Do you remember when you first understood something of grace? We each have a journey with grace, and grace will teach us, if we let it. Craig Vernall shares some of his story here.
There have been two grace awakenings in my life, which have both been as powerful and as significant as each other. The first helped me to understand the Christian message, and allowed me to become a Christian. The second helps me to live and thrive as a Christian. Waking up to grace was, for me, a two-part process that first built repentance into my life, and then sustainability and understanding about the depth of the gospel I had received.
Opening my eyes
Not belonging to a church community until the age of twenty-three, I was introduced to the claims of Jesus by friends and family. I was frankly quite shocked to realize that my limited childlike knowledge of the Christian story was not enough to call myself a Christian. I had been one who had measured my own righteousness against ‘the true sinners’ - anyone who I considered ‘bad enough’ to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Therefore, in my mind, I was acceptable to God because I wasn’t ‘one of them.’ It may sound confusing, but it was simple to me: I wasn’t as bad as others, so I was OK.
It was through the classic four-step bridge process that I came to put my faith in Christ. The understanding that I had sinned and fallen short of God’s righteous standard (Romans 3: 23) was quite a revelation to me. With this came the conviction that I, being separated from God, could do nothing to win God’s favour. But thank God for Jesus who provided a way to God for me through his own death and resurrection. By faith I received Christ’s forgiveness. It was an absolutely transformational experience in my life and I felt quite literally that I had been born again. I rediscovered the world in a whole new light: the world made sense, I looked at people differently, and I had compassion and understanding. For me, it was even as if the grass was greener and the sky was bluer. I was deeply enamoured with the person of Jesus and the present reality of his Holy Spirit. The Scriptures came to life and I couldn’t consume them quickly enough. I felt like I was the first person to ever read and understand all that God was saying through the Bible. Every word was life to me. Yes, I was converted and excited, and probably upset many people with my new-found revelations, which of course needed sharing.
So now grace was more than a word. It was a transformational power that had overwhelmed me. It was a doctrine of undeniable magnitude that had ushered a radical change into my life. It was the kerygma of life change that brought living water to a parched soul.
This is my own story and you will have your own. But such experiences are recorded for us many times in the Bible, and have been repeated millions of times throughout Christian history. It’s a common thread that links Christians all around the world. I found in my early Christian experience that this saving grace was spoken about everywhere. John Newton’s own story of slave ship captain turned Christian was immortalized in the song “Amazing Grace.” Every time we took Communion, it was a revisiting of the cross of Christ that helped me again recognize my need for the Saviour’s ongoing grace in my life.
Grace gave me something to repent from, and something to live up to. But ironically, this is also where my trouble with grace started to emerge.
Having been born again into this new Christian family, I was now challenged by what standard of righteousness I should be aspiring to. Repentance was a lifestyle. I was changing. But changing into what?
My Christian friends were asking the same questions, and collectively we started to create an increasingly high level of righteousness with which we measured ourselves and others. By challenging each other’s thinking, we felt we were doing right by God and the Bible. As well as championing a righteous lifestyle, we could see ourselves being positioned to challenge the status quo around us with our high levels of zeal… and increasing judgement.
In effect, we were raising a standard of legalistic personal righteousness that became a way of pridefully competing with and judging others, as well as creating what would ultimately become a stumbling stone for ourselves.
I’d unwittingly become a bona fide Pharisee of the worst kind. All in the name of zeal for God, I had determined a righteousness of my own, with my own set of laws and values that I thought had God’s smile upon. But he didn’t smile, because I was seeking my own righteousness to make the cross of Christ complete. The gospel I preached needed my righteousness – which is so tempting as it subtly appeals to the legalisms that desire measure and performance standards based upon human tradition – but this is no gospel at all.
This does not make you a fun Christian to be with, but rather someone who is always judging themselves and others. The joy of the Lord was hardly my strength. My strength was my legalistic knowledge.
It’s hard to know when change occurred. But by now, living my life in a pharisaical way, I needed to be born again… again. I needed to be introduced to the gospel that Peter and Paul experienced and preached: a righteousness apart from the law that Jews came to accept.
As I looked afresh at Scripture, I realized that I had been in good company. Well, it was biblical company even if it was heretical. In Galatians 1: 6-8, Paul confronts those who have turned from a gospel of grace to a gospel measured by legalism and performance. The book of Galatians, and its big brother Romans, became new life to me. By God’s grace, I was awakened to the gospel that confronted the nation of Israel: a gospel apart from the law that could embrace all people - Greeks, Jews, slave, free, male, and female. Grace had brokered a deal through Christ that could not be broken, and it spoke about the love of God made complete and perfect upon the cross.
Something shifted in my heart. Where I had seen the gospel as being about performance, I came to understand it to be more about celebrating Christ who lived within me. I’ve already been made perfect in Christ; I cannot attain a perfection that has already been given to me. Instead, I am called to live up to that gift.
The weight that lifted from my shoulders created a true liberty. I came to understand Matthew 11: 30 more clearly, where Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Romans 7 began to make more sense as I realized that I cannot do everything in my own strength. James’ call to balance faith and deeds (James 2: 18-20) made my worship life a sweet balance, rather than a rod that beat me. At its limits, ““All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10: 23).
I no longer needed to measure my own goodness against others. Furthermore, I had a greater ability to trust the God who lives within other people, and could offer others the same grace in allowing them to worship and live with liberty, rather than project my own preferences upon them. For if what is being done in the name of Christ is from God, then it cannot be stopped (Acts 5: 34-39). I discovered that believing with others, and being supportive of them, will lead us on an adventure of faith in God, to hear his voice and live his dream.
I could go on. In fact, given opportunity, I do. The first revelation of the cross of Jesus brought me into the kingdom by way of repentance. The second revelation saved me, and others, from myself. Living with and up to what Christ has done for us is a full-time challenge. But it is now a challenge that doesn’t see me clambering for affirmation from God or from others. For I have already received the greatest of gifts: grace.
Story: Craig Vernall
Craig is the National Leader of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand
- What does grace mean to you?
- When was the last time you had a fresh understanding of grace?
- Where do you need to experience this anew. Pray about this.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This article is from the February/March 2017 issue of Baptist Magazine.
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