An Education in Grace

Rows of butterfly cocoons and newly hatched butterfly.

photo by Kseniya Ragozina / iStockphoto.com

by Tim Chaddick

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Titus 2:11–13

As a teenager, not only was I into the typical teenage angst and the behavior that came with it, but I was proud of it. However, when I began to realize that maybe failing junior college due to wild behavior and bad relationships wasn't actually that awesome, I knew I had to make some changes.

So I tried desperately to become a "good person." I cut down my substance abuse to two nights a week instead of five, actually tried to keep a job, and became vaguely interested in religion. But instead, I was slowly becoming angry and depressed. Something had to change. I had to change.

My strategy was simple: focus on the badness of what I did, in hopes that I might develop a distaste for wrongdoing and all manner of vice. But it wasn't working. When I experienced any amount of progress, I became arrogant, wondering why my other friends weren't advancing as I was. Or, when I relapsed into my old ways, I became angry with myself. How could I actually change my desires? Outwardly I looked fine. People would compliment me for trying hard. But it was a lie. Inwardly I was a mess.

It was then that I discovered the true power for change. I finally accepted an invitation from an annoying Christian who kept bugging me to come with her and her friends to an "evangelism" event south of San Francisco, promising "great" music, free food, and T-shirt giveaways.

Oh dear. What was I doing?

Well, whatever it was, I was compelled to go. I had to. Though I had been drinking heavily the night before, not falling asleep until 4 am, I got the reminder call at 8 am and somehow felt as if I had slept all night.

I was discovering one of the most transformative aspects of God's grace in the heart—old affections being overpowered by new affections.

When I pulled up to the event, I couldn't help wondering if I had just made the worst decision ever. But it was there, in the midst of cheesy music and a stage performance drama that would make you wince, that I met Jesus.

The message was simple, clear, and piercing. I saw Christ in all His truth and beauty; His life, death, and resurrection; and the life that He wanted for me. I was so full of joy that I actually decided to sleep in the church gym because I didn't want to leave.

I was changed. And not just for a day. Months went by and I felt that I was both instantly changed and constantly changing. I was still facing old struggles, but it was all different from before. I was discovering one of the most transformative aspects of God's grace in the heart—old affections being overpowered by new affections.

Educating the heart

I think I have one of the best jobs in the world. As a pastor, I get to tell people about the beauty of Jesus, how He has changed my life, and how He can change theirs. And not only do I get to talk about this, but I get to watch it happen.

However, it's not always nice and neat. Sometimes it looks pretty messy. Before this change happens, the situation is often dark and bleak. People who are aware of their need for change often realize the need to deal with sinful patterns but don't feel they have the power to do it.

I think of the man in my church who is trapped in drug addictions and struggling to see change, thinking that it's enough to just go to church and follow some rules and guidelines. Or the woman who served in our church all the time but had no joy and was almost always irritated, complaining constantly about other people. I think of entire groups of people who once experienced great enthusiasm but who are now plateaued in a state of dry and lifeless patterns.

Is there hope for them and for us? Of course, the answer is yes. But how does this change happen?

It's a statement often attributed to Aristotle that "educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." The idea is that we are creatures of desire, of motivation. Behind every "what" we do, there is a "why"—something driving our decisions. When we seek to learn something, such as a subject in college or how to drive, we learn for a purpose. The human heart does not only seek instruction, but it operates on incentive.

The default approach to change seems to be this: a constant barrage of "CHANGE CHANGE CHANGE CHANGE CHANGE." If I can tell someone one hundred times a day that he or she should stop lying/cheating/hurting/manipulating, then eventually that person's will can be shaped in new directions. Right? I certainly heard this advice in my social circles growing up. I even hear it among some Christian circles today.

The problem is, it doesn't work.

When it comes to temptation, we can't think that the whole moment is won or lost depending on how much we see our need to change. We also need to know what needs to change and why it matters. We must know what actually reshapes and redirects our desires toward the path of life. Well, that is one of the beautiful truths of the Christian faith—we are told what needs to change and we are given the power to change.

Overcoming temptation is possible as our hearts are trained and educated in a living relationship with God Himself, by grace.

What our hearts need is an education in grace.

When C. S. Lewis was asked what the difference was between Christianity and all other religions, he replied, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace!" Indeed, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world, according to some estimations, and the difference between Christianity and all the rest could be summarized in that one little word.

When Paul wrote a letter to Titus, a leader in the early church, he told him that the problems Titus faced in the culture and the church were fundamentally problems of the heart. Like us, Titus encountered the same issues as we do today—plateaued, defeated, dry, and discouraged believers feeling trapped by the lies of sin.

Paul's letter reminded Titus that he should not give up, because overcoming temptation is possible as our hearts are trained and educated in a living relationship with God Himself, by grace.

So what exactly is it about grace that teaches us and changes us?

Grace redeems your past

I'm not sure what comes to mind when you think about your past, but when I think about mine before I met Jesus, it was like this giant burden that I carried on my shoulders. It weighed me down. It left me longing for deliverance. People in every century and cultural background have experienced this pain or shame over what they have done or what has been done to them, wondering if there is healing at all or if we are just doomed to collapse under its weight.

The people of the first century, in the apostle Paul's day, longed for the same freedom, only they hoped it would somehow come from the many gods of Greco-Roman society. The idea was that you might be able to find deliverance from the sorrow, pain, and burden of the past by showing yourself worthy to the gods. If you did, maybe, just maybe, the gods would show up. They called this an "epiphany," an appearance of deliverance. Everyone was waiting for it, hoping it would happen someday. Paul's response to the desire of this culture is classic and controversial:

That epiphany you want? It's already happened.

Earth-shattering events have taken place, there has been an unveiling, an appearing of God's grace to lost people—grace that delivers us from the domain of darkness and opens up the prison doors for those in captivity.

Now, saying that God's grace appeared does not mean that God's grace was somehow absent beforehand. It's not as if God was supergrumpy for thousands of years but all of a sudden had a good morning, drank some coffee, and decided to become gracious.

No, Paul is saying that the grace of God, already existing, has become publicly available to all, for in the Person of Jesus Christ, the grace of God is shown. Jesus Christ is the ultimate grace of God. His appearing was not for a select few but for everyone, without discrimination. His life, death, and resurrection have brought what all of us need.

Through Him we receive complete forgiveness.

If you're a Christian, you know this, but do we always live like it? We easily fall into the temptation of thinking that our sins are only partially forgiven, as if God has given us only some kind of cosmic kick-starter program in which He donates 60 percent toward the cause of our forgiveness but we have to take care of the rest on our own.

But this is a total contradiction of the gospel.

The truth is that the moment we believe, the second we confess, we are completely forgiven.

I know a man in my church who seemed to live a tormented life. He went about serving on Sundays and involving himself in community life as though he had a death sentence hanging over his head. In response to a troubled email he sent me one night, I did what I often do when I get troubling emails—I called him.

"Oh, I know that in my distant past I am forgiven, but as for my recent past, I should know better, an so I am riddled with guilt."

As we spoke, I quickly picked up on several statements indicating that he simply didn't feel forgiven of sin. I asked him, "Do you not know that you are forgiven?" He said, "Oh, I know that in my distant past I am forgiven, but as for my recent past, I should know better, an so I am riddled with guilt."

I asked him to show me in the Bible where a distinction was made between distant sins and recent sins, but he couldn't provide me with a reference.

That's because it's not there.

Many of us stumble in this same way, thinking that we are only partially forgiven. That night, I simply told him this: "If you don't think that recent sins can be forgiven, then you are saying that the cross of Jesus Christ is not enough to forgive sin at all."

After a moment of silence, he agreed with a sigh of relief.

Here is why this is so important for facing temptation and becoming the people that God wants us to be. Paul goes on to say in his letter to Titus that we must renounce sin. But you can only renounce what you know is forgiven—both the sin of your past and the sin you've yet to commit. Grace isn't just about the sin you've already committed. You are forgiven right now in the present moment.

To read how grace transforms your present and secures your future, check out The Truth About Lies: The Unlikely Role of Temptation in Who You Will Become by Tim Chaddick, from which this article is excerpted. © 2015 Tim Chaddick. The Truth About Lies is published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.

Tim Chaddick is an author and the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality LA. He and his wife, Lindsey, live in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles with their three daughters.

Related:
Listen to "I'd Like to Change, but I Can't," a powerful sermon by Ryan Holladay of Lower Manhattan Community Church, by clicking here and choosing the sermon from October 18, 2015.

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