Shame-ridden, he could not confess his sin. Squirming on the couch, he finally passed over a folded piece of paper with the shameful transgression written down – “I have looked at pornography.” It turned out that he had used school computers to access sites.
“Is there anything else?” I asked.
“Yes. When standing at the check-out line in the grocery store, I am tempted by the women’s magazines.”
I think he half-expected that I would throw him out of the church in disgust. But instead we discussed what could be done to address his temptation. My answer shocked him as much he thought I would be shocked by his sin. “Here is what I want you to do the next time you are standing in line and feeling the temptation (which, by the way, means you have already sinned). I want you to give thanks to God.” His eyebrows rose. “I want you to thank God that even at that moment he loves you as much as he ever has or will. For such is the grace and mercy of your Father.”
I explained that his real enemy is Satan, who, though he could not steal his soul, still sought to render him ineffectual in living for God. He could not separate a child of God from his Father, but he could make that child feel estranged from his Father. That is where sin comes in, whatever the form it may take.
The most common reason an individual seeks counsel from me has to do with his laboring under guilt. He will come to me saying that he is unsure of his salvation because of a sin that he committed which he did not believe he would ever do or because of a besetting sin that he cannot overcome. “How could a Christian live such a way?” he wants to know. My response generally follows along these lines: first, I concur that his sin is bad, and actually worse than he thinks. Like the tip of an iceberg we see very little of our sin’s magnitude. Second, I (nicely) help him to see his arrogance in believing that he could not commit the particular sin that shocked him or that he should so easily overcome a recurring sin. Third, I help him to see Satan’s intent, which is to make him feel estranged from God. When a Christian is enmeshed in sin, he feels guilty. “How could I commit such a sin?” he wails. “What is wrong with me that I keep giving in?” Under this weight of guilt, he no longer feels that he can fellowship with God or serve him without hypocrisy. Thus, his witness and service for God is made ineffective and his joy in God destroyed. Satan is fine with the Christian feeling guilty as long as that guilt keeps him from God. For this reason, I present him with the “shocking” step to take of giving thanks. For if our sins lead us to the mercy of God then Satan’s very purpose of tempting us is thwarted. He wants to separate us from God, not drive us to our heavenly Father.
The biblical passage I will then turn to is Hebrews 4:14-16:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Unlike the other lessons presented, I cannot recall an “I get it” moment when it comes to grace, though I know that my real understanding did not develop until I came to Tenth Presbyterian Church. Dr. Boice’s teaching influenced me, of course, as well as exposure to other teachers he brought in, especially for the PCRT conferences. Michael Horton’s description of his move from a works-oriented faith to one that is grace filled particularly struck a chord with me. There were the people who came to me for counsel expressing the same fears and burdens I had had. Their sins were too grievous for God to forgive. They worried that he was angry with them or that he merely tolerated them as a disappointed father. How odd it was to see people who professed to be saved by the grace of God yet muddle through life as though they had to work to keep God’s favor. What was the advantage of even turning to Christ for salvation if one has to keep working to hold on to that salvation? But then, that is how I had unwittingly lived, continually measuring whether or not my work was good enough for God’s approval just as I had done before knowing Christ.
It was especially seeing how the grace of God played out in people’s lives that affected me. Two believers could go through the same trials, yet one grew only stronger in faith while the other despaired. The difference always had to do with their perspective about grace. The one who believed that what he did determined how God would regard him either succumbed to pressure and faltered, or grew proud by his supposedly good performance. The one who rested in God’s grace, secure in his Lord’s mercy, typically weathered the storms that came his way and had an objective, humble view of his gifts. What a difference to meet with a believer who bemoans how difficult life is and then with another who has gone through even greater trials and yet extols the grace and blessings of God.
I began to see more clearly how grace covered my life. In my earlier ministry I worried over being such a poor vessel for God to use. I felt I was too proud of my gifts or too lacking in confidence in God. Either way, I waited for God to lower the boom and discredit such an unworthy servant. But now I learned to marvel in the grace of God precisely because he uses such an unworthy servant as myself.
Before, I bemoaned that little was being accomplished in my ministry because I did not see great works of power taking place. Now, I praise God who by his grace uses the ordinary means of preaching and teaching, of prayer, and of the sacraments to quietly and steadily build faith in weak and sinful hearts. The most effective counsel I give to anyone now who comes to me in distress is to help them see for themselves the grace of God in sustaining and blessing them.
I have learned the truth of Scripture which teaches that my sin but makes God’s grace abound all the more (Romans 5:20) and my weakness magnifies the power of the Lord (2 Corinthians 12:9). I have learned, in other words, the Gospel. The good news is that God by his grace has provided the way of salvation. God by his grace has chosen to save me and to do all that is necessary to carry me through to the day of glory. He has saved me by grace, and he will sustain me by grace.
It is at the Lord’s Table that grace is displayed most clearly to me as I stand behind it as Christ’s representative calling his people to come in their sinfulness to receive the Lord’s blessing. I have yet to find more fitting words than those of John Calvin, who directed Communion participants to come to the table with no hope but in the grace of God found in Christ:
"…let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine to the sick, comfort to the sinner, and bounty to the poor; while to the healthy, the righteous, and the rich, if any such could be found, it would be of no value. For while Christ is therein given us for food, we perceive that without him we fail, pine, and waste away, just as hunger destroys the vigor of the body. Next, as he is given for life, we perceive that without him we are certainly dead. Wherefore, the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy; to despond in ourselves, that we may be consoled in him; to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him; to aspire, moreover, to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself, to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue. If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed by such considerations as these, how shall we, who are devoid of all good, polluted by the defilements of sin, and half dead, worthily eat the body of the Lord? We shall rather consider that we, who are poor, are coming to a benevolent giver, sick to a physician, sinful to the author of righteousness, in fine, dead to him who gives life…"
I cannot overstate how an understanding of God’s grace has impacted my life. For whatever the circumstance of life, I am led to the mercy throne of God. If all is going well and I feel victorious, then I am moved to thank God for granting such grace to a miserable sinner like myself. If I am under a storm of suffering, I look to God, who sustains me by grace. When I fall into sin, I am moved all the more to glorify God for such mercy that forgives me and still favors me with redeeming love. Truly such grace is amazing that bestows blessing upon a wretch like me…and you.
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