Does Grace Protect You?
The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Recently I met one of my writing heroes, sports journalist Rick Reilly. He was autographing books at a local store and by the time I reached him I was the last in line. So when I mentioned that I sometimes quote his columns in my sermons he had the time to seem intrigued (or at least polite!) and said he had a few questions for me about Christianity.
He told me how he had interviewed football superstar Isaac Bruce shortly after Bruce had survived a horrific car crash. Police at the scene said they’d never seen a sports car crushed like his, yet Bruce walked away without a scratch. But here’s what upset Reilly: According to him, the athlete had attributed his survival to “calling on the name of the Lord” during the accident and went on to state unilaterally that if anyone claimed the name of Christ they would also be protected from harm.
Reilly looked at me and asked, “So do you think that if people pray to Jesus they’re protected?” How would you answer that question? What does the Bible teach?
The first part of my answer: No.
God’s saving grace does not mean nothing bad will ever happen to you. I’ve seen so many Christians believe this lie, and have their faith dashed. God’s grace means He will redeem every hurt. Like the song says, He leads through the dangers, toils and snares, not around them.
After all, you follow a Savior who Himself was not protected from all injury. The very symbol of your faith, the cross, reminds you that Jesus — and many of His followers for the past twenty centuries — experienced painful death. But it also reminds you that God transformed the cross into a symbol of hope and triumph.
We are sometimes granted healing grace that takes away our pain; but we are always granted sustaining grace that strengthens us in our pain.
So, no, faith is not a guarantee you won’t be harmed. As you’ll read tomorrow, Paul said he begged God to take away his suffering, but God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Grace guarantees God will work for good in every one of your sorrows. It doesn’t guarantee there will be no sorrow.
However the second part of my answer is: Yes.
Ultimately, yes, God’s grace does protect from lasting harm. Grace guarantees that He will work all things out to His glory, and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation 21:4) The pain now is a burst of static compared to the infinite celebration-song that awaits you. And God’s grace is a promise you’ll be there for the celebration!
Grace, in other words, will lead you home. As Peter promises:
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 1 Peter 5:10
In what area of your life do you sense that, for right now anyway, God is saying “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness”?
How in the world would it bring God more glory to work through some of your pain instead of simply eliminating all your pain?
How has God worked through weakness and pain in your life, both for your good and for others?
Thank God that He redeems the pain to bring good out of it. Thank Him for at least one specific way He has done that in your life. Then bring to Him any situation causing you pain now, and ask Him to either remove it or work through it to bring Him glory. Then rest in His grace, knowing He will answer in the best way.
Grace and Rewards
"Set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed." -1 Peter 1:13b
In the very last chapter of the very last book of the Bible, Jesus talks about heavenly rewards: “I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)
In the Gospel of Matthew, He promises that He “will reward each person according to what he has done.” (Matthew 16:27)
The apostle Paul said the Lord “will reward everyone for whatever good he does.” (Ephesians 6:8)
But doesn’t the idea of rewards in heaven — for “what we have done” — contradict the idea of grace? You might be thinking, “Here I thought I was escaping performance-oriented religion with all this talk about grace — it’s supposedly not about what I deserve — and now, in heaven, God brings performance right back into the picture!”
Someone emailed me this exact question:
"I’ve heard there are degrees of reward in heaven based on one’s works on earth. I find this troubling. I could probably make an argument against it — it could lead to jealousy, greed, and prejudice in heaven! Plus I believe this could rob us of proper motivation for our works on earth, driven less by love and more by the cha–ching of the eternal scorecard."
But as Randy Alcorn explains in his extensive volume Heaven, rewards after death are simply another expression of God’s gracious nature. In heaven God can no longer save you from sin by His grace or sanctify you by His grace, since you will then be perfect. So how will He express His grace, the giving that is such an essential part of His character? By continuing to lavish His riches on you in the form of rewards! See, God didn’t have to save you. But He did. And He doesn’t have to rewardyou. But He does. Why? Because you’re so great? No. Because He’s so gracious!
Let me make this clear: Your good deeds won’t make God love you more. His love for you is already at full strength. But because He is generous, He loves to celebrate the smallest good deeds, like a father celebrates the smallest step his toddler takes.
And I mean the smallest steps. I used to think heavenly rewards would go only to the real ultra-saints. But look at what the Bible actually says about what God rewards: giving a cup of water to someone (Mark 9:41); giving to the needy, in any amount (Matthew 6:3–4); being mocked for your faith (Luke 6:22–23); inviting disabled people over (Luke 14:13–14); and Paul even says you’ll be rewarded for stuff you do at work — if you do it as if you’re working for the Lord (Colossians 3:22–24). That’s just a sample list, but I think the point is, just about everything you do can count for eternity. It’s like God is looking for excuses to hand out rewards! He just loves to be gracious.
Another way to look at it: God is a gentleman. He says thank you. Maybe you do something for which you never get thanked. You visit someone in a nursing home who may not be capable of fully expressing gratitude. Or you’re a faithful single parent, and you feel like no one has any idea how non-stop it all is. Well, God knows. And God can’t wait to tell you, “I really appreciated that!”
So don’t be discouraged. Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:13b)!
Have you ever given a cup of water to someone, or visited someone sick? Imagine Jesus joyfully rewarding you in heaven for that deed, as He said He would. What is your response to Jesus?
Explain in your own words how the idea of eternal reward does not contradict the idea of grace.
Express to God your thanks that His grace will extend even to rewarding you for the smallest good deed. Praise Him for His grace! Ask Him to help you see needs for you to meet in a gracious way.
No Brownie Points
"He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done
but because of his own purpose and grace." -2 Timothy 1:9a
In his excellent book Holiness By Grace, Bryan Chapell observes how the idea that our good works will not earn salvation runs counter to our natural way of thinking.
He tells a joke about a guy who dies and faces Peter at the gates of heaven. Peter says, “Here’s how this works. You need a hundred points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll tell you how many points they’re worth.”
The guy says, “OK, I was married to the same woman for fifty years and never strayed, not even in my heart.”
“Great!” says Peter. “That’s worth three points.”
“Three points? Well,” the man continues, “I attended church my whole life and tithed and volunteered!”
“Awesome!” says Peter. “One point.”
The guy’s starting to panic now as he blurts out, “Hey, I helped open a shelter for the homeless and I fed hundreds of needy people every Thanksgiving!”
“Right, that’s two more points,” says Peter.
“TWO POINTS!?!” cries the man, “At this rate the only way I’ll ever make it to heaven is by the grace of God!”
“Congratulations,” Peter says with a twinkle in his eye, “Come right on in.”
The Bible says that God is no one’s debtor (Romans 11:35). He is God; He doesn’t owe anybody anything. Therefore, it’s illogical to think that God owes me salvation because of my good works. It can only be by grace.
But this can be hard to take! Even the famous reformer Martin Luther wrote:
"The heart is always ready to boast of itself before God and say, “After all, I have preached so long and lived so well and done so much, surely He will take this into account.” …But it cannot be done. With men you may boast, but when you come to God, leave all that boasting at home and appeal from justice to grace. …But let anybody try this and he will see… how exceedingly hard it is.… I myself have been preaching… [the message of grace] for almost twenty years and I still feel the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal so with God that… He will have to give me His grace in exchange for my holiness. And I still cannot get it into my head that I should surrender myself completely to sheer grace; yet this is what I should and must do."
As Bryan Chapell points out, the hymn writer of the old song Rock of Ages got it right:
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, Savior, or I die.
Why do our good works not make God love us more?
If that’s true, then why do good works?
Make the lyrics of Rock of Ages quoted above into your prayer today.
Grace is Risky!
"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?By no means!" -Romans 6:1-2a
Read Romans 6:1-4
Some Christians are afraid to really embrace grace. They object that people will just go ahead and sin like crazy. And maybe some will. That’s a risk of grace even Paul had to address.
But if my message doesn’t lead to the possibility of grace being misunderstood like this, then I’m probably not preaching grace.
D. Martyn Lloyd–Jones was a very rigorous, super-conservative scholar/pastor who taught at the legendary Westminster Chapel in London for many years. His sermon series on the Book of Romans is profound. Check out what he said about today’s verses:
"The true preaching of the gospel of grace always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like… If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.
"I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you are really preaching the salvation that is offered in the New Testament… there is this kind of dangerous element about the true presentation of the gospel of salvation." (Quoted in Swindoll, The Grace Awakening, pp. 39, 40)
Ever since I enthusiastically rediscovered grace and started preaching it, I’ve heard some say I’m “soft on sin.” I’ve heard that I don’t care about spiritual disciplines. I’ve heard others say the opposite, that when I do an intervention and confront someone in our church about destructive behavior, I’m being inconsistent because I’m not showing grace. I had a man tell me that he could cheat on his wife because he was “covered by grace.”
Not only am I willing to take the risk of being misunderstood like this; I know that when I am, I’m probably on the right track, because the Apostle Paul had to deal with these exact same misunderstandings! Certainly legalistic teaching would never be subject to such misinterpretation.
On the other hand, here are some ways to detect if you’re excusing sin with “cheap grace”:
There are warnings against this kind of “grace abuse” throughout Scripture:
Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Romans 6:15
…godless men… change the grace of our God into a license for immorality… Jude 1:4
You are free… but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. 1 Peter 2:16 [nlt]
Why not? Well, Peter says, because “you are a slave of whatever controls you.” (2 Peter 2:20b)
The point is, God loves you and wants to free you.
And just as legalism makes you a slave in one sense, sin makes you a slave in another. Whether it’s sexual sin, substance abuse, laziness, gossip, anger, or anything else, you become a servant to it, following your master around as he leads you on a leash. You slowly lose control over your own desires and behaviors. Then your master begins to rob you of your health, your reputation, your relationships, your time, your motivation and more.
Now that you are free spiritually from the slavery of performance-oriented religion, why rush right back into another kind of captivity? Stay free!
Do you agree or disagree with the Martyn Lloyd–Jones quote? Why?
Are any of the three symptoms of “grace abuse” above true of you?
Ask the Lord to show you if you’ve been using grace as an excuse for a lack of discipline, or blatant sin. Ask Him to remind you that though grace is free to you, it cost Jesus so much!
Read Matthew 22:34-40
Mark Galli recently wrote a great article for the magazine Christianity Today titled, “In the Beginning, Grace.” His main idea is that churches — and individual Christians — desperate for growth are trying all sorts of things from programming techniques to “spiritual disciplines” to an emphasis on “social justice” causes, but they tend to forget one thing: grace.
He quotes Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. They conclude, “We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It’s moralistic, meaning it’s all about improving your life through the application of principles; it’s therapeutic, meaning it’s all about helping you feel better; and it’s deism, meaning it only vaguely believes in a higher power.
A lot of people have noticed this, but here’s the trap: Galli observes that the many attempts to “deepen” the theology and practice of such Christians are still rooted in self-effort. He notes that even the “spiritual discipline” movement can be characterized by a focus on the self. And the social justice movement also can emphasize the horizontal dimension of life (how we care for those around us) at the expense of the vertical dimension (how we relate to God). I love the way he puts it, so I’ll quote him here extensively:
"In short, we frame the problem horizontally. We focus on what we fail to do, and then talk about what we should do differently. To be fair, such solutions often start with a strong vertical dimension… But our practical and activist sensibility — one of our movement’s stellar attributes — tends to undermine the vertical. This is the problem as I see it at the moment. The more mature leaders …know this spiritual reality all too well. They’ve watched too many activists burn out because they knew not the vertical dimension… But the language we use to describe our goals and to persuade others can so easily degenerate. A website that crystallizes the theology and goal of what I call the “following Jesus movement” says, “Following Jesus is … about a lifestyle of peace and justice that sets one apart from others” [emphases added].
"In our righteous frustration lies a temptation that entices us when we start anxiously comparing ourselves with “others.” This is the temptation of the devout that Jesus described, of the evangelical Pharisee who thanked God that he was no longer like sinners! …How easily the conversation slides into what we are doing.
"…The place to begin is not more feverish doing…. The Word of God says the way to start working on the horizontal is to look up, in particular, at the one hanging on the Cross. The place to begin is not more doing but a type of non-doing….
"At this point, the careful evangelical reader wants to know exactly what that looks like — ”What should I do next?” …But the righteous desire to do something immediately to fix the problem of the horizontal is itself another symptom of the problem…
"When we meet God in his paradoxical presence, we will once again know that great paradox of the Christian faith: with our focus on the vertical, when the weightlessness of belief becomes for us the weight of glory, that’s when we are born again, born in the Word and for the world. This is something that happens once, yes, at one’s conversion. But it also happens daily, at one’s reconversion each morning and each Sunday. Then we become new creations, blessed with vertical life and energy and grace to do the horizontal thing we are called and gifted to do."
Even this Grace Immersion can turn into a horizontal rather than vertical focus: “Have I done my reading today? If I do all the readings and go to all the groups, will I then be magically set free from my bondage to performance-oriented religion?” The last thing I want is for you to feel any pressure to measure up to any of your friends or small group members when it comes to your appreciation of grace! To get back to a previously developed metaphor, all of these readings and verses are meant to be sails put up for you to catch the breeze of grace!
To really grow in an authentic, joyful way, just relax and enjoy the vertical dimension of grace first, and then allow that grace to overflow in the horizontal direction. As Jesus said, the greatest command is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. That order is no accident.
Why do you think it is so easy — even natural — to slip from a vertical focus to a horizontal focus?
Why would a true vertical focus on God naturally demonstrate itself in a genuine horizontal love for others?
Today simply allow yourself to luxuriate in that vertical relationship: God loves you and lavishes grace upon you!
Drowning in Pride
"Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them." -Jonah 2:8
Read 1 Peter 1:3-5
I couldn’t believe it. There I was, the youth pastor on one of my first trips to the beach with high school group since taking the job in San Diego… and I was drowning.
This was impossible. I knew how to swim. Growing up near the California coast, I’d been in the ocean more times than I could count. Yet I could no longer stay afloat.
I’d gone out on my own a half-hour before. Beautiful day. Just wanted to take a little dip. Then the rip current got me. Warning signs were posted on the beach, but I’d been out in conditions like that before and nothing had ever gone wrong. Well, it was going wrong now. I tried what I’d always been told: Swim parallel to the coastline; don’t overdo it. Nothing worked: I was being swept further and further to sea, and I could feel my strength giving out.
Suddenly I saw my savior. He appeared right next to me — I didn’t even hear him coming. He’d been keeping his eye on me, I guess, and saw that I’d been having trouble. The lifeguard put a flotation device around me and began swimming, first out of the rip current, and then straight to shore. And the only thing going through my mind? “I hope no one in my youth group sees me!” I was so embarrassed that I asked the lifeguard if he’d stop towing me in about 20 yards from the beach so I could swim the rest of the way myself, but he said no. I guess in a lifeguard’s mind you’re not saved until you’re safe. Makes sense.
Once we got to dry land, I muttered “thanks,” tried to stand up on weak legs, and just toppled over. Then I saw some kids from my group running toward me. And I turned away from my rescuer. I was too embarrassed to admit anything had been wrong or even to say thanks. Never went back to find him either.
I really don’t like to tell that story because it reveals so much of my pride. I neglected to thank the lifeguard because of my pride. I almost short-circuited the rescue because of it. I ignored an important lesson I could have taught the kids because of it. That’s a lot of pride. Reminds me of today’s verse, written by a guy who knew something about rescue at sea.
Why would someone “forfeit the grace that could be theirs”? What would keep someone from receiving a free offer of rescue? It happens when you’re too proud to take the help.
“What will my friends think?” has gone through many minds when considering Christ the Rescuer’s offer.
Or maybe they still think, “I can make it on my own,” like a toddler who insists, “I do it myself!” or a teen whose favorite phrase is “I know!”
The problem is, this kind of thinking is drilled into us. In Healing Grace, David Seamands lists several barriers to grace related to pride:
1. Cultural barriers
Self-reliance may be the most dominant cultural value in modern society, expressed in clichés like: “I did it my way.” “To thine own self be true.” “Do your own thing.” Just today at the checkout stand I saw these headlines on the cover of the (appropriately named) Self magazine: “Live the Life YOU Want to Live!” “Feel More in Control of EVERYTHING!”
2. Theological barriers
Many Christian churches believe in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, yet in the sermons and very atmosphere of the church there’s not always a consistent message of grace. Instead, church attenders perceive an emphasis that goes something like, “Rise above; try harder; be better; improve!”
3. Family barriers
Your concept of God is largely formed by your relationship with your parents. You may feel your parents over-emphasized performance, forcing you to earn their affirmation, or on the other hand were so lax they seemed unloving.
The good news is that many of the Bible’s authors had the exact same barriers! But God’s grace still changed them as they stopped clinging to their pride.
Oh, and I learned something else the day I almost drowned: In a Savior’s mind, you’re not saved until you’re safe.
When Jesus saves, He doesn’t just save you part way. That’s not salvation. He saves you all the way to shore — all the way to heaven. Like Peter says in the reading today, our salvation has both begun — and is yet to come. Once he’s begun, your Savior won’t stop until you’re all the way home.
Have you ever refused help because of pride? What happened?
Were you once too proud to receive the grace of God? How did things change?
Ask God to show you where you are proudly clinging to idols — of pleasure, of security, of any kind — and refusing His grace.
Can You Live with Grace?
"Or are you envious because I am generous?" -Matthew 20:15b
Read Matthew 20:1-16
God’s grace is so marvelous, so amazing, that you might wonder why anyone would ever reject it. It’s a free gift, a grand prize better than the lottery! Why decline it?
Well… grace is messy, grace can seem unfair and illogical, and grace can be upsetting if I’m a prideful man (which I am). This week, let’s look at some objections and tensions regarding grace.
I was reading blog comments the other day when I came across this insight by a woman named Marla Alupoaicei:
Christians say that we want grace, but what we really want, deep down, is justice. We want the so-called “good people” of the world to be rewarded and the “bad people” to be punished. When we see the floodgates of heaven opened and God’s grace poured out on the seemingly deserving as well as the undeserving, many of us act like the miffed older brother of the prodigal son or the laborer who worked the entire day for a denarius and grew disenchanted when he saw another worker receive the same pay for one hour’s work.
You see this dynamic all through the ministry of Jesus: The good religious people are annoyed at the generosity of God. What about you?
Ever mentally tsk–tsk friends who spend way too much money on stuff you’d never buy? It’s hard to remind yourself that it’s not your money. The thing with grace is, it’s not your money. And the One who has it is a big spender.
I guess you could say that’s the hitch, if you’ve been looking for one, with grace: You have to accept that others get it too.
The very people you hate, the ones you loathe, the ones who drive too fast down your street, the ones whose loud parties annoy you at night, the ones who beg for money when you know it’s a con, the ones who called you names in school, the ones who say they’ll change but never do, the ones who hurt you so bad you still have scars, the ones whose politics you believe are leading the country to hell in a hand basket, the ones you disagree with on that litmus test issue, the ones who are ruining your city, the ones who let their dogs poop on your lawn, let their kids scream in church, let their impulses get out of control, cheated on you, lied to you, laughed at you, yelled at you, the ones who litter the beach, talk in movies, cut in line, the ones who flip you off, cut you off, hack you off — well, if they simply receive it, they get grace too. Same as you. (And guess what? You might be on someone else’s list!)
I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.” That’s something like the problem people can have with grace. If I get in, then anyone else can too. What if they don’t deserve it?
As Philip Yancey writes, “In the realm of grace the word deserve does not even apply.”
Can you live with that?
Do you agree or disagree with Marla Alupoaicei’s statement? Why?
Is it hard for you to accept that a certain group or person can receive God’s grace? Would it be tough to see someone in heaven? Who?
Thank God for being a big spender when it comes to grace! If there’s someone you resent or have difficulty imagining “graced” by God, bring that person to God in prayer now. Ask God to soften your heart.