The Abundance Of Grace
We reflected in our last editorial upon the wonder of eternity which God intends giving us. His whole intention is to lavish His grace upon us for ever and ever; for every moment of our future eternal life will be an existence by His grace. Paul wrote of the God "who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, (who) has quickened us together with Christ (by grace are you saved) ...that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us" (Eph. 2:4-8). God created us for His pleasure (Rev. 4:11)- and His pleasure is to pour out grace, to give us eternity (Jn. 6:40). None of the uninspired creation myths includes the idea of the Divine Creator then blessing His creation. Here we see the surpassing grace of God. He lavishes His love upon what He created. None of the creation myths include such a wonderful feature. The pagan creation stories sometimes spoke of the things created by the gods then blessing them. The Sumerians recorded that at ‘creation’, “The whole universe, the people in unison, to Enlil in one tongue gave blessing”. But the true God, the God of all grace as revealed in the true creation record, not only creates His people and other creatures, but then blesses them! And the spirit of that grace should be seen in all our relationships. The Sumerian and Babylonian myths speak of people being created in order to serve the gods, “to bear the yoke of the gods”, to relieve them in their everyday work. But the Genesis creation has God creating man and giving him great freedom, and blessing him.
We who write and read these words have not only been created by God, we have been called by Him to eternal life with Him. Until the good Samaritan's return, the man was kept in the inn, with everything that was needed lavishly provided. Surely the inn is symbolic of the ecclesia; there has been lavish provision made for us even now as we await the Kingdom’s coming. Sensing the extent of God’s grace should mean that we don’t worry about material things. The worry-free life is a characteristic of the true believer. If God gave us His Son, how much more will He not give us “all things”? The Lord brought out the point in Mt. 6:30: If God so clothes the grass… how much more will He clothe us, therefore, don’t worry! “Clothe” translates the Greek amphi-hennumi- to enrobe around. The Lord seems to have been referring to a type of wild flower that appears to be draped around by its natural skin, rather like an iris. God gives the wild flowers robes… although they do not spin them or work for them (Mt. 6:29). Solomon’s robes weren’t as beautiful as them. And how much more will God clothe us, both literally and with salvation (for this is how the Bible usually uses the idea of God clothing us). God does so much for the lilies, who are to be ‘thrown into the fire’… a phrase which inevitably connects with the Lord’s other uses of that idea to describe the final condemnation of the wicked (as in James 1:11). God cares for flowers, and He even cares and provides for those whom He will one day condemn. For God to keep such people alive is a conscious outflowing of His lavish energy, His gracious gift of life and health. If He does that for things and persons which will ultimately be ‘thrown into the fire’, how much more will He clothe us. Let’s remember that creation isn’t run on clockwork; God makes His rain come, and His sun to rise, on the just and unjust; He’s aware when a bird falls from the air; counts the hairs on our heads, as a mother dotes over a newborn baby’s features. Just by keeping alive humanity (indeed, all of creation), God is lavishing His grace and consciously outgiving of Himself.
Recently I was worrying about where to get tables from. In a weeks’ time, we were expecting 60 visitors at our new Bible School venue in a village in northern Latvia. Our budget was spent many times over, and we had not one table to even put food on. Cindy and I got hold of some wood, and spent an evening and half the night making a table. I could see that both time and resources were against us; and for some reason, this matter became an especial worry to me. I then got a message that a kind brother in far away France has an office furniture business, and had some spare table tops. I’d never met the brother (and still haven’t). He calmly told me that in a few days, a truck would arrive with a few tables. I somewhat doubted how all this would end. But very soon, a huge truck arrived in the village, a big articulated lorry, the biggest truck to have ever come into the village. And no fewer than 80 tables were unloaded, along with two whiteboards and even the marker pens to go with them. Local people watched with total fascination. We needed a few tables... and God sent 80. “My cup runneth over” was a verse that came to mind. It was as if God was almost playing a game with me, and enjoying it.
Paul knew this aspect of the Father, when he wrote of how God does exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think (Eph. 3:20). How many times have we found that we prayed for one thing, and God gave us something so very much better? I see a kind of similarity with the way that God brought in the Law “that the trespass might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly” (Rom. 5:20). God set up a situation in order that in due time, He could lavish His grace the more. One almost wonders whether this is one of the reasons why God allowed the whole concept of sin to exist at all. After all, the God of boundless possibilities surely had ways to achieve His ends without having to allow a concept like sin in the first place. Seeing there is no personal Satan, the intellectual origin of the concept of sin surely lies with God. And perhaps He chose this simply as a way of being better able to express His amazing grace and love to sinners. Having lambasted Israel for their sins and described in detail their coming judgment, God then makes a strange comment, apparently out of context with what He has just been saying: “And therefore will Yahweh wait, that he may be gracious unto you; and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for Yahweh is a God of justice; blessed are all they that wait for him“ (Is. 30:18). God appears to be saying that He delays His actions, that He brings judgment, that He sets Himself so far above us- just so that He can get to show yet more mercy to us. Perhaps Joseph was manifesting God in the way he worked out that slow and detailed scheme of dealing with his sinful brethren... it has always seemed to me that he drew out the process just so that he could lead up to a climax of pouring out his maximum grace to them. Whilst the way seems long, “blessed are all they that wait for him”. God is even spoken of as concluding (Gk. ‘shutting up the eyes’) of Israel in the sin of unbelief, “that he might have mercy” upon both them and the Gentiles (Rom. 11:32).
If God cares for the grass, which He will not save and which lasts a moment... how much more will He care for us? So, do not worry! He will provide. “How much more…?” runs as a refrain through the Lord’s teaching. “Consider the ravens, that they sow not, neither reap; which have no store-chamber nor barn; and God feeds them: of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Lk. 12:24). “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:11). “For if the blood of goats and bulls... sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ... cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13,14). The Lord tells the disciples that they are ”of little faith” if they don’t perceive and live by what He is teaching about God’s care for the flowers. The ‘faith’ is surely faith in the simple fact that God lavishes His loving care upon us, just because, like a flower, we are here as His creation, in His eternal purpose. Eph. 1:8 talks of how God has lavished or abounded His grace upon us. The same word is used about the Lord not only made miraculous loaves and fishes, but there was so much that abounded (AV “that remained”) that it filled twelve baskets (Mt. 14:20). Why did the Lord do that, and why make the disciples pick up all those crumbs? Surely to give them an object lesson in how God delights in abounding to us. He didn’t just give the people food; He abounded to them. The record of each of the feeding miracles, in each of the Gospels, uses this word translated “remained” in commenting about the fragments that were left over- although the real meaning is ‘to abound’. Each of the Gospel writers was therefore deeply impressed by the fact that the Lord not only provided food- but such an abundance. All this sets the background for Paul’s use of the very same word to describe how God’s grace has “abounded” to us in Christ (Rom. 3:7; 5:15; Eph. 1:8).
Our practical life in Christ is really all about our response to the abounding nature of God’s grace. If we really believe it, then we will trust in Him and not worry. Mt. 6:32 goes on to imply that the difference between the Gentile world and the believer in Christ is quite simply that we believe that our Father has this level of care and concern for us; and therefore we will not worry, whereas the unbelieving world worry constantly about material things. This is how much of a ‘first principle’ this really is. And of course we cannot know God’s grace without likewise ‘abounding’ with it ourselves. This can be in acts of generosity; the early believers ‘abounded’ in generosity to the needy (2 Cor. 8:7- the same word used about the abounding of God’s grace). But the spirit of ‘abounding’ is far more than material generosity. We are to ‘abound’ in the work of edifying the church (1 Cor. 14:12; 15:58); abounding in prayer for each other (1 Thess. 3:10), rather than just praying once about someone else’s problem as a conscience-salving formality. Ask yourself- whether your prayer for others is of the ‘abounding’ quality that the Lord’s intercession was and is for you? We are to ‘abound’ in praise- for God’s abounding grace abounds through us to His glory if we praise Him for that grace (2 Cor. 4:15). And so... how is your praise? A mouthing off of familiar words and lyrics, that you’ve hummed and hymned for years? Or the internal praise that has some real fire and flame to it? As God makes His grace abound to us, we are to abound to every good work (2 Cor. 9:8). We are to ‘abound’ in love to each other, as God abounds to us (1 Thess. 3:12). This is why there will never be a grudging spirit in those who serve properly motivated by God’s abundance to us. This super-abounding quality in our kindness, generosity, forgiveness etc. is a feature lacking in the unbelievers around us. If we salute our brethren only, then we do not super-abound (Mt. 5:47); if we love as the world loves its own, then we have missed the special quality of love which the Father and Son speak of and exemplify. This radical generosity of spirit to others is something which will mark us apart from this world.
The Lord died so that we might know life “more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). Think for a moment of how the death of a man on a stake, 2000 years ago, on a day in April, on a Friday afternoon, irritated by flies and barking dogs... could actually give us life “more abundantly”? What was the process, what is the process, going on here? What’s the connection between that dying man, and a transformed life in you and me today in the 21st century? Surely the connecting power is that the spirit / disposition of the Lord there and then has an inevitable, transforming influence upon those of us who believe in Him; the super-abounding grace and generosity of spirit that was in Him there, which was epitomized in the hours of public, naked exhibition... can’t fail to move our spirits to be likewise. Paul speaks of this when He says that God does for us exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think, by the spirit / power / disposition that works in is (Eph. 3:20). That power, that spirit, is surely that of the crucifixion of Christ. For we cannot be passive to it, if we really ‘get it’. It is a power that “works in us”. In this sense, grace is spoken of as a King, powerfully reigning in our lives. In Romans 5, Paul makes a seamless connection between the reign of God's grace now, and our future reigning in the literal Kingdom of God to be established materially upon earth at the Lord's return: Grace reigns unto eternal life, i.e. the result of the reign of grace now is eternal life in the future (Rom. 5:21)... and thus " the ones receiving the abundance of the grace and of the free gift of the righteousness in [this] life will reign through the one, Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:17). The idea is that if grace reigns in our lives, then we will reign in the future Kingdom.
The Father’s whole spirit / attitude is of wanting to lavish grace. Our spirit likewise must not be mean- totting up the cost of all the things the visitors have eaten, etc. But God’s lavishing of grace is not only in material things, but supremely in His patient forgiveness and salvation towards us. Are we super abounding in forgiveness, or do we grudgingly offer it only upon evident repentance from others? Such legalism is associated with Moses, but grace and truth, "grace upon grace”, came by the Lord Jesus (Jn. 1:16). Grace is 'ever increasing' ("grace upon grace") in that as we grow in Christ, we perceive that grace more and more. God not only forgives, but He delights in doing so (Is. 62:14; Mic. 7:18); the way He is spoken of as ‘delighting’ in spiritually weak Israel is part and parcel of Him lavishing grace as He does (Num. 14:8). It must be so awful to have such a wonderful spirit of lavishing grace and love, consciously giving out life and patient forgiveness to so many; and yet not be appreciated for it, to have puny humans shaking their fist at God because they die a brief moment of time sooner than they think they should, to have tiny people arrogantly questioning His love. Seeing that God is Almighty, and God could have made [and could re-make] His creation to ‘understand’ and respond in a robot-like way... and seeing God has real and deep emotional feelings... it all makes God almost a tragic figure. He was to Israel as a wayfaring man who wanted to lodge with them, but they only let Him stay one night (Jer. 14:8). All I can say is that as we read this study, as we are reminded of the things I am sure we all well know, and resolve to feel His amazing grace and respond to it the more... we are pleasing Him. I hope He looks down upon us, reader and writer, with pleasure... that at least someone [just starts to] ‘get’ the whole wondrous nature of His grace.
An Abounding Community
As a community, we need to develop a spirit of abounding grace which will influence all our members. The life of radical grace is infectious. Mary’s lavish anointing of the Lord may well have been what inspired Nicodemus to so lavishly prepare the Lord’s body for burial. The vast quantities of spices he used was more than that used in the burials of some of the Caesars. He too must have bankrupted himself to anoint the Lord’s body. That two people did this within a week of each other is too close a similarity to be co-incidental. Surely the nature of Mary’s giving inspired that of Nicodemus. Paul likewise writes of how the generous commitments of the Corinthian ecclesias had “inspired very many” to generosity (2 Cor. 9:2). And we too, in our abundant responses to God’s super-abundant grace, will inspire each other likewise. I don’t mean, of course, in the proud manner of many charity donors, trying to outshine each other before the publics’ gaze by their ‘generosity’. I mean that in the graces of forgiveness, kindness in a myriad modest ways, that we see performed by others, we will find our motivation to do likewise. For rightly-performed good works are a light to the world; perhaps it is their very modesty which makes them “shine before men”. So in this sense we will perceive others’ acts of grace and be inspired by them, no matter how discreetly and modestly done they are. For they inevitably shine in a way that gives light to all who are in the (ecclesial) house, so that they too glorify the Father (Mt. 5:16). The Lord taught that we should “give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again” (Lk. 6:38). We might have expected Him to say: ‘Give generously, with a good, running over measure, and this is what you will receive in return’. But He doesn’t. He says simply “Give”; and then we will be given to in a generous measure, because with what measure we use in our giving, we will receive. Thinking it through, He means surely that “giving”, by His definition, means a generous, well packed, abundant giving; for that is Christian giving. And note that the context of Lk. 6:38 is the Lord talking about not being critical and judgmental of others, but rather forgiving and accepting them. It is our 'giving' in this sense which is to be so full and generous. Only God’s grace / giving can inspire this attitude within us, as we live hemmed in by the people of a materialistic, mean world, where nobody takes up a cross for anyone else. This is why Paul makes a play on the word ‘grace’ when writing to the Corinthians about giving; for charis, “grace”, means ‘giving’. He urges them to not receive God’s grace in vain, but rather, motivated by it, to give grace to others (2 Cor. 6:1; 8:6,7,19). This giving of grace is of course not just in material giving; speaking of how this world has an envious, materialistic spirit, James comments that by contrast, God “gives more grace” (James 4:6), i.e. His grace is more than the material ‘giving’. Especially is grace given through forgiveness, especially forgiveness without demanding repentance, being inclusive rather than exclusive, patience, especially patience with others’ immaturities, forbearing one another, basic kindness and thoughtfulness, imagining how others feel or may feel. God delights in showing forgiveness and mercy; He loves doing it (Mic. 7:18). It's "son métier" - 'what He's good at, His speciality’. When Israel were so far from God, He foretold the day when "my people will be gorged with my grace" (Jer. 31:14). The image of gorging upon grace is yet another reflection of the super-abounding nature of it. And this part of the new covenant to be made with Israel is true of us today, who have already entered that same covenant; it's a thought we can dwell upon as we eat at the Lord's table. And as we do so we can think of how God describes His feelings in all this: "I will find joy in them and in doing them good" (Jer. 32:41). God simply loves pouring out such grace. Let's try to catch something of this spirit of the grace of God. Let's try to adopt God's perspective. For what does He require more of a man, "but to do justly, and to love mercy (as God does, 7:18), and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 6:8)?