Holiness as Grace
I so often make mistakes with my parenting. As hard as I try, I'm too impatient, too quick to criticize, too harsh and too preoccupied. It's only by the grace of God that my children will survive my parenthood. Have you used that phrase before: "It's only by the grace of God..."? It implies our complete reliance on God to make us fit amid a life of blunder. As cliché as it may be, those words do exhibit true humility. But grace is one of those words that we use so often that its meaning has become obscured. When I first embraced Christianity in my late twenties, a non-Christian friend once asked me, "So now that you're a Christian, tell me what grace means." At the time I thought my answer was pathetic.
I replied, "Grace is like the clouds as they envelop and retreat from a mountain top." I suppose I was talking about graceful, rather than grace. But sometimes the simple answer is the best and the more I think about it, the more I see my response was true. A cloud never says, "No, I won't do what you say, Lord." A mountain never balks, "No Lord, I won't push up from the depths of the earth." In Genesis, God calls his very handiwork good—the seas, the plants, the sun, the stars, the creatures and even mankind. "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." He breathes life into nature and animates it with his word. By calling nature good, we see that all of creation is in his favor. Grace means to be in favor.
Likewise, mankind is in God's favor, so much so that we are even placed in the role of caretaker in God's creation. In Matthew 6, Jesus explains, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" We are loved so much by the Father of heaven that he lavishes us with his Spirit, not to mention our worthy desires and needs. But the Holy Spirit is the gift of all gifts that enters us and restores our relationship of grace with the Father. We become Holy through that grace, the favor, of God. Like the clouds, we are animated by his word; but even moreso, because we are animated by his Spirit.
The writer of Hebrews explains in chapter 4 that we receive mercy and grace through Jesus who sits on God's throne of grace.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
The writer calls us to "approach God's throne of grace with confidence." These are timely words for us, as we humbly approach Jesus' cross during Lent. Jesus crucified and resurrected is the throne of grace. Our high priest, Jesus, sacrificed all in order for us to be reconciled with God. Without his work on the cross, we could not have the grace, mercy and peace of God. Jesus said, "Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, enters us when we are cleansed by Christ's death and resurrection. Jesus took God's wrath for us, because he loves us. We are in his favor. We are told by John and others that all people are in his favor—in his grace. We become holy through the Advocate, not through our own merit.
In Paul's letter to Titus, he emphasizes, "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people." We are all are favored by God. It makes no difference who we are, what we've done, the color of our skin, the class in which we walk. Having the Holy Spirit levels the playing field.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
Paul and the other epistle writers so often emphasize the grace of God in their salutations and benedictions. They want us to know that we are favored by God. The salutations and benedictions bestow great meaning. They are the word of God. When we speak them or hear them, it is God telling us that we are favored, we are loved, and we have his peace.
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. - 1 Timothy 1:2
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ... - 2 John 1:3
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. - Romans 1:7
Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. - Ephesians 6:24
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. - 1 Corinthians 1:3
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come... - Revelation 1:4
You are favored by God and you must remember this fact. We must also remember that he or she walking down the street is also favored by God—the old woman, the baby, the addict. When we lose sight of the fact that we are favored, we forget how exceptional we really are. Likewise, when we lose sight of the fact that the other guy is favored as well, we can begin to think that we are more exceptional than he. Both ways of thinking lead to destruction. We become self-defeating, self-righteous, or most often, both.
When my children beg me for a favor, they are asking me for a gift—not unlike a party favor. Grace is also synonymous with a gift of God. We are only alive because of the gifts of God. Could you breathe without the air he gives you? And what do we teach our children to say after they receive a gift? "Thank you." Paul explains to the church in Corinth the exact same truth about God's grace, "All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God." We become thankful, humble people when we realize all of God's gifts, especially the gift of his son Jesus.
Has a child ever run up to you with his arms lifted up to you? He knew you could provide. He knew he was weak and you were strong. Have you prayed the Lord's Prayer in the same way with your hands open upward to God? It's the pose of a child reaching out to the Father. We should take that humble stance more often. God said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." The more we emulate the humility of a child and realize our dependence on God's grace, the more we become children of God.
Is it possible to increase our favor with God by good works, deeds and loving others more? To answer the question, let's ask whether or not children should be able to work to increase the favor of their parents. Now, some siblings are favored more by their parents while sadly some are not. As a parent, I prefer not to give partiality to either of my children. It's destructive to all siblings when one child is favored more than the other despite the shortcomings or strengths of either.
In fact, Jesus calls us to give that level of impartiality to all people. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus explains, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." God's grace is so abundant and so overflowing that he calls us to do the same to others. And we find him in them. In doing so, we are favoring God. The alternative is that we favor ourselves which makes me my own god.
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats teaches us another amazing fact, if we are biased in our favoritism to others, we will be like the goats. Jesus will say, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." This is because we end up actively excluding the grace of God from ourselves! And this is what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is. By withholding grace and favor to others, we end up withholding God's grace from ourselves. Yes, the irony runs deep.
No, we can't make ourselves more favorable to God, just like children shouldn't be able to become more favorable to their parents by sucking up to them. We just live childlike with hands open wide to God, calling out, "You are my strength, oh God, for I am weak and I love you."
In considering grace and holiness, I would do no justice to the topic without commenting on Mary, who has been given the title "Full of Grace." This quality given to Mary comes from the gospel of Luke.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
There would be only one woman in all of history who would bear the particular role of mother of Jesus, which most certainly displays a special kind of favoritism. But once again, it wasn't something God owed Mary for her pious childhood or her parents' good works or good genes! Mary was favored and was given the special gift and ability to be the mother of our God. Luke also makes it clear that it was God who gave her the ability to be the mother of Jesus.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
God gives each of us special gifts as well. Here in this passage we find that it is the grace of God that makes us holy. It is the gift of God that made Mary fit to be one with Jesus. You too are given special gifts, just like Mary. In fact, to be able to use our gifts, we must respond with Mary: “May your word to me be fulfilled.” And you must use your gifts.
How about my parenting? I know that on my own I'm selfish and I will breed selfish children. But God has given me the gift of children. If I say, "I'm doomed to fail, so why try," I would be snubbing God and his gift. Instead, I respond, "May your word to me be fulfilled." I will do my best and by God's grace I will be a good parent.
And what is truly profound, like Mary, I become holy, not by my works, but by the fruit of the gifts that God gives me to fulfill.
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.
1 Peter 4:10