.

Paul explains: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Galatians 3:23). How did they become so imprisoned by legalism, rules, and dogma? The same way we do.

God created us for relationship with himself, but our sin drives a wedge between our hearts and our Holy Father. And we know it. We know something is wrong, misguided, missing.

So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were, the person we lost, the person we want desperately to be. Then we spend our lives trying to become that person. We project that image to others, always frightened that they will see behind the mask to the ugly truth hiding inside. We try to become what we think God wants us to be. And so religion becomes rules. And rules for keeping the rules.

The Jews of Jesus’ day found in the Ten Commandments 613 rules. And then they made rules for keeping the rules. For instance, they were very concerned about the Sabbath prohibition against work. What constitutes work? 39 basic actions were defined and prohibited. And then each was further defined.

A woman could draw water with one hand but not two. A man could not wear his false teeth or a needle in his clothes, for this was carrying a burden. Any man who lit a fire, rode a beast, traveled by ship, struck anything, caught an animal, bird, or fish, fasted or made war on the Sabbath must be put to death.

To this day some of the stricter Jewish synagogues employee Gentiles who work on the Sabbath doing things like turning light switches on and off. All to keep the rules.

But don’t shake your heads just yet. We Baptists know a thing or two about religious activities, rules, and regulations. Early in my Christian experience, I learned how church “success” worked: the more you did, the better others thought you were.

Here was a typical week in my home church: Sunday school and church services on Sunday morning; Training Union and evening worship, followed by youth fellowship on Sunday night. Visitation on Tuesday night. Prayer meeting on Wednesday night. Bus Ministry and youth Bible study on Saturday morning.

Then there was the annual calendar, running like clockwork each year: January Bible Study, February Valentine’s Day Banquet; spring Easter pageant; Vacation Bible School; summer camp, mission trip, and choir tour; annual fall revival; High Attendance Sunday every October; and the Christmas pageant. Along with the special activities planned each and every month.

And we were graded through it all by how much we did and how well we did it. By how well we knew the rules and kept them.

Blaise Pascal was a mathematical and philosophical genius. Listen to this observation from his Pensees, and see if it rings true with your experience:

“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man….

“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions….

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

“God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place” (Pensees #148).

You can hear the Sermon on the Mount this fall as grades. Rules to keep, things to do, religious activities and requirements. But in the end you’ll be more frustrated than you are right now. For only one person in all of human history ever kept these rules without fail. And he was God.

The sermon as grace

Here’s God’s advice: hear the sermon as grace. And the faith it founded. Paul will show us how.

First, accept God’s grace personally.

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26). We become the “sons of God” not by grades but by grace. Not by joining a church and then attending, keeping its rules and impressing its members. By grace.

When you accept his grace, you “clothe yourselves with Christ” (v. 27). When the Father looks at you, he sees his Son in you. He sees his blood and death in place of your sins, his Spirit bearing fruit through your lives. He sees you as his own children.

But only by his grace. No person in human history can keep enough rules to earn such a relationship with a perfect, holy God. Even Lance Armstrong cannot ride his bike up Mt. Everest. Even Barry Bonds cannot hit 200 home runs. Even Mother Teresa or Billy Graham could not be good enough, religious enough, moral enough to earn heaven. God’s word is clear: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The author of these words is proof of their truth.

No one tried harder than Saul of Tarsus to earn a relationship with a Holy God. Then the day came when he met Jesus and discovered that God loved him already. Despite all his failures and sins. He never got over that fact. Accepting God’s grace changed him forever.

It will you as well. Give up trying to earn God’s love, for you have it already. Don’t try to impress him—you already do. Reject a religion of rules today. Decide that you are not what you do, in the church or in the world. You are not what you earn, or wear, or own; you are not the classes you teach or committees you serve or songs you sing or sermons you preach. You are the child of God, loved beyond words. Accept his grace.

Jerry Bridges is right: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”

Receive his grace, and then give his grace.

Saul of Tarsus was raised to hate Gentiles. He was taught that God made Gentiles only so there would be firewood in hell. And he was taught to be nearly as bigoted towards women and slaves. The Jewish men of his day typically prayed every morning: “God, I thank you that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”

So marvel at the words the grace-changed Pharisee can now write: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (vs. 28-29).

Give his grace to someone who needs it from you today. Who needs your acceptance or pardon? Your forgiveness or mercy? God’s grace through yours?

A woman hid in the private bedroom of Queen Elizabeth I, waiting to stab her to death. But the queen’s attendants found the woman among the queen’s gowns and brought her into the presence of their sovereign, taking the dagger from her hand.

The would-be assassin realized that her case was hopeless. She threw herself down on her knees and pleaded with the queen to have compassion on her and show her grace. The queen looked at her coldly and quietly asked, “If I show you grace, what promise will you make for the future?” The woman looked up and said, “Grace that has conditions, grace that is fettered by precautions, is no grace at all.”

Queen Elizabeth thought for a moment and then said, “You are right. I pardon you freely by my grace alone.” And they led her away, a free woman.

Historians tell us that from that moment, Queen Elizabeth had no more faithful, devoted servant than the woman who had received her grace. Have you received such grace from your Sovereign Lord? How can you not give it to another of his children?

Conclusion

This fall we’ll explore, verse by verse, the greatest Sermon ever preached. But first we must understand why it was preached. We must see it not as religious rules but as life-giving grace. As the way we live because we are loved, not so we can be loved. As the way to live with success and significance, purpose and power—gifts from the God who loves us supremely. We can choose grades or grace. And that choice will make all the difference.

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has sold more copies than any book in all of literature except the Bible. We would think such an author and minister to be the greatest success. He did not think himself so. He titled his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

And he wrote this prayer, words I invite you to share this morning:

Thou Son of the Blessed,

what grace was manifested in Thy condescension.

Grace brought Thee down from Heaven;

grace stripped Thee of Thy glory;

grace made Thee poor and despised;

grace made Thee bear such burdens of sin,

such burdens of sorrow,

such burdens of God’s curse as are unspeakable.

O Son of God!

Grace was in all Thy tears;

grace came out of Thy side with Thy blood;

grace came forth with every word of Thy sweet mouth;

grace came out where the whip smote Thee,

where the thorn pricked Thee,

and where the nails pierced Thee.

Here is grace indeed!

Grace to make angels wonder

grace to make sinners happy,

grace to astonish devils.

Do you choose grades or grace today?