by Jeff VanVonderen
It makes me nervous to talk about grace. The good news is so good that I can hardly believe it most of the time, and so big that I can hardly talk about it. The truth is that I feel worse about grace than I do about my sin. Knowing who I am and what I’ve done, I can look at my sin easily, but grace is hard for me to look at. It’s hard to look at, so it’s hard to talk about, and it’s so big that it’s hard to condense into words.
But I’m going to try doing that, and I’m going to start by looking at 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 19: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside,’” and then in verse 26 it says, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” Basically what Paul’s saying is, “You are all just a bunch of dummies, and dummies get it better.” Dummies get grace better. Grace levels the playing field.
In Matthew chapter 3, we get a picture of Jesus as he’s starting his ministry. He’s preaching and he’s healing people and he’s making food out of thin air and feeding people who had nothing a minute ago. In doing all this, Jesus is drawing a big crowd. He’s the best show in town. Then he gets to the Sermon on the Mount and he turns the crowd away. I think there are a lot of reasons why he wanted to turn the crowd away, but one reason is that he doesn’t want us to get confused and think that the kingdom is about having a big crowd. He turns the crowd away by telling them what the kingdom is about. Here’s what it’s about: “Blessed are the broken. They shall have the kingdom.” The kingdom comes to broken people. Now, there’s some sarcasm here in the fact that everybody is a broken person. But the kingdom comes to those who are broken and know they are broken.
It helps to get a picture of Jesus’ audience for the Sermon on the Mount. On one side are the broken people, meaning the poor people and the prostitutes and the sinners and the people who don’t look so good. On the other side are the Pharisees and the people who think they’re okay because they’ve got a lot of money; they are the wise, the noble, and the strong. The first group is feeling bad about being such a mess, and the second group is thanking God they’re not like the broken people. Jesus says to all of them, “No, you don’t get it. Blessed are the broken. Theirs is the kingdom.” To the first group he says that it’s okay to be broken. It’s when you’re broken that you get grace. It’s when you’re broken that the kingdom comes to you in your weakness and your brokenness. It’s ok to be a dummy. And to the second group he says, “Hey, you guys don’t get it either. Blessed are the broken. You guys are fine, right? Go be fine. Well people don’t need a doctor.” See why they didn’t like him?
When you’re trying to do recovery ministries for people in your churches, aren’t the people who object just like these people in the second group who think they are just fine and well? Instead of thanking God that they have somehow escaped all the stuff that we’ve gone through, and saying, “Good for you that you’re dealing with it,” they’re thanking God that they’re not like you, and they can’t understand why you have to rock the boat. Why can’t you just get over it or stop what you’re doing and be like them? But Jesus says it’s okay to be broken. Brokenness is where it’s at in the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” So here are the mourning people in the first group. Not only do they look bad, but they are mourning how bad they look. The guys in the second group are rejoicing in how good they look. So they need to understand that in the kingdom of God comfort comes to mourning people.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” That’s you guys in the first group, the broken ones. You’re not righteous and you know it. So you’re hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and it says that you shall be satisfied, says Jesus. The second group is already satisfied. So go be satisfied. They might feel sad, and they might feel alone, but they would never admit it. They would never mourn. There are nine Greek words for mourn. In this context, mourn means “to put on the outside what’s on the inside.” People who put themselves in the second group would never do that because that wouldn’t look good. If they did finally get to the place where they could get honest about what’s going on inside them, they’d lose the support of everyone else in that second group. So Jesus doesn’t argue with them. He tells them, “Go ahead. Just bottle it up. Look good, but you need to understand that the kingdom operates over here.”
Now, it’s not that these people are disqualified from grace; it’s just that they need to know they need it and accept it. When I do interventions, we have a person who needs help, doesn’t think they do, and won’t get it. And that’s an addict. That’s a cocaine or heroin addict, or somebody who’s living on the streets, or ripping their parents off for their prescriptions. They don’t look like they should be in the second group, but they sound like it. They need help, they don’t think they do, and they won’t get it. The level of denial is the same. During an intervention, we just want to move them to need help and get it. That’s all. As soon as that happens they move into the first group, and when you’re over here in group one, there’s all kinds of help that comes. Grace happens.
When Jesus said, “Therefore be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” do you think he was really offering that as a challenge for us to be perfect? Or was he offering us an opportunity to examine ourselves and realize not only are we not perfect, but that there is no way we could become perfect by ourselves and we need someone to help us? The folks in the first group are imperfect, and they can’t fix what is wrong with them. The folks who are with the Pharisees are imperfect and can’t fix themselves either, except that they seem to think they can handle it on their own. That’s the difference.
Jesus said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off, and if your eye offends you, pluck it out. It’s better to go into heaven with one hand than hell with two.” In response to a statement like that, a really good Pharisee would start cutting off hands. “Okay, wow, okay, I’ll do that. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Well, that’s not the point. The point is that you need a new heart. So Jesus tells them they can cut stuff off and pluck stuff out as much as they want, and when they get all done cutting and plucking, they’ll still have one thing they can’t do anything about, which is that they need a new heart. God does new hearts. It’s just that you have to know you need it and know you can’t do it on your own.
Another thing about grace is that it assaults our mindset. I can feel that more than I can explain it, but I really do feel worse about grace. I want to show you something in Philippians. At the beginning of chapter 3 Paul says, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” So now he’s going to tell us what to rejoice in. Believers begin by rejoicing in the Lord, but then we start rejoicing in a whole list of other things. In verse 4, “I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more.” Then in verses 5 and 6 he give us his list of things he can be proud of: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”
“The flesh” means not the spirit. So it isn’t just the flesh; it’s natural things. Paul says he is prone to put his confidence in natural things. I am prone to do that. I’ve been trained to do that. You know, for me to be introduced to the idea that God has a gift for me and it’s life and salvation and all that kind of stuff, and all I have to do is accept it, and I don’t have to earn it—that was not that hard at the beginning. But because I have a mind to put confidence in the flesh and because I happen to live in the flesh and there happens to be a lot of flesh around that I could put confidence in—accepting grace now is really hard.
If Satan isn’t throwing stuff in my face and telling me to get my significance and meaning from all the nasty stuff, then he’s throwing stuff in my face that’s good. I wrote books and people like them. I’m on TV now, and that’s cool. But that good stuff is not Jesus either. Grace is not Jesus plus anything. It’s only God’s grace that got me out of my addiction and into all this good stuff anyway, and yet Satan still has a way to put a spin on that and get me looking at something besides Jesus. “God’s really lucky to have you on his side, isn’t he, Jeff?” Wow! That’s not about the cross.
“As to the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” You want to see a picture of someone who does it right? The guys in the Pharisees group do it right. Paul did it right, and that used to be what comforted him. He rejoiced in getting it right. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” So what he’s saying is, “I have, like you, a lot of evidence that says that I’m okay, and I have a mind to put confidence in that stuff, but I don’t.” I have a chance today to decide to put my confidence in Christ rather than in the flesh, and then tomorrow I’ll get a chance to decide that again; then the next day I’ll get a chance to decide that again, and that’s how every day is.
Well, if you look at 1 Corinthians 15:8, you see a different story. Paul says that Jesus appeared to everyone else, and then “last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.” Now “untimely born” doesn’t mean born too late. When I first read that passage a long time ago I thought Paul was kind of bummed out that he was born too late, meaning that Peter and all those other guys got to actually see Jesus, but then Jesus got killed and Paul came on the scene too late. The “untimely born” doesn’t mean too late; it means too early. He was a miscarriage. For him to say “last of all he appeared to me” is a negative thing in that culture, and for him to say that Jesus had come to him as somebody who was a spiritual miscarriage—a stillbirth—is a negative thing. “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” He’s got a lot of negative evidence against himself. “But by the grace of God I am who I am, and his grace toward me did not prove vain.” Paul doesn’t hold the negative evidence against himself, and he doesn’t revel in the positive evidence for himself. He is who he is because of Jesus.
We are who we are because of Jesus and Jesus alone. It’s not Jesus plus anything. Sometimes we remember that. Then tomorrow we have to remember it again, and the next day again, and again, and again. The problem is that we stumble. In Romans 9:31 and 32 Paul talks about what it means to stumble. “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” Now, here’s my question to you: In the last year of your recovery, have you had more opportunities to take your eyes off the finished work of Jesus by looking over at one of those nasty things you used to do, or because of people who are encouraging you to judge your relationship with God based on some good thing that you are doing or not doing? Both of those things are ways of stumbling. The Christians in my life were more aggressive in trying to get me to measure myself by Jesus plus something I did or didn’t do than the drug users and alcohol users ever were about getting me to use or drink with them. What a coup that is for Satan. If Satan can’t get you with the drug-using folks, he’ll get you with the church.
A lot of the interventions I do get a yes answer very quickly. I don’t think it’s because I’m so skilled or that I have a magic wand or anything. The people tell me why on the plane on the way to treatment. They usually say something like this: “The reason I didn’t ask for help is because I was ashamed. I’ve asked for help so many times and they’ve given it to me and it didn’t work and I just felt too bad to ask again.” Is that somebody who is in denial? No. That is somebody who can’t believe that grace is for them.
Why don’t people become Christians? In the church I grew up in, I was told that the reason that people don’t become Christians is that they really like their sin. How many of you stopped liking your sin before you finally got help for it? You didn’t like it, but you couldn’t see a way to get out of it or you didn’t think you deserved help. So you stayed in the sin. And then somehow God broke through that, and then you got grace, and now here you are. I think people who are sinning hate their sin. I used to wake up in the morning looking at an empty bottle of booze, feeling like crap, and say “I’m never doing that again.” You know why? I hated that. I hated how it felt. But then a couple of days later I felt okay, and I did it again. I couldn’t see anything else. That was one of the reasons why I was in denial and why I was so defensive about my drinking and using. I couldn’t see any alternative. I didn’t think grace was for me.
When you became a believer they didn’t just come and open your jail cell and say, “You can leave now.” There are consequences. Society might make you pay for your crime. And we might live in a society that God has set up where if you do the crime you do the time. You reap what you sew. But on a cosmic level, on a spiritual level, it is already paid for. There are sins that people have done that were paid for before people could even think them up. That’s hard for me to accept.
I want to close with one little thing here in Colossians 2:5: “For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.” This is a really different letter from Galatians. In Galatians, Paul is hollering and confronting them because they started off by focusing on Christ, but then all of a sudden it’s Christ plus circumcision, Christ plus festivals, Christ plus all this stuff you’re supposed to do, and so he hollers at them like crazy. The Colossians, however, hadn’t done that. So Paul is rejoicing in them that they are stable in their faith and they haven’t lost track of what got them there in the first place. So the next verse says, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” In other words, live the way you came to Jesus in the first place. How did you come to Jesus in the first place? With your big list of good stuff or hiding your list of bad stuff? No, you just came by faith. If there is a way out of this for us, God’s going to have to do it. We’ve tried to do it and we can’t do it on our own. Now we’re broken and grace comes to us, and the kingdom comes to us, and that’s how we got it in the first place. So Paul tells us to live that way now. Live, walk, and keep walking like that. The recovery principle in Paul’s message is, Keep coming back, it really works. Keep coming back to the grace that got you here in the first place.
When you became a believer, the thing that was clear was that this was a God thing. It’s something that God is going to have to do and we are going to have to accept it for free. Since then, the fight is to keep doing what got you here in the first place. And that’s my encouragement to you: Keep coming back. It really works.