What I'd like to do this morning is show you some of what God has been teaching me this summer as I've worked on the book, Living by Faith in Future Grace. My prayer for this fall is that through the BITC the spillover of the book will be as strengthening for the church and for your personal lives as the studies have been for me.
26 Blessings from Paul's Letters
I want to base my thoughts this morning on 26 texts. Yes, we are actually going to look all of them up. I know I've never done this before, but it will be easier than you think. You can regard this exercise in thumbing the pages of Scripture as a symbolic renewal of our commitment to be as radically biblical and Scripture-saturated and Bible-based as we can be. A few of you remember (very few, now, I guess) what I said my first Sunday at Bethlehem, July 13, 1980. I said my favorite sound in church is the wonderful whoosh of a sanctuary full of Bibles being flipped to the morning text.
What I want us to see from these 26 texts is the way the apostle Paul begins and ends all his letters. He wrote 13 letters in our New Testament. He begins and ends each of them with a blessing of grace upon the Christian readers. Something like: "Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Or: "Grace be with you." The new thing that I saw as I meditated on these was that all the ones at the beginning of the letters say, "Grace to you." And all the ones at the ends of the letters say, "Grace with you." I think the Lord has some important things he wants to say to us as a church through these 26 blessings of grace. Pray that as we hear each of them, we will hear God.
Let's begin at the end of the collection of Paul's 13 letters. The last book in the collection is the shortest—to Philemon. The last verse in the letter (v. 25): "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." Then at the beginning (v. 3): "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Then moving back up to the previous book, Titus (probably across the page), the last phrase of the book (3:15): "Grace be with you all." Then to the beginning of Titus. Paul begins in 1:1, "Paul, a bond-servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ . . . " And he comes to Titus in verse 4: "to Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior." Notice there is no phrase "to you" or "with you." It's the same in 1 and 2 Timothy. It seems natural to take the blessing with the preceding "To Titus" so that it reads: "Paul, to Titus, Grace." Or: "Grace to Titus from God through Paul."
Then, moving back up to the end of 2 Timothy, the last verse of the book (4:22): "The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you." Then to the beginning of 2 Timothy (1:1): "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, (2) to Timothy, my beloved son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord." Which compressed says, "To Timothy, grace from God through Paul."
Then back up to the end of 1 Timothy (6:21), the last phrase: "Grace be with you." And to the beginning of the book (1:1): "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope; (2) to Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord." To Timothy, grace from God through Paul.
Now look back up to the end of 2 Thessalonians (3:18): "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." And to the beginning (1:2): "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Then further back to the end of 1 Thessalonians (5:28): "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." And to the beginning of the book (1:1): "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace."
Now further back to the end of Colossians (4:18): "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you." Then to the beginning of the book, Colossians 1:2, "To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father."
Then on back to the end of Philippians (4:23): "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." And further back to Philippians 1:2, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Now back to the end of Ephesians (6:24): "Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible." Then at the beginning of Ephesians (1:2): "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Just above that, the end of Galatians (6:18): "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen." And at the beginning of Galatians (1:3): "Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Just above that, the end of 2 Corinthians (13:14): "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." And at the beginning, jump over 13 chapters to 1:2, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
The same in 1 Corinthians just above at the end (16:23): "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you." And the same at the beginning (1:3): "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
And finally look at the end of Romans (16:20): "And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you." And at the beginning (1:7): "To all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Grace from First to Last
Now what can we learn from this pattern of grace? What is God saying to us from his Word?
1. The Common Link
Grace is the only word that is common to all those blessings.
Some have "mercy." Some have "peace." Some have "love." But all have "grace." I take this as a bracing trumpet call to the centrality of grace in Christianity. Every letter of Paul begins and every letter ends with grace. Grace envelops all the teachings of the letters. You could say the Christian life begins with grace and it will end with grace. Keep it central in your thinking about life.
2. God's Grace
The grace we are talking about is God's grace.
Most often the blessing says, "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ." Grace is something that comes from God. What makes grace grace is that it starts "from God," freely, without being merited or earned. So the little phrase "from God" is rich with meaning. Grace is the overflow of God's total self-sufficiency. He has no deficiencies that we could remedy by our works, and so he cannot negotiate with us for some good we could offer.
All we have is from him and through him and to him. As Paul says in Romans 11:34–35, we can't give a gift to him so that we could be repaid. All our gifts are his already. Therefore all his responses to us are free. He is not bound by any merit or debt that we create from our worth or our work. He doesn't barter with us, or sell, to get what he needs. He has no needs that he does not satisfy from within his own self-generated resources. Grace is the overflow of God's free goodness and power and wisdom. Saying that God is a God of grace is a way of saying that God is God—that he is the infinite, all-sufficient, self-existent, complete source and sustainer and owner of all being and all value and all worth in the universe. When goodness comes from him, it comes freely. It can come no other way. Therefore all his goodness is grace.
That's what's implied in the centrality of grace in Paul's thinking and in the words "Grace to you from God."
3. Future Grace
All the grace Paul has in mind when he blesses the Christians at the beginning and end of all his letters is future grace.
This is the title I am proposing for the book: "Living by Faith in Future Grace." I'll have lots more to say about this in the BITC. But let me just stress the obvious here. When you wish something on someone, you are wishing it on them for the future—meaning the period of time that starts now.
If I say, "Grace to you, from God," I mean, "Starting now." If I say, "Grace be with you," I mean, "Starting now." Not that you haven't known grace in the past, or haven't experienced it right up to this moment. But the blessing is for the future. May God do something gracious now. May God go on being gracious to you, starting now. Therefore the grace in Paul's mind is not the grace of the past, but the grace of the future.
The death and resurrection of Jesus were great works of grace. Your effectual calling and new birth and faith and repentance and justification were all great past works of grace, if you are a Christian. But that is not what he is wishing for you. He is wishing for something new, for something continued. Grace upon grace. More grace.
The heart of the book, and I believe the heart of the biblical teaching about living the Christian life, is that to live as a Christian we need to believe in this future grace. We need to be confident of it, and bank on it, and trust in it, and be satisfied by it, if we are going to know the power and freedom and joy that can obey the radical commands of Jesus to live differently from the world.
These 26 texts all promise future grace, and call for it from God because it is the key to Christian living. Paul expresses what it is like to live faith in future grace (1 Corinthians 15:10): "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not in vain, but I worked harder than any of them. Yet it was not I but the grace of God which is with me." In other words day-by-day as Paul looks to the next moment of his life and ministry, he says, "Not I but the grace of God" that is being given to me fresh and new for every new future challenge and need. He lived by faith in future grace. And therefore he blessed all his churches over and over again with future grace.
4. How Paul Begins and How Paul Ends His Letters
At the beginning of the letters he says, "Grace to you," and at the end of his letters he says, "Grace be with you."
Why? I found no commentary that gave any reflection to this. So let me suggest what I think it means. I think it means that at the beginning of his letter he realizes that they are about to hear his word—the apostolic word, the authoritative Word of God. So he says: in and through this hearing of the Word of God grace is coming TO you. This letter is the channel of God's grace to you. Twice in Acts the apostles teaching was called "the word of His grace" (14:3; 20:32).
On the other hand as Paul comes to the end of his letters, he realizes that the listening church will soon not be reading any more; they will be going out into a very hostile world. The parchment will be rolled up and treasured in someone's safe at home until the next reading. Is there more grace besides what comes to us as we hear the Word of God? Paul answers 13 times, "Grace be with you." Yes. Grace does not stay locked up with the scroll in the safe. It goes with you. Because Christ goes with you. At the end of 2 Thessalonians (3:16) Paul says, "The Lord be with you all." This is what it means that grace will be with you. The Lord will be graciously with you, by his Spirit.
I have to stop. There is so much more to draw out from this pattern of grace. These and more we will take up as we dig into the BITC theme: "Living by Faith in Future Grace."
But this last point stirs up serious and exciting thoughts for me and for us that I want to close with and send us onto "The Bridge"1 and into praise and prayer.
People of the Word and of the Spirit
The opening blessing, "Grace to you"—grace to you through these inspired letters—what that says to us is that the Word of God should be the primary instrument of grace in the life of the church. The preaching of the Word, the teaching of the Word, the singing of the Word, the praying of the Word, and the sharing of the Word. If the free and sovereign grace of God is to be central in the life of our church, then we must be a people of the Word.
And the closing blessing, "Grace be with you," says to us: When the Word has been spoken, what counts is the presence of God with us—by his Spirit confirming the Word, illuminating the Word, begetting faith by the Word, empowering deeds taught in the Word. It's the Spirit of Christ that stays with us and applies grace to us. "The Lord be with you." "I will never leave you or forsake you." So if we want to live in the ongoing power of grace, we must be a people of the Spirit.
A people of the Word and a people of the Spirit. Grace to you through the Word. Grace with you in the Spirit.
I finished 14 years at Bethlehem in July. I'm 48 years old. If I resign from Bethlehem when I am 65, that will be January 11, 2011, 17 years from now. It sounds very short. The two-year-olds will be high school graduates. Most of the kids eight and older will be married. Most of the Baby Boomers will be grandparents. This building will be long paid for and it will no longer be called the new sanctuary. It will be 20 years old.
My father said to me when we visited him in July, "You know, son, if you want to make a move, this is a good time to do it. Not many churches want to call men in their fifties." I had a lot of time to think about that. And what I thought was this: I don't want to make a move.
On Friday Noël and I went to Hardees for lunch. I asked, "Do you think I overstated the case when I told the Bilhorns before they left that I was committed to Bethlehem and wanted to be a rope-holder for them and all the missionaries that look to this church for a lot more than money?" She said, "No, I don't think so." Noël and I and the boys consider it an immense grace in our lives to be in the ministry at this church.
What I hear for me in these two words from Paul is this.
John I want you to stand between these two words. "Grace be to you" through the Word, and "grace be with you" in the Spirit. I want you to stand there in the pulpit and humble yourself under this Word and open it week after week to my people (not yours, mine) as an agent of grace. And if you and they will receive my Word, I will be with you—my grace will be with you. And your future will be future grace. And the first 14 years will become prelude to things which you never dreamed. It will be my grace and my Spirit, not your book.
That's where I'd like to stand. That's the grace I'd like to follow. And I'd like you to go with me. All of you.
1 "The Bridge" Pastor Piper referred to here was a brief time of praise and worship which immediately followed the Sunday morning service. "The Bridge" led into an extended time of corporate prayer which was called "Praying the Vision." "The Bridge" and "Praying the Vision" were incorporated into the Sunday morning schedule during the summer months of 1993 and 1994.