Changed by Grace
I took our youngest son, David, on a surprise trip to the Grand Canyon when he was 11 years old. Perfect day with blue skies, cool temperatures, and virtually unlimited visibility. It was so rewarding to watch his reaction when we drove right up to the rim and he stepped out to see this natural wonder for the first time in his life.
“Wow! Wow! Whoa!!!” he said over and over! Then we went on a hike into the canyon and made it to some amazing viewpoints.
Picture us negotiating narrow paths with sheer drops of several hundred feet; sunbathing on rocky promontories with world-class vistas in every direction; seeing the canyon colors change every few minutes from orange to red to purple to grey. It was stunning. David walked with me for a couple miles taking it all in, ooh-ing and aah-ing the whole way.
Now you have to understand that this is not the most outdoorsy, athletic child. This is someone who’d probably ask for a ride to his room if we could fit a car into the house. Yet he not only bounded along the trail with enthusiasm, he formulated a long-range plan. “Dad,” he told me, “I have a new life goal. I want to go on a week-long Colorado River rafting trip and explore this place!” He’s brought it up to me several times since then, too.
Know how many times I had to force him to hike a step further that day? Zip. He was propelled by awe. Did I ever have to tell him, “Think long-term and come up with a life goal that incorporates your experience today”? Nope. It was the wonder of the canyon that motivated him to exercise, to dream, to plan.
Sure, there was discipline involved; it was no picnic climbing back out of the canyon! But he truly did it with delight. His eyes were open to the spectacle he was experiencing. He couldn’t believe it when I showed him on a map how far we’d gone. And when we called home he had such fun describing his day to the rest of the family.
Now compare that to running on a treadmill. How much hope do you think I have of getting David to hike on an exercise machine as far as he did that day at the canyon? It’ll never happen!
Well, the same effect applies to the disciplines of your spiritual life. If you live “in view of God’s mercy,” if your eyes are open to grace, you’ll want to give your life to exploring its depths with enthusiasm — and you’ll feel enthused about inviting others to experience this supernatural wonder of the world.
But if you feel you’re on a religious treadmill? Sheer numb boredom. Dry drudgery. Even resentment. It’s in beholding Jesus and the wonder of His grace that we change, as Paul says:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory… 2 Corinthians 3:8a
Are your eyes open to the wonder?
As Jerry Bridges says, “That is why we must preach the gospel to ourselves every day.”
This is what it means in today’s verses when Paul says to be transformed (the verb be transformedis in the passive voice — Paul is urging us not to do something, but to have something done to us) by the renewing of your mind.
It’s sort of like positive brainwashing: Instead of the false messages from your culture (“You must be thin!” “You must become rich!” “You must prove your worth!”), you begin to hear and believe the messages from God’s Word about the wonder of grace (“You are blessed with every spiritual blessing” “You are a co-heir with Christ” “The same power that resurrected Christ is in you!”).
How are you trying to grow spiritually — by grace or by law?
An old poem attributed to John Bunyan puts it well:
Run, John, run! the law commands
But gives me neither feet nor hands
Better news the gospel brings;
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
How can the same exact things — Bible reading, prayer, evangelism — bring you joy or seem like drudgery? What makes the difference?
Have you been able to experience the spiritual disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, quiet time, etc., as times you actually look forward to? Why?
The Grand Canyon’s a wonder of the world, but spend time today thinking of the world’s biggest wonder, God’s grace toward you! Thank Him specifically for some aspect of His grace!
In the Grip of Grace
Read Romans 8:28-39
When I lived in San Diego my baseball hero was Tony Gywnn, so I could not believe it when he hit a foul ball directly into the stands exactly to the spot where my wife and I were sitting during a Padres game in the mid-1980s.
It was like the best gift ever, dropping out of the sky right into my hands. I didn’t have to move, or even stretch — it came straight to me! I had literally dreamed of this moment, and now it was coming true!
I can remember every nanosecond of what happened next as if it is in slow-motion replay:
I see the bright blue Southern California sky. Here comes the white baseball, arcing right toward me in super-slo-mo. There’s my hand, poised to catch it. Now into my field of vision enter… sixteen other hands, jostling mine as MY TONY GWYNN BALL comes soaring into the seats.
For one brief instant my fingertips graze the leather surface of my prize…
…then it bounces like a pinball off bumpers as everyone elbows for the elusive ball! It drops out of sight! I am dismayed as I imagine it skittering through the section! I scream in slow-mo, “NOOOOO!” Then… joy! I see it lodged firmly in the space between the hard plastic seat bottom and seat back of my wife’s chair!!
I yell to her: “SIT DOOOOWN!!!!” And she does, plopping down on the ball, like a hen guarding her precious egg for her rooster-man. I begin to crow proudly in victory --
Until I freeze as I watch a foxy invader literally pluck the ball out from underneath my wife’s…seat! Yes, unbelievably, a hand snakes down the seat back, reaches under her, and pops out that egg! She yells in outrage (OK, it honestly did sound a little like a chicken clucking in protest, just to complete the metaphor). The interloper has the ball and is high-fiving his seatmates.
For the rest of the game there was probably visible heat distortion above my head as I angrily contemplated how close I came to possessing a Tony Gwynn ball! Finally my wife (who had far more reason to be offended than I) said, “Cheer up, hon, you’ll find a way to use this as an illustration!”
And I did! Here it comes:
Too often I think of myself hanging on to salvation like I tried to catch that slippery fly ball: I’ve got it one instant, but the next I could lose it! A variety of factors are always jostling me, robbing me, making it hard to be confident that I have what I seek.
But really, we are the ball, and the hand is God’s! And we’re firmly in God’s grip, by His grace. He will never drop us. He will never let us go. He will never release his grasp.
I was thinking about this one day when I was walking along our local railroad tracks with my youngest son. The train tracks run right in front of a beachside amusement park and David was about three years old, an age when walking on the rails pretending to be a choo-choo is a better attraction than nearly anything inside the park.
Of course I knew he would stumble and fall (at that age they stumble and fall walking across a carpeted room), so I had his hand firmly in my grasp. Note: I did not just make sure he was holding my hand. I was holding his. There’s a difference. His grip could slip; mine was firm. Because I love him.
Grace means more than your salvation. Grace means your Heavenly Father knows you will stumble, and knows your grip will slip… but He has you in His grasp. Because He loves you.
From predestination to calling to justification to glorification, we are in His grasp the whole way. So nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39). That’s “the grip of grace.” Still you may wonder, “If I am so secure, what motivates me to change and grow?” We’ll look at that tomorrow.
How does it make you feel to know you are in the grip of grace?
When is it hardest to believe this is true?
What is your biggest question about what is taught in today’s meditation?
Today pray through the Scripture reading and make it into a prayer of thanks to God! Imagine Him holding your hand firmly and lovingly.
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." -Romans 8:1
Read Romans 8:1-4
Back when I was really struggling with legalism my wife told me, “René, you are one of the most guilt-oriented people I know!”
It was true. I constantly felt guilty about not doing a better job as a pastor or a husband or a father or a friend, I felt guilty every time I messed up in any way, I felt guilty for past sins, and in those moments when I was happy, I quickly felt guilty that I wasn’t feeling guilty! I can still slip into guilt-orientation to this day.
Maybe you can relate. Or maybe instead of that constant low hum of background guilt, there’s one major sin in your past that keeps haunting you.
Well then, drink this in:
“Therefore…” Because of what Paul’s been explaining in the Book of Romans.
“there is now…” Not there will be; not there might be; there is now.
“no…” Not there is less; there is no.
“condemnation…” In the original Greek language the word is katakrimi. The last part of that word, krimi, is where we get our English words “criminal” and “crime.” It refers to a legal judgment about a crime in a court of law. Paul’s saying there is no more sentencing, no verdict to wait for, no further penalty possible. The trial is over.
“…for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Not for those who are perfectly well-behaved; not for those who fulfill certain religious requirements; for those in Christ.
What does it mean to be in Christ?
Experiment: Right now take a sticky note or 3×5 card, wrinkle it, write on it, bend it… and then place it in the middle of the pages of this book, without any of it sticking out. Then shut the book. Go ahead, try it. Notice what you see. Then come back and keep reading!
Done? So how much of the note’s flaws did you see when it was in the book? None. Not because it did anything to clean itself — not because it tried hard — but because it was enclosed, encased, covered, by the book.
That’s what it means to be in Christ. It does not mean you have tried hard and earned credit for good behavior. It means you have received the free gift of His gracious covering of your sin.
I wish more Christians really believed this. There are so many emotional problems among Christians because they don’t. They think God is angry with them continuously. They imagine that even when they try, God is saying, “You could have done better.”
Bill Hybels said, “There are only two religions in the world: The religion of human achievement that asks, ‘What must I do?’ and the religion of divine achievement that says, ‘Because of God it is done.’”
Do or done. Which religion are you?
For years, although I had been saying all the right words, in my heart I was really still in the first religion, trying hard to earn absolution. How did I finally get a sense of peace and security? That’s tomorrow.
Do you really believe Romans 8:1? Why or why not? What would Paul say to you?
What does Paul mean in verse 3 when he says the law was “powerless”? What was it powerless to do? Why?
Thank God today for His total forgiveness! Offer to Him memories of past mistakes that may have been plaguing you. Ask Him to help you focus on His love instead of your sins.
Do Not Think of This!
Read Romans 7:7-25
OK, whatever you do right now DO NOT think of Sweet Tarts candy!
Absolutely do not imagine the feel of the round candies in your hand, the look of the pastel blues and pinks, the initial surprise of tartness when you put them in your mouth, the snap of the candy when you start to chew it, or that tangy taste in your mouth that makes those salivary glands under your tongue go into overdrive!
How’re you doing on that? If you’re like most people, your mouth is puckering up a little bit already!
All right, go ahead and think of Sweet Tarts but please, whatever you do, do not think of a nice roast beef dinner.
Do not imagine the creamy, buttery mashed potatoes on your plate, made just the way you like them, with rich gravy running over the mashed potatoes into that hot, perfectly cooked slice of marbled, rich, dark roast beef. Don’t imagine how you smelled the aroma for hours as it cooked — and now you get to dig in! Of course this also means not thinking of that buttered bread roll melting in your mouth as you look down at the feast in front of you.
Some of you are just now picking this book back up again after disappearing for a snack following those first two paragraphs. It’s almost impossible not to focus on something that you’re reminding yourself not to focus on.
This is part of the problem with a legalistic system of righteousness. It’s like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant.
As Paul points out in Colossians, "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? …Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." Colossians 2:20–21,23
Note that Paul says such rules lack any value when it comes to really restraining impulses.
I watched an episode of Candid Camera where they put a sign that said “Wet Paint! Do Not Touch!” next to a park bench and then let the hidden cameras roll. And of course every single person who saw the sign stared at the bench like they were overcome with bench-touch lust. They longed to touch it. They had to touch it! Touching that park bench became their controlling desire!! And how many people do you think wanted to touch the bench like that before someone put up that sign — or even thought about it at all? Exactly zero.
The Bible talks a lot about what you could call the Wet Paint Effect. It’s not that the law is bad, but focusing on the rules of the spiritual life will often stimulate in you a desire for disobedience — not through any fault of the rules, but because of the way rules affect your sinful human nature. Paul talks about it in these verses:
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire… I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. Romans 7:8,10
So how can you get victory over sin in your life?
Three unbiblical but very popular answers:
If these are all bad ideas, then what’s the biblical answer to changing your behavior? More on that starting tomorrow!
Have you ever experienced the Wet Paint Effect: rules bringing out misbehavior? What happened?
What’s wrong with the three unbiblical answers René mentions?
Ask God to help you focus on Him and His love instead of all the things you should not do! Start today by reviewing some of these devotions and the Scriptural truths in them, thanking God as you do your review for each blessing you have by grace!
Hi, I'm Rene and I'm a Sinaholic
Read Romans 5:12-17
Before I was a pastor, I was a disc jockey and also recorded voice-overs for commercials, promos, etc., for a variety of radio stations and other clients. Occasionally I’ll still do some work in that area. I’ll never forget one particular recording session: I’d been hired to record “liners,” as they’re called, for a talk radio station. Once the production director discovered I was also a pastor, he really let me have it! Every lame joke about pastors, every stereotype — the guy was relentless! I soon found out why.
“Look, I grew up in a church,” he told me, “And every Sunday it was the same thing: ‘Try harder to keep the Ten Commandments.’ Well, it didn’t work. I became an alcoholic. And I tried to stop. But trying harder doesn’t work. The church message is a ridiculous lie. In my 12-Step group I finally realized that willpower is far from enough!”
Then he sat back and looked at me like, “I rest my case! I dare you to argue!”
I think he was pretty surprised when I agreed with him.
I told him that the moralistic message of many churches is totally misleading and very dangerous. The actual biblical teaching is not “try harder.” It’s that we are all sinners — sinaholics, if you like — self-destructive and deceitful.
Sin is not merely a bad habit to unlearn through willpower. We do sin willfully, but also, just like alcoholism, it’s a disease. It’s not just that we’re ignorant and need enlightenment. We are sick and we need a cure. Today’s verses mean no one’s immune to the sin disease. We’re all born with it. It’s genetic:
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Romans 5:17
That means that because of our disease, we were all destined for physical and spiritual death. The good news is, God gives us a cure! It’s given to “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace…”
Maybe you can relate to that production director. You heard things in church like:
“You have to try real hard.”
“You need to give up this or that.”
“Before God can bless you, you need to take this to the next level.”
Mixed messages at best, emphasizing what you do for God instead of what God does for you.
Why don’t such messages really work? We’ll check that out tomorrow.
By the way, that production director was amazed at the biblical parallels to concepts he had learned in his recovery group and became a regular attender at our church, very enthused about grace!
When did you think the message of the Bible or of your church was essentially “try harder”?
When and how did you begin to understand the message of grace?
Thank God for His “abundant provision of grace” through Jesus Christ!
Her Name is Grace
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. -Romans 3:23-24
Read Romans 3:21-26
Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame
Removes the stain — it could be her name
Grace… it’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
She travels outside of karma, outside of karma
What once was hurt, what once was friction
What left a mark, no longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
— U2, “Grace”
I like the band U2, and so I was intrigued when the lead singer Bono gave a book-length interview to journalist Michka Assayas.
In the middle of the expected quotes about his rise to prominence and the rigors of road life there’s an intriguing exchange about grace! Assayas, not a Christian, asks Bono about his reputation for spirituality, and Bono answers, “The thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and karma.” He continues:
At the center of all religions is the idea of karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; or in physics, every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. The whole universe operates on karma, on reaping what is sown. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that… which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. I’d be in big trouble if karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
At this point his interviewer says, “The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world? I wish I could believe in that.”
And Bono replies, “But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled… It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.” (From Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, Riverhead Books)
That’s precisely the theme of today’s Scripture reading. It’s literally a universal law that any action requires an equal and opposite reaction, and it applies spiritually in this way: Payment is required for our debt of sin.
You could call it “karmic” debt if you like, but the point is that there are echoes of our choices; in some way we can never fully understand, this sin-debt cannot simply be wished away. The scales must be balanced. As Bono says, it’s a principle repeated in many world religions and etched on our very consciences.
And here’s the really great news. The Bible says God Himself pays the debt: Jesus took the punishment for our sins. This is how God balances the scales, how He can be “both just, and the One who justifies…” (Romans 3:26) I love that beautiful phrase! Only God has both the power and authority to be simultaneously the One who is the source of all justice, and the One who justifies everyone who comes to Him. The sacrificial death of God Incarnate on the cross is the brilliant way He is able to be both merciful and holy at the same time.
Grace is free to us, but only because God is the One who paid the price. As you’ll see tomorrow, Paul riffs on that concept for the rest of Romans, blown away by grace.
What do you think the typical man-on-the-street understands better: Karma or grace? Why? How would you explain the difference between the two concepts?
How would you explain how God is able to be “both just, and the One who justifies”?
Express to God how thankful you are that He Himself balanced the scales by paying your debt!
Bad News First
Read Romans 1:18-20; 3:10-18
“Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news first?”
How do you answer that question? I always want to hear the bad news first. Get it out of the way. Rip the bandage off fast and move on (plus, when you hear the bad news first, the good news sounds even better!).
The Book of Romans begins in a place where all the news seems very, very bad.
After writing several letters (like Galatians) where he put out the fires of legalism with the water of grace, Paul apparently decided to write this letter to the church in Rome to systematically teach them the gospel of grace.
He starts with what sounds like the bad news: God is angry at evil. But Paul tells us God is right to be angry at evil. Love is always angry at evil.
Don’t confuse the wrath of God with the wrath of man. Human anger often comes from a selfish trigger (“I am offended!” “I feel disrespected!”) and is often expressed with unpredictable explosions of temper. But God doesn’t get angry like that. As Max Lucado says, “God is angry at the evil that ruins His children.”
As I write this, BP is still trying to cap an oil gusher far below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Crude oil is spewing into the sea following a tragic explosion on a deep-sea drilling rig. Beautiful white beaches and delicate marsh lands are being soiled.
People are right to be angry and upset about this, right to demand justice, right to ask that recompense be made. The disaster already cost precious human lives in the initial explosion and continues to pollute the environment. Cleanup will be expensive. Doesn’t all that make you mad — and sad?
Well, I believe when you experience grief and anger over that oil spill you get a glimpse of how God must feel about evil on this planet. He’s sad and angry at evil because to Him it’s rancid pollution of what He made as a perfect place. It’s a sickening tragedy. It must be cleaned up. Cleanup will be costly. And recompense must be paid.
And I hate to tell you this but there’s more bad news: In this metaphor, we’re all BP.
You and I have all, in many ways large and small, contributed to fouling the environment God meant to be a perfect Eden for humanity. There was an initial explosion when our ancestors first rebelled against God, and since then, with hatred, with insults, with selfishness, we’ve all spewed more oil into the ocean. “As the Scriptures say, ‘No one is righteous — not even one.’” (Romans 3:10 [nlt])
This is your spiritual predicament — and mine.
You and I need to first understand this bad (but true) news: the enormity of sin, and the very justified wrath of God against it.
Only then can we fully appreciate the beautiful, astounding, undeserved, lavish gift of grace. Grace is the amazing story of the perfect cleanup. The paid debt. The good news that comes next.
How would you explain how love and anger could co-exist in God?
How is the wrath of God different from the wrath of humans?
How is the problem of human sin like the oil spill?
Thank God for His mercy even in the face of human sin. Thank Him for His patience.