CONTINUE IN THE GRACE OF GOD
May 7, 2006
Tonight we expect as a congregation to get together with fourteen of our young men and women and their families to recognize the important occasion of their graduation, either from high school or from college. It is a time when we want to say to these young people that we thank the Lord for them and for their lives and that we pray to the Lord for the very best in their future. We are going to try to express our confidence in them that they will be faithful to the Lord and that they will walk in his way and that their lives will be a blessing to many other people in the days ahead. We hope with as many of them as possible it will be right here. But we also believe that many other lives will be touched.
That whole exercise is a little bit like what I have been noticing as I have been reading the book of Acts in our daily Bible reading. I have noticed that when workers like Paul and Barnabas went to these communities, taught people the gospel of Christ, and left a congregation of Christians when they moved on to another place, that they would like we are going to try to do, entrust these people to the Lord’s will and his way and his grace and say to them “we are thankful for you, we are hopeful about your future, and we are going to entrust you to the Lord’s grace for you to be faithful from here on.
I want you to think about that concept and the way it unfolds in Acts and just for a minute the idea of commending someone to the grace of God. The word of God’s grace is really the summary for what was taught in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Acts 14:3, for example, the teaching is the word of his grace. It was about what God had done for people who had no worthiness on their part, nothing deserving of his kindness. It was about the mercy that God showed when he gave his own Son up for us all. It was about the love that God had for people to provide for them the privilege of being his children instead of being lost in the darkness. It was about the kindness that God wanted to show for his people in days yet ahead when he provided for us the glory that he purchased at the sacrifice of his Son. When Paul described the gospel that he preached, he called it the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24). This message of grace had an impact on people. That is what pricked their hearts and led them to become Christians to start with.
Notice that when Paul and Barnabas would move on to another place, they would not appoint apostles to take their places. They would not somehow provide some inspired representative of heaven to rule over that congregation that was left. Instead, they would commend them to the grace of God. Notice that in Acts 13 in the first one of the churches that Paul and Barnabas in Antioch of Pisidia it says in verse 43 that Paul and Barnabas spoke with them “and urged them to continue in the grace of God.” Notice that Lystra and Iconium and Derbe in Acts 14 as we noticed last Sunday morning, encouraged them to continue in the faith (v. 22). At the end of verse 23 it says “they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Then notice in Acts 20 in the last one of the churches that we find a record of Paul working with, he spoke to the elders in the church at Ephesus. He called them to meet him at Miletus so that he could speak with them especially because they were dear to him. And he said to them in verse 32 of Acts 20, “Now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” The idea of them continuing in God’s grace, being committed to the gracious Lord, being under the care of word of his grace was thought by these apostles of Christ to be sufficient to guarantee or to provide for the future of these fairly young Christians. That testifies something to the power of the message of the grace of God in the lives of people.
If you and I wanted an illustration of this, we could consider what happened with Paul and Barnabas and workers like them themselves. When it talks about the beginning of the second missionary journey in Acts 15:40, it says that “Paul chose Silas and they departed having commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.” The grace of the Lord was going to provide the substance of their work and the spirit in which that work was done and the security or safe keeping for the workers while they did it. When Paul and Barnabas had finished their first journey, they returned to Antioch and Syria where they had been sent out. Acts 14:26 said, “that from there they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled.” Being commended to God’s grace meant that you were going to do the work that you had been sent to do, you were going to fulfill it, and God was going to be with you and help you while you were fulfilling that work. The word of his grace had a substance to it that could be identified. It had a power to it that could provide for people, and it offered the kind of spirit that made people glad to hear what these men were going to bring to them.
That concept of continuing in the grace of God is crucial to an understanding of an ever-present idea that was present from the beginning of the story of Christianity. It is the idea of a living restoration that goes along while people try to be Christians in this world. The people being committed to the word of God’s grace or being urged to continue in God’s grace meant that they were going to have to be thoughtful enough and aware enough of their relationship to the gracious Lord that they would continually be brining themselves back to what they were meant to be and to do in this world.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean by this connection with restoration. In the book of Acts we have only made it over to chapter 11 when we find some disagreement occurring about something that Peter had done at the household of Cornelius. It was a question about who would have the privilege to become a Christian. Could Gentiles be invited to respond to the gospel and to be God’s children? Peter explained to his brethren from a Jewish background what God had done at the household of Cornelius. The brethren were silenced by that because they said if God gave this gift, then we certainly can’t stand in his way and verse 18 says that “they fell silent saying, ‘then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” Look at this now. Here’s a question that comes along, and the answer to it is returning to what God has done, letting that be the measure of what we are to do.
In Acts 15 we find dissention continuing in some circles about what would be required of these Gentiles who have been invited to respond to the gospel. It is one thing for them to become Christians, but it is another now about what will be expected of them as Christians. And so there is a discussion ongoing about this in Jerusalem. What they do again is to return to what God has done. Peter got up and spoke of the choice God had made (Acts 16:7), what God had done (v. 8), what God would do for these people (v. 9-10). Then he said, “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they will.” He called attention back again to what God had done. Notice the idea here that the book of Acts doesn’t present a picture where Christianity is imperfect and infantile and it gradually evolves and improves, etc. It presents a picture in which God has done something that he wanted done, and his people use that as the determining factor in what their conduct is supposed to be from then on.
Here in Acts 15 they decide to write a letter to the folks back in Antioch of Syria about what would be required or expected of them in order for peace to exist. And notice that in Acts 16 when Paul and Silas went out verse 4 says that “as they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. In other words, that letter to Antioch of Syria had some importance in any of the places where Paul and Silas went where there were Christians with a Gentile background. They kept on returning here to the grace of God continuing in God’s grace. They had been committed to God’s grace.
The concept of restoration is not something that was invented in 19th century America. It is not merely a movement which hatched among some folks at one time in history. The concept of restoration is a natural and necessary and permanent idea with regard to continuing in God’s grace. It recognizes that because we are human beings we tend to drift. It faces the fact that there has to be something that calls us back to what God has done and what God wants, and that call of grace becomes like a compass for the Lord’s people to look at and to listen to. The spirit of it is not judgmentalism that decides which ones are lost and which ones aren’t. The purpose of it is not a reenactment of legalism. This type of restoration involves the loyalty of love. It means that we will choose to devote ourselves to the Lord who has given to us what we did not deserve, who provided for us what we did not pay for, who has reserved for us that which we never could have earned or saved up for ourselves, and that surely in response to the greatness of what he has done, we ought to want to do what he wants.
Sing verse 3 – song 500.
That is what it means to continue in the grace of God. Being a Christiana with that spirit involves wanting what the Lord wants, and it requires the church to always ask of itself some basic questions, some questions to which the answers are not lost or unavailable, just a matter of asking the question. It means starting with who Jesus is and then asking what we can legitimately be expected to do about that. What does God want us to do about that? Let me give you some examples from Acts since we have been reading this great book together.
In the first place, if Jesus is declared to be the Christ, what should we be? The idea that Jesus is the Christ is certainly the leading declaration of the gospel of Jesus. In Acts 2 it is the great conclusion to what Peter and the other apostles preached on the Day of Pentecost. They finally just declared that everybody should know that the one who had been crucified had been made both Lord and Christ. They took the scriptures and showed that Jesus is the Christ over in Acts 17 and many places in between. But that he is the Messiah, that he is the king, would mean that he is going to have to have a people. The messiah has a people; the king has a kingdom. The way the book of Acts tells the story, the way this happens is that the Lord obtains for himself a people through his own blood (Acts 20:28). He purchases them for himself through his blood. That people turns out to be those who are washed in his blood. When they would hear the gospel and what God was willing to do for them based on the sacrifice of the life of his Son, they would turn to God in obedience to the gospel. The Bible says in Acts 2:47 that the Lord would add those who were being saved to their number, to the number of people who belonged to him. That is the simplest and easiest definition of what the church itself is. Someone pointed out that Jesus promised a kingdom and the church came. The church is just people who have been saved from their sins through Christ. And when people are saved from their sins through Christ in the New Testament way, the Lord adds those saved individuals to his people. The church is not a religious group among many religious groups. There is no picture in the book of Acts of people being saved and then invited to join this group or that group or to be voted in to that religious organization or some other. Continuing in the grace of God is the idea of so focusing on the Lord and letting him be the Messiah that he adds us to his people.
Secondly, the New Testament pictures Jesus as the great servant of the Lord. In the book of Acts especially in chapters 3 and 4 this picture comes up. Notice that he is referred to as God’s holy servant. (Acts 3:26; Acts 3:13; Acts 4:27) If Jesus is the servant and he does the Father’s work, then what should his people do? If Jesus went about preaching the good news of the kingdom and helping people who were hurting (Acts 10:36,38), then it is no surprise to find his people in Acts 6:2 preaching the word and serving tables or helping people. And it is no surprise to find them making every effort to go wherever they could to strengthen the churches, to teach them, to encourage them, to equip them. The work of the people of God in this world, according to the message of grace in the book of Acts, is to proclaim the good news of the Lord and take those who obey the gospel and strengthen them to also serve, and to help people who are in need and who have troubles and problems in their lives. Why? Because Jesus is the servant and we are his people. And if Jesus is the leader that the book of Acts says he is, then how should his people organize themselves in this world? The answer to that would be that if Jesus is the leader that Acts 5:31 says he is, then we surely have to go about working together with the same kind of mind that he had. It is interesting in the New Testament to find out that while there were not apostles appointed in these different towns where Paul and Barnabas left Christians, there were men appointed to serve as elders. In Acts 20 we find that elders in the church of Ephesus (v. 17) also called bishops or overseers (v. 28) are to do their work like shepherds or pastors (v. 28). These men have the responsibility of being mature and respectable Christian men who fulfill the obligation to pay attention to oversee the church and to do so in a manner of shepherds. They are assisted in their work by men who will serve, who minister, and who help the work to be done. That simple organization repeated in every individual congregation is the only one we find when we just are committed to continuing in the grace of God. But if Jesus is the high priest and he is our access to the Father, then how does the church worship? Again, this question, if it is approached merely from the standpoint of what God wants, leads to certain answers because we find the church continuing in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship (a word which often has to do with sharing or working together, giving, etc.), the breaking of bread (which in the context of the church gathered together had to do with remembering the Lord as we have done this morning), praying together (Acts 2:42) and in song. If we look for what the Lord wants and continue in the grace of God, then that would be sufficient in our practice.
But what if Jesus is the Savior as Acts 5:31 says that he is and if the way of salvation is through his name, then what are we to do about that? One thing that is clear in reading Acts is that it is going to involve our believing that Jesus is the Christ to the point that we turn from our way to his and then we are baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. This great book of Acts shows glimpses of that in a couple of ways. For one thing, when people want to know “What shall we do?”, they are commanded to make such a response as I just mentioned. Sometimes when it is describing how people become Christians, it just assumes that this will be the response. It says they were taught this and then “when” they were baptized, they did this. And sometimes we can see this when it is telling us the circumstances under which people rejoice. They didn’t rejoice when they heard before they had responded in faith and obedience. They rejoice after that. That is when they have believed, according to Acts 16:34.
The idea of continuing in the grace of God is enough to let us face whatever future God provides for his people because it involves always coming back to what God had done and with an attitude that says, “We want what he wants because he had been so good to us.” It is willing to actually ask the substantive questions about how in practical terms this is done. Some of you will regard what I have said this morning as overly simple. I’m sure it is, but sometimes we need basic things to call our attention to what it is that we are to be called back to. I want to remind you that in Acts 15, when it was a time of some dissention and brethren were having to work through it, what pulls them through is the idea of what the Lord’s will is about people being saved through the grace of the Lord. In Acts 11 it talked about a door of faith being opened. When we preach the gospel, what we are trying to tell people is that God has opened a door of faith and you are invited to walk through it in response to the grace of God, and we would rejoice with you if you wanted to do that. Maybe there is someone present today who wants in response to the gospel of the grace of God to enter the door of faith and repentance and baptism for the remission of sins. Maybe you are here as a Christian and you need to be called back to the grace of God. If we can help you in laying your prayers before the Lord’s throne, then we would love to do that. If you need to, wouldn’t you come today while we stand and sing together?