Why Does God's Grace Not Amaze Us More?
- Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson Author and Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.
- 2010 14 Jun
Grace "loosed me from my bonds and set me free!"
These simple words express the experience of the typical Christian, in every place, age, and language.
The grace of God in Jesus Christ brings freedom. To experience this grace is liberation. Our chains, shackles, burdens—describe them how we will—are broken. We are delivered from a guilty conscience. We come to trust in Christ and are immediately released. Then we progressively enjoy that freedom. We are no longer in bondage. Instead, we are free men and women in Jesus Christ.
E. T. Sibomana begins his hymn "O How the Grace of God Amazes Me" at the point of personal experience. Of course, our experience is not actually where the grace of God itself begins. It goes back much farther than our individual experience of it. But this hymn begins with our experience because this is where we take our first conscious steps into the sea of grace. Then we discover that it is in fact a boundless ocean that seems to have no bottom. As we sink into it, we begin to realize that its origins lie in God Himself in eternity. This is the grace that "loosed me from my bonds."
His own will, this much I know,
Set me, as now I show,
Charles Wesley earlier expressed the same thought. If you know anything about the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, you know that before they came to faith in Jesus Christ, they lived outwardly impeccable lives. Charles was a clergyman in the Church of England. No chains were visible. He had no apparent addictions. In his student days at the University of Oxford, he was marked by rigorous moral rectitude and energetic service. Few imagined they could match his holiness. One of his favorite books was titled A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. That summed him up. Yet as God worked in Wesley's life, he realized he was in spiritual bondage, "fast bound in sin and nature's night,"6 as he would later write. But when he was brought to faith in Jesus Christ, this was the song he wanted to sing again and again on the anniversary of his conversion:
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
Such freedom is not limited to a select group of famous Christians. The gospel promises the same to everyone who trusts in Christ. Freedom from bondage is a central theme in the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. He told the Jews of His day that only the gospel could release them:
"The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). But what truth? He explained: "If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).
Here are two basic lessons.
Jesus taught that we are all by nature in spiritual bondage. He had to be cruel to be kind.
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke—much like us—believed that they were certainly not in bondage to anything. But their response to Jesus' words revealed the deep spiritual bondage in which they were held. His words riled and angered them.
"Who do you think you are, saying that we need to be set free? How dare you! We are Abraham's children, his freeborn descendents." They claimed spiritual freedom as their birthright, but they were in spiritual bondage. "Most assuredly, I say to you," Jesus said, "whoever commits sins is a slave of sin" (John 8:34).
Does this really need to be underlined? Jesus thought it did, and perhaps someone reading these pages may need a little help to understand what Jesus was saying here:
• We do not become sinners by committing specific acts.
• We commit specific acts of sin because we are sinners.
In short, my problem is not the isolated actions that I see as aberrations from what I really am. I am deceiving myself if I think that way. These actions are not aberrations but revelations of what is in my heart. They show that I commit sin because I am in bondage to it.
Paul develops this theme in Ephesians 2. Both the apostle and his readers (v. 3) were by nature bound in sin: "dead in trespasses and sins" (v. 1). When they heard the name of God and of His grace in Jesus Christ, their hearts remained cold. Like dead men and women, they were always flowing with the stream, following "the course of this world" (v. 2).
By nature, we usually deny that we are in spiritual bondage. We go out of our way to show our freedom by being different. But we tend, in one way or another, to become clones. That is a manifestation of our bondage. According to Ray Davies' satirical lyrics in The Kinks' hit song,
This pleasure-seeking individual always looks his best
‘Cause he's a dedicated follower of fashion.
Of course, there is a darker side to this in the sinister influence of "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience" (v. 2). We will say much more about him later.
As Jesus hinted, this sinfulness affects every dimension of our lives:
• Our minds. We do not think clearly. We may be well educated and have high IQs. But that is no guarantee that we think clearly about spiritual things.
• Our desires. When we are on our own and at our most honest, we recognize that we are not masters of our desires. We try to master them. We have a moral consciousness that says, "You must get these things under control." But inwardly we are out of control. There is a world within us over which we have no mastery.
• Our wills. They are in bondage to sin. "Oh yes," we say, "this message about being right with God—I will come to it another day. That is my decision and I can make it whenever I want."
The truth, however, is that we cannot think clearly about or desire Christ by our own unaided decision. Why not? We cannot respond to the good news of the gospel until we want Christ, and we cannot want Christ simply by a decision we can take at any moment we choose. We cannot say to our will, "Will, will to belong to the Lord!" It is beyond our powers to do that. No one can will the will to will what it will not will! Only God's grace can set us free to come to trust in Him.
What made it happen so?
His own will, this much I know,
Set me, as now I show,
Here, then, is our greatest need. Lesson one: We are in bondage to sinful hearts.
David's Understanding of Sin
King David made this discovery months after his sin with Bathsheba. He had broken God's law. He had coveted, he had committed adultery, he had stolen the wife of one of the best men he knew, and he had plotted the man's death (see 2 Sam. 11-12).
When the reality of his spiritual bondage came home to David, he realized it went back to the very beginning of his life: "I was sinful . . . from the time my mother conceived me" (Ps. 51:5, NIV). When we are first convicted of sin, we resolve to do better. But as soon as we have scraped away one layer of sin (thinking, "It was only a superficial failure on my part"), we discover another layer underneath. Until David traced his sin right back to the beginning of his life, he was living in a state of spiritual denial. But when he realized the truth about himself, he admitted that the rot had set in from the start, even when he was in his mother's womb. Then he cried out to God, "Cleanse me" (Ps. 51:7, NIV), or, "Scrub me clean."
There were times in my childhood when I got so dirty that my mother would scrub me clean with a loofah. How often I felt the power of her arm as she scrubbed the dirt out of my skin. While I was relatively content with a superficial wash, she was determined to get out all the dirt, even if it killed her—or me.
David's language—"cleanse me . . . wash me"—is an appeal for that kind of vigorous and rigorous cleansing. His sin was deep dyed. There were layers of deceptiveness, sin, and bondage in his heart. Only God could cleanse and free him. This is what Jesus was talking about. His contemporaries knew their Bibles. They were in constant attendance at religious services. But they were still bound by sin and could not free their lives from its dominion. They were slaves to sin, not sons of God. So Jesus said to them, "Your fundamental problem is that you do not know God as your Father." How could Jesus be so sure? "Because," He said, "if you really knew the Father, your attitude to His Son would be completely different. It would be one of love and of admiration. You would trust Me" (see John 8:42-47). They talked about God, but their attitude to God's Son revealed that they were not members of His family. They were hostile to Him. They plotted "religiously" to get rid of Him. They had no place for Him in their lives because they had no room for His Father.
Religious people are always profoundly disturbed when they discover that they are not, and never have been, true Christians. Does all of their religion count for nothing? Those hours in church, hours spent doing good things, hours involved in religious activity—do they not count for something in the presence of God? Do they not enable me to say: "Look at what I have done. Don't I deserve heaven?"
Sadly, thinking that I deserve heaven is a sure sign I have no understanding of the gospel. Jesus unmasked the terrible truth about His contemporaries. They resisted His teaching and refused to receive His Word because they were sinners—and slaves to sin.
Some years ago, the British media reported that a Presbyterian denomination had pulled fifty thousand printed copies of an edition of its monthly magazine. The report indicated that the author of an article had referred to a prominent member of the British royal family as a "miserable sinner." Intriguingly, the member of the royal family, as a member of the Church of England, must have regularly used the words of the Anglican prayer book's "Prayer of General Confession," which includes a request for the forgiveness of the sins of "miserable offenders." Why, then, were the magazines pulled? The official comment: "We don't want to give the impression that the doctrines of the Christian faith cause people emotional trauma."
But sometimes the doctrines of the Christian faith do exactly that—and necessarily so. Or should we say instead: "How cruel Jesus was to these poor Jews! Fancy Jesus speaking to them in this way!"? Jesus did say, "You are miserable sinners." He unmasked sinners and drove His point home: "You have no room for my word" (John 8:37, NIV). They had heard, but resisted it. Later, He described the result: "Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say" (John 8:43, NIV). Jesus had already patiently explained this to Nicodemus: "Unless God's Spirit opens your eyes, you cannot see the kingdom of God. Unless God sets you free from the bondage of sin, you will never enter the kingdom of God" (see John 3:3, 5). "The truth is," Jesus said later, "you do not hear what I am saying because you are not really the children of God" (see John 8:41, 44). They were, to use Paul's language, spiritually "dead" (Eph. 2:1).
Some time ago, while relaxing on vacation on a wonderful summer day in the Scottish Highlands, I sat outside enjoying a morning coffee. A few feet away I saw a beautiful little red robin. I admired its feathers, its lovely red breast, its sharp and clean beak, its simple beauty. I found myself instinctively talking to it. But there was no response, no movement. Everything was intact, but little robin red-breast was dead. The most skilled veterinarian in the world could do absolutely nothing for him.
So are we, spiritually. Despite appearances, in my natural state I am dead toward God. There is no spiritual life in me. Only when I see this will I begin to see why God's grace is surprising and amazing. For it is to spiritually dead people that the grace of God comes to give life and release. This is the first truth I need to acknowledge. I am in spiritual bondage. That bondage may have many manifestations. They may differ from individual to individual. But the bondage itself is at root one and the same. On that basis, and against that background, Jesus taught lesson number two.
There is good news.
On the one hand, Jesus underlined the bondage in which we are held by nature. On the other hand, He spoke about the freedom into which He brings sinners by grace: "If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). How could the Son set them free? Because of who He was. He was the Son who has been sent into the world by the Father. He knew the Father's plan. He had the most intimate relationship with the Father. He had heard everything the Father had said, and He came with this message of good news: "The Father has sent Me in order to set you free" (see John 8:28).
How, then, does Christ set us free?
John had answered that question earlier, in the most famous verse in his Gospel. This God, this Father, so loved the world, this world in its sinfulness and bondage, that He sent His only Son into it. He had only one Son, but He sent Him to die on a cross in order to save everyone who believes in Him (John 3:16). The Son would be "lifted up"—lifted up on a cross, exposed in public shame, hanging between heaven and earth, under the judgment of God against our sins—so that those who believed in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 12:32; 3:16). Jesus Christ is able to set us free because He has dealt with the sin that enslaves us.
We can never atone for our own sin. We can never break its power. We can never come to God and say, "God, surely what I have done is enough to compensate for my sins." Nothing we can do can possibly compensate. But God sent His own Son—think of it, His own Son—who stood in for us, in our place. He lived a perfect life. Since He had no sins of His own to atone for, He was qualified to make a sacrifice for our sins. No sacrifice we could make could ever be adequate to atone for sin. But He was able and willing to do it. Because of that, we can be set free from guilt and from the bondage it creates. Christ also sets us free in another way: through the truth about God—and about ourselves—that He reveals. If we believe in Him, we will come to know the truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8:32). That is His promise. I have met some exceptionally intelligent people who cannot understand the Christian gospel. They hear its message as if it were a lecture on morality. Yet the gospel is not difficult to understand. The problem lies within us—in our spiritual blindness. If there is resistance in the heart to loving God, there will be resistance in the mind to knowing God—and therefore to listening to and seeking God. Only the truth can set us free. Later on in John's Gospel, Jesus spoke about sending the Holy Spirit to His disciples. He would be like a great spotlight shining into their minds, illumining them so that they could begin to see and understand Jesus and what He had done. The Spirit would remove spiritual deception, transform the spiritually dead, and glorify Christ.
So Jesus is able to set us free because of who He is and because of what He shows us. As a result, we now may dare to call God "Father." This is the most obvious difference between a "religious" person and a Christian. A religious person is likely to address God—especially in a crisis— as "O God," not as "O Father." There is a simple reason for this. Unless you know God as your Father, you never cry out to Him in your need as "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15-16).
Many Bondages, One Remedy
How does all of this apply to us?
Our sinful hearts share a common bondage, although its forms may differ. Some people have bondages that bring them down to the gutter. But there are also "respectable" bondages. The appearances may seem polar opposites. But in each the heart is equally captive, a prisoner, a slave. What is it that you cannot master, but masters you? What sin has captured your heart and hardened it toward God? The chains that bind you may seem very different from those that bind your neighbors, your colleagues, or your friends. But they are just as real. God has many different ways to bring us to discover that we are enslaved and spiritually dead sinners. But He offers us only one remedy for the slavery, only one Savior: the same Jesus who stood before His contemporaries—and now stands before us—to say:
"Whoever commits sin is the slave of sin. But the truth will set you free.
And because I am the Son of God and the Savior, I can set you free.
"I am the One who has been working in your life recently.
"I am the One who has prompted you to ask questions you long ignored and to remember sins you once trivialized.
"I am the One who has led you to ask why a Christian you know has something you lack.
"All this has brought you to seek Me. You have now come to the verge of trusting in Me as the Savior who will set you free and give you a new life.
"You are beginning to see why grace is so wonderfully amazing.
"Trust Me now."
Charles Wesley wrote:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night.
Is that you? You may have tried everything to find freedom and satisfaction, but you are still "fast bound in sin and nature's night." Perhaps nobody knows it except you. You need a work of God's power and grace in your life.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Discovering the grace of God in Jesus Christ can happen almost before you notice it. After all, He was seeking you before you ever sought Him or sensed that He was near. All you knew was that you had a deep sense of need. He drew you in, and you said to Him:
"Be mine. Be my Savior!" He said to you: "I am. Be Mine, My child."
O how the grace of God
It loosed me from my bonds
And set me free!
What made it happen so?
His own will, this much I know,
Set me, as now I show,
Freedom, at last!
Yes, grace is amazing.
Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson is senior minister of the historical First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. He also serves as a professor of systematic theology at Redeemer Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas, as a visiting professor in the doctor of ministry program at the Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies, and as a teaching fellow of Ligonier Ministries.
A native of Scotland, Dr. Ferguson has earned three degrees, including his PhD, from the University of Aberdeen. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland and spent some sixteen years in ministry in his homeland, serving especially in St. George's-Tron Church in Glasgow. From 1983 to 1998, he served on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
He is a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust publishing house and is a member of the council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
He is a prolific author. His published titles include The Holy Spirit, Grow in Grace, Let's Study Philippians, John Owen on the Christian Life, In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life, and, for children, The Big Book of Questions & Answers and The Big Book of Questions & Answers About Jesus.
Dr. Ferguson and his wife Dorothy have four children.