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What’s so amazing about 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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Topical Scripture: John 20:24-29

More people than ever before are asking to be buried or cremated with their mobile phones. The trend began in South Africa, and has spread from there. In Cape Town, people who believe in witchcraft fear they could fall under a spell, be put to sleep, and be buried alive. So they want cell phones in their coffins in case they woke up. One funeral service in South Africa will even include several cell phone batteries in your coffin, in case yours runs out.

The rest of us smile at such absurdity. We don’t fear death like that. In fact, no society in history has feared death less than we do.

There was a time when people were afraid of what might happen when they died–afraid of going to hell, or at least Purgatory. Afraid of meeting God.

But today our culture is convinced that so long as we’re good people who believe in God, all is well. If we’re not Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Jewish, we must be Christians. Coming to church at Christmas and Easter, trying to live good lives, and believing in God meets the requirements. Only two percent of us are afraid of going to hell. Eighty-seven percent are sure we’ll be in heaven. No cell phones needed.

Are you afraid of going to hell? You know that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave. You know that he paid for your sins and that God forgives all that you confess. What more is there to believe?

Here’s the sermon in a sentence: unless our lives are changed every day by the living Lord Jesus, we are missing the life he died to give. We are missing genuine Christianity. To show you why that’s so, I get to tell you my favorite Easter story today. Then we’ll see if it’s yours.

Meet my friend Thomas

“Thomas” is Hebrew for “twin.” Scholars wonder who his twin brother was. I have news for them–it’s me.

Like “Doubting Thomas,” I have always wanted things to make sense. When I first became a Christian at the age of 15, I had all kinds of questions which people didn’t seem to want to hear. How do we know that the Bible is the word of God? How do we know that Jesus is the only way to God? What about science and faith? Evil and suffering? People didn’t seem to want to talk about my questions. In fact, I doubted for a long time whether or not I was even a Christian, since I had so many doubts.

So “Doubting Thomas” became my patron saint.

Jesus has just assured his disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” And Thomas speaks his first recorded words in Scripture: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:4, 5). His faith starts with a question.

Then comes his most famous appearance, the statement which has forever labeled him “Doubting Thomas.” The disciples have seen the risen Christ on Easter Sunday, but Thomas missed church. We don’t know why. Some say he was afraid of the authorities. Others that he was grieving Jesus’ death and didn’t want to come. Maybe he had the flu. For whatever reason, he missed Easter.

So the disciples brought him the incredible news, “We have seen the Lord!” But their experience is not good enough for Thomas. No second-hand faith for him: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (v. 25). Four personal pronouns–if Thomas doesn’t have first-hand, empirical, hard and fast evidence for himself, he won’t believe it.

Good for him. Jesus doesn’t want second-hand faith from us. He doesn’t want us to believe simply because our parents believe, or our Sunday school teacher told us to, or we live in the buckle of the Bible belt and it’s rude not to. In Isaiah 1:18 the Lord says, “Come, let us argue it out.” Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). You don’t want a second-hand marriage, or second-hand friendships. Don’t settle for a second-hand faith.

It may be that you’re here for Easter Sunday, but you have questions about the whole enterprise. How do we know Jesus really existed? How do we know he rose from the grave? What difference does it make if he did?

I had all those questions, through high school and college. Finally, as I got close to graduation and a future in vocational ministry, I decided I needed some answers. I needed to know for myself if it was all true. So I began my first study of “apologetics,” that area of theology which examines questions about the faith.

Let me give you a semester’s worth in five minutes.

How do we know the Bible is true? The DaVinci Code says that we have never had a definitive version of it. The Gospel of Judas presents a very different picture of Jesus and his betrayer than you’ve heard. How do we know this book is God’s word?

Because the manuscripts evidence is conclusive proof that we have what the authors wrote; because archaeological evidence is convincing; because internal consistency within the Bible is outstanding; and because it keeps its promises, such as the more than 50 Old Testament predictions regarding the Messiah which were fulfilled by Jesus. The odds of one man fulfilling them all is one in ten to the 157th power; that number is greater than all the atoms in the universe.

How do we know Jesus existed? Because Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian, told us he did. Because Thallus the Samaritan described his crucifixion, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, and Josephus described him in detail.

How do we know the early Christians worshiped him as Lord? The DaVinci Code says that they knew he was a mortal, and that the Church deified him three centuries later. But Clement of Rome wrote a long letter in AD 95 describing his Lordship, as did numerous other early Christians. And in AD 112, the Roman administrator Pliny the Younger reported that Christians worshiped Christ “as a god.”

How do we know they were right? Because of the resurrection we celebrate today. We know from Tacitus that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate; we know from Josephus that the early Christians said he was raised from the dead. What happened to the body? They didn’t go to the wrong tomb–the Romans were guarding the right one.

They didn’t steal the body, then die for a lie. The Romans didn’t steal the body, or they would have produced it. Jesus couldn’t have faked his death, for the spear to the pericardial sac of his heart would have killed him and the burial shroud would have suffocated him.

That’s a semester’s apologetics class in five minutes. Maybe you have questions like Thomas and me. The evidence is outstanding.

Become like Thomas

But hearing all that evidence, are you any different now than you were five minutes ago? The other disciples could tell Thomas all week, “We have seen the Lord,” but it didn’t really matter. Their experience, their reasons, their evidence were not enough. If what happens next had not happened, Thomas’s story would have ended. So would yours and mine.

A week later, next Sunday morning, Jesus showed up for church again. And this time Thomas was there. He knew his doubting disciple’s precise questions–in fact, he quotes them to him. He doesn’t criticize him for them, but confronts them head on. And then he challenges him: “Stop doubting and believe.” And this time Thomas does, with the finest one-sentence profession of faith in all of Scripture: “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). And Jesus took the occasion to invite us to join him: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29). Are you “blessed”?

Meeting Jesus personally changed everything. Head knowledge, orthodox theology, reasoned apologetics were not enough. Coming to church wasn’t enough. Meeting Jesus was.

The women had come to the tomb to bury a dead man before they met Jesus and became the first evangelists.

Peter had gone back to fishing when he met Jesus and became his first preacher.

Saul of Tarsus was busy killing Christians when he met Jesus and became his first global missionary.

20,000 are meeting Jesus every day in sub-Sahara Africa; 28,000 a day in Communist China. Last Sunday we heard Matt Elkins tell about spending two years in Sudan, where Muslims are meeting Jesus in their dreams, then asking Christians about him and coming to faith in Christ. When Matt arrived, he did not know a single Sudanese Christian. Two years later, 50 took the Lord’s Supper with him before he left. Only God knows how many will meet Jesus before he returns.

When last did you meet Jesus in a transforming way?

Until you do, “grace” is a theological construct. It’s what you know Jesus did at Easter. It’s why you believe in God and try to be good. It’s why you think you’re going to heaven. It’s an event to remember every Spring.

But when you meet Jesus for yourself, all that changes. Easter is no longer a holiday but a holy day, no longer a church service but a celebration. “The risen Christ” is not a theological concept to prove but a relationship to experience. When last were you amazed by his grace?

Conclusion

Chris Moretz of Waveland, Mississippi decided to ride out hurricane Katrina, but the fury of the storm left him trapped in his home. Water went from ankle deep to hip deep in five minutes. He jumped out and swam for his life. But not before painting on the roof this message, “C. Moretz is alive. Pass it on.” And so his family knew he had survived.

Today the message is simple, painted on steeples and churches all over the world: “Jesus is alive. Pass it on.”

Have you ever asked the living Christ to forgive your sin and become your Savior? When last did you repent of your sin and ask him to forgive you and wipe the slate clean? When last did you hear his voice speak through his word? When last did you feel his Spirit through his worship? When last did you pray for no reason except to be with him? When last did you spend an hour listening to him? A day walking with him? When last did his grace amaze you?

Why not today?