“Grace is giving people what they need, not what they deserve.” – Mike Miller
We All Need Grace
Grace is such a difficult thing to understand. We all want to receive it. The hard part is giving it. I know when I am wronged I want to settle accounts. Or at least I think I do. There’s a real problem with that though. Too many things just can’t be settled. And that whole eye for an eye thing is a lot like a slot machine. Even if you win a few bucks here and there, in the end the house always takes more from you than it pays out. Vengeance is also a boomerang. When it goes around it comes around. Peace is not possible until someone puts down the spear. It’s the only way to break the chain.
Now, I’m not too extreme in my position. There is a time and place for arms. We need police. We need order. We need courageous people to stand against tyranny. We may even need to personally defend ourselves. What we don’t need are vendettas. They solve nothing. They serve nothing. They only destroy.
I write this feeling deeply convicted myself. I’m not speaking from a high horse. Grace is really hard for me, just as it probably is for you. I feel grudges. I feel anger and I feel fear. I don’t want enemies to trample over me. I don’t like injustice. But somehow, grace is still the answer to these problems. It is grace that heals and helps, grace that overcomes, and grace that takes away the burden of own sins. Through grace we are freed from the control of hatred. So why is it so hard to give? Maybe it’s because we don’t really understand this thing called grace. What is it? What is it not? How do we apply it? How can I put down my spear? We need an example that makes sense.
Jesus demonstrated grace more than all others. More than we can fathom. He paid for the sins of the whole world, past, present, and future; all of them; at his own expense. He is the first and primary example of God’s grace, but it can be hard to relate his example to ourselves. He’s awesome, but he’s Jesus. “My Lord and my God!” and all that entails. It would help to have an example of someone like us, a normal person following Christ, to show us the kind of grace we are capable of in Christ. The first one that comes to my mind is the account of Stephen in the book of Acts.
An Example We Can Follow
The account of Stephen is given here: Acts 6:8-7:60. Click the link and go read it. No really, go read it! I’ll wait.
Did you go read it? There’s really no point in continuing to read this post if you didn’t, because that’s what I’m going to talk about. You need to consider the full passage to connect with where I’m going.
The first thing we read about Stephen is this:
“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” Acts 6:9
That sentence defines Stephen for us. It’s what is significant enough about him that we read his story in scripture. He is notably “full of God’s grace and power.” So much so, it is visibly obvious:
“All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Acts 6:15
This is not kidding. Stephen was that affected by grace. He’s the real deal, a true follower of Christ, full of love, mercy, and truth, just like Jesus. So how does such a man act before the ruling religious council? Well, he was no coward, I’ll tell you that. He was bold and to the point.
In the passage we see the extreme contrast between grace and legalism. Stephen challenges the legalists’ rejection of Christ with solid truth and reasoning. They refuse to accept Jesus because grace is a complete contradiction to what they believe. They think they are the gatekeepers for God through their legalism, but in fact they are going the wrong direction. The thought of God’s love and grace being poured out through the cross to the undeserving is so vehemently repulsive to them that they can’t stand hearing it. Worse, Stephen tells them that they are undeserving! That’s when they lose it and take him out to stone him to death.
But what does Steven do?
“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” Acts 7:59-60
To top it all off, the passage points out a particular person present at the scene, approving of Stephen’s murder:
“the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Acts 7:58b
That young man, Saul, became a leader in violently persecuting the Christian church. He did so until Jesus himself confronted him on the road to Damascus. That’s where he renamed him Paul. Paul became the most prolific and outspoken Apostolic writer of the New Testament.
There is so much grace here that it can’t even be quantified. That is the grace of God. It is lavish to the extreme. It’s more than we can handle. In Stephen, we see this grace on display in a normal person following Jesus. Like Jesus, who interceded with the Father while dying, asking him to “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Stephen intercedes for the men putting him to death.
So that’s the passage. What can we glean from this that we can apply?
#1 – Grace is from God, not man.
The grace Stephen offered was the cross, not his own righteousness. If he had something to brag about he could say, “Hey, look how cool I am! Be like me!” But he needed the cross for his salvation. The cross is grace that does not come from us. Stephen was filled this grace. It’s power didn’t come from him. He got it from God. It wasn’t earned through self-righteousness. That’s not how grace works. It’s a gift. Stephen looked to Jesus as master and provider. The follower points to the master, not himself. Stephen filled up with God’s grace because he actively sought it from God. He could only give from what he received.
This is how Jesus describes the grace of God:
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!'” Luke 11:9-13
It’s worth nothing that the verbs used in the original language for this passage are of an ongoing nature, i.e. “ask and keep on asking” “seek and keep on seeking”. The nature of being filled the grace of God is that it is a continual filling and refilling process. In Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who gives us power to serve God. When we seek and keep on seeking him, he fills us up and overcomes our fallen nature. He gives us a reservoir to draw from in the face of sin.
#2 – We are able to offer grace via the same source as God.
God required a payment for sin because he is infinitely just. He said, “The soul that sins shall die.” He cannot change his perfect righteousness. If he simply looked the other way, he would compromise himself. He must punish sin. At the same time, in his love and mercy he desires to save us, not destroy us. In Jesus, he provided the solution that satisfies both justice and love.
Think about the payment for sin at the cross: When God’s judgment was complete Jesus said, “It is finished,” declaring the debt paid in full, but the actual withdrawal of funds is ongoing. Sin continues. We keep doing it. As more people are born, they add sins too. But the vast treasure chest of his atoning sacrifice never fails to pay. It doesn’t run empty. It’s potency is never ending.
“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.” Romans 5:15-16
When we need grace to give, we must draw from that treasure chest. It is our source from which to pull out grace for those who have wronged us. It’s God’s, freely given to us and free for us to give. God is the house that always pays out. The atoning blood of Christ does not fail. His sacrifice is enough to pay the penalty.
#3 – Grace does no good for the debtor unless it is received.
Stephen prayed for his attackers. One of those present surely did receive God’s grace, but I’m sure many did not. The debt for sin remains on those who reject Christ when they die. Scripture says:
“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Hebrews 9:27-28
So despite Stephen’s earnest prayer for them, those who never received the grace they were offered will be held accountable in eternity for what they’ve done.
Stephen hoped they might be saved, not cut-off. God’s judgement could have easily come against them then and there. He could have saved Stephen and put them to death. God put others to death, like Herod and Ananias and Sapphira. But, I think, because of Stephen’s prayer, God held off judgment. Not only for that moment, but he continued to grant them opportunity to turn to him and receive grace.
Stephen died an honorable death, full of grace and truth, defending the Lord without wrongdoing, seeking the salvation of others. His death had meaning and purpose. He chose to give up his life for it. He wanted to participate in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his honor. So it is with us. The grace we give may not be received. It might even be trampled on. We may be cursed or mocked just like Jesus. We honor God by offering it.
#4 – Grace is for our benefit.
I can recall a U.S. Senator speaking at hearing on torture. He said, “The reason we don’t torture is because we don’t want our guys to be tortured.” We don’t want to become terrorists ourselves. That’s why we offer grace. We don’t want to become the bitter thing we hate. We want to rise above that for something better. Grace changes us, maybe visibly like Stephen. May we all shine with such grace.