When I see myself as I am, I’ll grasp a clearer vision of grace. When I’m honestly able to say, like the prophet Isaiah, that I’m lost, undone, and a “man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5), it’s then that the glory of the gospel shines ever brighter. I pray to catch a vision of my former self, to realize the putrefaction from which I am miraculously ransomed. Then that amazing, restorative, and transforming grace can do its work. Then, and only then, the power of Christ will constrain, compel, and control me and all my facets. (2 Cor. 5:14) Then that the ramifications of the cross will capture my attention.
I pray to surrender all that I am to the furious love of Christ, the condescending grace of Jesus: a gracious fury that envelopes me like a relentless tide. What a wonderful position it is to be in the downpour of Jesus’s grace. Truly, there’s no greater joy than to experience the outrageous one-way love of the Heavenly Father.
Jesus paid it all! I must be captured by the thought! The perfect and holy Christ died and took my filthiness and dirtiness and wickedness and shame and sin and made it his own. The Messiah has unleashed a raging grace that has turned this world upside-down. So counterintuitive this mercy; so confounding this unconditionality. There’s no prerequisite, provision, or qualification I must satisfy; for, he is my Satisfaction and Qualification! (Rom. 15:13; 16:11; Col. 2:11-14) “He lays no merit on [me;] receive and be glad.” (Lewis, Perelandra, 197)
He gives me no scale to balance, no weights to measure. Just the radical, reckless, uncontrollable, unconditional grace of his gospel. There’s no requirement for cleanliness; in fact, my Savior prefers that I throw away and I cast aside, all the “good” and “righteousness” (Isa. 64:6-7) that I’ve done, and come to his feet in full penitence, empty-handed — in full recognition of my putrid standing. (Eph. 2:8-9)
With great conviction, I declare with the apostle Paul, “that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (Rom. 7:18 KJV) I long to be prostrate before the cross, in utter bewilderment of this grace.
It’s a curious and confounding thing that the matchless, holy, unblemished, sovereign God would consider such a vile and wayward man such as I. (Job 7:17; Ps. 8:4; 144:3) And what’s more, he has granted me love and favor and acceptance and approval, the likes of which is infinitely undeserved. But such is the nature of grace — the nature of God himself — that he would bestow on me all that is unmerited, all that is undeserved. This is his grace for me: an inexhaustible unilateral love of infinite worth and priceless value. There’s no measure to it nor any boundaries that define it. It reaches exceedingly above and beyond anything I could ever think or imagine; it’s so vast and so abundant. It’s unfailing, unending, unrelenting, unlimited, unfathomable; it overflows me and drenches me. “O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong! It shall forevermore endure.”
Jesus paid it all! Thus, all to him I owe!
How I long to be entangled by this grace, to be captured by his love. If I am, how can I not give him all? How could I not give everything to him who gave everything for me? How could I not be eternally awestruck at the wonder of the cross? For my Jesus willingly and freely gave his life, enabling me to have life, and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
This grace, this sacrifice — the most glaring and visceral display of love in all of history — should continuously be at the forefront of my thoughts. Never should an hour pass — no — scarcely a second fly by where I’m not seized by the gospel, where I’m not perplexed by how awesome it is to be a filthy partaker of Jesus’s grace.
Such is the scandal of grace, the mystery of the gospel, that my Savior would love me, a man that has violated his law and will, and would give me free, indiscriminate grace with which I now have the capacity to praise and worship him. Indeed, I am nothing but ruins, nothing but rubbish, nothing but “dry bones” which Christ has so gloriously awakened and restored. (Ezek. 37:1-28) I’m the lost that he came to find. I’m the blind that he came to empower with sight. I’m the beggar that he came to lavish with everything, and more. The broken, the weak, the weary, the tired, the spent, the exhausted — these are Jesus’s ministry. (Luke 4:18-19) He comes declaring hope and peace for those in desperation, for it’s in our desperation that the grace of the gospel of God is keenly found.
You must understand that this is the mystery of the gospel, the paradox of Scripture — “that it calls us way more sinful than we think we are, and it calls us way more loved than we think we are.” (Bethke, 90) I’m worse than I think I am; my sin is far more wretched and depraved than I know, or would like to know. And until I recognize this, the grace of God will never be truly seen or experienced. We all like to see ourselves as better than we actually are; but this is merely an illusion.
The counterintuitiveness of the gospel is that the holier we become through the power and presence of the Spirit, the less and less we actually see our holiness. As A. W. Tozer noted, “As soon as we begin to talk about how holy we are, we aren’t holy anymore.” The Christian should never be aware of his own righteousness but continually revel and rejoice is Christ’s righteousness for him! To see your righteousness and recognize your goodness is to immediately declare yourself as unrighteous. C. S. Lewis similarly noted:
“Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do . . . and those are, no doubt, my worst moments.” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 99)
This is all pointing us to the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom. The economy of God is upside-down to us, in that, to see growth, we must not see ourselves at all — we must see and experience solus Christus, only Christ!
If you’re familiar with the Scriptures, you might remember that God’s ways aren’t our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts. (Isa. 55:8-9) But we often fail to let the truth of this declaration fully reach us. What we view as success isn’t necessarily what God deems successful. Where man praises wealth, power, popularity, and prestige, God exalts the poor, the meek, the lowly, and the humble. (Matt. 5:5; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; James 4:10) In God’s Kingdom, two small coins are worth more than the gifts of abundance. (Mark 12:41-44) In God’s Kingdom, the religious elite must learn from the prostitute. (Luke 7:36-50) The sophisticated must become like children. (Matt. 18:1-4) In God’s Kingdom, we must wither and fall before we can bear fruit. (John 12:20-26; 1 Cor. 15:36) We must forsake all in order to gain everything. (Matt. 10:36-39; Luke 14:25-27, 33) We must lose in order to gain. (Phil. 3:1-11) We have to die in order to have life. (Mark 8:34-37; Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:17; Phil. 1:21) In God’s Kingdom, the outcasts are called, the small are chosen, the humble are exalted, and the weak are strong. (Matt. 23:12; James 4:6, 10; Prov. 11:2; 2 Cor. 12:9-10)
With God’s ways, “we win by losing, we triumph through defeat, we achieve power through service, and we become rich by giving ourselves away.” (Tchividjian, 104) To us, it’s backwards, it’s illogical. It doesn’t make sense to glory in weakness and shy away from strength. This is principally due because we’ve ascribed to the mainstream formula for success, which is, as Tim Challies notes, “strength equals good” and “weakness equals bad.”
Modern Christian philosophy determines, “To get better, I have to get stronger.” This is the automatic “North” the compass of our hearts directs us — self-sufficiency, self-justification, self-salvation. And while this is our natural inclination, this isn’t how God works, this isn’t how the gospel works. God doesn’t draw near to because we’re doing everything right, because we’ve got it all together.
God condescends to man’s poor and paltry estate chiefly because he’s poor and paltry and destitute of hope and life.
Jesus comes because we’re weak, not because we’re strong.
The gospel is upside-down — it’s counterintuitive. And it’s through this counterintuitiveness that God’s glory and grace shine all the brighter. There’s no cause for me to boast, no ground upon which my pride rests. All glory I attain is of God and is God’s. It’s all of and for Jesus. There’s no wisdom or power or ability within me; no strength or resolve in myself that will not ultimately fail. How seemingly foolish and scandalous this plan of God’s, that the very violators and transgressors of his grace and mercy might be the partakers of it!
“This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, ‘If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.’” (1 Cor. 1:25-31 NLT)
Therefore, we can revel in our smallness, rejoice in our weakness, because Jesus is big and strong on our behalf. There are no more calls to be impressive on our own. We no longer have to chase glory and success because in Christ, God has given us himself. Indeed, we’re called to be small so that Jesus can “big” for us. Jesus already did everything so that I could have no merit upon which to stand nor anything to boast about or hold over anyone else. Actually, if we boast in anything, it must be Christ, his work for us, his performance for us, his redemption, his love, his grace. (1 Cor. 15:9-10; 2 Cor. 3:4-5)
This is counterintuitive Christianity, this is the symphony of grace: glorying in weakness, in smallness, and growing in grace. It’s realizing that you’re worse than you think you are, but that, amazingly, God’s grace is far better than you could ever imagine. This is a fortuitous truth, because most days I don’t feel strong enough to be used by God. I don’t feel worthy to savor even a drop of his kindness. I don’t feel prepared or capable to live for him. As Jon Acuff writes, “Surely, there’s a better Christian out there who can do what God has called me to do.”
And that’s the point — I’m not strong, I’m not worthy, I’m not capable, and recognizing that is true freedom — God-sized freedom.
You see, we’re the glorious ruins, the matchless broken, the “dry bones” that Ezekiel saw, which have been restored to glory by the gracious sacrifice of the Savior. (Ezek. 37) We aren’t good or strong, we’re weak and inadequate. What must become most evident to us is that “power in weakness is shorthand for the cross of Christ. In God’s plan of redemption, there had to be weakness (crucifixion) before there was power (resurrection).” (Hughes, 214)
Power and strength and ability don’t arise in you because of anything you do, but because of everything Jesus has done.
“Christian growth” isn’t about an upward ascension — you doing things to win freedom.
Rather, it’s about a downward condescension — Jesus coming down to us, for us!
Discipleship and spiritual growth don’t happen because of us; they happen despite us — despite all our failings and shortcomings. We’ve mistakenly confused Christian growth for narcissism. The fallacy that has risen in Christian circles across this nation, and everywhere else, is that it’s by my strength, my effort, and my performance that grace is given and salvation is secured. We’ve created a false dichotomy between justification and sanctification, insisting that the former is God’s work and the latter is up to us.
But the reality is, it’s all of Jesus, all of grace. The truth is, we mature in the Spirit to the degree that we focus on finished work of the Son. The more we focus on what’s been done the less we’ll stumble over all we need to do. Sanctification and spiritual maturity doesn’t mean growth into greater and greater independence. Christianity is a life of continual dependence. It’s not an ascension from weakness to strength. It’s gaining a clearer and clearer vision of your complete inability and Jesus’s infinite mercy.
“The life most blessed to us, and most honoring to Christ, is a life of believing and perpetual dependence upon God . . . Oh, it is sweet to be a dependent creature upon God — hang upon a loving Father — to live as a poor, needy sinner day by day, moment by moment, upon Jesus — to trace God in ten thousand ways, to mark his wisdom here, his condescension there; now his love, and then his faithfulness, all combining and exerted for our good — truly it is the most holy and blessed life upon earth.” (Octavius Winslow, “Grace and Truth”)
Sanctification is upside-down to us simply because it demands that we come to a greater and greater realization of our own unworthiness and the awesome extravagance of God’s marvelous grace. Becoming like Jesus means you see less and less of yourself, and more and more of Christ, and all that he’s already accomplished for you on the cross. This is discipleship; this is growth; this is sanctification — it’s growing deeper and deeper into the gospel of grace; it’s becoming more and more aware of God’s free grace and your inability to merit anything of yourself.
And that’s why sanctification is so hard, because in its essence, it requires you to constantly and consistently forget and deny yourself. (Matt. 10:38-39; 16:24-26) And we’re terribly prone to think higher and more of ourselves than we ought. It’s a true saying, that Steve Brown has often reiterated, that our “goodness” is our greatest enemy when we know it, and our sin is our greatest friend when we know it. Which is to say, like Charles Spurgeon has said, that, “The holier a man becomes, the more he mourns over the unholiness which remains in him.”
If I am to acknowledge my goodness and see my “progression,” I’m actually announcing my regression. And this is what I must cling to: that regardless of my circumstances, my deficiencies, and my imperfections, God’s love for me will never, ever let me go. His love will never fail or fall short. It is constant, sure, forever; it is the Rock upon which we stand, the Hope in which we confidently and boldly trust.
What ultimately matters in the life of a Christian is not his grip of God but God’s grip of him.
If the pressure were on me, I’d never experience grace. If winning salvation and favor from God rested on my shoulders, there would be no meriting it (Ps. 49:7-9), for the the qualification of God’s favor is perfection. (Matt. 5:48) This, then, is the wonder of the cross: that the perfection and holiness and righteousness of Jesus has been attributed and imputed to me, thereby satisfying God’s justice and finishing and securing his plan of redemption.
How I long to be rescued from myself, to be saved from my drowning in sin. I cry to be revived from my spiritual deadness by the breath of God himself!
You see, grace isn’t life preserver tossed to the drowning. Grace is the very breath of God breathed into dead souls! You’re not just in need of salvation from the flood, you’re need of life, as you lay at the bottom of the river, “dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1 ESV) This the the glory of Jesus’s gospel: it saves us while we’re his enemies (Rom. 5:8, 10), rescues us from our sinful stupor, and shows up in the heat of our trouble, not the absence. That’s why I’m able to glory in weakness, because that’s where Christ finds me, that’s where his gospel meets me — where I am, in the pit of sin, in the mire of my own pride and unbelief.
And then, his gospel of grace restores, saves, and transforms me. It brings me up from the crags and clay and places me in the loving embrace of the Good Shepherd. It rescues me from myself and revives me to spiritual life. Jesus’s grace invades darkness — my darkness, your darkness — and illuminates the world with light, the light of the gospel.
“How precious is the grace that pardons, that justifies, that adopts, that sanctifies, that comforts, the vilest who believe in Jesus! And yet all this Jesus does. He died for sinners, he receives sinners, he saves sinners to the uttermost. O precious grace, that has opened a fountain which cleanses every stain; that has provided a robe which covers every spot; that ‘reigns through righteousness unto eternal life’ the soul it has renewed!” (Octavius Winslow, “Grace and Truth”)
In the midst of everything bad, Christ shows up as the Infinite Good, my True Hope, and Solid Rock. Indeed, he is the theme of my heart. God’s grace is like a symphony by which I am eternally captivated. His love is the song that I must continually sing. His gospel of grace is the melody and undercurrent of life — without which, I am surely nothing.
“O the infinite dimensions of this immeasurable grace! It has a breadth and length, a depth and height, that pass all knowledge. And it is this wondrous grace, in all its exceeding riches, that God is presenting to each sinner here, that they may take it and live forever.” (Bonar, 281)
I pray to sing the refrain of God’s gracious remedy forevermore, the symphony of grace that resonates within my bones! For this theme has no end; its strains continue, world without end. The song of the gospel, a refrain of unmerited favor, rises and falls on an endless note of infinite, one-way love that emanates from a holy God who is love itself. (1 John 4:7-12)
I cannot help but sing the symphony of grace!
Notes & References:
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).
Jefferson Bethke, Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, And Being Good Enough (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013).
Kent Hughes, 2 Corinthians: Power In Weakness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
Tullian Tchividjian, Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).