By the Grace of God
Preached on Sunday, August 15, 2010, by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (I Cor. 15:1-10)
Whenever people make great accomplishments in any area of life, they are often asked how they achieved such great things. Sometimes people thank their parents for all the opportunities that they provided for them. Some say that they were just born with certain talents and abilities, and when they were given the opportunity to develop them, their natural gifts were allowed to flower. Sometimes, people say that they really had no innate gifts or abilities and no advantages of birth or upbringing. They achieved what they did through discipline and hard work. Whenever we look at great athletes, we marvel at the hours they spend in training, and while natural ability may be part of the explanation, we know that even though they might have been born with a certain amount of natural ability, hard work was necessary. Some of you may have seen the book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, who argues that successful people have usually put at least 10,000 hours of hard work in their chosen field, and that it was after they had put in the 10,000 hours that they truly became great in their chosen fields of endeavor. Such people could say that they owe their success, not only to a certain amount of natural ability, but also to the perseverance of hard work. One of the criticisms of Gladwell’s book is that hard work by itself does not really explain genius. Ten thousand hours of hard work might enable you to be a tremendous craftsman, but would it make you a genius? Some critics point out that 10,000 hours of hard work might enable you to play Mozart, but would it enable you to create, to think like Mozart? A few nights ago we were watching a short film called “Great Genius and Profound Stupidity”, and it dealt with this concept of genius. The program was explaining the great philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept that genius was an aberration. In Kant’s philosophy, a genius was someone who could create and understand things independently, without being taught by someone else. How does such genius originate?
When we look at the life of the apostle Paul, we are staggered by all that he was able to accomplish. His amazing missionary journeys in which he endured so many dangers and so many persecutions cause us to shake our heads with wonder as we contemplate how he could have done it all. He must have had a great deal of physical stamina in order to endure all that he did on those journeys. Then, we look at his writings, and we are astounded by his intellect, his knowledge of the Scriptures, his reasoning ability, and the way that he can make such profound, logical arguments. No doubt he was born with a great intellectual capacity, and having studied at the feet of Gamaliel, we can say that he took advantage of the educational opportunities that were provided for him. Then, we have to be astonished at his great love for our Lord Jesus Christ, a love that was so strong that he would travel sea and land, having this one magnificent obsession—to make Christ known to people around the world. Think of how this love for Christ is found in the man who at one time was so opposed to Christ and his gospel. This is the man who hated the Church so much that he wanted to stamp it out. When he is converted on the road to Damascus, he is on his way to throw Christians in jail. He was consenting to the death of Stephen and held the clothes of those who were hurling stones to kill him. No doubt, even after his conversion, the Apostle Paul thought a great deal about his past, and how he had hated Christ and his people. Even in our epistle reading for today, as he is summarizing the gospel and the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he is overwhelmed that Christ appeared to him. He says that he is less than the least of the apostles. He knows that he is not worthy to be considered an apostle, because, as he puts it, “I persecuted the church of God.” It is this man who became the example of the most fervent love for Christ and his people. He says that even though he is less than the least of all the apostles, he worked harder than all of them as far as efforts to spread the gospel are concerned. How does one explain this transformation? How does one explain the zeal, the untiring labor, and the great love? How did Paul become this man that we admire so much? Paul does give us an explanation. He says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
I think we can see why Paul chose to emphasize the grace of God as the explanation for all that he accomplished. After all, grace is defined as “God’s unmerited favor.” When we say that we are saved by grace, we mean that we have done nothing worthy of being saved. We have no good works to contribute toward making ourselves acceptable in the sight of God. God did not love us because we were good or kind. We were sinners in rebellion against him, and yet he loved us in spite of what we are and what we have done. If you ask the Christian why he is going to heaven one day, he will not say something like, “Well, I have lived a pretty good life.” He will say, “I am going to heaven because of the grace of God. He loved me in spite of what I am.”
But it is not only true that we are saved by the grace of God, it is also true that all that we accomplish or achieve in this life is due to the grace of God. That one great attribute of God, that he is a God of grace, is the primary attribute that explains the life of Paul. I think it interesting that Paul could have said, “It is by the power of God that I am what I am.” He could truthfully say that God’s power explained so many of his accomplishments. After all, God did reach down in mighty power and change the heart of this hate-filled man. If we look at his subsequent life, it was certainly the power of God that explains the success of his ministry. When he preached in these pagan areas of the world, in the face of fierce opposition, many people believed. How can anyone explain these miraculous conversions except the power of God? Though Paul would have agreed that he was what he was because of the power of God, he points primarily to the grace of God, God’s unmerited favor. It is the grace of God that is the root of all other blessings. The power of God would never have been demonstrated in the life of Paul if God had not been a gracious God. The power was given because God is a God of grace. If ever a man could look at his life and say, “I did not deserve the favor of God,” it was the apostle Paul. If God had not been a God of grace, he would have let Paul go on in his sin, he could have allowed him to continue to persecute the church, and he could have allowed him to remain a stranger to the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Though Paul did not deserve these great blessings of salvation, God bestowed them upon him. As he said in Gal. 1: 13-16: “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.” Notice again how he emphasizes that God called him by his grace. There was no reason in Paul that God should have called him to salvation. Paul had done everything we could think of that would make him unworthy of so great a blessing. It was an amazing thing that God would take this man, so deserving to be punished under the justice and wrath of God, save him and forgive him all his sins, so that he might enjoy eternal communion with God and his people in heaven forever.
If it was an amazing thing to call this man and forgive his sins, what an even more incredible thing that God would put this man in the ministry, and not just put him in the ministry, but make him the most important of the apostles as far as spreading the gospel around the world is concerned. No wonder when the early Church heard that this man was preaching the gospel, many thought that he was a fake, an impostor, someone who was merely trying to infiltrate their ranks so that he could lead persecutors to their locations and arrest them. People were amazed that Paul “which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed” (Gal. 1:23). The unmerited favor of God was shown in choosing him to be an apostle. No wonder then that Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
Just as Paul said, “I am what I am by the grace of God,” if any person has experienced any great blessings, if any person has accomplished anything significant in this life, he should say, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” If unbelievers, even atheists, knew the truth of the matter, they would understand that even if they become great and well known in the sciences, the arts, business, politics, or whatever path they choose to follow, they are what they are by the grace of God. It is only by the grace of God that people have healthy minds and healthy bodies that enable them to pursue their aspirations. Think of the millions of people around the world who do not have the blessings of healthy minds and bodies. I was listening to a comedian the other night and he said that he had just turned 60, and the people applauded. He told them not to applaud, because he had not turned 60 because of anything he had done. It was just luck. No, it wasn’t luck. It was the grace of God. God, in his grace, gives us what years we have and gives us the abilities to make the most of those years.
Think of the grace of God that has been given to many of us to be born in the United States of America. We live in a land where we have the freedom to choose what we want to be. Really, in this land, with all of the opportunities we have, with all of the schools, with all of the libraries, and now with the Internet and all the opportunities for learning it provides, all of us should accomplish so much. What grace has been shown to us that we have been born in this country with all of these opportunities made available to us! As Chuck Berry used to sing, “Anything you want, we got it right here in the USA.” It is by the grace of God that we were born here with these opportunities.
Then, some people are born with amazing natural abilities. Some people just seem to be born with a God-given talent for music. I love to watch some of the biographical movies about musicians, and it is amazing that so many of the great, modern musicians that we admire so much never had a music lesson, never learned to read music. I can read music, but I would never be able to play like that, no matter how much I practiced. I was talking to my dad one time about how smart he was in mathematics, and I just never could get it. We began to talk about other great mathematicians, and my dad said that though he could work difficult math problems, he could never have become an original genius like some mathematicians. They have an amazing ability to think about mathematics in ways that many of us ordinary mortals cannot. I was talking to one of my grandsons the other day about the great chess player, Bobby Fischer, and I was trying to explain what made such champions unique, how they are able to think and create at a level that is almost mystical. There are many people who study and play chess hours every day but never attain that level of greatness. While there might be many explanations for those abilities, ultimately, the primary cause is the grace of God.
All of these blessings and gifts I have mentioned are just examples of what some theologians call “common grace.” God, in his grace, grants blessings, talents, and abilities to people, whether they are believers or unbelievers. All of us in this room are the recipients of common grace, but most of here are all recipients of the special grace of God. Most of us were born to Christian parents who brought us to church to hear the word of God. Some of us were so privileged that our parents brought us to the baptismal font when we were infants to receive the grace of God that is granted to us in baptism. Some of us have had the opportunity to be instructed in the word of God by people who believed the Scriptures and were devoted to teaching orthodox doctrine to us. All of these things are examples of the special grace of God, a grace that has not been shown to all people who have been born into this world. Why has this special grace been shown to us and not to others? It is a mystery, and we do not know the reasons this grace has been shown to us. All we can do is bow before the Lord in humble adoration and spend all our years and all eternity thanking him for this special grace that has been shown to us.
Paul said in I Cor. 4:7, “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? Let me read that from the New Living Translation: “What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if all you have is from God, why boast as though you have accomplished something on your own?” If you love Christ, love the word of God, love worship, it is because God gave you a heart to do so. As Paul says, we shouldn’t boast as though we achieved this ability on our own. In our text for today, even when Paul says that he labored more abundantly all the other apostles, he says it was not he, but the grace of God that was in him. Paul knows that he would not have, he could not have, labored the way he did if the grace of God had not been working in him, granting him this ability. If we have received the blessings of a Christian home, if we have received the grace granted in baptism, if God has made these blessings effective in our lives, if we have a heart for God and the things of God, if we have been able to live a godly and holy life, we must say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” His grace has made us what we are, and it is his grace that is working within us.
We have been recipients of this grace of God, but with the gift of this grace comes enormous responsibility, for we can receive this grace and yet fail to take advantage of it. We can frustrate the grace of God and receive it in vain. St. Paul said in II Cor. 6:1,” We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.” The Good New Translation has it, “In our work together with God, then, we beg you who have received God’s grace not to let it be wasted.” In this verse we find the combination of the doctrine of the grace of God with the doctrine of human responsibility. Yes, we are dependent on the grace of to do anything pleasing in his sight. But at the same time we are responsible for exertion, to put forth the effort to make the most of the grace of God that has been given to us. Even the common grace of God can be received in vain, wasted. As I mentioned earlier, just think of all the opportunities that have been given to us in this country in the way of education, the personal freedoms to pursue almost any kind of life we choose. But how many people are taking advantage of this grace that has been given? This grace has been received in vain. It has been wasted. Is there anything sadder than to see people with great talents, great natural abilities, wasting them. Around this time every year we hear about football players, some of them in their early twenties, who have been given this incredible opportunity to make millions of dollars playing a game, and they show up at camp out of shape. They spent the entire off- season gaining weight, not working out, not improving their skills. What an example of grace being wasted!
Many people have received the grace of God in vain in the sense that they have been brought up in a country where they have abundant opportunity to hear the preaching of God’s word and have not taken advantage of it. In our country, there is a church on almost every corner, and many of those churches can still explain to a person the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. But people ignore these churches, pass them by, and never bother to go and hear the word of God. Furthermore this land is filled with Bibles, with sound books explaining the gospel. This grace of God of living in a time and place where saving truth is so readily available has been received in vain.
The saddest of all forms of receiving the grace of God in vain is found in the Church, among the baptized. Most, if not all of us in this room have been baptized. When we look through our Prayer Book and see all that is granted in grace to the baptized, we must ask ourselves the question, “Have we received the grace of God in vain?” We have been made members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. We have been granted the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been granted the opportunity to sit at the table with our Lord Jesus Christ, feed on him, and receive all the blessings that come to us in Holy Communion. We have the opportunity to hear the word of God preached to us. Are we making the most of this grace that has been given to us, or are we receiving it in vain? Paul says in our text, “His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain, for I labored….” Again, we see the connection between God’s grace and our responsibility to labor. Though all our gifts and abilities have come to us through the grace of God, that fact does not absolve us from the responsibility to labor, to exert ourselves. Yes, I know that even that ability to exert ourselves comes from the grace of God, but it is still the person who is laboring. St. Peter gives us the command to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18). We have been given grace, but we must grow in that grace. If we are not to receive the grace of God in vain, we must use all the means of grace at our disposal, for in the use of these means, this grace becomes effective and grows in our lives. As a baptized member of the Church, you have been given grace, but now you must study the word of God, you must attend faithfully the preaching of the word of God, you must prepare your hearts each week to receive the Holy Sacrament, you must participate often in the Sacrament of Communion, and you must pray. What wonderful means the Anglican faith provides for us so that we would not receive the grace of God in vain! We have our Prayer Book which provides us with the daily means that we need to grow in grace. All of our prayers, our Scripture readings, our feasts and our fasts, if used properly, will result in the grace of God not being received in vain. If we faithfully use these means that grace will grow and become more and more powerful in our lives.
The entire life of the Christian is explained in terms of the grace of God. If we accomplish anything, it is because of the grace of God. If we are able to survive all the trials and troubles of this life, we are enabled to persevere by the grace of God. As John Newton put it in that most famous of all hymns, “Amazing Grace,”
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far.
And grace will lead me home.
On that last day, when you stand before our Lord Jesus Christ with a glorious body like his own body, completely transformed, with a mind and heart totally free from sin, you will be amazed at what you have become. When you view yourself in all of that perfection, you may wonder how you came to that glorified state. Throughout all eternity, you will be saying, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Amen.