“I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” –Acts 20:24
Thank you, Kempton, for the very high privilege of speaking at your ordination service. Next year will mark 40 since I sat in an ordination service where you sit. My ordination certificate has hung on my wall as more important that all the diplomas. I believe God gave me a gift for ministry when the elders laid their hands on me, according to 1 Timothy 4:14 (“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.” 1 Timothy 4:14), and I believe he has a gift for you tonight.
And thank you for the years we ministered together, the small group we shared. I loved our partnership and I love our friendship — with you and Karen.
And I praise God for his new call on your life to minister in East St. Louis. You are the man for this work. And the good hand of God will be on you.
I want to direct your attention tonight to one verse that I am sure you count dear and to several others that shed light on it. The verse is Acts 20:24, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
The ministry Paul had been given by the risen Christ was to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” And that is the ministry he has given every pastor. That is the ministry he has given you: To testify to the good news of the grace of God.”
Therefore, make the grace of God — in all its depth and fullness and power — the foundation, the content, and the aim of your ministry in East St. Louis. Foundation, because all salvation from eternity to eternity, and all your ministry depend on it absolutely. Content because this is your witness woven into every message. Aim because God has taught us in Ephesians 1:6 that we are chosen and adopted “to the praise of the glory of his grace.”
So what I wan to do is clarify what I mean, by the grace of God, and to encourage you for a lifetime of ministry in grace of God. So I want to make one overarching claim about the meaning of God’s grace, and then point to four experiences of God’s grace in scripture where this meaning is illustrated. Very few people grasp the depth and majesty and power and preciousness of the grace of God. I would like to help you and the rest of us see that and feel it.
Grace is a rich word, a vast reality, with many layers of meaning in the New Testament. I am not talking about all of them. Not every time the word grace is used does it carry this meaning, but in its most foundational uses it does. I am only talking about this most foundational meaning. The one at the bottom. The deepest and most radical meaning.
The overarching claim about this meaning of grace that I want to make is this: it refers to the truth that God, and God alone, is the decisive cause at the bottom of our election, our new birth, our justification and our daily life of faith and obedience. And by decisive I mean that no human influence — no human distinctive, no human willing, no human feeling, no human acting, nothing outside God whatsoever — is at root decisive in bring about our election or new birth or justification or daily life of faith and obedience.
Whatever role we play in our salvation — from eternity to eternity — it is never, at the bottom, decisive. Significant, yes. Meaningful, yes. Necessary, yes. But decisive, never. Only God is decisive. This is what it means for God to be God.
At the bottom of our election, at the bottom of our regeneration, at the bottom of our justification, and at the bottom of our daily life of faith and obedience, the decisive cause is God and God alone, and never man — that’s deepest truth about the grace of God. His grace is absolutely free and not decisively determined by man, or any influence outside himself.
This is the most fundamental meaning God’s grace. The decisive cause of our election, regeneration, justification, and daily life of faith and obedience — the cause that carries the day, the one that is ultimately effective, the one that cannot be thwarted — is God and God alone.
First what is at the bottom of our election?
Romans 11:5–7. At the present time there is a remnant, according to the election of grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.
Romans 9:11–12. Though Jacob and Esau were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
2 Timothy 1:9. God 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.
Which I summarize like this: Before the creation of the world, God saw us in our sin and deadness — that is, in our need for grace — and chose a people for himself so that the decisive cause might be clear: not our willing, but God’s willing. As it is written in Romans 9:15–16, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” Which means election is by grace all the way down.
Second, what is at the bottom of our new birth?
We were dead in sin when God saw in election, needing grace. And we were dead in sin when the wind of his Spirit blew over us and made us live in regeneration.
Ephesians 2:5–6. Even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Why did Paul break off his sentence and insert “by grace you have been saved.” He is going to say that again in verse 8. The point is this: Just at this point the deepest meaning of grace is made clear: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ” STOP. Insert explanation: “by grace you have been saved.” Dead men coming alive is grace. And dead men do not provide the decisive cause of their life. They don’t provide any cause of their life — but their existence in sin. God does. And that is the meaning of grace.
Third, what is at the bottom of our justification?
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? How shall guilty sinners stand before a holy Judge at the last day? They must be justified. They must be found to be just, to have righteousness. How will that be?
Romans 3:24. We are justified by his grace, freely, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Titus 3:7. “We are justified by his grace that we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Galatians 2:21. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
For the apostle Paul there are only two ways to be justified before God: By depending on the keeping of the whole law — that is, by works. Or by depending on no law-keeping, but on Christ — that is, by grace. Whole law, or no law.
Here’s how Paul says it in Galatians 5:2–4, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. [And thus] you are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law.”
Whole law. Or no law, but only Christ. Works or grace. At the bottom of our justification is total grace — grace alone. Not one millisecond of human effort can be added to the ground of our justification. We are justified by grace in Christ.
Finally, what is at the bottom of our daily life of faith and obedience?
Shall we not strive to enter by the narrow gate? Shall we not purse the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Shall we not put to death the deeds of the body? Yes, we shall. With all our might. And when we have done all our striving, what shall we say?
1 Corinthians 15:10. 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.
Philippians 2:12–13. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Colossians 1:29. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
O, you will labor in East St. Louis. Yes, you will. But just like your election and just like your new birth, and just like your justification, your ministry, and every step you take in faith and obedience will be the decisive work of God’s free grace.
God has called you not to value your life but for one thing: to finish your race and the ministry you received from the Lord Jesus to bear witness to the gospel of the grace of God.
This grace gives you the firmest foundation for your ministry and the best message E. St. Louis could ever hear.
No one in East St. Louis will be able to say, “My sins are too great and too many for me to be elect,” because human distinctives had no part at all in the decisive cause of election, it was by grace alone.
No one in East St. Louis will be able say, “My sins are too great and too many, and my habits too deep for God to give new birth,” because there are no degrees of deadness. Dead is dead. And new life is totally sovereign grace.
No one in East St. Louis will be able to say, “I could never contribute enough to my righteousness for any judge to acquit me,” because this Judge will not let you contribute anything to Christ’s righteousness. It is all his, and it is all grace.
And no one in East St. Louis will be able to say, “I won’t be able to live the Christian life. I am too weak and to defiled,” because no one can live the Christian life. No one is the decisive cause of his own obedience. We are what we are by the grace of God. Grace alone is decisive.
This is your message. This is your life. To finish your course, and bear witness to the gospel of the grace of God. Amen.