How Well Did I Understand Grace
by Paul Ellis
(Paul is a former pastor and professor who now lives in Auckland after spending time teaching and Pastoring in Hong kong. He is the founder of EscapetoReality.org and the author of the newly released book The Gospel in Ten Words. He regularly writes on the good news of God's amazing grace.)
Have you ever seen those Magic Eye 3D pictures that look random at first glance but then reveal a hidden picture? Maybe there's a group of you looking and someone says, "Wow – look at that! It's a ship!" Then another person sees it and now they're both describing the picture to you. But try as you might you just can't see it. They try to encourage you. "Look – it's right there. It's huge!" But still you can't see it. You're starting to think there's no picture at all and they're all deluded when suddenly, revelation comes and a ship appears! If you're like me and you're usually the last person to see these things, you'll no doubt embarrass yourself at this point by shouting, "I see it!"
That's how it was for me with grace.
I knew people who looked into the Bible and saw radical grace but I didn't. Sure, there were pockets of grace but there was a whole lot of other stuff as well. Then one day, revelation came and I saw Grace! He's right there on every page and in every book! How can you miss Him? He's huge! I now find myself reading old scriptures with new eyes and saying, "Look! This is speaking of Jesus! This is all about Him – I never saw this before." Now that I've seen Him once I see Him everywhere. I was saved decades ago and I have always loved God with my whole heart. But when I got this revelation of His amazing grace, it was like being born again, again.
A friend recently asked me, "How well did you understand grace before you understood grace?" Here's my answer: I thought I understood grace perfectly well. For as long as I can remember I've considered myself a testimony of His grace. But when Grace Himself came into focus, I was floored. I realized that I had barely understood grace at all. Looking back I can identify nine signs that showed I did not fully grasp the grace of God.
1. I understood that I was saved by grace but not that I was kept by grace
I had received Christ by faith and without doing a thing, but I was not continuing in Him by that same faith (Col 2:6). Although I would never have said it, I had taken out a little works insurance. Faith is a positive response to what God has done, but I liked to initiate things. And so my walk became "do, do, do," rather than it's "done, done, done." There was no rest, only performance anxiety. There was always another meeting to lead, another plank of truth to teach, another stray sheep to gather. I thought this was normal. I could get excited about the idea of being saved and saving others, but I was not drawing from the wells of salvation with joy (Is 12:3). I was constantly stressed and I treated grace as grease for my engine.
2. I felt obliged to serve
Jesus had done everything for me, what would I do for Him? Of course I didn't use the word "indebted" – that would've alerted me to the poverty of my theology – but much of what I did was motivated by a sense of obligation. I thus cheapened the exceeding riches of His grace (Eph 1:7) by trying to pay Him back for His priceless gift. Inevitably this shifted my focus from Him and His work to me and mine. Instead of being impressed by what He had done, I was trying to impress Him with what I was doing.
3. I motivated others using carrots and sticks
Because my own motives were screwed up it was inevitable that I would preach rewards and punishments to others. Do good, get good; do bad, get bad. At the same time as I was preaching against legalism I was putting people under law! My gospel was like an ash-tray – full of "buts"! God loves you but… Jesus died for you but… God's gifts always came with a price to pay. But grace is free – you either receive it or reject it but the moment you start charging for it, you've missed it. There's only one motive in the kingdom and that is love. The Son of Man didn't come to threaten us, judge us, or scare us, but to demonstrate love (Rm 5:8). I no longer believe that evangelism means scaring the hell out of people. The good news that the world needs to hear is that God is good and He loves us. The new covenant of grace is the formal expression of His unfailing love for us (Is 54:10).
4. I saw myself as a servant rather than a son
My identity was in the things I did rather than in my Father. I saw myself as working for God (a noble cause!) rather than doing the works of God. I would not have said I was justified by what I did for I knew that grace and works don't mix (Rms 11:6). Yet I was mixing grace with works like there was no tomorrow! But here's the strange thing. Even though I preached servanthood more than sonship, whenever there was a crisis I was quick to relate to Him as Papa. It was only when I was strong and healthy that I was seduced by the religious need to do something for God. Happily, there were many crises!
5. I kept asking God to provide things that He's already provided
I knew enough about grace to approach Him boldly in my hour of need, but I didn't know that He has already given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). If someone was sick I would ask for healing when I should've just healed them (Mt 10:8). I would ask for more faith instead of living by the faith of the Son of God (Ga 2:20). Like the prodigal's older brother I felt that God would bless me as I did my part. I didn't realize that I was already blessed, deeply loved, and highly favored. In my ignorance I wasted a whole lot of time doing a whole lot of nothing. I thought I was being active and fruitful but in reality I was passive and faithless. God had already come but there I was face down asking Him to come again.
6. I was more sin-conscious than Christ-conscious
Like many Christians I was afraid of sin (keep it out of the camp!) and I was not known as a friend of sinners. I defined sin as bad works only and I taught that the solution to sin was repentance. I had read that the grace of God teaches us to say no to ungodliness (Tit 2:12), but I wasn't quite sure how that worked. So when preaching against sin I used inferior incentives like fear and punishment that led, at best, to temporary, will-powered changes in behavior. I emphasized what people must do (repent!) more that what God has already done (forgiven us!). I kept the focus on us when it should've been on Him and my preaching was powerless as a result. If anyone failed to experience victory over sin, I just figured they were unacquainted with God's transforming grace – even though I had given them none.
7. I always tried to do the right thing
Someone under grace says, "I trust Him from start to finish. He will lead me in the right path" (Ps 23:3). But in subtle ways I preferred rules to relationship. What I craved were clear Biblical guidelines for living. I thought I was choosing good, but then so did Adam. We both had an independent spirit that led us to eat from the wrong tree. I felt particularly good when people came to me for guidance. I thought I was giving them wisdom when really I should just have got out of the way and taught them to lean on Jesus (Jn 10:27).
8. I had a stronger relationship with the written word than with the Living Word
I did not read the scriptures to find Jesus (Lk 24:27) but to learn, what should I do? I read indiscriminately and was often confused by scriptures that seemed to contradict each other. My solution was to go for balance: A little of this, a little of that, for all scripture is profitable. But by failing to filter what I read through the finished work of the cross, I unwittingly poisoned myself. I was mixing the death-dealing words of the law with the life-giving words of grace. Although I was zealous for the Lord, in truth I was lukewarm. I was neither under the stone-cold reality of the law nor walking in the red-hot heat of His unconditional love and grace.
9. I knew I was righteous, but I didn't feel righteous
When I stumbled I would more readily confess my sins to God than allow the Holy Spirit to remind me of the gift of His righteousness to me (Jn 16:10). I knew I was a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), but in many ways I acted and spoke as if I was merely an improved creation. I thought honesty about my struggles was the key to getting more grace. But I probably would not have struggled so much in the first place if I had just learned to see myself as God sees me – redeemed, righteous, and holy.
I am convinced that grace comes by revelation. If you don't yet see it this post may sound like the ramblings of a man who is unbalanced. (Thank God I am! I'm done with balance!) If you do see Grace, then right now you will be resonating like a tuning fork. So let me finish with a few words for those of you in the first group. Please be patient with those of us who are leaping for joy. Don't walk away from the Magic Eye picture scowling, "I can't see it, there's nothing there." Just keep looking! Grace really is standing right there in front of you. And He's huge!