Living in the world that we live in these days, we might assume that there are two competing universes all around us, but that’s really not true. We all live in the same physical universe. We are all locked into time and space. We are all creatures who are fully human, with all of the capabilities and limitations of our humanness. We all have the same senses to interact in this environment.
No human lives in any other universe. The weird world of Harry Potter, Tolkien, even C. S. Lewis does not exist; it is sheer fantasy. No such places exist as these writers and many others invent. No human beings have sensibilities or powers as depicted by these writers from Rowling to Stephen King and everybody in the middle. No one sees dead people. No one sees ghosts. There are no ghosts. There are no people who transcend the physical world. There is no Santa Claus, Spider Man, Superman, Batman, or any other such person.
There is no psychic network of super people able to predict the future and even influence it. There is no time travel back or forward. Well, you understand what I’m saying. We all live in one physical universe; that’s all there is. And that universe is what it is, and we are what we are, and we cannot create another world for ourselves even in this universe by wishing it were so.
Positive thinking will not make you faster, smarter, richer, or anything else. There are some things that may contribute to you becoming better at whatever it is that you do, but positive thinking, creating in your mind some universe and then imagining yourself in it is not the way to get wherever it is that you want to get. That’s how it is living in the physical world. We’re all here; we’re all locked in; nobody transcends it.
But when you talk about the spiritual world, there are two universes in the spiritual world; I suppose that’s obvious to you. You could say that one is the kingdom of darkness, and the other is the kingdom of light; one is the family of Satan, and the other is the family of God.
And there are, as my grandfather used to say, only two kinds of people: the saints and the ain’ts. But let me become a little more theological than that and say all human beings live in one of two paradigms. You are either under law or you are under grace. You’re either under law or under grace. Those are the two spiritual realms.
If you live in the realm of law, you bear guilt for every sin you will ever commit. Because of that guilt, you are condemned to pay the penalty of eternal death and eternal punishment in hell.
If you live in the realm of grace, you have been forgiven of all your sin; you bear no guilt. You are not headed toward eternal death; you are headed toward eternal life and eternal joy.
This is a sweeping and simple paradigm in which to understand where everyone fits. You either exist in the domain of law and are inexorably subject to the effects of that law – namely guilt and condemnation and punishment - or you exist in the domain of grace and are subject to the effects of that domain which is forgiveness, life, eternal blessing.
All of the people in this world are in one of those two universes. All the characteristics and all the features and all the elements and operations of these two universes are fixed, inviolable. And although it is true that there are expressions of grace visible in the realm of law – that is to say there are some laws that, if obeyed, do bring good things of course. There is a measure of visible grace in the realm of law, but I would have to suggest that expressions of grace in the realm of law drift through like rainbows at the edge of the storm, and they are never able to be captured.
And there are all the eternal components of God’s Holy Law still clear to us in the realm of grace. To live in the realm of grace is not to eliminate the Law of God, but it is to recognize that we have no power to fulfill it on our own, but it is still the Law of God.
We live, as believers, in the realm of grace. We love the Law of God, but we know we cannot be saved by keeping it; neither will we be condemned by it. That’s what it means to be in the realm of grace. No theme really is more important than this, no theme is more magnificent than this, no theme is more instructive than this, and no theme is more a contributor to our gratitude than this theme of grace.
We are here to express our thanks to God. And ours is not a meager and mundane kind of thanks, although it is appropriate to thank God for the things that the early pilgrims thanked God for: food, family, health, life, the beauties of creation. We’re here with a much larger agenda behind our thanksgiving. We’re thankful that we are not under law but under grace.
Let me provide you with a little bit of an overview tonight just to help you express your gratitude for the grace, the all-surpassing grace of God. I will perhaps, for a few moments here, give you a coloring book. That is I will draw some black lines for you, and later on we’ll color them in, but these would be the outlines of what grace looks like in Scripture.
And the biblical record of grace comes very early in the Bible – very early. In fact, in Genesis chapter 2 and verse 17, God instructed Adam and Eve, “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” The possibility of death created the possibility of judgment, but it also created the possibility of grace. In Genesis chapter 3, that possibility became a reality. In verse 6, “The woman saw the tree was good for food; it was a delight to the eyes; it was desirable to make one wise. She took form it and ate and gave to her husband with her, and he ate. The eyes of both of them were opened; they knew they were naked; they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” This was their meager attempt to cover their guilt, to cover their iniquity.
But down in verse 21, God had a better way. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” This is grace. Man makes his meager effort to cover his guilt with what is inadequate, and God comes, and you have the first incident of death, and God executes an animal, a picture of the Lamb of God who one day would come, in order to provide a covering for these two sinners. And with that, in Genesis 3, the story of grace really begins.
The rest of human history, the rest of Scripture is the unfolding of the story of God’s grace. This is how the Bible ends. The conclusion of redemptive history, in these words – Revelation 22:17 and 18 – “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” That is the last great statement of grace.
What does it take to come into the realm of salvation? What does it take to enter into the kingdom of God? What does it take to be given the promise of heaven? Simply the recognition that you are thirsty and you have no money with which to pay for the water that you need. That is to say you recognize you need something you can’t buy. That’s grace. And still the Spirit and the bride say, “Come. Come. Come.” We come without money to receive the water of life by sheer grace.
The Bible record in between, starting with Adam and Eve, and Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and David, and many others in the Old Testament, and then in the New Zacharias and Elizabeth, and Joseph and Mary, and then Peter and the apostles, and Paul and Stephen, and on and on, on and on is the story of God moving people from the domain of law into the domain of grace, transferring the repentant believer from condemnation to a no-condemnation status, from guilt to no-guilt.
But when you think about that – and this is what some critics definitely say – doesn’t it really seem that the whole sad saga of man in the garden and the subsequent horrific reign of sin and death and damnation is an embarrassment to God. After all, God created everything and looked at it and said, “It’s good; it’s very good.”
Didn’t His grand experiment really collapse in the garden with the failure of Adam and Eve? I mean after all, this seems to be a problem with God no matter who He creates. He created angels to worship Him and millions of them rebelled. He created humans to worship Him, and the two that He created rebelled. Doesn’t it make God a little timid about demanding all creatures to worship His glorious perfection?
Isn’t He really like an artist who painted what He claimed was going to be His great masterpiece for which He should be honored, only to have all the colors run together in a chaotic mess because He mixed the paint wrongly?
Or isn’t God like a sculptor whose master work appeared initially magnificent, but from a bad choice of material it melted in the bright sun into an amorphous heap?
Or isn’t God like a builder who built His great building only to have it collapse the day after it was dedicated? Shouldn’t God be a little bit embarrassed, sort of stuck with having to be gracious to bail Himself out? That is what some theologians are suggesting to us, that God made the whole thing and – oops – it went bad, a surprise to Him. Is grace Plan B, God trying to recover or God trying to land on His feet after a masterpiece went bad?
Maybe God isn’t in control. Maybe there was so much free will operating with the angels and so much free will operating with humanity that it was inevitable, and God never really was in control. And, of course, since He didn’t know what was going to happen, how could He be in control of anything in the future?
But on the other hand, He is loving. In fact, He’s so loving that even what He can’t control He tries to fix. Is that what it’s all about? He could be angry with man. And that would be right, to be angry with man, and to some degree He is angry with man, but His anger is trumped by His love. And even though man messed up His masterpiece, He does love man. And so, to save His reputation and to make something out of this mess, He offers forgiveness to those who want it, which in some way will recover His reputation. Even if He’s not sovereign and not all-powerful and can’t have things exactly the way He wants to have them, He’s good and kind and loving, and He can fix things.
Well, I hope you detect a tone of sarcasm in what I just said. That warped view is painful to speak – even to speak it in irony. But it is a rather substantial theology - good enough to launch a small cult.
Listen, don’t you think for one moment that God from the very beginning didn’t plan for grace. He did. Grace is not Plan B; it is not God trying to land on His feet and save His reputation. In fact, God determined to create the universe and man with a view to expressing His grace.
Did God plan for sin? Absolutely. Did He plan for the fall? Absolutely. Was it in the master plan, Plan A? Absolutely. God is all holy perfection; His purity is incomprehensible to us. As such, He is worthy of all glory, honor, worship, adoration, love, and praise. He determined that He should be fully appreciated by conscious beings who would forever offer Him glory for His majesty. He wanted and deserved to be worshiped forever to His own eternal satisfaction.
And certainly in the created natural universe, He made things that display certain of His attributes: life, and power, and order, and complexity, and beauty, and knowledge, and wisdom – all those things concerning God are visible in the creation.
In the creation of angels, He displayed His holiness, His righteousness, His perfection, His moral glory. And even in the judgment that fell on the fallen angels, He displayed His wrath, His justice, His severity, His vengeance. But in that whole constellation of attributes, there was nothing of His grace. There was nothing of His grace in the creation of the world order, nothing of His grace exhibited toward angels that rebelled, nothing of His grace exhibited toward holy angels.
In the panoply of those attributes which are associated with the things I’ve just discussed, there is no evidence of compassion, kindness, tenderheartedness, patience, restraint, longsuffering, forgiveness, mercy, restoration, reconciliation, redemption, salvation; there’s no grace. But God is the God of all grace, and this is as essential to His nature as all other attributes are. And God, desiring to be worshiped forever for being the God He is needed to include, in the panoply of attributes for which He will be praised forever, all of those components that make up His grace.
In fact, it was back in Exodus chapter 33, when Moses had a desire to know and to see God, to be assured that God was, in fact, speaking to Him, that in Exodus 33 and verse 19, God said, in response to the query by Moses, “Show me your glory” – “He said, ‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you’” – you could see that in the created world, and you could see that in the creation of holy angels; you could see that in the judgment on fallen angels, but then He says - “‘and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’”
And down in chapter 34, verse 6, the Lord again passes by Moses and says, “‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin’” – this is the God who is displayed here. And certainly the response in verse 31 of that chapter, Moses recognizes that God indeed is a good and gracious God.
In Nehemiah 9:17, we read, “You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”
Micah 7:18, “Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He delights in unchanging love.” And all the glory of God’s grace could not be manifest unless there was sin which God could forgive.
Now, I want you to open your Bible to the epistle of Paul to the Ephesians for just a moment to consider a few thoughts. The apostle Paul, speaking of his calling – Ephesians 3:8 – “To me” – speaking of him being made a minister in verse 7 – “a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me.”
And his testimony regarding God’s grace is most significantly given in 1 Timothy chapter 1 where He says, “The grace of our Lord was more than abundant because He saved me, a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor, yet I was shown mercy.” So, he knew well the saving grace of God in His life.
But he says in verse 7, “I not only received that saving grace, but I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power.” I was saved by grace, and I was called into ministry by grace. “To me” – verse 8 – “the very least of all saints, this grace was given” – this grace which brought about salvation, this grace calling and gifting, it was given to me – “to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.”
I was given grace to preach the unfathomable riches of Christ. And, of course, the riches of Christ are connected to the work of C, and the work of Christ is a cross work by which saving grace is granted to penitent, believing sinners.
“In so doing” - Paul says in verse 9 - “God used me to bring to light what is the administration” – or the stewardship – “of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies.” That is an amazing statement. God showed grace to me in order that I might preach the gospel of grace in order that the manifold wisdom of God exhibited in grace might be made known through the church, which is the product of that saving grace, to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places – angels. Angels.
God allowed sin, from the very beginning, planned it in, without being responsible for it, so that He could display His grace to the holy angels who would otherwise not be able to worship Him fully for who He is, not having any demonstration of the massive significance of grace with all its components were it not put on display. And God then enacts a gracious salvation so that angels can give Him full glory and full expression of worship consistent with all His attributes.
In Romans 9:22, we read, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” Then this, verse 23, “He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy.” Why did God allow sin? Why did God enact against sin divine and holy justice? As a backdrop to demonstrate His glory in grace – “that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy.” Mercy is an element of grace. Then this, “Which He prepared beforehand for glory.”
Listen, God planned grace from the very beginning. It is not a recovery plan. God planned grace from the beginning in order to display those elements of His attributes to the holy angels. Not only to the angels but the saints.
Look at Revelation chapter 5. Revelation chapter 5, verse 8. When the Lamb of God came out from the throne of God in this picture – a vision that John received, He took out of the right hand of God on the throne the title deed to the earth. He is about to take back the earth in the future. “When He had taken the book” – this is a scene in heaven – “the four living creatures” – that would be angels – “the twenty-four elders” – that would be saints – saints – “fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” And they fell down to pray in praise. “And they sang a new song, ‘Worthy art Thou to take the book and break its seals; for Thou was slain and did purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.’”
The scene in heaven is saints and angels praising God for the work of grace done through the sacrifice of Christ in shedding His blood. Verse 11 is added to that group, “The voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads” – muriōn times muriōn, the largest word associated with a number in Greek, 20,000, tens of thousands times tens of thousands, thousands of thousands, and they’re all saying, “‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.’
“And then every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the seas and in – and all things in them, I heard saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.’
“And the four living creatures kept saying, ‘Amen.’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.”
The consummate worship of heaven has to embrace all the attributes of God, including those attributes which are expressed in His grace. The whole plan of salvation is a revelation of grace, and it was done beforehand, not as an afterthought.
One final text, Ephesians 1. Ephesians 1, verse 3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” – why? verse 6 – “to the praise of the glory of” – what? – “His grace.” From the very beginning, it always was a plan with a view to God being glorified for His grace.
So, when we come together, at a time like this, to express our gratitude to the Lord and our thanksgiving for His goodness to us, what leads the list for us is the surpassing riches of His grace toward us in Christ Jesus for which we now thank Him and praise Him and for which we will forever thank Him and praise Him.
Father, as we come now to Your Table, here we look directly at the heart of the demonstration of Your grace. The animal killed in the garden to provide covering for Adam and Eve only a symbol. Every animal offered, from Abel on, only a symbol; every lamb, every goat, every bull, every turtle dove, every sacrifice only a picture until we come to Calvary’s cross, and there’s the reality that everything pointed to.
We look at the cross, and we see Your magnanimous and stunning grace on display. And we are grateful it all comes down to Christ on the cross, for there Your grace was fully displayed in a sacrifice that has no parallel. God the Son becoming a Man, dying for our sins as a substitute so that we might receive grace – grace for all our sins. And it’s in this grace that we stand. We stand in grace.
This is the world we live in. Physically we may only live in one universe, all of us the same. Spiritually there are two. People either live in the domain of law or the domain of grace. They are either under the Law with its effects or under grace with its effects. If in the realm of grace, we are blessed with all spiritual blessings because of what Christ has done on the cross.
Fill us with gratitude. Help us not to come to this Table in a perfunctory way, in a common way, but with a new and a fresh grasp of the greatness of this grace. May we honestly look at our own lives, and if there’s any sin, any deed which we would not be willing in a split second to let go, any word, any attitude, any thought or pattern of thought that displeases You in any way, Lord, we would have You take that away, cleanses us and wash us, make us clean before You so that we can come in a worthy way and truly celebrate the greatness of Your grace.
Because You are gracious, that doesn’t lead us to sin more that grace may abound, but in gratitude to run, to flee from sin lest we abuse such great grace. We don’t want to be abusers of grace; we want to be lovers of righteousness. So, Lord, do a work of cleansing in our hearts, even as we celebrate the death of our Savior in the bread and the cup.
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