Why Is Grace Amazing?Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 15, 1994
Selected highlights from this sermon
Most Christians know the hymn “Amazing Grace” – even non-believers know it. Yet so few of us truly understand why grace is so amazing.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer gives us five characteristics of grace. And all along the way he reminds us that it is a gift from God, and though we’re all unworthy of it, God hands it out freely to those who believe on His Son.
God’s grace is more than sufficient to save not only a “good” person, but the most wicked and vilest of sinners. Now that’s amazing!
All of us, of course, sing frequently:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, and now I’m found.
‘Twas blind, but now I see.
And yet when you ask Christians to explain the Gospel, they explain it in such a way that it makes you think that grace is nice, grace is helpful and perhaps even grace is necessary, but many times we do not understand why it is truly amazing.
The extent of your understanding of grace is dependent upon your understanding of what life is like without grace. John Calloway who hosts Chicago Tonight here in the city was interviewed in the Tribune a couple of weeks ago, and at the end of that interview, which many of you probably read, he was asked regarding religion, and this is what he said, and I quote. “I’m struggling and I’m not winning that struggle. I’m living in a classic state of sin, in that I am separated from God, and my only saving grace is that I know it and I think I’ll do something about it if I live long enough.” Think about that. “I think I’ll do something about it.” The impression that is given is if I ever really got serious about this business of sin and my separation from God, maybe I’ll do something about it.
You know the Apostle Paul in Romans 3, after he listed all of the faults of humanity, says that in the courtroom of God we are all guilty that every mouth may be stopped, and that the world might be declared guilty before God. We’re going to find out in a moment that there is nothing that we can do about it. As a matter of fact, our very attempt to do something about it only messes it up and makes it worse.
So we’re going to paint two pictures. The first picture is found in Ephesians 2, and the second picture is there too. In Ephesians 2 the Apostle Paul is talking about life without grace, and what we were like before God broke into our lives, and it is not a pretty picture.
Ephesians 2 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience —among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Just that far!
Paul says that basically life without grace is a cemetery. We are dead in trespasses and sins, but the reason we don’t realize how bad off we are is because physically we are alive. We are alive physically. Spiritually we are dead. And that’s why he talks about us walking. We are not the Grateful Dead but we are the walking dead. And he says we walked according to the course of this world. We have been deceived by the world, and we are unconscious of the influence even of Satan in our lives, according to the Prince of the Power of this age. Is it any wonder that so many people today are messed up? Is it any wonder that we live in a day and age when people don’t know what to do about the violence and all the other problems as long as we are walking according to the course of this age, which is giving a host of wrong answers to man’s fundamental problem, and telling us to seek answers where there are none.
A friend of mine says that in a restaurant that he frequently goes to there is this sign that hangs on the wall. “I have taken the pill, I have hoisted my skirts to my thighs and dropped them to my ankles, rebelled at the university, skied in Aspen, lived with two men and married one, earned my keep, kept my identity, and frankly, I’m lost.” That’s our generation. We do what we want to do, and yet we are lost. And the picture does not get any better. The Apostle Paul says that we are by nature the children of wrath. The thing that we do most naturally, and the thing that we do best is sin, and that’s our predicament.
Now in all of the hoopla that surrounded the John Wayne Gacy extravaganza, and his eventual execution, which took place, many people wanted to make him out to be some kind of a monster. They wanted us to believe that somehow he was not a member of the human race. It is almost as if he came from somewhere else, other than being a son of Adam, as all of us are. Well, I want you to know today that John Wayne Gacy was a member of the human race. The thing that I think was surprising to so many of us is that he looked so normal. In fact, I know somebody who looks a whole lot like he does. And we forget that. We forget that John Wayne Gacy was a man who simply allowed his sexual perversions to carry him wherever they led because someone has accurately said that sin always takes you farther than you want to go, it keeps you longer than you want to stay, and it costs you more than you intended to pay. John Wayne Gacy was one of us.
Solzhenitsyn, who understood the human heart much better than a lot of other people, said, “Wouldn’t it be neat if there would be in this world good people and bad people, and we’d find the bad people and put them off somewhere, and then all the other good people would live together in happiness.” He said, “The line between goodness and badness does not go through the human race but it goes through the center of every single human heart.” Just ask Christ.
Colson tells the story of someone who had been persecuted and had escaped Nazi Germany, and when a Nazi was being tried and was brought into the courtroom, this person who had lived in a concentration camp, fainted. And they said later when he was revived, “Is it because you could not stand the sight of this murderer?” and he said, “No, it is not because of that, that I fainted.” He said, “I fainted because when I looked at him, he looked so ordinary.” He looked so ordinary. He did not look like a monster. Now that’s the predicament that we are in.
What is the answer? Five characteristics of grace today! Number one, grace sets aside all human effort. Verse 4: what a contrast! Here is this awful cemetery of death. Like someone says, “I was dying on the inside by the inch all the time.” Terrible cemetery! “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”
What God said is this. “If I’m going to save the human race I can’t expect them to cooperate because everything that they do is tainted. Every motive has been tainted.” You read Romans 3. The words that come out of our mouths, the thoughts that form in our minds, the desires of the heart – all of them have been affected by sin, and so God says, “If I’m going to save the human race I’m going to take all human goodness and put it on the shelf and mark it unusable, and I’m going to have to do this all by Myself.” And so God intervenes with the power of resurrection.
The Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans, “If it is by grace it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise work is no more work, and grace is no more grace.” God says, “I’m going to do something that will set aside human merit forever because it is unusable.” So He acted alone.
First of all, grace sets aside all human effort. Secondly, grace is unaffected by the degree of our sin. It is unaffected or it is not influenced by the degree of our sin. You say, “Well, what are you talking about?”
Let’s suppose you have two corpses. Is one deader than the other? You have two people who are dead in their trespasses and in their sins. Is one really deader than another? No, they are equally dead. You know, we like to compare ourselves to somebody like John Wayne Gacy, don’t we? Isn’t there a feeling of comfortableness and a feeling of almost restrained pride in the fact that we would never think of doing such terrible things, to think that the killing of 33 boys is so revolting to us that we can’t even imagine the horror, and we say to ourselves, “We are so much better?” Well, thank God that we are better. It is much better to be someone who is kind and loving and thoughtful than someone who is a criminal to do those terrible deeds. But please don’t ever forget this. There is no common ground between human goodness and divine holiness, and looked at from one standpoint, one great sinner is just as far from God as all the lesser ones who traipse around, thinking that they are so much better than other people. Always remember that.
You say, “Surely good people are closer to God.” Well, maybe a bit closer. Look at the difference between the height of Moody Church and the Sears Tower. It’s quite a difference. You say, “Well, the Sears Tower is sure a lot taller than Moody Church.” Yes, it is, but you know if we stopped comparing the buildings that way and said, “Which building is closest to Orion (which is one of the constellations a couple of hundred or thousand light years away)? Which one is closer?” Well, the top of the Sears Tower is closer than the top of Moody Church but the differences are negligible. They don’t count because God has declared that all are under sin, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And Paul says in the book of Romans that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world guilty before God.
To change the illustration, let’s suppose that you were going to open a door to a castle, and the only way you can open the door is with a very special gold coin that has been especially minted to get in. You can have a whole line of people who say, “Well, I’ve got dollar bills,” and “I’ve got these pennies,” and somebody says, “I’ve got more pennies than you have. I’m better than you.” And you have all of these arguments regarding who is the best and who is the most. Folks, irrelevant! Hush! Only the people with the gold coin of grace can enter. Everything else is irrelevant. Grace is unaffected by the degree of our sin. God can save a John Wayne Gacy just as easily as he can save a churchgoer. John Wayne Gacy was not saved, by the way, because he died unrepentant, but he could have been. That’s why grace is so amazing.
There’s a third characteristic, and that is, “It takes us all the way to heaven.” Now notice what the Apostle Paul says. He says, “By grace you have been saved,” and verse 6, “and God raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” It’s a verse that I can only read today but I have to skip. If you remember in the first message in this series I talked about the ladder that some people want to climb to heaven and the futility of the whole thing. Well, you know, when God raised us up from the dead from the cemetery, He not only helped us halfway to heaven, the Bible says He took us the whole way, and we are seated there already. Now if you think that creates legal problems for a Holy God, it does create legal problems that He had to solve, but I want you to come back next week because that’s what we are going to be talking about, and the absolute implications of what grace does and why God can do such wondrous things for sinners.
So we must hurry on. It is a gift that takes us all the way to heaven.
Number four, let me emphasize that it is a gift of God. Let’s continue to read. By the way, it says in verse 7 that in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace and kindness toward us in Jesus Christ, and then those famous verses – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God (And it is a reference to God’s saving grace, and even the faith that we appropriate it with is a gift of God), and not the result of works (I told you a moment ago that God took human works and set them aside as unusable.) lest any man should boast.” You can’t boast when you receive a free gift that is so incredibly undeserved. It is a free gift.
Back on the farm where I grew up we used to listen to the radio, and we used to listen to certain evangelists that came on, and they always had an appeal at the end, asking for money or something, and they had something they were giving away. I remember one man who you would never know because he’s not on the radio anymore, but I used to impersonate him. And I’d hate to do that for you this morning, but with a little coaxing I guess I could.
He used to say, “Now my dear friend, if you will send me $5.00 I will send you absolutely free this new book.” And I used to sit there at the age of 10 and say, “This doesn’t compute. What do you mean, send you $5.00?” which in those days, by the way, was an awful lot of money. If it’s absolutely free you not only should send the book but you ought to pay for the postage that is used to write and ask you for it, because that’s what God does. He pays the whole freight the whole way. It’s not like salvation. It is a free gift. Do you know what that means? It means you will never ever repay it. If you could repay it, even in the smallest amount, God would have to regard it, and God would have to acknowledge the payment. But the Bible says it is of grace, and it is not of works lest any man should boast, so that nobody ever stands before God and says, “Well, God, you did this for me, but after all I did pay you a bit back.”
Listen to this very carefully. God owns so much. Do you ever think that God would have to buy anything? Does God ever have to go shopping and say, “Well, you know I’m running out of supplies,” much less use a credit card to have to do it? No, but the Bible does say that God purchased one thing. It says that He purchased His Church with His own blood. When Jesus Christ died on the cross that was redemption. God purchased us, and it is insulting to think that we could ever pay Him back.
There was an Indian Hindu who became the friend of a Christian missionary, and they spent many hours talking about salvation, and the Hindu could never understand how Christians could believe that salvation is a free gift, and that it does not have to be paid back. The Hindu said that he was going to attain to salvation by going to Delhi on his knees. But before he left he wanted to give a gift to his missionary friend whom he had come to love, and he gave him a beautiful pearl, very delicately formed. And he said, I want you to have this pearl, and I want you to know that my son died while capturing it, and now it is yours.
The missionary received it and then said, “But I need to pay you for it. Let me pay you for it.” And the man was insulted. He said, “How can you pay for something that was purchased by my son’s death?” Ah, then it began to dawn on him. How can we pay to God that which was a free gift given by His precious Son’s death? We will never pay. Never!
Now there are some people who say, “Oh, I am so unworthy of grace.” Well, my dear friend, join the club, would you? We’re all unworthy of it. That’s the whole point. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, undeserved, unearned, and never recompensed. That’s the whole point of grace.
Some people say, “Well, I have to make myself ready to receive grace by a proper amount of sorrow. There is a sorrow that leads to repentance. There’s no doubt about that, but how do you know when you have enough sorrow finally? Somebody else (an alcoholic) said to me, “Well, you know, I hope to receive Christ some time but I need to know that I will be able to hold out, so I’m going to wait until I know I can get off the bottle.” Forget it! You’re going to wait until you know that you can hold out? You are going to wait forever, my friend, because you’re never going to know that. Grace is a free gift and you come as you are.
Notice, number one, it sets aside all human effort. Secondly, it is unaffected by the degree of our sin. Thirdly, it takes us all the way to heaven. Fourthly, it is a gift of God, and finally, it is very difficult to accept.
Somebody listening to this says, “Well, you know what they do there at The Moody Church? They just preach this business of cheap grace.” I want you to know today that to accept the grace of God is difficult though it is a free gift. Let me tell you two categories of people that find it difficult to accept God’s grace. Luther said that the natural man is on a pendulum, and he swings between pride and despair.
So first of all we’re going to talk about those who are in despair - the drug addict, the child molester, the murderer, the practicing homosexual, the adulterer and the alcoholic. All of these people find it difficult to accept God’s grace frequently because what they are saying in themselves is, “If you only knew. God is so mad at me there’s no way that I’m going to talk to Him about this. He’s just waiting in heaven ready to spew me out of His mouth, He’s so angry. Oh, what a wretch I am!” And so they look at other people and they revise their estimation of themselves downward because they say, “I am unworthy,” and they find it hard to receive God’s grace.
Then there’s another category – those goody two-shoes religious types. Somebody was asked one time, “What is the greatest sin you have ever committed?” He said, “Well, I was out on a golf course and I got real mad and hit the ball real far.” Oh, how could you do something that terrible? I can’t believe it! First of all, let me say that I think that he did other things that were far worse than that if he were honest. The religious types find it very hard to be honest.
But number two, those who say (People have told me this on a plane – I’ve heard it so often), “Well you know, I think I have just as good a shot at heaven as anybody else,” and they look at other people and they revise their estimation of themselves upward because they can tell you a hundred people who are worse off than they are. And so they say, “I’ve got a good shot.” Listen to me very carefully. Those people are farther from the Kingdom of Heaven than the other category that I have listed. And that is why Jesus said to the religious types of His day, “The prostitutes will go into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of you folks because you still think that somehow works are involved, and as a result of your thinking that works are involved, you look to yourself and do not understand that you are as wretched before Me as all the folks whom you think are so much worse than you are.”
You see these folks are insulted when they are told that as far as God is concerned they are in the same category as all the other sinners. They are insulted when they are told that what they need is not divine help; they need a resurrection. Let me be very clear to you today and say this. When you come to Christ it is not to give. It is to receive.
The idea of works is so ingrained within us that even in the terminology which many people who should know better use, we find works. For example, I hear people say, “Now, what I’m going to do is to challenge my friends to commit themselves to Christ.” Oh, I want to think about that a little bit. What do you mean to commit yourself to Christ? It’s true that we as Christians commit ourselves to Christ. Paul says, “He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day,” but to what are you expecting these people exactly to commit?
I had a friend who used to witness this way. He said, “I challenge people to pledge their allegiance to Jesus Christ.” Pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ! There’s a famous evangelist whom I have frequently admired, and some of you might know who he is. But he gave an invitation one time and he said, “I’m going to invite you to come forward, and those of you who are coming forward, you are making a promise to follow Christ.” I thought, “Oh, oh, oh.” There are some of us who have lived the Christian life for decades and we still are struggling to follow Christ, and now you are asking all those people to come and to follow Christ? What if they make their promise to follow Christ and then go home and break it an hour later? Now what?
Will you listen to me very carefully? When you come to Christ to be saved you come to receive. You do not come to give. You do not come to receive help. You come to be rescued. You do not come to be made better, though that happens, thank God, but you come to be resurrected. You come helplessly, but you come to the only God who can speak to a graveyard, and can cause a corpse to live. And you can never take care of your problem just by getting real serious about it.
Many years ago, and it is many years ago, I was the pastor of the Edgewater Baptist Church. I came there with my wife in 1971. I was very new in the ministry. I still feel new in the ministry, as a matter of fact. But there were some evangelistic services that had already been planned, and there was this couple that came, and I didn’t know whom they were. I had never seen them before, but they came to this meeting, and afterwards they came to talk to me.
Here was their story. They belonged to a wife-swapping club and the wife had newly come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and I got the impression, though it was not explicitly said, that she had kind of dragged her husband to church that evening. I personally got the feeling that he wanted to be there about as much as a counterfeit coin enjoys being put in an offering plate. But as I talked with them, this man said, “You know, my wife is now a Christian, but I want you to know something. There’s no way that I can stop being immoral.” He said, “If you believe that I’m going to come to Christ and I’m going to clean up my act, I’m going to tell you in advance that I am too weak to do that.” He said, “I have lived in immorality all of my life, and there’s no way that I can stop what I’m doing but,” he said, “I do know that I’m a sinner and I desperately need help.”
I hadn’t recalled that seminary had prepared me for this exactly but I said, “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you here trust Christ as your Savior, acknowledging your helplessness and your bondage to immorality? Come as you are. Believe and receive Christ by faith, knowing that even the faith that you come to tonight is God’s gift.” And then I said, “Regarding your lifestyle, you and God will work that out after you become one of His children tonight.” So he did.
Because they were not part of Edgewater Baptist Church I never saw them. Weeks went by and I thought to myself, “Oh, this business of cheap grace! A guy comes here and prays a prayer and now he probably thinks he’s saved because he prayed a prayer, and he’s probably living the way he’s always lived.” About six weeks later he made an appointment to see me. He came to the church and after a few pleasantries he sat down and said, “You know, I think I’m called to the ministry.” He said, “What do you think about my attending Moody Bible Institute?” Well, I appeared not to look shocked. I picked myself up off the floor, and dusted myself. We talked about Moody Bible Institute and other possibilities. We prayed together. He was on his way out and I asked him the question you would have asked if you had been me. I said, “What about that wife-swapping club?” “Oh,” he said, “I want you to know that God took that out of my life entirely after I became a Christian six weeks ago.”
My dear friend, do you realize why grace is amazing? Grace is amazing because when we come to Christ we bring nothing to the table except our own sin. We don’t come to Christ saying, “Now if I really got serious about this I could take care of this but I need Your help.” That’s not the way you come to Christ. You come to Christ helplessly. You come to be made alive. You come because you are blind and you invite Christ to make you see. You come because you are deaf and He has to create ears for you to hear. And that’s how you come, like the words of the song, Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me.
And Augustus Toplady got it so right when he said,
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
And that’s why grace is so, so amazing.
Let us pray.
Father, we pray today for those who are on one end of the pendulum in despair with secret lives of immorality and impurity, feeling that they are undeserving of Your grace. We thank You that they feel that way, but we pray that You might show them that though they are undeserving, it is for sinners that Christ came. We pray for those who are on the other end of the pendulum, the prideful, those who think that surely they’ve got a good shot at it. Strip it all away today, Father, and show them that there is no commonality between human goodness and divine holiness, and they stand just as desperately in need of a Savior as all the criminals do. And today we pray that You might show Your grace to both, and that You might wondrously grant to these the gift of faith that they might believe.
Now before I close I want you to talk to God, those of you who do not know Christ as Savior. You can pray this prayer after me. It is a prayer that will simply tell God that you are finished and you come to the table with nothing at last, but you come to receive. You can say, “Dear God, I know that I am a sinner. I desperately need You to save me. At this moment I receive Christ’s grace. I cast myself upon His mercy. And thank You that You shall do in me the miracle I need. Thank You. Amen.