Grace does more than that though. I hate religion (and I’m a religious professional) because I’ve seen what toxic religion can do to people. It is the very nature of religion to draw us toward what is inappropriate and unbiblical. As Christians, we’re told that we must be nice, kind, honest and sweet. Those characteristics are not bad in and of themselves, but the problem is, in our desperate and futile attempts to hide our true self (which is not always nice, kind, honest and sweet), we end up wearing masks. Like an onion, we have layers and layers of masks that, once peeled off, never reveal our core. In order to uncover the real person—the real person who belongs to God—we have to come before Christ. And the only way to accomplish this is in the context of grace. Allow yourself and others to be free…to move from a commitment to religion to a commitment to the One who loves us totally and unconditionally, Jesus Christ.
So what does Christmas have to do with grace? Absolutely everything. Without grace, the incarnation of God in Christ would never have happened. Grace radically changes our lives and, once touched by grace, we are never the same. According to the Christmas text of John 1:1-18, grace is the heart of the incarnation, the heart of God himself. What is this grace? What does it look like?
Eternal Nature of Grace
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made…” (v. 1-4, 18).
What is God like? In all honesty, we believe that God is wrathful, angry and out to get us.
One of my friends, a malpractice lawyer, came into my office just three days after becoming a Christian and said, “I’ve been reading the Bible and God’s not what I thought he was. He’s killing off nations, cattle and men.” Then he paused and added, “Now don’t get me wrong, he’s my kind of guy.”
Contrary to popular opinion, though, the cross of Christ that makes us acceptable in God’s sight does not only protect us from God’s wrath…it is evidence of God’s love. Augustine pointed out that the love of God secured the cross; the cross did not secure the love of God. So often we get that reversed. God is not ticked. He is benevolent. According to God’s graciousness and mercy, we have seen the revelation of Jesus Christ…and Jesus pointed to the reality of the character of God.
Augustine pointed out that the love of God secured the cross; the cross did not secure the love of God.
The most important question to ask is not, Is there a God? After all, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). The most important question to ask is, What is God like? The teaching of the New Testament answers with, Surprise! God is gracious and merciful.
Of course God is also holy and righteous: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). We should never be flippant around the throne. God is God and we should never forget that. At the heart of who he is, though, God is love and grace. God created the world so that, as a lover, he might express his love. This did not start with the incarnation. It started with eternity past.
Frightful Need of Grace
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (v. 5, 9-11).
They did not receive him because they were sinners, wanting autonomy, and radically and pervasively depraved. That describes us. We (and there are no exceptions) are a part of fallen human nature in great need of grace. In fact, all of us have a sinful secret that if everyone found out, we would be so embarrassed and ashamed that we would want to immediately disappear into a hole in the ground. And in order to deflect attention away from our sins and struggles, we continually demonize our enemies…when all along we identify with them. The truth is that there is no sin of which I’m not capable and of which you’re not capable. It’s the doctrine of radical and pervasive depravity.
You may have heard the story of the old woman who came forward for communion. She knelt down, but as she began to think of all her sin, quickly backed away from the altar. The priest stuck the chalice in front of her face and said, “Take it, woman. It is for sinners. It is for you.”
We desperately need grace and forgiveness. The reason Jesus Christ came is because we needed him. The reason God loved us is that we didn’t have the ability to love him. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Radical Message of Grace
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ…” (v. 14-18).
If I were God, I would kick the world to pieces…Aren’t you glad that I’m not God? While staying away from a holy God creates his wrath, if you go to God, he will not be angry. The radical message of grace is this: No matter what you’ve done, what you’re ashamed of, or who you are, God loves you totally, unconditionally and without exception.
The truth is I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t want to be better than he or she was—ever. What I’m saying is without qualification…no ifs, ands or buts. God loves you unconditionally. That is what God’s grace is all about. It is God’s unconditional favor to people who don’t deserve it. What if I turn my back on him? God loves you unconditionally. What if I do something wrong? God loves you unconditionally.
In our condemnation and judgment, what have we done? Where have we gone wrong? Grace is radical and God’s love is unconditionally offered. That is good news.
Horrible Perversion of Grace
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (v. 5-8, 10-11).
People were building a budding religion based on John the Baptist, the radical prophet who ate locusts and honey. John is emphasizing here, “It is not John. It is Jesus.” John was not the One. He simply pointed to the One.
Religion draws you to the law. It pulls you to condemnation and anger. It makes you feel superior and elitist. It is presumptuous. And that is not at all what Jesus is about.
John writes that the law came through Moses, and grace and truth came through Jesus. Now don’t misunderstand me… The law is important. You have to hear the bad news before you can hear the good news. I’m not putting down the law. After all, Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. The law, though, without a full understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness, can make us pharisaical, angry and mean. It is the danger of religion without grace.
My father was a drunk who didn’t become a Christian until about three months before his death. Do you know why he didn’t go to church? It was not that my father
thought Christians were hypocrites. My father simply didn’t think he was good enough. My father missed the whole message of the Gospel.
Make sure you don’t miss it…for yourself and for others. The perversion of grace is that we have become the very thing Jesus hated. It is past time for that to change.
Life of Grace
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (v. 12-13).
We are children of God, children of grace. We were saved by grace; but not only that, we live by grace as well. The foundation of our lives and our world is grace. Grace enabled the act of creation. Grace enabled the incarnation of God in man. Grace enabled the cross of Christ. Grace enables our lives today. It is all grace.
In the incarnation, God entered into time and space, taking on flesh, blood and bones in the birth of his Son Jesus Christ. At that very moment, the Father’s love, acceptance and forgiveness were ours. At that very moment, our lives were granted purpose and meaning. At that very moment, God’s grace and love met, giving birth to a baby in a stable.
“‘For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:11-12).
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The God of the universe came gently in the form of a baby so as not to scare us. In doing so, he bent down low and whispered into our ears one word: Grace.