Recently I wrote an article for Desiring God that I have been pondering for years: “Should Christians Cremate Their Loved Ones?.” Now, I don’t like cremation, and I think the Bible points toward burial rather than burning. But I know that other Christians don’t see it the way I do, so the potential for conflict is large. Even Nöel’s mother is contemplating her own cremation. That’s pretty close to home.
So I asked Nöel to read it, and she only flagged one sentence where I was referring to how Christians relate to each other if we disagree on this issue. So I softened that sentence. Let me read you the revised section:
I want to give biblical pointers for why burial is preferable to cremation. I say preferable, not commanded, in the hope that the culture created in the church would not condemn or ostracize a person who chose differently. I encourage those who choose cremation not to equate our disapproval with ostracism. Otherwise, real disagreements are not possible among friends.
The point of this little experience is to simply draw attention to the fact that all of us live in relationships — friends, family, colleagues — where conflict is inevitable. And the question I’m going to pose is, “How can you be a continual source of blessing in the relationships of your life through the thick and thin of conflict?” I’m thinking of all your relationships: marriage, friendship, colleagues at work, church staff, small groups, parent-child, comrades in some ministry calls, membership in a club or society of some kind, and more. Every relationship you are in is going to be tested by small or huge conflicts.
My question is: How does future grace help you, day in and day out, hour by hour, not just survive relational conflict, but remain a positive fountain of outflowing, life-giving blessing in those relationships, in spite of the conflict?
Future Grace Is Built on Past Grace
Before we can answer that practical question of how it really works — how you put faith in future grace to work this very weekend at this conference and at home — we have to clarify what we mean by “future grace” and how it relates to past grace. I think it will be useful for you if you just get a handle on the very meaning of future grace and how firm and sure and certain it can be for God’s children because of past grace. And in the process, we also will clarify grace as pardon, and grace as power. So that’s our first agenda: clarifying past grace and future grace, and grace as pardon and power.
When I speak of “future grace,” I mainly have in mind the powerful practical undeserved help of God in your life in every way that you really need help, starting right now and lasting forever. So two things are clarified immediately, I hope. One is that future does not only mean a thousand years from now. It means five seconds from now, five minutes from now, five hours from now, five days from now, five months from now, five years from now, five decades from now, five centuries from now, and five thousand ages of millennia from now. You will need divine grace to breathe and think and feel and trust him and love him from this moment to eternity. So that’s one clarification. By “future” I mean starting now and lasting forever.
The other clarification is that, when I speak of future grace, I mean grace as power mainly, not grace as pardon mainly. Of course, the two are inseparable because if God didn’t pardon our sin because of Jesus, he would never exercise his power on our behalf, but only be our judge. But I’m stressing power — practical, in your life, helpfulness in the very issues you are facing — rather than pardon because the point of pardon is to release the power in your life.
God’s Powerful Work on Our Behalf
Let me give you a few Scriptures to make sure that you know this way of seeing grace is biblical and not just my idea. These verses are intended to show that the Bible uses the word grace to refer to God’s undeserved power on our behalf and that it is future, meaning the next five seconds and the next five decades.
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
So you can see clearly that grace in both of those passages is God’s powerful working on Paul’s behalf to enable him to abound in good work, and work harder than anybody else. This is powerful help based on glorious pardon. In other words, this help from God is undeserved and comes to us because of Jesus.
So you can see that all I’m doing with this term “future grace” is using different vocabulary for the term “promises of God.” And “living by faith in future grace” is the same as the old-fashioned “standing on the promises, I cannot fail.”
Which means that another way of saying that future grace is gloriously provided is to go to 2 Corinthians 1:20 and read, “All the promises of God find their Yes in Christ.” The best description that we have in the Bible of future grace is the overwhelming number of wonderful promises that God has made to his children: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). That’s what I mean by future grace — God powerfully and practically provides everything his children need to do his will and glorify his name.
Glorious Gospel Logic
How does this future grace relate to past grace? In my judgment, there is no more important verse in all the Bible for describing the relationship between future grace and past grace than Romans 8:32. If you made me choose, I would probably say this is my favorite verse in all the Bible.
Now, I realize that it is a question. But it’s a rhetorical question, which means it’s a question that doesn’t have an answer because it assumes that you and I can supply the answer. And if a question is asked that assumes you can supply the answer, the question is really making a statement. So let’s see what the answer is and then turn it into a statement.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
What answer does Paul expect to this question? Does he expect us to say, “Well, here are all the reasons that he will not give us all things?” No. He expects us to say that God will most certainly with Christ give us all things!
Jesus’s death in our place not only secures our forgiveness, but also guarantees every one of God’s promises to us.
What, then, is the logical relationship between the first half of the verse and the second half of the verse? The first half of the verse says, “God did not spare his own son [implying this was an enormous obstacle that God overcame for us] but gave him up for us all.” The second half of the verse says, “God will most certainly give us all things with him.” What’s the logical connection implied in the way Paul put these two halves together?
Wouldn’t you agree that the second half of the verse is an inference from the first half? Or, to put it in the other way around, would you agree that the first half of the verse is the basis or foundation for the second half of the verse? So we can bring that out with conjunctions: “Since (or because) God did the incredibly hard thing of not sparing his Son, but gave him up for us, therefore we may be absolutely sure he will give us all things — everything we need to do his will and glorify his name — with Christ.”
This is glorious gospel logic. This is the solid logic of heaven. It’s an argument from the greater to the lesser. If the greater thing was achieved, it’s certain the lesser thing will be achieved. If you lifted a thousand pounds, you will most certainly be able to lift ten pounds. If God didn’t spare the infinitely valuable Son of God, but subjected him to torture and murder to save us, then he will most certainly do the lesser thing, which is very easy for him, infinitely easier that sacrificing his Son — namely, give us all things with him.
God Will Come Through for You
So what is the relationship between the future grace of God — powerfully, practically giving us all the help we need to do his will and glorify his name — and the past grace of the death of the Son of God? The answer is: All of this future grace — the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to us — is made certain by God’s willingly giving his Son to die in our place and for our pardon.
So the future grace of God’s power is based entirely on the past grace of God’s pardon. So if you ever need encouragement that his grace is going to be sufficient for you, and his power is going to be made perfect in you, you know where to look. You look to the logic of Romans 8:32. If he didn’t spare his Son, but gave him up to death for me, there is no doubt: He is going to come through for me. He will not let me down. Do you see why this might be my favorite verse in all the Bible?
The Quandary of Present Grace
I think it will bring additional clarity and urgency to the meaning of future grace and the meaning of past grace and the relationship between the two, if I answer the question: Why don’t you ever talk about present grace?
Now this is going to sound philosophical and crazy, but I promise you it is unbelievably practical and relevant to my daily life, and I hope yours as well. The reason I don’t talk about present grace is because I’m not sure the present exists. Or, maybe to say it a little more carefully, I can’t find it when I look for it. I can’t put my finger on the grace of the present.
The reason that sounds crazy is because you probably think of the present as a space of time that includes a little bit of the future and a little bit of the past. So we might speak of this present era of history. And we would mean something like going back fifty years and forward twenty years. So the present is the sum of a past quantity and a future quantity of time. Or if the doctor asks you how you’re feeling, you might say, “For the present, I feel fine.” And you would be referring to the hour or two before you got there and the recent minutes in the office, all of which is past.
“You have a blood-bought, absolutely certain, inexpressibly happy, totally undeserved future with God.”
Very practically, right now, as I’m speaking, how can I put my finger on the present? What I know is that I have been speaking for a certain number of minutes, and all that is past, and I have some more minutes to speak, and all of that is future. And the millisecond that I identify a so-called present, it is instantly past. If I say, “The present is . . . now!” Well, that word now is four seconds in the past. So I don’t really want to argue about whether there is such a thing as the present. I just want to make clear that in the living of my life, I am trusting God that either in five seconds, five minutes, five hours, five years, or five decades, he can be there for me and meet every need.
And as future grace comes true, it immediately flows over the waterfall of the present and gathers in a reservoir of past grace, and our job is to give thanks from the bottom of our heart for an ever-increasing vast lake of past grace and draw confidence from it that God will continue to supply every need for the undeserved, powerful, practical helpfulness of future grace.
Now, all of that is clarification about the meaning of future as the next five seconds, five minutes, five days, five years, five thousand years, and the meaning of grace as power and practical, undeserved helpfulness.
Be a Blessing in Conflict
What remains to be answered is the question “How can you be a continual source of blessing in the relationships of your life through the thick and thin of conflict?” How does future grace enable you — empower you, help you — to not run away from conflict, and not become embittered because of conflict, and not become hopeless through conflict, and not become retaliatory in conflict, but rather to be a continual fountain of blessing in your relationships in spite of conflict?
The reason I pose the question that way is because Jesus and Paul and Peter all posed it that way. They all call us in the hardest conflicts not just to endure, but to bless, not just to avoid flight, but to be a fountain of life and hope and blessing in our relationships.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27–28)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9)
In each text, you have people who are hating you, and abusing you, and persecuting you, and being evil toward you, and reviling you, and Jesus and Paul and Peter all say, “Don’t return evil for evil. Don’t return cursing for cursing. Don’t return reviling for reviling. But on the contrary — bless, bless, bless.” And bless means offer life, offer hope, offer forgiveness, offer grace. There isn’t anything harder for the sinful human ego — male or female — than to return blessing for being hurt.
I want to make sure that you are processing this not only or mainly in regard to big, life-threatening persecutions, but that you are also and mainly applying it to the smaller conflicts with your children, your spouse, and your friends. Because surely if Jesus and Paul and Peter call us to respond this way in regard to big conflicts, all the more does it apply to little ones — the aggravations with children who are insolent, or disobedient, or ungrateful, or indifferent. The disappointments and frustrations with your husband because of things you hoped he would do, that he doesn’t do, or say that he doesn’t say, or things he does do that you wish he didn’t do. And people at work who slight you or belittle you or misrepresent you.
Three Steps to Put Future Grace to Work
This the real world where every single one of us lives. How does future grace help us not just endure, but be a fountain of blessing?
I’ll describe for you the three steps that put future grace to work so that we don’t flee or fight, but instead become a fountain of blessing.
1. Love Covers a Multitude of Sins
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). That means that love has in it the power to be offended, to be hurt, to be neglected, to be reviled to be cursed to be misrepresented — name your conflict — and have the resources not to coil up in anger or self-pity or sullenness or hopelessness or retaliation, but rather to bless. It covers the sins against you by stripping them of their power to cause you to return evil for evil.
Where does love get that amazing miraculous power?
2. Love Is Empowered by Faith
“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Faith works through love. Faith becomes visible and active in the kind of love that covers a multitude of sins.
Faith in what?
3. Love Is Sustained by Future Grace
This is the most decisive step. Too many of us fail at this particular point. Instead of putting specific promises before our mind that have the emotional power to keep us back from returning evil for evil, we only have the vaguest sense of God’s grace, and it loses its power, and we give way to our sinful emotions.
So let me commend to you a summary sentence of God’s future grace to keep before your mind as conflict arises. I’ll give you the sentence and then close by linking it to five verses of Scripture. God’s promise to you as his child is this:
You have a blood-bought, absolutely certain, inexpressibly happy, totally undeserved, future with God.
When facing the emotionally angering or frustrating or disappointing moment of conflict, preach this to yourself just like the psalmists did: Soul, listen to me! You have a blood-bought, absolutely certain, inexpressibly happy, totally undeserved future with God.
Your future is blood-bought. Romans 8:32a: “He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .”
Your future is absolutely certain. Romans 8:32b: “. . . how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Your future is inexpressibly happy. And this promised happiness is precisely designed by Jesus to make you a blessing in the face of trouble. Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” You will one day be inexpressibly happy in the presence of God (Psalm 16:11; 1 Peter 3:18). It is blood-bought. It is absolutely certain. It is great beyond measure. And it is designed to make you a blessing in this very moment of conflict.
Your inexpressibly happy future is totally undeserved. Oh how this can break the rigid back of our need to win conflicts! Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” How did he forgive us? Romans 5:6–8:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows [notice the present tense — he is doing this now] his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died [notice past tense] for us.
Past grace (he died for us) secures future grace (he goes on loving us) which is totally undeserved — “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
So my closing hope for you, and exhortation to you, is that in all the conflicts you face, you would be a fountain of outflowing, life-giving blessing.
This is humanly impossible. So my prayer is that you would do this by faith in future grace — that you would find the power to cover a multitude of sins by having unshakable, joyful confidence in this promise: You have a blood-bought, absolutely certain, inexpressibly happy, totally undeserved future with God.