by Dr. John Yates
Australians we live in a time of unprecedented material affluence and deep spiritual poverty. There is no reason to suppose that we are any more devout than New Zealanders, where only a quarter of professing believers read the Bible regularly. Similarly, large numbers of Australian Christians struggle with prayer and even some of the largest churches cannot maintain regular prayer meetings. Sexual sins, the breakdown of Christian marriages and the pursuit of wealth in the church have become commonplace.
These are however mere symptoms of a failure to know God in an intimately. Our prevailing spiritual culture suffering from a famine of the hearing of the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11) through a fundamentally mistaken notion of how God grows his children.. Many Christians expect that God will change their lives in the midst of a church meeting or conference where an anointed speaker who will somehow have a word for their lives.
Whilst the scripture encourages believers to meet together, our emphasis on meetings reveals a basic misunderstanding of the character of God. Jesus grew in the favour of his Father from finding the presence of God in his daily living, so the focal point of divine revelation will always be our vocation as human beings who eat, sleep, work, marry, have families, suffer, age and die.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about grace is that it keeps on breaking into the ordinary situations of life. It is a truly remarkable thing to find God in your daily life, sense him in your thoughts, become aware of his presence in daily conversations and encounter him in the watches of the night(Ps 63:6; Ps 119:48). This mode of the presence of God is not like any natural image of a deity preoccupied with power, status, privilege and comfort. The Lord whom we adore through Jesus Christ is uniquely a God of grace who reveals himself in a unique shape and form. This is the form of the cross applied to daily life and explains why my theme for today is the hiddenness of grace.
The first thing we must say about grace is that it has no beginning. Paul particularly affirms this to strengthen believers under trial, “v8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, v9 who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:8-9). In opening up this theme of the eternity of grace Thomas Torrance said, “Grace is …identical with Jesus Christ”. Grace never had a starting point because Jesus has forever been one with the Father (John 17:5). This has several enormous implications.
The first of these is that God’s gracious work is always at his initiative, he is the one who moves us to pray, confess, repent, love him and so on. Secondly, there is nothing I can do to get “into” grace. Selwyn Hughes represents a popular but unbiblical way of thinking when he says, “How do you get “in grace”? It is by a new birth, a conversion, a changing of the centre of your life from self –interest to self surrender.”
If I was chosen “in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4) there has never been a time when I was outside of the grace of God. My conversion, however tortuous that experience may have been – and mine certainly was, was the result of rather than the beginning of God’s gracious work in me. It was the time I began to first experience “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph 3:9). A final implication flows from this, Peter exhorts us, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). We can only grow in grace not into grace. I am constantly within the limitless circle of the grace of God in Christ.
The Beginning and Loss of Grace
The pre-eminence of the grace of God is hidden deep within the human history of the world from its very beginning. Eden, which means “delight”, would seem to be a place where grace abounds. The undeserved divine generosity was available to Adam and Eve through food, shelter, work and fellowship with God and each other. Free access was available to any tree, but “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was barred under threat of death (Gen 2:16-17). .
God’s Word was the only basis the first couple had for believing that eating from this tree would be fatal, for to outward appearances the tree of knowledge was identical any other tree (Gen 2:9). God had arranged the circumstances of Eden in such a way that grace could flow through faith in his Word in the midst of the human awareness of mortality. The possibility of dying was a powerful revelation to Adam and Eve and the concentration point for the Word of God The fuller expression of grace God desired to impart required a fuller expression of faith in the Word, this was the purpose of temptation.
When Satan entered on the scene with the proposal, ““You will not surely die”” (Gen 3:4) Eve was faced with an acute dilemma, to trust God solely on the basis of his Word or trust in her own senses. The inducement to become like God and live forever free from the fear of death (Gen 3:4-5) caused Eve’s imagination to envisage the fruit of this tree as tastier and more delightful than anything she had ever experienced – including the Word of God. Eve failed to believe that the uncomfortable “fear of the Lord” imparted by his Word of warning was the key to a higher wisdom (Prov 9:10). She and Adam and Eve could not accept that the unsettling fear of God was something to be delighted in(Isa 11:2-3; Isa 33:6) as the secret to maintaining the experience of grace.
If Adam and Eve had feared God more than the threat of suffering death and so refused to eat of the tree, they would have been immediately been glorified by an overwhelming divine presence. Instead, they became subject to Satan’s power and in lifelong slavery through fear of death (Heb 2:15). Such fear plagues all human life, for every experience of weakness and suffering is a reminder to a guilty conscience that the divine judgment which ends earthly life is inescapable.
Having lost the glory of God (Rom 3:23) human beings became intoxicated with idolatrous substitutes: material wealth, sexual and sporting prowess, intellectual and artistic self-achievement, physical attractiveness or military strength. Christians are not immune from such temptations. We imagine ourselves as mature spiritual people, as great teachers and preachers of the Word of God, as wonderful counsellors or powerful evangelists. Churches set forth splendid visions, websites extol their networks, ministries profile their achievements; but none of this has anything to do with the way God’s surprising grace actually works.
The Old Testament is full of struggles with God. Abraham must have been completely perplexed when the LORD commanded him to sacrifice Isaac who was the child of promise (Gen 22). This led however to a new intimacy with God which was otherwise impossible. When the angel of the LORD says to Abraham, “now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son”(Gen 22:12), we understand that the patriarch has demonstrated by faith (Heb 11:17-19) that he feared God more than he feared the death of his son.
The whole book of Job represents an ordeal to find the ways of God when there are no signs of his favour. The righteous psalmists struggle with the hiddenness of the face of God in the presence of apparently triumphant evil (Ps 13:1; Ps 27:9; Ps 30:7; Ps 44:24; Ps 69:17; Ps 88:14; Ps 102:2; Ps 143:7 cf. Isa 8:17). Under the weight of divine discipline the nation of Israel feels forgotten by God and cries out, ““My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?” (Isa 40:27).
It is not however that God has forgotten his people, but that in his unfathomable wisdom the Lord had withdrawn himself from open view because of their insatiable idolatries (Isa 30:19-22). Thus the prophet Isaiah declares, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.”(Isa 45:15). Nevertheless, by revelation it is possible to discern deep inside the hiddenness of God a plan for the perfection of his people.
We are so thoroughly egocentric, especially about our own spirituality. When things are going well we quickly attribute this to our obedience. If things are not going well we will try to find out what we have done wrong that has caused us to lose God’s favour. If we can’t find a reason for God’s discipline we feel he has abandoned us in some way. This leaves us with an unavoidable choice, to trust the power of our reasoning about the ways of God, or to trust he is being gracious to us in an unseen manner in the midst of difficulties. To choose the latter is to choose grace through faith and this alone is the pathway of spiritual growth. This is the way of Christ.
Jesus is the Hidden Grace of God
Only Jesus exhaustively reveals to us the ways of God (John 14:6), for it is Jesus who provides us with an inexhaustible supply of grace; “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace”(John 1:16).
Traditionally, grace has been defined as “unmerited favour”. Today it is more popular to expound the provision of grace by focussing on Jesus’ signs and wonders. Neither of these emphases is adequate. Grace is more than an action of God; grace is God himself acting to reconstitute the very life of humanity through becoming one of us. In humbling himself and entering into the form of fallen human flesh (Phil 2:6-8; John 1:14) Jesus ceased to be equal with God in any measureable sense.
There is a profound hiddenness about the depths of grace in Christ, for his humanity was like ours – weak, subject to temptation and mortal. In speaking of, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 13:14) Paul provides content for his words, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9). The grace of Christ is identical with his life, a life which is the polar opposite of striving for equality with God, as Adam and Eve did. This is a life which climaxes in the unsurpassable weakness and despair of the cross.
As Jesus approaches his passion in the Garden of Gethsemane he sweats great drops and blood and repeatedly petitions his Father for a way forward other than the way of the cross (Luke 22:39-46). Luther was quite right to say of this episode, “no man ever feared like this man”. Here in Gethsemane the Son of God is almost paralysingly afraid. For every other believer there is the promise of being able to approach the “the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). For Christ however there would be no mercy and grace, the Father has wilfully led Jesus into a situation where he must die the death of sinners, a death without the presence of God.
Jesus’ terrible cry,““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) is an appeal for help which God does not answer. The sensation of the absence of the presence of God is overwhelming. If ever there was an occasion “deserving” of grace this would seem to be it. Instead, Jesus appears as a pitiful object of mockery, with no visible witness that he is Christ the King (Mark 15:32) and Son of God (Matt 27:40). His enemies gloated over his obvious humiliation and the disciples abandoned him because they could no longer discern the favour of God on his life. Every element of human experience testified to the absence of God and the victory of evil powers.
Thanks be to God, the resurrection reinterprets for us the manner of God’s working in Christ. Human reason concluded that God had said “No” to Jesus pleas on the cross, but the “No” was in fact a verdict upon our sin taken by Christ in our place (2 Cor 5:21). All human reasoning concerning the ways of God with man is condemned in the death of Christ, for not for a moment did the everlasting Father abandon his beloved Son. Despite all appearances, Paul can confidently say, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
The death-and-resurrection of Jesus, which is the content of the gospel, forces us to conclude against the total weight of human experience that God was fully present in the death of Jesus for the purpose of our salvation yet in a hidden and concealed way. In the thinking of the New Testament writers, grace is now tied to the work of the cross in a pre-eminent manner (Rom 3:24; Rom 5:9-10; Eph 1:7).
There is a sense that God is most deeply at work when he is most intangible – as in Paul’s traumatic experience of suffering in Asia where he, in his own words, “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8); or consider the afflictions of the persecuted church described in the book of Revelation when the beast is “allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them” (13:7). Under such overwhelming pressures the whole realm of ordinary human reasoning and evidence must be abandoned, faith is trusting in the promises of God that he is being gracious whatever our experience may seem to be saying.
This is not however the blind and irrational commitment of religious fanaticism, it is a faith grounded in the knowledge that all of God’s acts of grace must take the shape of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the final knowledge of good and evil. Divine revelation can never teach us anything deeper than what it first taught our Lord himself, grace is first hidden before it is disclosed.
This is a lesson that every generation of believers must learn afresh, and which sadly most of this generation is not learning. We throng to conferences on power and influence, but turn away from the plain words of the Lord to Paul, ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Cor 12:9). His opponents said, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.”” (2 Cor 10:10), yet there was a presence working in the apostle’s life that few can understand. Paul confidently claims, “v11 we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. v12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor 4:11-12).
Paul teaches that grace has no beginning and sets in process a dynamic spiritual movement. This is what he describes in Galatians,
1.God “set me apart before I was born”,
2. He “called me by his grace”
3. and “was pleased to reveal his Son in me,
4. in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:15-16)
Such an impetus to proclaim Christ arises from the privilege of being conformed to the humble shape of his life.
Christians love the spectacular, but the staple diet Jesus left us was bread, wine, water and the word. Folk love quoting texts like this one, “the people that do know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Dan 11:32 NKJV), but Jesus stressed that we would find him in exercising grace to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, unclothed, sick and prisoners (Matt 25:31-46).
This is why George Whitfield and John Wesley found such a presence of Christ with them as they ministered in the open air to illiterate coal miners, why William Wilberforce experienced the strength of the Lord in his service to slaves, why William Booth saw the hand of God in reaching out to drunks and derelicts, for George Mueller it was the kingdom of God with orphans, Mother Teresa found the Lord amongst the dying, Jacqui Pullinger with drug addicts, Heidi Baker amongst the impoverished of Mozambique. This is also why the indigenous people are the key to sustainable revival in Australia. Grace is found where you would humanly least expect it, hidden in the lives of those no-one wants to know about, discovered where the suffering of humanity is most like the brokenness of the cross.
A famous spiritual writer explains the wisdom of the way of God, “If the Christian really has a heart for the Lord then he may find himself in a space where everything seems to have lost meaning” ...with experience… “The Christian begins to see …the Lord is working death into his being… those periods of death are working for him… it is a thing that is good. The Christian is beginning to learn to let the Lord come and go as he will; that it is not necessary to be possessed by the Lord’s presence.” (Mme Guyon, Spiritual Torrents, pp.27-28).
Many sincere believers struggle to understand that grace is most intensely working in their suffering, because it just does not feel like it. We fail to understand that when we came to the Lord the shape and meaning of his life became the meaning of our lives. For our lives to be conformed to the shape of the life of Christ means death and resurrection, wounding and healing at the hands of God. All this is grace, hidden and manifest.
Such a mysterious operation of grace is working at all levels. The church in China only began to explode after the rise of communism, the expulsion of foreign missionaries and the Cultural Revolution, the revival in Argentina followed the loss of face endured through defeat in the war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. Today the Spirit is moving amazingly in South Africa, at Angus Buchan’s Mighty Men’s Conference this year over 350,000 men gathered, there are more than 7,000 24 hour prayer watches happening in that nation. Much of this involves the Afrikaners who are seeking a new identity in the post-apartheid era. We are not however in any of these places, what does the hidden nature of grace mean for us Australians, who are surely amongst the most psychologically and relationally dysfunctional people on the planet, ever seeking some new sensuous, sexual or spiritual experience.
Luther famously said, “Grace is the experience of being delivered from experience.” Jesus Christ is not some experience; he is a person whom you come to love whatever you experience in the trials and tribulations of daily life, of which there are many. The absence of the meat of the Word of God and the prayerlessness in our churches (Heb 5:12-14) is a tragedy, but in its very absence and the weakened spiritual climate it induces we can press into God (Phil 3:14) and find his hidden grace. Likewise, the spiritual apathy of our culture is appalling, yet by faith it can become a medium of grace for enduring spiritual growth.
When we learn to find God as the hidden God in all the troubles and disappointments of life we discover his sheer goodness. Grace teaches us that the divine purpose in ordaining “the many tribulations by which we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22) is never to impart to us evil, but only good, a good that will finally be our sole experience. This is what makes the loss of reputation, position, promotion or relationships through following Jesus all worthwhile.
Love and fear dominate human existence, and they are mutually excluding. Love causes us to look out from ourselves in terms of what we may give to others; fear causes us to arrange our lives for self-protection. Fear overwhelmingly rules both this nation and its church. Only the revelation of grace can abolish fear and release love. John says, “v17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. v18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:17-18).
Central to this text is the expression, “as he (Jesus) is so also are we in this world”. To realise that the shape of the life of Christ is the shape of our lives in this world is the insight that liberates us from thinking that God has ever had a will to do ill to his children. Inside this understanding is the recognition that no matter how difficult life becomes he is always there for us, grace is always present in every situation, no matter how invisible or impossible this may appear.
To “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18) is in fact to grow in the knowledge of good and evil in the way God always intended, it is to come to the heart understanding that God is sheer goodness and in him is no evil at all. With such a revelation of surprising grace in all the unexpected places of life we are spontaneously moved to proclaim Jesus to those who still living in fear of “the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79), the truth about grace teaches us to renounce every distraction and to seek Jesus, who is the real content of grace and all that we will ever need for our spiritual formation.