Last post, we started a series on grace and discipleship by learning that discipleship begins with having your life interrupted by God’s grace. I illustrated the point by telling the story of John Newton, the author of the Hymn “Amazing Grace”. Newton was a slave ship captain who found himself crying out to God in the middle of a particularly harsh storm. He became a Christian and later a pastor. This post, I want to tell you of one of his students.
In the film, Amazing Grace, we follow the life of William Wilberforce, a young man who had been taught the Christian faith as a child by John Newton, eventually after a season of wandering away from faith, he recovered it in a powerful way. He worked within the halls of government to bring about first the abolition of the slave trade and eventually the abolition of all slavery in the British Empire. It took 46 years to accomplish it, but without the bloodshed of civil war or revolution, Wilberforce led his country to abolition of slavery years before it happened here.
For those of us who sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that all ministry is based on church work or mission work, Wilberforce stands as an example of what one Christian can do if he completely and utterly lives out his or her faith in whatever arena he or she has been found.
But of course that doesn’t happen overnight, now, does it? How does someone go from young rich boy to a man who fights for justice in a seemingly lost cause for 46 years?
What brings such resolve, dedication, courage and conviction?
As we will see, from start to finish, it is grace. Grace is what changes us.
“I think God found me.” Wilberforce says. An echo of his teacher’s great lyric, “I once was lost but now am found.”
For those of us who have ever been lost, there is very little better than being found, I’d think.
Have you ever been in a place where you were so far off the track that you couldn’t find your way? When Beth and I were in Santa Fe, New Mexico a couple of weeks ago we heard the story of two snowboarders who spent three nights in a snow cave waiting to be rescued after descending down the wrong drainage and getting caught out in a snowstorm.
They spoke of the overwhelming relief to have a helicopter touch down and find them. It is amazing thing indeed, to be found.
And in the good news of Christ, we learn that in the deepest sense of it, in Jesus, grace finds us.
God’s love and mercy and kindness and goodness come seeking after us. We don’t have to change or tidy up, or get smarter or make amends for God’s grace to come to us. God’s grace just keeps showing up. Like Jesus addressing a tiny tax collector who had climbed a tree to get above the crowd, we are called to come down and have dinner with him. We are invited into a friendship with God, long before we are worthy of it.
God’s grace is offered to us just as we are, wherever we are.
Before I go on, I want to linger here. If you don’t catch this point, you’ll never understand the very heart of God. God’s grace is his merciful, reaching out to humanity in our fallenness, our frailty, our sin, right in the middle of our most lost-ness.
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” Paul writes in Romans 5. He came into this world to seek and save the lost, Jesus said. To heal those who are sick, to forgive those who had failed. To release those who were in prisons of their own making. To give new life to those who were dead in their sins. This is the God who Jesus revealed, this the most amazing good news that we can imagine, this is the truth we must trust.
In Jesus… Grace is offered to you just as you are…
AND, because of his great love for you, because his will for you is to become like Jesus in every way, because he wants for you life, and joy, and peace, because his work is not only to save but to sanctify, not only to set us free but to use us in his freeing work…
Grace is offered to you just as you are…
But, will not leave you just as you were.
Grace doesn’t just find us when we are lost once, Grace leads us in a new way. Jesus doesn’t just come and carry us home, Jesus also invites us to follow in his footsteps, to walk in his way.
William Wilberforce was not just inspired by God to sit on the wet grass and sing praise songs, he was called by God to follow him into the world and bring freedom for captives.
Grace continually comes to us, comes for us, seeks us out and bids us not only to be found, but to live differently. To change the way we live because we have been found. To demonstrate the difference of being a recipient of God’s grace. In Romans 2:4, Paul asks, "Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?"
Please don’t miss this. We think that it is God’s judgment is meant to lead us to repentance. We think that only when we are threatened will we be motivated to change the way we live. Paul writes that God’s kindness(!), his tolerance, his patience is meant to lead us to a new way of living. Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message, puts it, “In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.”
For William Wilberforce, this came through meeting a man who had been a slave and coming in contact with a community of Christians who made him face the evil of the sin that had gripped their entire nation and the easy complicity with which many, including he himself, had gone along.
Through a gracious intervention of truth-telling tough love, Wilberforce recognizes that he must be more concerned with doing right in God’s eyes than what will serve his career.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…” the old hymn written by Wilberforce's teacher goes. The Psalmist says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…(Ps 111:10)
It is grace that teaches us to live in awe of God by seeing the truth about ourselves. And yes, sometimes these are hard lessons to learn.
In a book he wrote about the untimely death of his young wife, Sheldon Vanauken describes events like the death of a loved one, or of a personal tragedy as “a severe mercy.” Building on a phrase written to him by C. S. Lewis, Vanauken share with us the reality of "a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love” that is present in every circumstance of life bringing us closer and closer to God.
Have you ever had a moment like that? Have you ever had a time that was so bad that it shocked you to your senses? Have you ever had a moment where you were so desperately lost that you found yourself? Where you were so stripped of what you most clung to that you now found that which you most wanted?
Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn did, writing about his experience
in a Soviet Gulag and ending it with the words, “Bless you, prison.”
Bless you prison for leading me to true faith, true life. Solzhenitsyn
later said famously that what he learned about himself through prison
and exile is that while there is good and evil in the world, the line
between good and evil runs right through every human heart.
This is what poet Robert Bly calls “learning to shudder”. Feeling a shiver go down your spine when you recognize in yourself just how frail and weak you are, how prone to sin, how susceptible to temptation.
It is sitting on a bar stool at the end of a long day on a business trip and knowing deep in your bones that if the wrong person sat down next to you, and began to strike up a conversation that all that you love and cherish could be jeopardized. It is seeing the fools “caught on tape” in a reality crime drama and knowing just like the English Reformer John Bradford who saw a criminal being led away for execution, and knew, “there but for the grace of God, go I.”
Grace, when we let it, teaches us humility. It opens us to our frailty and folly and fears. It makes us teachable. It helps us to become lifetime learners on the road of discipleship, open to teaching and correction, instruction and discipline from our Lord.
It does so, sometimes by inspiring in us a humble spirit, and sometimes through humiliation, allowing us to reap the whirlwind that we have sown, experiencing the consequences of our actions, forcing us to face the high cost and pay the huge bill that we have run up with our foolish ways. But even then it is still grace.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved."
Thinking back on that couple lost in a snowstorm, there was one part of the news story was interesting to me. One story after another assured the viewers that even though this couple had been lost, it wasn’t their fault. They hadn’t wandered off, or forgotten their way or acted foolhardily—they got caught in freak storm. It was as if there is an unspoken story line that it is one thing if you are lost and another thing if you get yourself lost. It is one thing to have a search part come and get you, and another thing if they have to get you because you got lost out of arrogance, blunders or your own missteps.
And many of us think this is true with the way that God comes after us. It is one thing if we are lost and away from God because we didn’t grow up in a Christian home, or because we were born in a part of the world that hasn’t had the gospel. It’s quite another thing, if we are lost, even hopelessly, desperately lost of our own doing.
We tend to think that God only comes to us when we are wandering around disoriented by the frailty of humanity, not heading down the wrong path of our folly. If we are in foxhole or facing cancer then we are told to cry out to God, but if we are shuddering and cowering because we have arrogantly gone our own way and found ourselves in a pretty bad neighborhood or on the edge of a precipice, then, well, we think, we should get ourselves out of this mess. Grace may teach “our hearts to fear”, we think, but we’ll have to face our fears on our own to find our “fears relieved.”
But grace doesn’t insist on that at all. Grace comes to us, not only in our fear of God, but in the fears caused by our own folly. Grace comes and reassures us that in the same way that Jesus touched the leper, embraced the prostitute, and ate with the swindler, he welcomes us. The grace of God comes to us, just as we are, and… graciously molds and shapes, teaches and changes us, refusing to leave us as we were.
At the end of three years of life and ministry in Ephesus, Paul prepares to say good-bye to the leaders of the church that he is leaving behind in Acts 20. He reminds them that the church is precious to God, “purchased”, he said, “with the blood of his own Son.” And then he reminds them that other teachers would come in, that they would try to lure the disciples away, distorting the truth for their own gain.
He doesn’t say what these false teachers will say.
He doesn’t say how they will distort the truth.
He doesn’t say whether they will be legalists or libertines.
But he reminds them of what they are to do. He reminds them to keep themselves anchored in God, and he charges them with what they are : I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. Acts 20:32
Paul’s “last words” to the leaders of his beloved congregation is to remind them that:
• The “message of grace” builds people’s lives,
• The message of grace brings the spiritual riches of the people of God into human life, the message of grace is what we share as the people who are sanctified, set apart for his work in the world,
• And the message of grace is the hallmark of the community of disciples.
Let me ask you to consider: Where do you need to hear again, the message of grace again?
Are you lost? Do you need grace to find you?
Are you imprisoned by addictions, or the result of bad choices, or the thought patterns that keep you locked away from the life that God has for you? Do you need grace to set you free?
Do you need God’s grace to give you perspective, to help you gain humility, to teach your heart to fear God and be free from fearing anyone else?
Do you need grace to "build you up" or do you need to learn all over again what it means to build your life on grace.
Wherever you are in what ever way you need: Grace is offered to you just as you are…But, will not leave you just as you were.