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Wrestling with 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: Isaiah 55:1-7

The best picture of grace I have discovered outside Scripture was made powerfully real to me nearly ten years ago, when I attended a Broadway theater production of Les Miserables. I will never forget the emotions of that night.

You remember the central scene from Victor Hugo’s novel, one of the most famous in all of literature. Jean Valjean, the convicted thief, has stolen silver from the bishop who took him in, but he was caught with the pieces in his possession. The gendarmes brought him to the bishop so he might press charges. Instead, the bishop told the soldiers that he had given Jean the pieces. Then he gave him his two silver candlesticks as well, his most valued possessions.

The soldiers freed him. Then the bishop said to him in a low voice, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

And so it was. Jean Valjean would be a changed man, and he would help to change the world. Changed by the power of grace.

How long has it been since God’s grace changed your life? Since you experienced his grace in a new, empowering, transforming way? Is your Christianity routine and comfortable? Is your God predictable? Then you need to wrestle with grace.

I’ve been in such a match with God all week. Sometimes the sermon flows from the text, but not this time. In this sermon God has been wrestling with my mind and heart all week long. But I now believe I have a message from him for us. A message about the transforming truth of grace.

Admit your need of grace

God’s word for us begins with the invitation of grace: “Come.” The Hebrew word shows that the one calling is concerned for the needs of those he addresses. Think of a doctor calling the next patient into the room, or a benevolence worker calling the next client into the food pantry or the overnight shelter.

Can you “come” to his grace?

Only if you are “thirsty”—the Hebrew word means to be desperate for water. Are you thirsty for living water, for the Spirit of God? The psalmist said, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 46:1-2). How long since you felt this way about your relationship with God?

Only if you “have no money”—the words mean to be so impoverished that you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Do you know that you are this spiritually poor before God? That your money is no good with him, that you have no merit to earn his favor? Or do you think you deserve his grace?

The Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Are you proud before God? In your own eyes?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who know their need of God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3). Do you know your need of God? How long since you knelt before the holy God of the universe in broken humility and admitted your need of his grace?

His “wine and milk” are “without money and without cost.” That which we can buy with the currency of our works and merit is “not bread,” and it “does not satisfy.”

But we are self-sufficient and self-reliant. We are willing to work for God, but we want to be in charge. We’ll donate some of our time to the church, some of our money to pay its bills, some of our energies to spiritual activities like worship, Bible study and prayer. We are willing to help God. We don’t like admitting that he doesn’t need our help, that in fact we need his. Desperately.

Think of recent box office successes: Diane Lane takes matters into her own hands and finds meaning in her life in “Under the Tuscan Sun;” the Rock saves the day and defeats each and every one of the bad guys in “The Rundown;” and on it goes.

The classics are the same theme. “Star Wars” made famous the phrase, “Use the force, Luke.” This “force” is impersonal, something for us to use, in our own decision and initiative. Indiana Jones continually saves the day through courage and pluck. Scarlett O’Hara makes a new life for herself after the Civil War destroys her beloved South and Rhett leaves for good. Remember her defiant vow, fist in the air: “I’ll never go hungry again!” And so on.

In wrestling with this text, God has shown me how much of his grace I have missed by my works. By trying to become a person of significance and value through my efforts and sacrifice. God can give only to those with open hands. The first step to a life of grace is admitting how much we need such grace.

Receive what only grace can give (vs. 2b-5)

What does God want to give to those who will receive? To those of us who will humble ourselves before him and admit that we need his help? What can we have only by grace?

First, grace gives salvation of our souls. When we listen to him and eat what he offers, “your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Then “your soul may live” (v. 3a). We enter “an everlasting covenant,” a relationship which God will never break. And once we become his children we will be his children forever.

But only when we accept the grace of God. If you’re trying to save your own soul, you are lost. No church attendance can remove your sins. No religious acts or traditions can make you right with God. No success or status in the world can purchase a relationship with God. Do you remember the day you received this grace? Or are you still trying to earn it?

And second, grace gives significance to our lives (vs. 4-5).

We will be his “witness to the peoples.” Nations and people we do not know will be affected by our faith and faithfulness. People will want what we have, when our lives are transformed by the grace of God.

He will “endow you with splendor,” with his joy and peace, the fruit of his Spirit, the power of his might in your life.

But only when you are humbled before him, submitted to his will as your King. When you try to achieve eternal purpose and spiritual significance through your own work and self-reliant initiative, you cannot be used by God to fulfill his eternal purpose through your life. We cannot earn what he can only give.

An apprentice carpenter does not know how to build a mansion. If he will not listen to the architect and his supervisor, his efforts will more likely ruin the house than construct it.

A beginning chemistry student does not know how to perform advanced laboratory experiments. If he will not listen to his professor, he will more than likely blow up the lab than advance science.

I do not know how to speak words which will change your soul and accomplish eternal good. If I will not listen to God, yielded to the grace gift of a message from his word and Spirit, but rely on my own study and education and ability, I will fail. I cannot earn what he can only give.

You do not know how to use your work, your relationships, your church ministry to accomplish eternal or spiritual significance. If you will not listen to God, yielding to the grace gift of his leading and empowering, but rely on your own abilities and resources, you will fail. You cannot earn what he can only give.

So what do we do?

Seek the Lord—go to him by faith; “call on him.”

Do it now, “while he may be found, while he is near.” We have only this moment to receive his grace.

Forsake your “wicked” ways; the Hebrew refers to sins of character. Refuse “evil” thoughts which result from wicked character.

Instead, turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on you. Your God will “freely” pardon you; the Hebrew means to give in abundance, over and beyond all we might expect. He will “pardon” you—the word means to refuse to punish. Biblical forgiveness does not pretend we did not sin, or excuse our behavior, but chooses not to punish it. This is the gracious act and love of our Lord.

Such a life of broken humility and yielded obedience positions us to be used by God for significant purpose, to be empowered by his Spirit, to accomplish that which eternal. Salvation and significance come only when we yield to his grace.

Conclusion

We respond to such grace in worship by praise and adoration. Not to receive his favor, but because we already have. Not to earn his love, but because he already loves us. Not to be people of worth, but because we already are. Out of gratitude for his grace.

And we respond to such grace through the week by staying submitted to him as our King. By admitting that we must have his guidance, direction, and power for our every word and step.

I have learned this week that preaching is more about listening than it is speaking. More about seeking his word and obeying his prompting than it is about my study and preparation.

A young pastor’s sermons began to glow with a kind of fire and power which became the talk of the community. Someone asked him where he got his messages. He pointed to a worn-out patch of carpet beside his desk and said, “There.”

When we remember the grace of God in our salvation, we will respond with adoration and worship, trusting him for our salvation and significance. How can we do otherwise?

Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz. In July of 1941, a man escaped from his Barracks 14. As punishment, ten prisoners were chosen to die in the starvation bunker. They would receive no food or water. Their throats would turn to paper, their brains to fire, until finally their suffering ended in a horrible death.

One of the ten began grieving loudly for his wife and children. Suddenly there was a commotion in the ranks. A prisoner had broken out of line, calling for the commandant—cause for execution.

The prisoners gasped. It was their beloved Father Kolbe, the priest who shared his last crust of bread, who comforted the dying, who heard their confessions and fed their souls. The frail priest spoke softly and calmly to Nazi Camp Commandant Fritsch: “I would like to die in place of one of the men you condemned.” He pointed to the weeping prisoner grieving for his wife and children.

Fritsch compared the two; this priest indeed looked weaker than the man he had condemned to death. He looked at his assistant and nodded. Father Kolbe’s place on the death ledger was set. The men were made to remove their clothes, then herded into a dark, windowless cell. “You will dry up like tulips,” sneered one of their jailers. Then he swung the heavy door shut.

As the hours and days passed, the camp became aware of something extraordinary happening in the death cell. Past prisoners had spent their dying days screaming, attacking each other, clawing at the walls. But now, coming from the death box, they heard the faint sounds of singing.

On August 14, 1941, there were four prisoners still alive in the bunker, and it was needed for new occupants. In the light of their flashlight, the Nazi soldiers saw Father Maximilian Kolbe, a living skeleton, propped against one wall. His head was inclined a bit to the left. He had a smile on his lips, his eyes wide open, fixed on some faraway vision. He did not move. The Nazi doctor gave lethal injections to the first three prisoners, then to Father Kolbe. In a moment, he was dead.

Today visitors to the starvation bunker at Auschwitz find on its floor, next to a large spray of fresh flowers, a steady flame. It is burning today. It will burn forever.

If you were that man for whom one died, how would you respond to his grace?