Rev. Fr. (Dr) Anthony Mario Ozele, PhD
In the definition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”. Grace means a generous benefit freely given. The sense of it in the New Testament is that it means a favour bestowed by God through His power to transform a person’s life starting at salvation and going on from there. Let me say that again. It means a favour bestowed by God through His power to transform a person’s life starting at salvation and going on from there. And how much of transformation do we and our world need today!
Because of His mercy and love, god saves us, and that saving is a result of God’s grace. Paul is clear – wrath should have come, but grace comes instead. If grace is God giving Himself to us without any preconditions or complaints, then we are given significance, and find our value in God’s relationship to us. But listen, the attention is not on us, but upon the One who loves us so deeply. So grace moves us to worship and humility.
THE COMPASSIONATE PURPOSE OF GRACE
To understand the wonder of grace through the eyes of John Newton, you have to have some knowledge of his wretchedness. Newton once wrote of himself, “My daily life was a course of the most terrible blasphemy and profaneness. I don’t believe that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer as myself. Not content with common profanities and cursing, I daily invented new ones …” And, of course, he spent a good part of his life as the Captain of a slave ship, trading in human cargo. His soul was in deep exile; farther away that any ship could have carried it. Newton was – by his own admission and any definition – a wretch. But he’s not alone.
Let me ask you, do you feel like “a wretch” sometime? If you are like me, I feel every bit the wretch that John Newton was. The Bible says, “…There is no one just, not one, there is one who understands, there is no one who seek God. All have gone astray; all alike are worthless; there is not one who does good, [there is not] even one”. (Romans 3:10-12). In other words, every single one of us is saturated in sin – but that’s where grace comes in. Only when you come face to face with the darkness within your soul, does God’s grace become truly amazing. The compassionate purpose of grace is to save all of us wretches. Paul said it clearly and concisely: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 ESV).
There is another reason that grace is so amazing and sounds so sweet – its cost. God gives His grace to us as a gift. The Greek word is “doron” (The “Doron” was the kind of gift offered as an expression of honour, and was used whenever someone offered gifts or sacrifices to God, and was also used of the gifts people put into the Temple treasury. Paul says that God’s grace is God’s Doron, his gifts to us. God has honourd us with His grace. Isn’t that amazing? We dishonor God by being disobedient, by failing to love as we should, yet he bestows the honor of His grace upon us anyway!
Paul expressly states that God’s grace is a gift to us. In verse 9: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it”. We have not earned it. As a matter of fact we can’t earn it. When a person works an eight-hour day and receives a fair day’s pay for his time, that is a wage. When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for his performance , that is a prize. When a person receives appropriate recognition for his long service or high achievements, that is an award. But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize, and deserves no award – yet receives such a gift anyway. That is a good picture of God’s special favour. This is what we mean when we talk about the grace of God.
Several years ago, a very peculiar sight could be seen at a large downtown church in England. On the first Sunday of the New year, an ex convict knelt to receive Holy Communion beside the judge who had sentenced him to seven years in prison. After being sentenced, the young convict was led to Christ through the church’s prison ministry. After his release, he became an active member of the church. After church, the judge was walking home with the pastor and said to him, “What a miracle of grace”.
“You mean the former thief who knelt beside you today?” the pastor asked.
“No. I was thinking of myself,” the judge said. “That young man had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he saw Jesus as his Saviour he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me, I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take communion and so on. I went to Oxford, earned my degrees was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Pastor, nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner in need of a savior.
The Bible confirms the judge’s observation: “all have sinned and are deprive of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). But you know, the story of that young convict also points us to the next element of God’s grace – the changing power of grace.
We tend too often to take gifts for granted, and so we do the same with God’s grace. How we treat a gift is dependent, largely, on two variables: (1) The value of the gift received and (2) Our relationship to the giver. If the gift is very valuable, we tend to cherish it more, to put it up on the mantle, or in a safe place because we don’t want the gift to get broken or lost. What do we do with the gift of grace God has given us? Do we cherish it? Or do we simply take it for granted, and never offer God our gratitude. The danger is for us to view the grace as “cheap grace”, and therefore, we have a do-nothing religion.
Paul would tell the Corinthian Christians that it was grace that put him to work (1 Cor. 15:10). When our hearts are touched by grace, we move out in service in gratitude for the wonderful gift. Service is the way we cherish the gift of God in Jesus Christ. That brings me to another reason that grace is so amazing and sounds so amazing and sounds so sweet..
THE CHANGING POWER OF GRACE
John Newton eloquently describes the changing power of grace in the third stanza: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see”. Like the ex-convict in England, John Newton experienced a radical transformation thanks to the changing power of grace. But it didn’t happen overnight
Those who love the story behind Amazing Grace sometimes imagine Newton’s experiencing his moment of grace, ordering the ship full astern, and quickly sitting down to pen the verses to Amazing Grace.
History tells a slightly different story – the story of a slaver trader docking in Liverpool and then promptly signing on for another voyage to Africa. There he travelled from salve factory to slave factory, buying slaves and storing them in his ship, just like always. He sailed to the New World with as many as two hundred salves packed into shelves in the holding beneath him. On many voyages as much as one-third of the men, women and children died. You see, at the time most believers sadly, didn’t see slavery as evil. Several years passed before Newton abandoned the slave trade to become a Pastor. But all the while, he was reading his Bible and learning to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit more clearly as time went on. Slowly, his worldview began to change. He began to change. He started to see the world through the eyes of the Father and to be led by the heart of Jesus. He experienced a dawning horror about the true evil of his occupation.
Twenty five years later, Newton would finally pen the words to the most beloved hymn of all time. And, in 1788, he published a ten – thousand-word confessional pamphlet. Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, in which he confessed his own part in the trade and openly denounced its practice. He wrote, “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active member instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders”.
The transformation that John Newton experienced wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t unique to him. Nor was it by his own inner strength or good intention. Rather, it came about because of the inward work of the Holy Spirit, who lives within every believer. Listen to what the Apostle Paul had to say about the changing power of the Holy Spirit “For those who live according to the flesh are concerned with the things of the flesh , but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit. The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace. For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him”. (Romans 8:5-9).
Paul knew the changing power of God’s grace first hand. He, too, was once blind (literally). God struck Paul blind on the road to Damascus, where he was planning to arrest and perhaps kill anyone whom he found that was following Jesus. Then, Paul saw the light. He met Jesus on that road. The scales fell from his eyes. And, like John Newton, he could sing, “I once was blind, but now I see”.
Maybe your life was dramatically and instantly changed when you encountered God’s grace, like Paul’s was. Or maybe it took several years for the transformation to take place, as it did with John Newton. In reality – we are all still experiencing the changing power of grace. Not until God has fully replaced your old stubborn heart with the heart of Jesus will that transformation ever be complete. It’s a lifelong process. But it all begins when you realize that you are lost and blind, and you allow Jesus to find you and open your eyes. Then you can sing along with John Newton and the Apostle Paul, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”.
God’s grace is the gift that keeps on giving. Grace is not onetime offering on God’s part, nor is God’s salvation a onetime event. Grace never stops working. One of the most amazing things about God’s grace is that it’s always available. If you realize that you are a wretch that needs to be saved or lost and need to be found, or blind and you want to see clearly – then God’s grace is available to you. No matter who you are, where you’re from or what you’ve done, God’s grace is still amazing.