But God . . . (1)
A Buddhist Monk strode into a Zen pizza parlor (do we have those in Eaton? I don’t think I’ve seen one. Probably only in LA). Anyway, this Buddhist Monk strode into a Zen pizza parlor and said, “Make me one with everything on it.” When he got his order, he gave the proprietor a $20 bill, which the guy pocketed. “Hey,” asked the monk, “where’s my change?” “Change,” replied the owner inscrutably, “must come from within.”
Okay – for the last three weeks, we’ve been examining God’s perspective of man outside of Christ. Man in his unregenerate state. And I think you would conclude, he’s in an absolutely helpless and hopeless condition, would you not? Now, suppose that someone comes along, as many do, and says authoritatively, “Change must come from within.” You must find your inner zen! Yea, I’ve been looking for that guy for years. Find the power within. Find that inner you who will give you the power to change. Well, isn’t he the guy or gal that has created this mess in the first place. “Change must come from within?” Forgive me, folks, but that’s like asking the Roto Rooter guy to clean up your house. Man, he doesn’t clean up messes; he makes messes. “Change must come from within”? Good luck! That’s where the problem is to begin with. The Bible takes a different point of view – that “within” must be changed, but through changes brought about by God.
So what are we to do – as those who are dead in trespasses and sins, disobedient to God and ultimately doomed? What are we to do? Glad you asked and glad you are here because beginning in verse 4 we get the wonderful, glorious, one-and-only solution.
We’re looking at verses 1-10 of Ephesians 2 under the title “Amazing Grace”. It divides into three parts. Verses 1-3 – “Dead Men Walking”. It speaks of our sin and the absolute impossibility of our helping ourselves. Verses 4-9 – “But God . . .” We will see in this section what God has done given that we could not help ourselves. Then verse 10 – “New Men Walking” -- life after salvation. Another way to look at these verses is man without God, but God and man with God. Or you could title them, our sin, our Savior and our service. It is clearly one of the great passages in all of Scripture and I hope that you are beginning to get the drift.
Now, we have left mankind in a sad condition – dead men walking, enslaved to sin, without God and without even wanting God. It is dire straits and tough messages to preach. But now we come to verse 4 and those wonderful words, “But God . . .” Without question this is my favorite transition in all of Scripture. Those two little words still send shivers up and down my spine every time I hear them. “But God . . . “ What we could never do for ourselves, He has been willing to do for us, and from here on out it is a wonderful message.
But there is still one little catch. A defendant stands up and says, “Your Honor, I want to change my plea to Guilty.” The judge says, “Why didn’t you do so at the start of the trial?” The defendant says, “Well, until I heard the D.A, I didn’t know I was guilty.” You see, in order to take advantage of all the things we are about to study – in order to have God’s salvation applied to your heart, you must be willing to stand up and plead guilty. You must accept the Lord’s verdict in verses 1-3. Then and only then can you be the beneficiary of amazing grace. I pray that you already are and that this will be a wonderful lesson in exactly what you already have in Christ. But if not, I trust that you will be drawn to Him and find it impossible to ever turn Him down. Let’s look at God’s solution to the sin problem in four parts – His Passion; His Power; His Process and His Purpose. You’re gonna love this. Here we go.
I. His Passion
Look with me at verse 4: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us. Here we see the passion of our God. And it is this that separates Him from every other God that people talk about. We often hear it said, “God helps those who help themselves.” Actually, just the opposite is true. God helps those who are absolutely incapable of helping themselves and therein lies the differentiation between this God of the Bible and other gods. He loves sinners. He has mercy on sinners. He gives grace to sinners. And He acts with kindness toward sinners. He is a God whose is passionately involved with His creation and in that He is like no other.
I want you to underscore that comment. We serve a God like no other. That is a very important phrase. We live in an age of relativism when even some of our very good Christian friends are trying to find the good in other religions. But listen, whatever good you may find – whatever positive human instincts they may appeal to, there is one fundamental difference that is critical and it is this. Every other place you look you will find a God who demands. In Christianity, you find a God who gives. Do you see that that is a fundamental and fatal difference? Every other religion says, “Do this to get to God.” The Bible says, “Here is what God has done for you to bring you to Himself.” Good works and all the rest should and will follow. But they are not ever, never the way we get to Him in the first place. Mark it down. Fundamental difference. So as we look at these two aspects of God’s passion, understand and appreciate that these are characteristics of the God of the Bible and not found in any other representation of God.
A. He is Rich in Mercy
The first thing we see is that He is rich in mercy. He is rich in mercy. So, what is mercy? Well, let me give you a very easy insight that perhaps many of you have heard. Justice would be God giving us as sinners what we deserve. Mercy is God not giving us what we deserve and grace is God giving us what we do not deserve. Let me repeat that. Justice Would be God giving me as a sinner what I deserve (which will happen, by the way, to those who refuse his gift of salvation). Mercy is God not giving me what I deserve and grace is God giving me what I don’t deserve. Obviously mercy and grace come as a package deal. Apart from Christ and His death on the cross, God could only give us justice. But because of Christ’s death and resurrection, God can show us both mercy and grace – but we have to choose it.
The story has been told of a mother who sought from Napoleon the pardon of her son. The emperor said it was the man’s second offense, and justice demanded his death. “I don’t ask for justice,” said the mother. “I plead for mercy.” “But,” said the emperor, “he does not deserve mercy.” “Sir,” cried the mother, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask.”
“Well, then,” said the emperor, “I will show mercy.” And her son was saved.
Paul says that God is rich in mercy. He isn’t just merciful – He is rich in mercy. He is drowning in mercy. He is so totally opposite to us in this regard. As He looks on mankind, going on their way, totally ignoring Him and His laws, what is His reaction? He has mercy. His heart cries out for them not to get what they deserve.
Have you ever noticed that we are not like that? We like to think that we are, but what is our first reaction when we see someone who has committed some hideous offense, even if it is not against us? We are most apt to say, “Well, I hope they get him and I hope that he gets his.” I have to tell you, I grew up as the oldest of 11 children, the first 6 of whom were boys, and when there was an offense committed around our house, the first reaction was not mercy. We not only wanted justice imposed – we wanted to help with it and often tried to do so! Isn’t that our response? We are like the artist who painted a rather unattractive dowager. She disliked the portrait and said, “It doesn’t do me justice.” The artist said, “Forget justice. Lady, what you need is mercy.”
If we are outside of Christ, we are all like that lady. We think ourselves rather attractive. We think ourselves rather good. We think that we want justice. But when we finally understand our walking dead condition, what we need is mercy. Thank God He is merciful and there is plenty to spare. He is rich in mercy. He oozes mercy.
We had to fire someone at work one time. To me it was never pleasant to have to do this, but this fellow had more than earned the right to be fired. It was not for a single offense but for a whole raft of offenses over a long period of time, so this led to a discussion of who should fire him and one of the fellows who worked for me at the time said, “Let me do it. It will be a pleasure to fire this guy.” He was not exactly rich in mercy, see. But that is not like God. God is overflows with mercy, even when we deserve none. The Bible says in II Peter 3:9 that God is, “9) . . . not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” He will never impose justice gleefully or with a feeling of satisfaction, but make no mistake, He will impose it. Why? Because not all will come to repentance. But He is merciful in His character and will ultimately only let go those who have blatantly said, “I do not need you.”
J. Vernon McGee tells the story of a poor woman from the slums of London who was invited to go with a group of people for a holiday at the ocean. She had never seen the ocean before and when she saw it, she burst into tears. Those around her thought it was strange that she should cry when such a lovely holiday had been given her. “Why in the world are you crying?” Pointing to the ocean she answered, “This is the only thing I have ever seen that there was enough of.” May I assure you that mercy is something that there is enough of. God has oceans of mercy. The problem is not on His side. If we are not experiencing forgiveness from the overwhelming flood of His mercy, it is because of our own pride and stubbornness and unwillingness to accept His verdict of our lost condition.
B. He is Lavish in Love
Back to verse 4: 4) But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, It’s not just mercy that God has toward His creation, but He also has great love. He is lavish in love. You know, it would be possible to have mercy toward someone in need and react toward them out of pity but with no real love. Not so God. He loves according to Isaiah 54:8 and Jeremiah 31:3 “with an everlasting love.” His love for us is without condition and without limit. If we’ve heard of it all of our life, we take it shamefully for granted, but believe me, the world has never seen anything like it. There is nothing like the love of God.
Now, we should note that this love is not some overwhelming emotional reaction. It’s not like God looked at humankind and found his heart moved by the attraction. You understand, I trust, that we were not very attractive. What we speak of as love is almost always a response to some attraction in the thing or person loved. Had that been what moved God, I’m afraid we would all have been left out. There is nothing attractive about our basic rebellion against Him. Brennan Manning says it this way: “We love for what we find in other people. God loves for what He finds in Himself. God loves us the same at our worst and at our best.” I mean, just ponder that for a moment. God loves us the same at our worst and at our best. God love for what He finds in Himself. Does that stir your heart? Aren’t you glad that’s true?
The problem is that we are so programmed that you have to earn love that we find is next to impossible to grasp this kind of unconditional love. And even among those who are supposed to love us the most – our parents, our family – we know full well that there are things we can do that will end it. To accept that God really truly loves us is almost too much. And it would be were love just an emotional response. But this is αγαπη love. This is love that is a decision, not an emotion – that gives, not takes – that seeks the good of the one loved, not seeks good from the one loved.
You do not have to earn God’s love. In fact, you cannot earn God’s love. It’s just there. It is because He is. It’s not like human love. You probably have not heard of Jane Addams, but she gained a certain amount of notoriety in the early 20th century as a suffragette. She was president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. In 1900 the Daughters of the American Revolution elected Jane Addams to honorary membership. Now I want to make it clear that I am not picking on the DAR as I know that we have some honored members in our church! Neither am I defending the actions of Jane Addams. But when Jane Addams took an antiwar stance during WWI and insisted that even subversives had a right to trial by due process of law, the DAR expelled her, perhaps rightfully so. But I found her reaction interesting. Her comment was, “I thought I was elected for life, but I now understand it was for good behavior!
That is exactly what the love of God is not. God’s love is consistent, never-changing, always seeking the good of the one loved. It is intrinsic with Him. What sets Him apart from other Gods is the fact that He loves sinners, requiring nothing of them except their facing reality and confessing their sin, and He continues to love them whether they repent or not. It’s just that He can’t save them if they do not confess.
So many verses in Scripture speak to how God loves sinners. We read in Romans 5: 7) For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8) but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God loves sinners, though, of course, He wants them to repent. Look again at Ephesians 2:4-5: 4) But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5) even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— How could we possibly turn down His offer of salvation?
Remember the quote we used earlier: “We love for what we find in other people. God loves for what He finds in Himself. God loves us the same at our worst and at our best.” We cannot always count on this to be true in human terms. Tennessee Williams story, “Something by Tolstoy,” about a man named Jacob Brodzky, a shy Russian Jew whose father owned a bookstore. The older Brodzky wanted his son to go to college. The boy, on the other hand, desired nothing but to marry Lila, his childhood sweetheart -- a French girl as effusive, vital, and ambitious as he was contemplative and retiring. A couple of months after young Brodzky went to college, his father fell ill and died. The son returned home, buried his father, and married his love. Then the couple moved into the apartment above the bookstore, and Brodzky took over its management. The life of books fit him perfectly, but it cramped her. She wanted more adventure -- and she found it, she thought, when she met an agent who praised her beautiful singing voice and enticed her to tour Europe with a vaudeville company. Brodzky was devastated. At their parting, he reached into his pocket and handed her the key to the front door of the bookstore. "You had better keep this," he told her, "because you will want it some day. Your love is not so much less than mine that you can get away from it. You will come back sometime, and I will be waiting." She kissed him and left.
To escape the pain he felt, Brodzky withdrew deep into his bookstore and took to reading as someone else might have taken to drink. He spoke little, did little, and could most times be found at the large desk near the rear of the shop, immersed in his books while he waited for his love to return. Five years passed. Ten years passed. And then one day near Christmastime, nearly 15 years after they parted, she did return. But when Brodzky rose from the reading desk that had been his place of escape for all that time, he did not take the love of his life for more than an ordinary customer. "Do you want a book?" he asked. That he didn’t recognize her startled her. But she gained possession of herself and replied, "I want a book, but I’ve forgotten the name of it." Then she told him a story of childhood sweethearts. A story of a newly married couple who lived in an apartment above a bookstore. A story of a young, ambitious wife who left to seek a career, who enjoyed great success but could never relinquish the key her husband gave her when they parted. She told him the story she thought would bring him to himself.
But his face showed no recognition.
Gradually she realized that he had lost touch with his heart’s desire, that he no longer knew the purpose of his waiting and grieving, that now all he remembered was the waiting and grieving itself. "You remember it; you must remember it -- the story of Lila and Jacob?" After a long, bewildered pause, he said, "There is something familiar about the story; I think I have read it somewhere. It comes to me that it is something by Tolstoy." Dropping the key, she fled the shop. And Brodzky returned to his desk, to his reading, unaware that the love he waited for had come and gone.
Tennessee Williams’s 1931 story "Something by Tolstoi"
This story teaches us a couple of things about the love of Christ. First of all, we need never fear that when we finally come to our senses and come to him that He will have forgotten us, or reject us for our sin. Nothing can ever stop His love. But this story also reminds us how easy it is on our side to forget Him. It may be the appeal of the world, the familiarity of the message or it may be that we are just so completely absorbed in our selfishness that we completely lose who we are and we cannot recognize our heart’s desire. Tragically, we may miss Christ’s love or reject it in favor of temporal things and dreams.
Beloved, God’s love is overwhelming. Just when you think you have a grasp on it, you must realize that it still goes far beyond what you think. We must not sin against His love. Do not reject it. Do not trample it underfoot by saying it is not real or that you do not need it. This love of God is so great that it defies all definition. I truly do not begin to know how to illustrate it for you or to describe it to you. We can speak of it as his intense concern for, deep personal interest in, warm attachment to, and spontaneous tenderness toward his chosen ones, but all this is but to stammer. Those, and those only, who experience it are the ones who know what it is, though even they can never fully comprehend it.
How do you experience it? You confess your sin to Him and ask Him to be your Savior and Lord. You get rid of that burden you have been carrying consciously or unconsciously. You step out of the darkness into the sunshine of His love which has always been there just waiting for you. You trade your sin for His righteousness, because the most important thing about His love is that it is a love that acts. You have only to look at the cross to see love depicted such as the world has never seen. And it is all yours if you will just reject you (deny yourself) and accept Him (follow Him). Jesus said, “If any man (or woman) will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” That’s the best trade you could ever make. Your sin for His righteousness. He’ll love you regardless, but He can accept you only if you accept Him.
In His mercy and His love – both rich beyond out comprehension, the passion of God for His creation is demonstrated. On any given day, God may seem far away and uninterested, but we’re fortunate. We live on this side of the cross. We have only to look there to see that God has given objective proof in human history of His great love and mercy. It stares us right in the face and should compel us to come to Him.