grace has a story


Are you in need of grace? I am. Everyday. Every moment. I am serious need of grace.

If we’re honest, we really don’t like stories of grace. If we’re in the story it can be hard and there’s nothing we can do about it. Prior to experiencing grace many experience shame, pain, loss, and heartache. On the other hand, if someone else enjoys the gift of grace we cry unfair. Yet Grace isn’t about fairness. Grace offends us because it tells us we can’t do anything to deserve it! Grace costs nothing for the recipient but everything for the giver. Grace is an extravagant, ridiculous, over-the-top gift.

The Scriptures are swarming with stories of grace—Adam, Noah, Abraham. David, the murderous adulterer became king of Israel and a man after God’s own heart. Peter, the man with foot-in-mouth-disease, cursed and swore that he didn’t know Jesus became a powerful soul-winner and fed of Jesus’ flock. And Jesus taught many stories of grace that rattled his hearers like the Prodigal Son, the Unfair Landowner, the One Lost Sheep and the Wedding Banquet. He hung out with sinners. His whole story was one of grace— the Servant King—God in skin bearing the wrath of God for man’s sin (2 Cor. 8:9).

The Apostle Paul was a story of grace. Even in his day, his story had some people puzzled. They said, “Paul claims to be an apostle, but he didn’t become one like the others.” They cried foul and spread rumors that he was a fake apostle. How ungracious they were, but before we point fingers let’s see how Paul responds. It is here in his letter to the Galatian church that he defends his call and ministry.

Paul’s letter to the Galatian church was his very first epistle. He wrote it right after his first missions trip to Galatia (central Turkey) where he stayed less than a year. The letter sets the tone for future letters. Interestingly, no more than two sentences into each letter Paul greets his readers in the “grace of Jesus.” Grace is a big deal to Paul because he has been so impacted by that grace.

To better understand Paul’s defense of his apostleship it’s important to know what an apostle is and does. In order to be an apostle, one needed to complete this checklist: 1) An eyewitness of Christ and his ministry, 2) an eyewitness of Christ’s resurrection, 3) appointed by Christ Himself, 4) able to perform signs and wonders like Christ, 5) received divine revelation, and 6) laid the foundation of the church. If you can check ‘Yes’ to all, then you’re an apostle. Not many could say ‘Yes’.  Paul could legitimately check all the boxes along with the original twelve, yet he didn’t necessarily check them in the same way they did. He took the delayed route.

In Galatians 1:11–12, Paul states his defense: my message and ministry are from God not man. He didn’t claim to concoct or change the Gospel, but insists he got it straight from Jesus Himself (cf. v.1). Paul goes on to defend the gospel message and apostolic ministry by sharing three stories from his past. Each story zeroes in on the grace of God for the grace of God is Paul’s greatest defense for his message and ministry. (And I would add, yours too, since we are are all stories of God’s amazing grace.)

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” – Galatians 1:11-12

GRACE COVERS A SHADY PAST (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul’s first story stretches back to before he met Jesus. He highlights in this story two aspects of his life and resume—his religious heritage and his religious radicalism (v.13-14). Why would he choose to share these two parts of his religious resume here? Why wouldn’t he choose the other parts? It’s that these two aspects highlight how much he needed grace. Paul was the rising star in his field. If he had Linked-In, he’d be suffocated under an avalanche of requests from major synagogues, law schools, and terrorist organizations. He was a stud and knew it. He was a shady guy who was ripe to be a story of God’s grace. As Paul later reflected, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” (Rom. 5:20) Grace covers a shady past.

“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” – Galatians 1:13-14

Like Paul, before Jesus intersected with your life you were an enemy of God. You were filthy rags, scum, a lover of darkness, an orphan, and lost. You were self-righteous to the core. You did some shady things. (You say were, what about are?)

Yet the hope of the gospel is that your former or current life can become your former life. You don’t have to be who you were, but by grace you can be who you were meant to be in Christ. What part of your shady past do you have a difficult time allowing God to cover with his grace? So many Christians today are handicapped by their past sins. There sins cause an ever looming shadow. They are crippled. But grace says pick up you mats and walk. This is Amazing Grace!

GRACE FOREVER ARRESTS THE SOUL (1:15-16b, 24)

In Paul’s second story, he tells how grace not only covered his past, but also captures his present and his future. He reflects on and relishes in his conversion story. What we see is: All God and all grace! For we see to save Paul,

God did it. “He who set me apart before I was born.” (vs.15a, 16a) God did what, when? God saved Paul! He intended it before he was born! Do you see the beauty and patience of God saving Paul in his good timing? That’s what we call sovereign grace at work (cf. Eph. 1:4).

God did it by grace. “And [God] called me by His grace,” (v.15b) It wasn’t because Paul deserved it, earn it, or asked for it. Far from it. Paul was in dire and desperate need of grace. God saved Paul while he was on an anti-mission trip with documents in hand to oppress, imprison, and stone Christians (Acts 9:1-8, 22:4-18, 26). Grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. It means that I, even I, who deserve the opposite, am invited to take a place at God’s table.

God did it through Christ. “…was pleased to revealed His Son to me.” (v.16a) How humbling is it that the One who Paul was persecuting became his Savior? Yet the Judge makes a convicted criminal headed for death row his friend and brother. And this brought God pleasure! As C.S. Lewis said: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up?”

God did it for the sake of others. “…that I might preach Him among the Gentiles.” (v.16b; Acts 9:15-16, 20) Paul was God’s poster-child to the world of what grace does. As an apostle, Paul will go on to do works that I won’t or can’t (i.e. new revelation). However, you and I can know the same grace of God like Paul and God can use you as his poster-child to the world of what grace can do.

God did it for his glory. “And they glorified God because of me.” (v.24) Why did they glorify God? They saw amazing grace on display! They glorified God because nothing or no one could have changed a man like Paul apart from the grace of God.

From the moment God intersects your life by his grace you are forever changed. Grace arrests the soul. It doesn’t just stay in your past, but it becomes a part of who you are everyday. Timothy Keller said,

“Grace is not unconditional acceptance, but it is undeserved. That is a very difficult balance to strike! God’s grace comes to us without prerequisites, finding us as we are. God’s grace does not come to the “deserving” (there is no such person), and it does not discriminate. Rather, initially it comes to us freely. But once it enters into our lives, God’s grace demands changes; it holds us accountable. Why? Grace demands our holiness and growth for our sake as well as for God’s glory. Grace intercepts destructive behavior, protects us from the ravages of sin, sanctifies us so we can be “holy and happy,” two inseparable qualities… [Grace] says, “Your sin cannot separate you from me,” and then, in addition, says, “I won’t let your sin destroy you.” Grace comes to the unlovely person, but refuses to let him remain ugly.” – Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ. 1997. 226-227.

The world of ungrace tried to discredit Paul and the gospel. It will try to do the same to you. Satan will try to allow you to wallow in your past or ongoing sin, but allow God’s grace to forever arrest your soul. Grace changes everything. And it will change you. Rest in God’s sovereign grace calling you before you were born. Revel in the fact that you were completely undeserving of his grace. Remember, God was pleased to cover you in his grace. Radiate grace for the sake of others that they may glorify God.

GRACE MULTIPLIES GRACE (1:16c-23)

Paul’s last story shares how he went on to grow in grace and spread that grace to the Gentiles (vs.16c-22). Paul formerly an ungracious religious punisher is now grace’s powerful promoter. The people even said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” (v.23) Paul is a changed man and has become a messenger of grace. That’s what grace does. Grace multiplies grace. What we see from this point onward is grace multiplying grace in Paul’s message and ministry.

Paul’s story is a story of grace. From Paul’s story we learn: (1) Grace saves sinners. Everyday sinful, broken people all over the world are being transformed by the message of Jesus Christ. (2) Grace sustains us from the moment we are born again to the day we die. God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) (3) Grace, in you, is a humble, powerful witness to the world. You are a story of grace. You are a vessel of grace. You are God’s means of multiplying grace to the world. Who are you a multiply grace to right now? Is there anyone by grace you are needing to forgive?

Paul shows the paradox of grace. Before Christ, he thinks he’s “the best”, but after he thinks he’s “the worst” (1 Cor. 15:9-11; Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:12-16; Rom 10:1; 11:13-14). It is not that Paul has a poor self-esteem or low self-image. He has a self-awareness like John Newton knowing he is “a great sinner and Jesus is a great Savior.” What greater defense of Paul’s ministry and the message of the gospel is needed other than the one word “grace”? Grace is your greatest defense too.

My story is a story of grace.  I was born to two teenage parents who divorced before I could speak.  I grew up mostly under my  grandparents roof while my mom worked.  I was a bitter and troubled kid.  I had reckless friends.  My teacher wrote me off.  The school counselor mocked me. My child psychiatrist was stumped. I even considered suicide.  I was broken.

Until.

One Sunday, shortly after my mother remarriage and we relocated to a new part of our state.  We attended Bible church together.  It was a bit weird at first.  Everyone had Bibles.  My mom later went to Sam’s Club and bought Bibles for the family.  I began being discipled.  That was a new thing.  I gained new friends who really cared for my soul.  I enjoyed serving rather than being served. I went to Bible College. I became a Pastor.  I really had a passion for broken people. And for the last 4 years spreading the fame of God in North Africa.  That is a crazy story of grace from my perspective.  I’d like to say I’ve arrived but I am still daily in need of grace. This is my story. God’s grace covered my shady past, arrested my soul, and has given me reason to multiply grace with others.

What is your story of grace? Will you allow God’s grace to arrest your soul? With whom do you need to multiply grace? Are you needing grace today?

 

Reflection:

  • How does Paul’s defense of his authority and call echo that of Jesus’ own defense of his authority and call?
  • Do you ever find yourself thinking you deserve God’s grace? What prompts you to think this way?
  • How does the gospel of grace free you from pride and from guilt?
  • In what ways can you see how God worked in your life before your conversion to equip you to serve Him after it?
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