“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” are some of the most profound/beautiful words ever to be sung within our churches! Do you believe them? Do you believe, as Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that we are saved by grace (Eph 2:5)? It is so disheartening when some of us forget this precious truth.
Wrestling With Grace
I have struggled with understanding God’s grace for much of my life. I have difficulty in pinpointing exactly why that is. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it is due, at least in part, to the fact that nearly every time I have heard a sermon (or preached a sermon for that matter) concerning the grace of God, it is almost immediately followed up with the clarifying words, “But you still have to be obedient!” Somewhere along the way, many have become afraid of grace. They have determined that if grace is preached, then christians will just start living lives of debauchery and claiming that “God’s grace will save them anyways.” After all, that seems to be what some attempted to say in the early church and Paul addressed that very clearly.
Romans 6:1–2 ESV
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
Does Jesus expect us to be obedient? Absolutely, He does! He stated in Matthew 7:21 that those who “do the will of the father” as opposed to those who offer only lip service will enter the kingdom. Jesus stated that if the disciples loved Him, they would keep His commandments John 14:15. These statements are true, and we should regard them as such. The problem comes in when we develop a “performance based/obedience based” view of salvation. “If I work hard enough, sacrifice more, and perfectly keep all the commandments of God, then and only then, will I be saved.”
This type of a mindset is damaging to the Christian, it causes them to live in constant fear of not being perfect. More serious than that, it minimizes what our God has done. Consider these words written by Peter.
1 Peter 1:13 ESV
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.“
Take note of what the Christian was supposed to set their hope fully on. Was it their obedience? The Christian hope was to be set fully upon the grace of their Lord, Jesus. Church, this should make us stand up and celebrate! My hope is in the grace of God! It must be, because I cannot earn my salvation. I will not be saved if I have checked all the right boxes. I can check every item off the list, but without God’s grace, it is meaningless.
Scripture seems so clear in this regard, which leads to the question, “Why do so many Christians live in constant fear concerning their salvation?” The answer to this question, likely varies from person to person. However, I think for me, I know the answer. At its root, are a few verses that I have misunderstood for a long time. I’ll share one with you here.
Acts 17:30 ESV
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,“
The perceived need to be perfect
For the longest time, I understood this text to teach that God “used to” overlook ignorance, but now He has no tolerance for ignorance. Therefore, if you and I misunderstand something, anything, we are lost. If we fail to do everything in the exact manner in which God wants, we are lost. Even if we don’t know that we are wrong, because, God no longer tolerates ignorance. This understanding caused me, (and maybe you) to tremble with fear. What if I am wrong about something? What if I do my best to understand something, but I am still not exactly right? Is that it for me? Is God looking at me from His throne, knowing that my heart belongs to Him, but sees me (in my ignorance) mess something up/get something wrong, and now, I have no hope?
A straightforward, out- of- context reading of this verse would lead us to draw these conclusions. As with all passages of scripture, context is everything.
In this text, Paul is walking the streets of Athens. He looks around at all of the idols that the city was filled with. He even found an idol that was dedicated to “the unknown God”. Paul used this opportunity to preach in the midst of the Areopagus. He wanted to let them know about the God that they didn’t know. Paul proclaimed that God was the creator, and the sustainer. He even quoted from their own poets who believed that they were “offspring of God”. Paul then makes a logical argument to try to show these men the error in their thinking. Acts 17:29
Acts 17:29 ESV
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”
Here is Paul’s argument, “Since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that God is something we have created with our own hands.” Pretty solid argument, is it not? Then we arrive at the verse in question, V.30. What is the ignorance that God overlooked, but no longer has patience for? Keeping in mind, that when Paul spoke those words, the NT had not yet been written. Men did not have access to all the writings of scripture. Therefore, we know that Paul was not saying that God had no tolerance for ignorance of any kind. So what was Paul saying that God’s tolerance had run out on?
Acts 17:30 (NIV)
30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Acts 17:30 (KJV 1900)
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
Acts 17:30 (NKJV)
30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,
The NIV, KJV, and NKJV do a good job of highlighting that there was a specific ignorance that God was done with overlooking. What was the ignorance that God used to overlook, but now was not going to continue to overlook? The very thing that Paul was addressing! This ignorance was the thinking that God was a divine being that was crafted from the imagination of man. This is what men were being called to repent of in this text.
There are many Christians today who I believe do not leave any room for grace. What I mean by that is that they believe in God’s grace, they quote Ephesians 2, and if you ask them if they believe that they will be saved by God’s grace they will respond, “Yes!” However, if you really get down to asking them what the grace of God will cover… The answer in their mind is… not much. They make God’s grace so small. Far from setting their hope on it, they turn inwards and place their hope in their knowledge and their “near-perfect” obedience. After all, we can’t rely on grace. We can’t be ignorant about anything. We need perfect obedience. Have you ever felt this way?
We see that Paul was not saying that all men, everywhere, had to repent of ALL ignorance. Rather, there was a specific ignorance that Paul was addressing in this text. Let’s take a look at one example where we see how God deals with ignorance within His people.
Consider with me one example where God shows His grace. Do you remember the account of King Hezekiah? He was the king who tried to restore the nation back to God. In his restoration efforts we read of him bringing the people together to observe the passover feast. Let’s see what the word of God had to say.
2 Chronicles 30:18–20 (ESV)
“For a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord pardon everyone 19 who sets his heart to seek God, the Lord, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” 20 And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.“
Let’s make sure the stage is set. We see the people coming together to partake of the passover. However, they did so unlawfully. They did not cleanse themselves according to the Law. Therefore they ate the feast in a manner that was not prescribed. Hezekiah offered a prayer. This prayer was that God would pardon everyone who had set their heart on God. In other words, Hezekiah asked God to pardon those whose hearts were trying to please God, even though they had done something that was unlawful. Don’t miss the next part! What did God do? He heard that prayer, and he healed the people!
There is some clarification that is needed. We do not have an indication that these people could have continued doing what they now knew to be wrong forever and ever, and saying, “God’s grace will cover it.” What we do see, is that the Lord looks at the heart. We are reminded of this when God chose David to be king, (1 Samuel 16:7). Make no mistake about it, we have been ignorant many times in our lives. We are probably missing the mark in some ways that we are not even aware of right now. Does that mean that there is no hope for our souls? Absolutely not! It means, that God’s grace truly is amazing. I choose to set my hope fully upon it.
It is my hope that you will continue to “set your heart to seek God,” and pursue Him with your entire being, all the days of your life. Do your best to follow His will. Set your hope on His grace. Unlike your ability to fully understand, and be perfect in your obedience, His grace will not fail.