Where grace and faith collide - the greatest experiment of your life
Where GRACE and FAITH collide
The greatest experiment of your life
A hundred metres beneath the border between France and Switzerland, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research has built a Large Hadron Collider. At a cost of 6 billion dollars this enables scientists to crash opposing beams of protons and ions into one another at a velocity approaching the speed of light. Heralded as “the greatest experiment on earth”, the purpose of these screamingly fast collisions is to literally break into the secret world of sub-atomic particles and, among other things, seize and interrogate the elusive “Higgs boson”, the so-called “God particle”!
Shall I tell them, or will you? God isn’t in fact a particle, or indeed any kind of article, at all. God is the one of whom the Bible declares: Hebrews 1:10 (NIV84) “. . . “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
But whether or not you’re excited by the idea of sub-atomic physics, I want to explore with you very briefly this morning a collision between two infinitely more powerful forces than sub-atomic particles. And we can read about them in a familiar passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians - Ephesians 2:8–9 (NIV84) — For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through FAITH—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.
Notice in particular the phrases “by GRACE” and “through FAITH”. These are two of the most powerful forces ever to have been unleashed on planet earth and right now, even as we are meeting together this morning, these are the forces that are exerting an incomparable influence on our life and destiny.
So, here’s my proposition this morning: We need to be crystal clear about what GRACE is and what FAITH is because together they are the key to us being empowered to fulfil God’s purpose for our lives and so bring Him glory. They are, if you like, the door to the “greatest experiment of our lives.”
Whether you appreciate it or not, if you are already a Christian, as I think most of us are here this morning, then you will already have experienced the effects of at least one major collision of grace and faith in your life. If you are not yet a Christian, let me urge you not to risk leaving church today without first having a word with Pastor Nick or Pastor Alan, or a member of the prayer ministry team to find out how you can take the most exciting step and see your life and future transformed.
For me, that first encounter with a grace and faith collision, took place many years ago now. I was 17. At age 11, miffed by God’s consistent failure to come up with the goods in what I thought were very reasonable and not very demanding requests, I told Him that from now on I would NOT be believing in Him. And, since that threat didn’t seem to twist God’s arm and make Him change His mind as I’d secretly hoped, I found myself entering into a period where I stubbornly rejected the whole concept of God. Maybe that was a part of the reason why my early teenage years were pretty miserable.
Anyhow, at 17 and in the Sixth Form, I suddenly found that my Economics teacher, was now also my RE teacher. Garth Ratcliffe, that was his name, for a rather diffident young man like myself at the time, was really quite frightening. He was young, very intelligent, had a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for practical jokes. The result was that you never quite knew what to expect from him and that tended to make me nervous and very keen to “keep up” in class for fear of being singled out for some of his incisive wit. In those days, I should say, pupils were not in any way protected by any of the current notions of pupil rights or the need to be politically correct. If the teacher rounded on you with a verbal tirade, deserved or otherwise, and it put you in an unwelcome spotlight in front of your peers – you just had to take it on the chin. And usually of course, you couldn’t count at all on any sympathy from your classmates – quite the reverse!
For lots of reasons though, Garth was a very attractive role model for impressionable Sixth Formers. So, to find that Garth was now also to be my RE teacher was quite a shock – especially as it quickly became clear that he was a fully paid up Christian, a notion not really any more attractive then to many young people than it is today. I did though find myself pondering a lot about whether or not Garth was right. Had I been rash in turning my back on God? However, again and again I found myself struggling to find the “rational” proof for the existence of God that I felt I needed.
But when Garth announced in the summer term that he was organising a trip to Earls Court in London to hear the famous evangelist Billy Graham, I was interested. But I didn’t want to appear that interested, so instead of signing up for a place on the coach he was organising, I decided to make my own visit. To cut the story short, as I listened to Billy Graham, something that he said lit up in neon lights in my mind, or was it in my heart? The message was that I had to take a step of FAITH. I would never be able to totally PROVE in an intellectual sense that God was real, but if I would trust Him as true, I would then discover from personal experience that He really is true. So that’s what I did. Along with hundreds of others, I “got up out of my seat” and went forward to be counselled and to receive Christ as my Saviour.
I did not realise it at the time, but in fact, the moment that I made the faith step of taking God at His word, and, even before I reached the Counselling Room and was prayed for, the FAITH God gave me for that moment was released and collided immediately with the amazing and powerful provision of salvation by God’s GRACE. With the speed of a lightning bolt, in an instant, my sins were erased, I was completely forgiven and I was born again by the Spirit of God – a new creation in Christ.
Now, before we look more closely at the forces grace and faith, I need first to establish a foundational point. It’s this. My experience at Earls Court, all those years ago, would commonly be called “salvation”. And, of course, in a sense it is. But the Bible actually indicates that our “salvation” operates in three elements or phases. It is, if you like, a journey involving three stages – a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The beginning is what theologians call “justification”. It is this that happened to me that night at the Earls Court arena. Justification is an instant event that occurs when we choose to put our trust, our faith, in the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born on earth as a sinless human being, lived a sinless life and then paid the death penalty for the sins of all mankind, yours and mine included.
This is the GRACE part of our Ephesians 2 verse. This is the gift that God wants everyone in the world to have. It is a gift that is entirely FREE, but also entirely UNDESERVED. And that is what makes it BY GRACE – we do not deserve it; we cannot earn or merit it in any way either now or in the future, but because Christ effectively exchanged His sinless life for our sinful one by taking our place and paying the penalty for our sins, we can be forgiven; we can be “saved”, to use the Bible term. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he describes the justification event like this: Romans 10:9 (NIV84) “ . . . if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Jesus has effectively opened the door to forgiveness and salvation for us all by his sacrificial death on the cross and His victory over death, demonstrated conclusively by His resurrection. All we need to do is walk through that open door and we do that by simply BELIEVING, putting our TRUST, our FAITH, in Him and what He has done. That is where the second part of our Ephesians 2 verse comes in. Jesus has provided the “BY GRACE” bit – we just need to accept it “THROUGH FAITH”. That’s what I did at Earls Court and that’s what you did, whether you realised it or not, when you became a Christian, if you are one.
But notice something else, from our text verse: Ephesians 2:8 (NIV84) — 8 For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through FAITH—and this NOT FROM YOURSELVES, it is the gift of God. Now that is amazing. It tells us that not only did God provide our salvation by GRACE, though we in no way deserved it, but He also gives us the FAITH we need to be able to grab hold of it. Fantastic! I want you hold on to that thought for a bit – and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
So, if you are Christian, you are now living in the wake of a whole tsunami of blessings that all happened because of that first collision of grace and faith in your life. In an instant of time:
• You were declared “not guilty” – that’s what “justification” means, you are legally, judicially, acquitted of all charges, and declared innocent and righteous in the sight of a Holy God;
• Your sins are forgiven and you’re right back where God always wanted you to be - in close touch with your loving Heavenly Father;
• You have walked free from death row because the penalty for everything bad you ever did or ever will do has been fully paid for by the death of Jesus on the cross;
• You have been filled with the very LIFE of God - what the Bible refers to as “Eternal” life and have received the “down payment”, the deposit, of a brand new spirit guaranteeing all the good things that God has for you both now and in your eternal future; and,
• While you are yet to cash it in, you have been given guaranteed entrance into Christ’s Millennial Kingdom and into the blessings of Heaven that follow it;
Come on now, even for the most reserved among us, that has to be worth an “Amen!”
But if the beginning of the journey of salvation is our justification, the END of the journey, if something that lasts forever can really have an end, is what theologians call “glorification”. Now there isn’t time to get into that in any detail this morning but basically this is when we are in heaven and removed from the presence of sin and when we receive a brilliant new body, like Jesus’s post-resurrection body. As it says in Philippians 3:20–21 (NIV84) — But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
But that is our future and you don’t need to be much of a “life-map reader” to realise that those of us who are Christians here this morning are not at this moment either at the beginning or at the end of our salvation journey, we are somewhere in the middle.
And the middle of the salvation journey is called sanctification. But, unlike justification, and glorification it does not happen, at least experientially, it does not happen, instantly. Sanctification is a process and it is a process that Christians begin at justification and fulfil at glorification.
Sanctification simply means to be “separated” or “set apart” for God. It means to be given up to God and holy and righteous in all we do, say and even think. You’ll be glad to hear it is not our work, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians and its purpose is to make us like Jesus. It is a process that you and I as Christians need to co-operate with and be grateful for, because it is absolutely central to God’s purposes, and to our calling, for every moment of the time we are here on earth – and beyond. Listen to Paul’s words to the Thessalonian Christians: 2 Thessalonians 2:13 (NIV84) — But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
Now, I want to suggest this morning that there are TWO key things we all need to keep in focus in terms of our sanctification:
1. Firstly, the way we benefit from God’s provision for sanctification is precisely the same as the way we receive justification. It is not by works. It is not by personal effort, strenuous self-discipline, or the meticulous application of spiritual rules and regulations. It requires just what our justification required –the collision of GRACE and FAITH in our life, though with sanctification it is not one but many such collisions that are needed.
2. Secondly, sanctification is NOT a hopeless impossibility, though sometimes it feels like it. In fact God has ALWAYS had our sanctification in mind. Staggeringly, He even had it in mind before He set about creation. It tells us that in Ephesians 1:4 (NIV84) — 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. “Holy and blameless” - that’s sanctification! And the Bible also tells us that God has given us all that we need to live that set apart and holy life. Peter puts it this way: 2 Peter 1:3 (NIV84) — 3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Now, if God intends it and He provides the means for us to live a holy life, that will bring Him glory and enable us to fulfil His call on our life; and if this sanctification is BY GRACE, then we need to respond THROUGH FAITH if we are to see that supernatural collision that will transform our lives. In verse 4 of 2 Peter 1, it goes on to declare that:” he (God) has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. This is a critical point to understand, it is THROUGH FAITH in the promises that God has given us, that the Holy Spirit is able to bring about our sanctification.
“Ah!”, I hear you say, “that’s the problem – when it comes to the crunch, I don’t have the faith to believe for that. I’ve tried, but it never seems to work for me.”
But remember: Ephesians 2:8 tells us “For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through FAITH—and this not from yourselves, IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD.” Sorry, we can’t make that excuse anymore! The faith we need is not a faith we manufacture or drum up for ourselves, it is something God Himself has given us already! It is part of the salvation package we received when we were justified. It came in the kit! We need to really get hold of that and bounce around in the presence of God declaring loudly and incessantly, “God has given me all the FAITH I need to see all the fullness of his GRACE at work in my life!”
Now, since God’s GRACE and God’s FAITH operating in us are so critical to our sanctification, let’s remind ourselves of some crucial aspects of these two awesome spiritual forces, because whenever they collide in our experience they are ALWAYS going to bring about our personal spiritual transformation.
To slightly adjust the words of C Samuel Storms from his book “The Grandeur of God”: “Grace stops being grace if God HAS to give it because of how good we are. Grace stops being grace if God HAS to withhold it because of how bad we are. Grace is treating us without the slightest reference to whether or not we deserve it, but solely according to the infinite love and sovereign purpose of God.”
I wonder, have we really signed up for that; are we really living like that is true? Or, are we in practice often acting as though God chose and saved us because He has a soft spot for us, and is pleased and impressed by our talents and achievements, and so is somehow ready to overlook any negatives in our lives and behavior. Does our Christian walk sometimes imply that God has the same “us and them” approach to justice and judgement that we demonstrate when we readily come up with reasons to excuse and pardon our own shortcomings but are quick to see and condemn the misdemeanors of others?
If that is the case then we need to wake up to the fact that we are suffering from the same DISASTROUS self-delusion that Paul warned the Galatian Christians to beware of when he wrote those words: Galatians 3:3 (NIV84) — Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
The reality is that God’s GRACE is very special indeed. It is unique on the earth and it can only be sourced in the heart of our amazing and loving Heavenly Father. At a stroke GRACE displaces ANY need whatsoever to be deserving of or “good enough” to receive God’s forgiveness and enjoy His favour. Our loving God gives us all His blessings on the plate of GRACE, and offers us the opportunity to take them freely with the hand of FAITH!
The Christian life is NOT and was never meant to be a mix of grace and works. Grace provides a full and complete provision and we cannot add to that provision by personal effort. In fact, personal effort suggests that there is something missing from God’s grace, which is unthinkable! As Paul writes in Romans 11:6 (NIV84) 6 And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. If we try by our own efforts to be worthy of the salvation God has given us and to gain a righteousness of our own we are effectively saying that God’s provision by grace is inadequate and incomplete. No, our task is just to respond with faith to all that God’s grace provides for us.
But what about FAITH? Have we really understood the power of the faith that God has put within our spiritual DNA as Christians?
To have faith in God is just to take Him at His Word. As we read in 2 Pet 1:4 We must take hold of God’s “very great and precious promises” and BELIEVE them no matter what, because this is the only way that we “may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. It’s the only way we can take advantage of His GRACE; the only way we can progress with the greatest experiment in our lives.
Hebrews 11:1 (NIV84) tells us: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Real faith is not about a presumptuous rejection of common sense in favour of some dubious interpretation of what we would like to think God wants for us. Faith is the way we turn God’s promises, the provisions of His grace, into reality in our lives. It is a humble submission to God based on the firm conviction that, whatever our feelings, emotions and imaginations are telling us, whatever our past experience or our current circumstances tell us, we will choose to embrace and trust in what God has said.
After speaking of the people of Israel wandering in the desert and failing to come into the goodness of what God had in mind for them by entering the Promised Land, the writer of Hebrews offers us this word of warning: Hebrews 3:19–4:2 (NIV84) — 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief. Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard DID NOT COMBINE IT WITH FAITH.
There are no short cuts and no alternative routes to personal sanctification. The ONLY way we will be enabled to fulfil God’s call on our lives and do our part to bring Him glory is to respond with the FAITH He has put inside us, to ALL the priceless gifts and provisions of His wonderful GRACE.