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The Owner's Manual for ChristiansThe Essential Guide for a God-Honoring Life
By Charles R. Swindoll
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Charles R. Swindoll
All right reserved.
[The] moralizing and legalizing of the Gospel of God's grace is a dull heresy peddled to disappointed people who are angry because they have not received what they had no good reason to expect. -Richard J. Neuhaus
If there is any singular truth that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions, all other systems of belief, it is grace. In false religions, enough is never enough. They require followers to sacrifice more, achieve more, suffer more, learn more, or improve more. But the Christian enjoys peace with God by grace. We need not fear the animosity of evil spirits or the cruelty of demanding, angry deities. We never need to worry about whether our deeds were sufficiently good to earn a secure afterlife. We never need to fear death or divine judgment. We rest securely in the unearned, undeserved, freely given gift of eternal life with our Maker, who has promised to accept and embrace all who receive His grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
Grace is the bedrock truth upon which all of Christian belief and practice stand. While grace was not a new concept before Christ's arrival, the world could not fully understand grace untilHe came (1 Peter 1:10-13). That's because grace is heavenly by nature and therefore utterly foreign to the world. Only God, as a man, could reveal something so quintessentially divine.
While thinking back on his days with Jesus, John (one of the Twelve) remembered there was something about Him that was like no one else. During this time His disciples "beheld His glory" which was "full of grace and truth." Pause and let that sink in. The grace of heaven became tangible when Jesus, God's Son, became a human. It was His glory expressed as grace and truth that made Him different from all other religious teachers and all other philosophers. Jesus Christ, the God-man, revealed the truth about having peace with God. And this truth, this salvation by grace through faith, affects how believers live with one another. In a world of darkness and demands, rules and regulations, requirements and expectations demanded by hypocritical religious leaders, Jesus came and ministered in a new and different way-He alone, full of grace and full of truth, introduced a revolutionary, different way of life.
Remembering that uniqueness, John adds, "For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace" (John 1:16).
Don't miss the tie-in with John 1:14. Initially, John wrote, "We beheld His glory," and then he added, in effect, "We received His fullness." John and the other disciples became marked men as a result. Grace heaped upon grace rubbed off, leaving them different. His style became theirs. His tolerance, theirs. His acceptance, love, warmth, and compassion were absorbed by those men, so much so that those things ultimately transformed their lives. By the end of the first century, the ministry of those same men had sent shock waves throughout the Roman world.
John puts the capstone on his introductory remarks by summing up the difference between contrastive styles of ministry: "For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17).
With the Mosaic Law came requirements, rules, and regulations, which fueled the Pharisees' heretical fire. With their own exacting demands came galling expectations. The Pharisees not only lengthened the list, they intensified everyone's guilt and shame. Obsessed with duty, external conduct, and a constant focusing only on right and wrong (especially in others' lives), they promoted a system so demanding there was no room left for joy. This led to harsh, judgmental, even prejudicial pronouncements as the religious system they promoted degenerated into external performance rather than internal authenticity. Obedience became a matter of grim compulsion instead of a joyous overflow prompted by love.
But when "grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ," a long-awaited revolution of the heart began to set religious captives free. Fearful bondage motivated by guilt was replaced with a fresh motivation to follow Him in truth simply out of deep devotion and delight. Rather than focusing on dutiful adherence to the letter of the Law, He spoke of the heart. Instead of demanding that the sinner fulfill a long list of requirements, He emphasized faith, if only the size of a mustard seed.
The change spelled freedom, as the Lord Himself taught: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Rigid, barren religion was, at last, replaced by a grace-oriented relationship-liberating grace. His followers loved it. His enemies hated it ... and Him.
Grace: Let's Understand the Term
What exactly is grace? You may be surprised to know that Jesus never used the word. He just taught it, and, equally important, He lived it. Furthermore, the Bible never gives us a one-statement definition, though grace appears throughout its pages ... not only the word itself but numerous demonstrations of it. Understanding what grace means requires our going back to an old Hebrew term that meant "to bend, to stoop." By and by, it came to include the idea of "condescending favor."
If you have traveled to London, you have perhaps seen royalty. If so, you may have noticed sophistication, aloofness, distance. On occasion, royalty in England will make the news because someone in the ranks of nobility will stop, kneel down, and touch or bless a commoner. That is grace. There is nothing in the commoner that deserves being noticed or touched or blessed by the royal family. But because of grace in the heart of the royal person, there is the desire at that moment to pause, to stoop, to touch, even to bless.
The late pastor and Bible scholar Donald Grey Barnhouse perhaps said it best: "Love that goes upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace." To show grace is to extend favor or kindness to one who doesn't deserve it and can never earn it. Receiving God's acceptance by grace always stands in sharp contrast to earning it on the basis of works. Every time the thought of grace appears, there is the idea of its being undeserved. In no way is the recipient getting what he or she deserves. Favor is being extended simply out of the goodness of the heart of the giver.
One more thing should be emphasized about grace: it is absolutely and totally free. You will never be asked to pay it back. You couldn't even if you tried. Most of us have trouble with that thought, because we work for everything we get. As the old saying goes, "There ain't no free lunch." But in this case, grace comes to us free and clear, no strings attached. We should not even try to repay it; to do so is insulting.
And now that Christ has come and died and thereby satisfied the Father's demands on sin, all we need to do is claim His grace by accepting the free gift of eternal life. Period. He smiles on us because of His Son's death and resurrection. It's grace, my friend, amazing grace.
Some Practical Expectations
Sir Edward C. Burne-Jones, the prominent nineteenth-century English artist, went to tea at the home of his daughter. As a special treat his young granddaughter was allowed to come to the table; she misbehaved, and her mother made her stand in the corner with her face to the wall. Sir Edward, a well-trained grandfather, did not interfere with his grandchild's training, but the next morning he arrived at his daughter's home with paints and palette. He went to the wall where the little girl had been forced to stand, and there he painted pictures-a kitten chasing its tail, lambs in a field, goldfish swimming. He decorated the wall on both sides of that corner with paintings for his granddaughter's delight. If she had to stand in the corner again, at least she would have something to look at.
And so it is with our Lord. With the debt of sin paid by Christ on our behalf, we will never suffer punishment. When we do the things we should not, He may administer discipline, sometimes quite severely, but He never turns His back ... He doesn't send His child to hell! Neither do we fall from grace and get slammed behind the iron bars of the law. He deals with His own in grace ... beautiful, charming, unmerited favor. It is really amazing!
Beware the Killers
Beware! Don't be taken by surprise. There are killers on the loose today. The problem is that you can't tell by looking. They don't wear little buttons that give away their identity, nor do they carry signs warning everybody to stay away. On the contrary, a lot of them carry Bibles and appear to be clean-living, nice-looking, law-abiding citizens. Most of them spend a lot of time in churches, some in places of religious leadership. Many are so respected in the community that their neighbors would never guess they are living next door to killers.
They kill freedom, spontaneity, and creativity; they kill joy as well as productivity. They kill with their words and their pens and their looks. They kill with their attitudes far more often than with their behavior. There is hardly a church or Christian organization or Christian school or missionary group or media ministry where such danger does not lurk. The amazing thing is that they get away with it, day in and day out, without being confronted or exposed. Strangely, the same ministries that would not tolerate heresy for ten minutes will step aside and allow these grace-killers all the space they need to maneuver and manipulate others in the most insidious manner imaginable. Their intolerance is tolerated. Their judgmental spirits remain unjudged. Their bullying tactics continue unchecked. And their narrow- mindedness is either explained away or quickly defended. The bondage that results would be criminal were it not so subtle and wrapped in such spiritual- sounding garb.
This day-this very moment-millions who should be free, productive individuals are living in shame, fear, and intimidation. The tragedy is they think it is the way they should be. They have never known the truth that could set them free. They are victimized, existing as if they are living on death row instead of enjoying the beauty and fresh air of the abundant life Christ modeled and made possible for all of His followers to claim. Unfortunately, most don't have a clue about what they are missing.
There is another danger lurking in the shadows. Rather than assault grace, some prefer to debate it to death. Similar to the days of the Protestant Reformation, grace has again become a theological football kicked from one end of the field to the other as theologians and preachers, scholars and students argue over terms. They behave like frustrated coaches trying to gain advantage over each other. Theirs is a classic no-win debate that trivializes God's great gift of love, leaving confused masses no other choice but to watch the fight from the stands confused, polarized, or, worst of all, bored. Grace was meant to be received and lived out to the fullest, not dissected and analyzed by those who would rather argue than eat. Enough of this! Grace must be awakened and released, not denied ... enjoyed and freely given, not debated.
Grace received but unexpressed is dead grace. To spend one's time debating how grace is received or how much commitment is necessary for salvation, without getting into what it means to live by grace and enjoy the magnificent freedom it provides, quickly leads to a counterproductive argument. It becomes little more than another tedious trivial pursuit where the majority of God's people spend days looking back and asking, "How did we receive it?" instead of looking ahead and announcing, "Grace is ours ... Let's live it!" Deny it or debate it, and we kill it. My plea is that we claim it and allow it to set us free. When we do, grace will become what it was meant to be-really amazing! When that happens, our whole countenance changes.
Wake Up to Grace!
Most of you are familiar with the story of Rip Van Winkle, the man in the children's fairy tale who went to sleep for twenty years and awoke to a very different world from the one he had known before his two-decade slumber. All the while he was asleep, wonderful changes were taking place around him about which he was totally ignorant. Like Rip Van Winkle, many of us are slumbering under the oppressive opiate of those who would keep us from experiencing the marvelous grace-filled life. It is available to those of us who would be made fully alive to its liberating potential. Wake up! Sleep no longer! The grace awakening is upon us. And what can you expect upon rising from your uninformed stupor? Let me close this chapter on this foundational truth by mentioning four practical expectations you can anticipate as you get a firm grasp on grace.
First, you can expect to gain a greater appreciation for God's gifts to you and others. What gifts? Several come to mind. The free gift of salvation (which we shall consider in depth in the next chapter). The gift of life. The gifts of laughter, of music, of beauty, of friendship, of forgiveness. Those who claim the freedom God offers gain an appreciation for the gifts that come with life.
Second, you can expect to spend less time and energy critical of and concerned about others' choices. Wouldn't that be a refreshing relief? When you get a grasp on grace-when you begin to operate in a context of freedom-you become increasingly less petty. You will allow others room to make their own decisions in life, even though you may choose otherwise.
Third, you can expect to become more tolerant and less judgmental. Externals will not mean as much to you as you recognize your need for grace and the abundance of God's supply. You'll begin to cultivate a desire for authentic faith rather than endure a religion based on superficial performance. You will find yourself so involved in your own pursuit of grace, you'll no longer lay guilt trips on those with whom you disagree.
Fourth, you can expect to take a giant step toward maturity. As your world expands, thanks to an awakening of your understanding of grace, your maturity will enlarge. Before your very eyes, new vistas will open. It will be so transforming, you will never be the same.
A Lifelong Pursuit
Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of the seminary I attended, died a few years before I began my theological studies in 1959, so I never had the honor of knowing him personally. Some of my mentors and professors, however, knew him well. Without exception they remembered him as a man of great grace. He was an articulate defender of the doctrine and an authentic model of its application throughout his adult life, especially during his latter years.
One of my mentors recalled the time when this dear man of God had concluded his final lecture on grace. It was a hot afternoon in Dallas, Texas, in the spring of 1952. The aging professor (who taught that particular semester from a wheelchair) mopped the perspiration from his brow. No one in the class moved as the session ended. It was as though the young theologues were basking in what they had heard, awestruck with their professor's insights and enthusiasm about God's matchless grace. The gray-haired gentleman rolled his chair to the door, and as he flipped the light switch off, the class spontaneously broke into thunderous applause. As the beloved theologian wiped away his tears, head bowed, he lifted one hand, gesturing them to stop. He had one closing remark as he looked across the room with a gentle smile. Amid the deafening silence, he spoke softly, "Gentlemen, for over half my life I have been studying this truth ... and I am just beginning to discover what the grace of God is all about." Within a matter of three short months, the stately champion of grace was ushered into his Lord's presence at the age of eighty-one.
I seldom sing John Newton's eighteenth-century hymn "Amazing Grace" without remembering those final words of that giant of grace:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
Nobody-not Lewis Sperry Chafer, not even John Newton-ever appreciated grace more than Paul, the first-century apostle. From a past of Pharisaic pride, cruel brutality, and religious unbelief, he was changed from a zealous persecutor of the church to a humble servant of Christ. And what was the reason? The grace of God. Hear his own testimony:
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:9-11)
Excerpted from The Owner's Manual for Christians by Charles R. Swindoll Copyright © 2009 by Charles R. Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
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