Grace is Greater than Guilt

Topical Scripture: Genesis 6:1–8

Bill Belichick will coach the New England Patriots in today’s Super Bowl, marking a record eighth time his team has made the championship game. An interesting statistic helps explain his genius: eighteen of his players were not drafted by any team in the NFL. This is a far higher number than for any other team.

Belichick is brilliant at spotting talent that will work within his system. His intellectual approach to the game is clearly working for his team.

Our minds are God’s greatest gifts to us. Our rational capacity is the only attribute which enables our superiority on this planet. Other animals have far better eyesight, hearing, strength, stamina, and so on. Our minds are our best friends or our worst enemies. “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7, KJV). What we think is what we become.

How do we keep our minds holy? What do we do when we don’t? No subject is more crucial to living in a way God can bless today. This morning we’ll investigate one of the most perplexing texts in the Bible and find that it is actually one of the most urgent, practical, and relevant passages in all of God’s word.

Admit your need of grace

Our passage begins with one of the more confusing sentences in all the Bible: “When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose” (Genesis 6:1-2).

Who were these “sons of God” and “daughters of men”?

  • Some interpreters believe that the “sons of God” were angels (cf. Job 1:6; Psalm 29:1). But Jesus told us that angels “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mark 12:25).
  • Some believe the “sons of God” were kings, but the Bible never makes this connection.
  • An interesting approach suggests that the “sons of God” were descendants of Seth, the godly child of Adam and Eve, and the “daughters of men” were descendants of the evil Cain. But the text doesn’t say this.

I think the clues we need are found in the text immediately surrounding our passage. Scripture intends to be clear and was very clear to its original audience. So, we must ask ourselves, what did they understand these words to mean?

Genesis 2 says that God formed man from the ground, and woman from man (vv. 7, 23). So, calling men the “sons of God” and women the “daughters of men” was simply repeating what the readers of Genesis already knew, and what the rest of the Bible teaches as well.

The Bible refers to men as “sons of God” in nine different places (Deuteronomy 14:1, 32:5, Psalm 73:15, Isaiah 43:6-7, Hosea 1:10, 11:1, Luke 3:38, 1 John 3:1-2, 10). The text here seems simply to refer to men and women. And nothing in these verses ties these “sons of God and daughters of men” specifically to the flood which follows. They were simply populating the earth as God had commanded them (Genesis 1:28).

Now we come to another confusing reference: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown” (v. 4).

They are among the children produced by the “sons of God and daughters of men,” but nothing in the text ties them specifically to the coming Flood. They are simply figures in the biblical narrative.

So, we have “sons of God and daughters of men,” probably men and women who are marrying and having children. Among them were mighty warriors and heroes in the ancient Near East. Perhaps you’re wondering how any of this could be urgent, practical, and relevant, how it could apply to our lives today. Let’s read on.

As our text proceeds, we move quickly from confusion to clarity, from ancient history to life today. Verse 5 comes home: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”

God reads our minds and knows our thoughts. He knows how sinful they can be. He knows that we don’t put our thoughts into action because of legal restraints and fear of being caught. But he knows what we would do if we could. Think about your thoughts for a moment, and you’ll see what God sees every moment of every day.

If we could project on a screen what has been in your mind the last twenty-four hours, what would the congregation see? How embarrassed and ashamed would you be? That’s what God sees every moment of every day.

Such sin “grieves” the Lord and fills his heart with pain (v. 6). He is holy and cannot countenance or condone our sin. He must bring it to judgment, as he did with the Flood.

But now the good news dawns on the black horizon: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 8).

He “found” it—he didn’t earn it. He found “favor”—the Hebrew word means “to bend or stoop,” and describes the condescending and unmerited favor of a superior for an inferior. This is the Old Testament’s primary word for grace; this text is its first use in all of Scripture.

Through Noah, God extended this favor to the rest of mankind, as Noah warned the race of the coming judgment and Flood. Finally, God had to judge humanity, after mankind refused his grace and salvation. But only after he had given them every chance to be saved.

We are all in this passage, each of us a “son of God” or “daughter of men.” No matter how much “renown” we have earned in the eyes of others, each of us is guilty of sinful thoughts and hearts before the only Judge of the universe.

Will you admit that this text describes you? That you are as much in need of God’s “favor” as those who died in the Flood? That apart from God’s mercy you have no chance at heaven, no claim to salvation, no right to forgiveness? That your thoughts require God’s grace today?

Find his grace for your need

Since our thoughts determine our lives, it’s vital that we learn how to control them so that God can bless them. How?

First, seek the mind of Christ.

Consider these biblical imperatives:

  • “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5 KJV).
  • “Holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (Hebrews 3:1).
  • “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).

Make it your goal to think as Jesus thinks, to have his thoughts in your mind and heart. How?

Second, admit what is impure.

When we see ourselves in his light, we see all that is wrong in our minds and hearts. What next? “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:5-10).

Do a mental inventory this morning. Do you find sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lies? Get rid of the impure, so you can replace it with the pure. It doesn’t take much poison to pollute a bottle of drinking water.

Conduct this mental inventory every day before the Father. Ask the Spirit to show you the thoughts which must be removed. Spit out the poison before you swallow it into your soul.

Third, give your guilt to his grace.

When you find sin in your mind and life, and you confess it, the residual which remains behind is guilt. Guilt is not of God. Jesus condemned sin, never sinners.

Guilt is how the enemy punishes us when we fall into the temptation he lays before us. And it is the way we punish ourselves when God forgives us. We don’t want to be in debt to anyone, not even the Lord. If he won’t punish our sin, we’ll do it for him. We’ll carry guilt in our souls until we finally think we’ve paid its price. Some of us never finish paying that debt.

So, confess your sinful mind and life to God and claim his forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Rejoice in the fact that he has separated your sin from you as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), throwing it into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). Trust his promise: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25).

If he doesn’t remember our sins, why should we? The next time guilt attacks you, fight back. Claim the forgiveness you received when you confessed that sin, and say that the sin is gone, its debt paid, its guilt gone. The next time the guilt attacks, say it again. And again and again, until the guilt finally leaves. Give your guilt to his grace and find his favor today.

Last, fill your thoughts with God.

The Bible commands us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Spend time each morning and through the day in prayer and Bible study. Think about God often and practice his presence throughout the day. Stay connected to the source of your life, and you will have his pure and holy thoughts in your mind.


Anne Graham Lotz is not only Billy Graham’s daughter—she is also one of the most anointed communicators of biblical truth I have ever heard. My wife and I have been privileged to be her friend for many years and to share a speaking platform with her several times.

Anne’s ministry produces a daily devotional taken from her writings. I read it each morning and commend it to you most highly. This week, one of her devotionals noted:

“The One Who called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, promising to fully bless him if he would follow Him in a life of faith is the same Person Who today calls us out of the world and promises to bless us if we follow Him in a life of faith.

“The One Who delivered His children from bondage to slavery in Egypt with a titanic display of power is the same Person Who was crucified then rose from the dead to deliver His children today from the bondage of sin.

“The One Who halted the entire invasion of Canaan by the Israelites while He extended His grace to one Canaanite prostitute is the same Person today Who stops to care for and extend His grace to sinners.

“The One Who answered Elijah’s prayer and sent down the fire to consume the sacrifice on Mount Carmel and then sent down the rain to end the three-year drought in Israel is the same Person today Who hears and answers prayer.”

His grace is always greater than our guilt. Why do you need this fact today?

How to Handle Anger

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42

Natural disasters have dominated the headlines this week.

Wildfires are burning in California. Power has been cut to as many as three million customers as officials try to prevent further incidents that would make the fires even worse.

A tornado roared through Dallas last Sunday, causing $2 billion in losses. And a lightning strike in the Harbor destroyed an entire condo unit.

Other tragedies are manmade. A shooting Saturday night at a Texas A&M Commerce homecoming party killed two and left fourteen injured. And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of ISIS, is in the news with reports that he was killed in a raid Saturday night.

As we continue our conversation with the Sermon on the Mount, we come today to Jesus’ teachings about enemies, those who choose to hurt us. We all have them. Perhaps not on the scope and scale of those who attacked the homecoming party, or perpetrate horrific violence in the name of their religion, but they are nonetheless real and painful to us.

When I ask you to name the person who hurt you most recently or most deeply, what name comes to mind? Let’s ask Jesus how we should relate to that person today, to God’s glory and our good.

The law of retribution

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). And it was.

This statute, known to history as the Lex Talionis, is the oldest law in the world. It first appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, the man who ruled Babylon (ancient Iraq, ironically) from 2285 to 2242 BC. Exodus 21:24–25 states it clearly: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Note that the law was intended not to justify conflict but to limit it. Without it, if you scraped my car, I could wreck yours. If you injured my son, I could kill all your children. This law limited revenge.

It also took vengeance out of individual hands and put it into the courts. The judges of ancient Israel determined what constituted proper restitution for injury and levied monetary fines as a result. They developed elaborate ways to ensure the rights of all citizens.

The law of grace

Now Jesus adds: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist on your rights. Then he gives us four examples of this principle in action.

The first regards our honor: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (v. 39b).

The right hand was almost always the one used in public. So, to slap your right cheek with my right hand is an insult. This was not a threat to life and limb, but an insult to character and reputation. It was a sign of great contempt and abuse, so that the rabbinic fines for such an action were twice those of other physical injuries.

Jesus says: Do not retaliate. Do not slap back, though this would be within your rights. Do not prosecute for financial gain, though this also would be within your rights. Turn the other cheek instead. Do not insist on your rights.

Next Jesus speaks to our possessions: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (v. 40).

Shirt was the inner garment, an undershirt with sleeves. It could be taken in a lawsuit. But the coat could not—it was the outer garment which protected a poor person from the elements and served as his bed at night. And so, Exodus 22 forbids keeping the coat.

But not Jesus: “hand over your coat as well.” Even though it is your right to keep it, and he has no right to take it. Do not insist on your rights.

Now Jesus comes to an issue of great urgency for us today: our time. He says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (v. 41).

Here Jesus refers to a custom known and despised by every person who heard his sermon. A Roman soldier could require any Jew to carry his military pack for the distance of one mile. No matter where you were going or what you were doing, the soldier could “force” you to do this.

But none could force you to carry his pack for two miles. Jesus says to do it anyway. Sacrifice the time. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.

Finally he deals with our money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Give when you are asked to give and lend when you are asked to lend.

As St. Augustine commented, we are not told to give everything that is asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though you don’t owe this person anything. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.

Instead, return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. Do not lower yourself to the one who has taken from you. Simply refuse.

Choosing grace

West Texans taught me a crude but appropriate statement: The dog looks at the skunk and says, “I can beat you, but it’s not worth it.”

You can choose not to insult those who insult you, not to hurt those who hurt you. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.

You say, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.” Of course, you don’t. No human wants to be hurt, to give up his right to revenge or justice. But do it anyway. And as you act in love, your feelings will follow.

And ask the Spirit to help you. We cannot fulfill the word of God without the Spirit of God. The same Spirit who empowered Jesus will empower us. The same Spirit who inspired the word of God will empower the people of God.

Name the person with whom you are in conflict. Ask the Spirit to help you be the presence of Christ. And trust that he will as you take your next step in grace.

C. S. Lewis: “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. . . . The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or ‘likings’ and the Christian has only ‘charity.’ The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning” (Mere Christianity 116, 117).


Jesus’ teaching is clear: We are to return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.

Heed his example: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

He was insulted for us and suffered for us. He wore our sins on his body, our failures on his soul. He had the right to call ten thousand angels to his side, to end his crucifixion before it began, to condemn all of humanity to a hell we deserve. But he did not claim his rights.

Now he invites us to faith in him, to experience his forgiveness for our sins and the eternal life he died to give. Do you have his eternal life today?

If so, where will you share it with someone else? What personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Will you show the selfless love of Jesus Christ to that person this week?

During the horrific Thirty Years War (1618–1648), a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius offered this maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Let’s choose all three, to the glory of God.

It is Always Too Soon to Give Up on God

Topical Scripture: John 3:1–8

Super Bowl LIV will be played this evening. To celebrate, Americans will eat 1.3 billion chicken wings and eight million pounds of guacamole. In fact, we will consume more food today than on any day of the year except Thanksgiving. But beware: antacid sales will increase by 20 percent tomorrow, and 1.5 million Americans will call in sick.

And when the game is over, the “real world” will be waiting.

President Trump’s impeachment trial will continue this week. Whatever your position on impeachment and your thoughts regarding Mr. Trump, he is our president and we are called to pray for him (1 Timothy 2:2).

The other figure dominating the news has been Kobe Bryant. Coverage has focused on his basketball brilliance and his personal failings. Few have noted his Catholic faith, a commitment that became much stronger in recent years.

Last Sunday, two hours before he boarded the helicopter on which he died, Bryant prayed before the 7 am Mass at his parish church in Newport Beach, California.

Are you concerned for someone who does not seem to be moving in the right direction personally? Someone who is making the wrong choices, someone who seems to be retreating from God rather than moving closer to him?

Are you dealing with an area in your life that is not what God wants for you? The Puritans spoke of “besetting sins,” those areas of recurring spiritual failures in our lives. Are you struggling with such a sin and wondering if you’ll ever defeat it?

As we continue watching Jesus change lives, today we’ll meet a man who was a combination of political leader and celebrity. We’ll see what happened when he first talked with our Lord. Then we’ll see what happened years later. And we’ll learn that it is always too soon to give up on God.

Meeting Nicodemus

Our story begins: “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1). This man had done everything his society deemed necessary for success. He was everything most of us want to be.

Nicodemus was powerful—in fact, he achieved more power than it is possible to possess in our society today. His name meant “conqueror of the people.” Clearly his parents envisioned great power for their baby boy. Imagine naming your infant son Napoleon or Alexander the Great. He was born with a gavel in his hand, bred for success, raised to conquer.

And he fulfilled his parents’ wildest dreams and fondest hopes. How many of us want our son or daughter to be president of the United States? A member of the Supreme Court? A senator or representative? Nicodemus did all that and more.

He was a ruler of the Jews, otherwise translated as a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1b). This group was known as the “Sanhedrin”—seventy men who constituted the Supreme Court of their nation. They possessed ruling authority over every Jew anywhere in the world. They were the court of final appeal. Even the High Priest was subject to their rulings.

If our nation had one ruling body which combined the power of the Supreme Court and the House and Senate, and also possessed authority over the president and the military, that body would be their Sanhedrin. And Nicodemus was one of its members. There was no more powerful position in all the land.

Nicodemus was wealthy as well. After Jesus’ assassination, he donated seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes to help bury his crucified body (John 19:38–40.). This was the kind and amount of burial material normally used only for a king and a very expensive gift.

He was part of the Jewish aristocracy, a very wealthy man. If Forbes magazine had run a profile on Israel’s richest men, his picture would have been in the article. Probably on its cover.

And Nicodemus was spiritual—one of the most religious men in the nation, in fact. He was a Pharisee (John 3:1). There were never more than six thousand of them in ancient Israel. Their name meant “Separated Ones,” for that’s what they were—separated from all ordinary life to keep every detail of the Jewish law. The dietary codes, Sabbath regulations, everything. They were the Marine Corp of ancient Israel, the holiest men on earth in the eyes of their culture.

And Nicodemus wasn’t just any Pharisee. He was “Israel’s teacher” (v. 10), a special kind of religious scholar, the man who taught other Pharisees their theology. Dean of the School of Theology, we would call him. We can find no more religious man in all the Scriptures.

If believing in God and being good could lead us to eternal life, it would have worked for Nicodemus. But it didn’t, because it can’t. Good works and intellectual belief are the wrong present to unwrap if you’re looking for heaven today.

Meeting Jesus

Our text continues: “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (v. 2). This is a remarkable statement and seems to be an amazing opportunity for Jesus to recruit this man to his movement.

However, our Lord’s response to Nicodemus would have made any political strategist cringe. After this powerful, wealthy, religious leader has complimented him on his miraculous works and divine inspiration, we’d expect the Galilean carpenter to be pleased, to affirm his admirer’s faith and faithfulness. His response is just the opposite: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God'” (v. 3).

Why did Jesus reply to Nicodemus in such blunt terms? How does his response help us find God and the eternal life he alone can give?

Admit your need of grace

The simple truth is that no one can “see the kingdom of God” in his or her own abilities. The “kingdom of God” is that place where God is king. Jesus defined the kingdom best in the Model Prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s kingdom comes wherever and whenever his will is done.

Our problem is simple: none of us can do the will of God in our strength. None of us is powerful, wealthy, or religious enough to be perfect. God says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Like Nicodemus, we need to be “born again.” We need a new life and a fresh start. We need to begin again, to get to that place of innocence which was ours when we were first born and had not yet sinned against God. We need to be as innocent as a baby, or we cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Ask for the new birth of God

Nicodemus was confused, asking Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). Jesus responded: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Then he explained, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6).

In other words, “water” refers to our physical birth, just as being born of the Spirit refers to our spiritual birth. Such a gift cannot be quantified or manufactured by human effort any more than the wind can be controlled or predicted by human wisdom.

Jesus was clear on this: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (vv. 7–8).

Three things God cannot do

John 3:16, the most famous verse in Scripture, summarizes: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

A fellow student in my college preaching class delivered a sermon on this text under the title, “Three things God cannot do.” You thought God could do everything, correct? According to my friend, there are three things he cannot do.

One: He loves us so much that he cannot love us any more than he already does: “For God so loved the world.” Two: He has given us so much that he cannot give us any more than he already has: “that he gave his only Son.” Three: He has made salvation so simple that he cannot make it any simpler: “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

My friend was right. What was true for Nicodemus is true for any of us today.

Burying and serving his king

The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus ends without an ending. We aren’t told how Nicodemus responded or what he did next.

But fast forward. Later in Jesus’ ministry, the religious leaders sought to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus responded to them: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51).

After our Lord’s death, a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for his body. Then we read: “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:39–40).

This was an extravagant act, one typically given to a king. Nicodemus’ sacrifice shows that he truly saw Jesus as the King of kings.

With this, Nicodemus leaves the pages of Scripture. Later tradition added that he testified on Jesus’ behalf before Pilate, that he was deprived of office and banished from Jerusalem as a result, and that he was baptized by Peter and John. Some say he was beaten to death by hostile crowds for testifying to his faith. It is also said that he was buried in the same grave as Stephen.


We cannot know any of that as historical fact. But we can know that a man who came to Jesus by night eventually testified for him by day and paid a high price to honor the one he came to serve as his king.

Nicodemus proves that Jesus can change any heart that is willing to be changed.

George Mueller was a great evangelist and orphanage director. At one point, he began to pray for the conversion of five men. He prayed for the first for eighteen months before he came to faith. He prayed another five years before the second man was converted.

Mueller prayed another six years before the third came to Christ. He prayed for the other two men for another forty years, fifty-two years in total, until both came to faith.

It is always too soon to give up on God.

How is this fact relevant to your soul today?

The Formula for Eternal Significance

Topical Scripture: Luke 19:1–10

It’s been a confusing week in the news.

Prince Harry and Meghan have been negotiating with the Queen of England to resolve their status as members of the royal family but not. They will give up their royal titles and duties and repay the funds used to refurbish their UK home, but they can maintain their private patronages and associations.

President Trump signed an historic trade agreement with China on Wednesday, then the Senate ratified his revised North American trade agreement on Thursday; in between the two events, the House delivered formal impeachment articles against him.

The manager and general manager of the Houston Astros have been penalized for their role in the sign-stealing scandal, but the team retained its World Series title. The manager of the Boston Red Sox was fired for his role in the same scandal, but his team retained its World Series title. Now the Los Angeles City Council will vote on a resolution urging baseball to award both championships to the Dodgers, who lost to the two teams.

We live in a confusing, performance-driven culture based on grades. Jesus offers us a simplified, purpose-driven life based on grace.

This season, as we walk from Christmas to Easter, we’re focusing on the uniqueness of Jesus. Last week we discussed the uniqueness of his power. If he could heal a leper with just a touch and a centurion’s servant with just a word, his power is greater than our needs, whatever they might be.

Today we’ll focus on the uniqueness of his grace. Despite what the world thinks of us, despite what we have won and what we have lost, Jesus focuses not on what we have done or what we have but on what he can do with us. No matter your past burdens or your present problems, God has a future in mind for you that is greater than your greatest dream.

We’ll meet a man whose story proves that fact, then we’ll decide whether to make his story our own.

“He was a chief tax collector”

Our text begins: “[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:1–2a). His name means “pure one,” which was tragically ironic until Jesus made it true.

What did our Lord see in this man?

It was certainly not what he had done: “He was a chief tax collector” (v. 2b). In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were the most hated people in any town, for two reasons.

First, they were traitors. They were Jews collecting money for the hated Romans. If you’re a Jew living in Poland when the Nazis capture your town and the next week your neighbor comes knocking, collecting taxes for the new government, you’d be no more outraged than the people of Jericho were with Zacchaeus.

Second, they were corrupt. Rome charged a certain amount per person in taxes, then allowed the tax collectors to take anything above that they wanted for themselves. Zacchaeus could stop you on the road and charge you tax for the road. He could tax you for your cart and each wheel on it, for the animal drawing the cart, and for the bags it carried. And Roman soldiers stood guard to protect him and enforce his greed.

As a result, people like Zacchaeus were the social lepers of their day. They were grouped with murderers and robbers in the mind of the public. They were barred from the Jewish synagogue. A Roman writer says with amazement that he once saw a monument to an honest tax collector.

Yet, Jesus chose him.

It was not for what he had, either. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus “was rich” (v. 2c). He had grown wealthy through his corruption. In fact, some scholars believe that he was likely the wealthiest man in his city of one hundred thousand people. Given its size and location, this was one of the greatest taxation centers in the entire region of the Empire.

This is how we know he was abusing the system. If he had merely collected what Rome asked, he would have been provided for, but he would not have become rich. His extreme wealth shows the level of his corruption at the sacrifice of his fellow Jews.

Later on, Zacchaeus gives half of his belongings to the poor and has enough left over to repay the people of Jericho four times what he had taken from them. He was extraordinarily rich.

But Jesus didn’t choose him for his wealth.

“I must stay at your house today”

Our Lord focused not on what Zacchaeus had done or what he had, but on what he could be.

The story continues: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature” (v. 3). He was so hated by the people that they would not let him through. And he was so short that he could not see over them.

So “he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way” (v. 4). This is a wide-open tree with a short trunk and low branches. It is easily climbed. It would become associated with Zacchaeus from his day to ours.

What came next must have shocked Zacchaeus as much as it did the rest of the crowd: “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today'” (v. 5).

Note three facts.

First, Jesus “looked up.” In such a crowd, others would have been looking down and around, but Jesus “looked up.” He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go out looking for the one.

Is he looking up at you today?

Second, he called Zacchaeus by name. We have no evidence that the two had ever met. But just as God called Moses by name at the burning bush, and Samuel by name as a boy, and Saul by name on the road to Damascus, he calls this notorious sinner by name.

Did you know that he knows your name?

Third, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. In fact, he says, he “must” stay at his house that day. He did not wait for Zacchaeus to come to him—he came to this man. To this notorious, hated man, Public Enemy #1 in his city. Imagine the most ungodly, hated, despised person in your town, then imagine Jesus inviting himself over.

Does he want to go to your home today?

“Today salvation has come to this house”

Zacchaeus did not wait: “He hurried and came down and received him joyfully” (v. 6). Unsurprisingly, when the crowd saw this, “they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner'” (v. 7).

Now watch what happens: “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor” (v. 8a). He calls Jesus his “Lord,” his Master. Then he proves his witness by his works, giving half of what he has to the poor in his city. This is present tense, indicating an action he is performing right now, perhaps through his servants.

Even more astoundingly, he adds, “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8b). Jewish law required that a man caught stealing return what he stole four- or five-fold (Exodus 22:1). But, if the thief admitted his crime voluntarily, he was required only to return what he had stolen plus one-fifth (Leviticus 6:5; Numbers 5:7).

Zacchaeus gave back far more than he was required to give. But he has experienced the uniqueness of Jesus’ grace, and he must give grace to others in response.

Jesus responded: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (vv. 9–10). Now he calls us to give the world what he has given to us.


Jesus is looking at you now and calling your name. He wants to come home with you and make your home his own.

If he could forgive Zacchaeus, he can forgive you. If he could use Zacchaeus, he can use you. What the crowd says about you doesn’t matter. What the Christ says about you is the truth.

Our problem is that we measure ourselves by what we think we can do for Jesus. And we all know our failures, our faults, our frailties. We all know how little we can actually do for the God of the universe.

The question is not, what can you do for Jesus? The question is, what can Jesus do with you?

Is Jesus in charge of every dimension of your life? Is he in charge of the money you keep as well as the money you spend and donate? Is he in charge of your time in private as well as public? Is he in charge of your marriage and family, every moment of the day? Is he in charge of your weaknesses as well as your strengths?

He can do so much more with us than we can do for him. To limit to our finite capacities the One who stilled the storm, healed the leper, and raised the dead, is the sin of self-reliance. To be used by the Son of God to change our Jericho is the result of self-surrender.

Whatever it takes, whatever he asks, whatever the cost—that’s the formula for eternal significance.

Tony Evans is right: “God will meet you where you are in order to take you where he wants you to go.”

Is Jesus calling your name today?

The Redeeming Grace of Christmas

Topical Scripture: Revelation 13:8; Romans 5:8

Here are some Christmas facts I didn’t know:

  • The Germans made the first artificial Christmas trees out of dyed goose feathers.
  • Most of Santa’s reindeer have male-sounding names. However, male reindeers shed their antlers around Christmas. Thus, the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are likely female.
  • Two weeks before Christmas is one of the most popular times of the year for couples to break up. (Perhaps they’re trying to avoid getting gifts for each other?) However, Christmas Day is the least favorite day for breakups. So, you have only ten days to go.

Today we’re discussing the grace of Christmas. Not only is it unlikely that your loved one will break up with you today—your loving Father never will.

I read this week that Billy Graham’s favorite hymns include Just As I Am. This is not a surprise: he made it the title of his autobiography, and it was sung at the close of his crusades for more than sixty years.

He explained why: “It has special meaning to all of us because they don’t have to go home and rearrange their lives; they can come just as they are, no matter how they are dressed, no matter what language they speak or what their sins are in their background. They come to Christ and He puts His arms of love around them, forgives them and changes them.”

This Advent season, we’re learning what Christmas can teach us about Christ. We’ve explored his power and his humility. Today we’ll focus on the theme Dr. Graham so loved: Jesus’ redeeming grace.

Here’s what we’ll learn today: our past is no barrier to God’s future. How we begin the race is not as important as how we finish.

What in your past bothers you today? What guilt or burdens or failures are on your heart? Let’s learn to find God’s Christmas grace wherever we need his grace the most.

“While we were still sinners”

The book of Revelation describes Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (13:8 NIV). 1 Peter 1 describes “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (v. 19) and says that “he was foreknown before the foundation of the world” (v. 20).

In other words, before God made the world, his Son was already a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world.

Romans 5:8 makes this fact plain: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “While we were still sinners”—before we had done one thing to earn God’s forgiveness, Jesus died for us.

Here’s the point to understand: Jesus chose to die for you before you committed your first sin. He knew your forgiveness would cost him his life, but he chose to create you anyway. And every other person in our race with you.

There is nothing we can do to earn such love, because it was decided before we even existed. His redeeming grace is like a house you build for your children and their children before your children are born. It is like a soldier who dies for a country that does not yet exist but his death helps create.

Would you have a second child if you knew that second child would murder your first child? We are God’s second children. And he chose to make us, and his first child chose to die for us, anyway.

Yesterday, Navy defeated Army in their annual football game. But the significance of the game is less the score than the commitment of those on the field to their mission. Clint Bruce, a former Navy Seal and friend of mine, once said that Army-Navy is “the only game in the world where every person on the field is willing to die for every person in the stands.”

Such sacrificial love is the grace of Christmas.

“So that we might receive adoption as sons”

All through Scripture we see the same theme: our past is no barrier to God’s future.

The Jewish people had sinned against their Lord constantly across the centuries leading up to Christmas. They worshipped Baal, the Canaanite pagan fertility god that required all sorts of horrific immorality; and Molech, an even more horrific pagan god that required child sacrifice. They rejected God’s prophets and spurned his revelation. They no more deserved a Savior than we do.

Nonetheless, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).

We see his choice to redeem our past for his future in the shepherds of Christmas, men whose ritual impurity and immoral lives barred them from the temple or the synagogue. And yet he invited them to witness the birth of the King. We see it in the pagan astrologers, Persians who worshiped a plethora of gods but who were invited to worship the one true God.

We see it in the apostolic leader he chose, a Galilean fisherman who would deny him three times but then preach the Pentecost sermon and lead the advance of the kingdom. We see it in the missionary leader he chose, a rampaging Pharisee who led his people to prison and death but who later led them to reach the Roman Empire and wrote half of the New Testament.

My favorite Christmas card

This is a theme unlike any you will find in any of the world’s religions.

As I’ve noted before, the difference between them and Christianity is this: they claim to show us how we can climb up to God, while in Christianity, God climbs down to us. The way to do this, they say, is to find ways to atone for our mistakes and failures so God or the gods will accept us.

The Jews did so through sacrifices and now through good works. The Muslims do so through obedience to the Qur’an, praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving to the poor, and making pilgrimage to Mecca. Hindus believe they must go through multiple reincarnations before the karma, the law of cause and effect, purifies them for moksha, when they are absorbed into Brahman. Buddhists strive to cease wrong desires to cease suffering, hoping that through the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path they can earn their way to nirvana, their version of absorption into reality.

Three transforming facts

Here’s why the world’s religions, with their works-righteousness to atone for guilt, remain popular: they appeal to our fallen humanity. There’s something in us that wants to justify ourselves, to earn our way, to do it our way. We are willing to forgive others but hate asking others to forgive us. We want to pay our debts and be a debtor to none.

Even to God.

If God won’t punish us for our sins, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll make ourselves feel enough guilt and do enough good that one day, we hope, we’ll feel that we’ve squared our accounts and paid our debts. Much of the good done in the world is done for this reason—to pay for the past and secure a better future.

But guilt-based religion is a pale substitute for grace-based relationship, for three reasons.

One: We can never do enough good to outweigh the guilt in our hearts. The first does not accomplish the second. It’s like wearing a stained shirt to feed the poor or help the homeless—we can feel good about the good we do while wearing it, but the stains remain. Only God’s grace can remove our guilt.

Two: We will never win the world to guilt-based religion. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means everyone else has guilt in their hearts just as we do. They’re all trying to be good enough to feel good about themselves and perhaps to earn their way into heaven. If we offer them another lane on the same freeway, why would they take it?

I used to think that Christianity was about going to church and trying to be good. I couldn’t see that Christians were any better than I was, so I didn’t see why I needed to go to church. And I was already trying to be good.

When I met Christians who had a sense of peace, purpose, and joy I had never encountered, that was when I was drawn to their faith. Not by guilt-based religion but by their grace-based relationship with Jesus.

Three: Grace-based relationship will transform your life and your world. Imagine stepping into heaven and knowing that your past is gone, forever. Imagine knowing that all your failures, your mistakes, your sins and your guilt, are no more. They are part of your old life in your old world. They are gone, forgotten forever.

How much joy will you feel in that moment? To know that you are forgiven and free forever?

That’s the joy you can feel right now, because of Christmas. Because Christ was born to die that you might be born again to live forever. Because Christ chose to die before he made you, so he could remake you. Because “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Because of the redeeming grace of Christmas. Sharing that grace will change every life it touches until it changes the world.


Where do you need this grace the most today? Claim the Christmas grace of your loving Lord.

Who do you know who needs such grace from you? Who needs your forgiveness as you have needed the forgiveness of God? Who needs your love as you have experienced his? Who needs your help and encouragement as you have received his? How can you pay forward what you have received?

One of the first stories I ever remember hearing in a sermon was about a boy who built a red model sailboat. He worked on it for days until it was just right. Then he took it down to the creek behind his house to sail it.

Unfortunately, the string he attached to it was too weak for the wind that caught its sails. The string broke and he had to watch his red boat sail down the creek and out of sight. He was heartbroken.

Days later, he happened to walk by a second-hand store and saw his sailboat in the window! He was overjoyed. He ran inside and told the man at the counter, “That’s my boat in your window. I made it and it’s mine.”

The man said, “Son, I paid someone for that boat. If you want it back, you’ll have to pay for it.” The boy was angry but determined.

He worked every job he could find until finally he put together enough money to buy back his boat. It was a joyful day when he marched into the second-hand shop, put his money on the counter, and took his boat from the window.

As the boy carried his red sailboat home, he said to it: “Now you’re mine twice. I made you the first time, and I bought you the second.”

Let us pray.

Touching the Face of God

Topical Scripture: Psalm 8

It’s been an interesting week for Mother Nature. The longest lunar eclipse of the century occurred nine days ago, though people in North America were unable to see it. Mars was closer to Earth last week than it has been since 2003. It won’t be closer to us for another 269 years.

The Moon and Venus were amazingly proximate to each other last month. And next Saturday, we’ll be treated to a partial solar eclipse, followed by the Perseid Meteor Shower next Sunday and Monday.

While the skies have been fascinating, the news from nature on the ground has been heartbreaking.

This week, there were sixteen active wildfires burning across California. One story was especially devastating: a man went to a doctor’s appointment, leaving his wife and their two great-grandchildren at home. A wildfire came up the hill to their back door. They called him for help, but he couldn’t get back in time. He was on the phone with them when the fire consumed their home and killed them.

From the floods on the East Coast to the extreme heat in the southwest and severe storms in the Midwest, the weather has been catastrophic. When the world God made turns deadly, it’s hard not to fault its Creator. If your new car breaks down, you’ll blame the manufacturer. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t come with a warranty.

We know that we live in a fallen world (Romans 8:22), that natural disasters didn’t happen in the Garden of Eden. But the Bible is filled with times God intervened in the world he made, from parting the Red Sea to parting the flooded Jordan River to stilling the Sea of Galilee. When he doesn’t intervene today, we ask why and wonder how we can trust him with the storms in our own lives.

The miracle of creation

Psalm 8 begins: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (v. 1a). “Lord” translates YHWH, God’s personal name that he revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14). “Our Lord” translates Adonai, God’s collective name as ruler of all people and creation.

In other words, he is both our personal God and our universal King.

His “name” denotes his character. In this case, his character is “majestic” (the Hebrew means “magnificent, splendid, powerful”). It is so “in all the earth,” not just in Israel. In a time when people believed in territorial deities who ruled specific nations or areas, David knew that his God was the true Lord of the world.

Let’s think about the world God rules for a moment.

If we were standing at our planet’s equator, we would be spinning at a thousand miles an hour. (On the poles, we would be standing still but turning in a circle.) Wherever we are, we are on a planet that is traveling through space at 67,000 miles an hour.

Life on Earth ranges from bacteria so small that 13,000 of them would fit inside a single strand of human hair to redwoods that grow more than three hundred feet tall. And our God made all of that.

What’s more, he is Lord of the entire universe: “You have set your glory above the heavens” (v. 1b).

Imagine yourself outside on a clear night in the country. You may see a few hundred stars, but that’s out of several hundred billion in our galaxy.

And there are one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. As telescope technology in space improves, that number is likely to double to about two hundred billion. Not stars or planets, but galaxies.

Scientists estimate that there are one billion trillion stars in the observable universe. (That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.) And that number will increase as we can see further into God’s heavens.

Your Father made all of that.

The miracle of man

Now David turns his attention to us: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (vv. 3–4). It’s an excellent question.

Compared to the rest of his creation, we are amazingly fragile creatures. A human baby is completely defenseless, compared with ducks that can swim and horses that can walk shortly after birth. We are also the only species that sins against our Maker.

As Mark Twain observed, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Nonetheless, as David continues, “You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (v. 5). Here he refers to angels who dwell above us in heaven.

God has crowned us “with glory and honor”—the phrase could be translated, “impressive splendor.” We are indeed impressive and splendid.

Your blood vessels, if connected in a straight line, would circle the globe four times. If your DNA were uncoiled, it would stretch from Earth to Pluto and back. There are more connections in your brain than stars in the Milky Way galaxy. There are 5,000 times more cells in your body than there are people on the planet.

In addition to making us, God made the world for us: “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (vv. 6–8).

“Sheep and oxen” refers to domesticated animals, while “beasts of the field” points to wild animals. We are over the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, and all that lives in the oceans. Animals, birds, fish—all are under our dominion.

According to a 2011 count, the natural world contains 8.7 million species of life. There are 18,000 species of birds, more than 5,000 species of mammals, and more than two million species of marine life. God placed us over all of this.

We have done nothing to deserve any of this.

Our place in God’s creative order is not the result of our merit, but his favor. He has given us the intellectual and physical abilities to fulfill his created purpose for us. We can no more take credit for our mastery over beasts, birds, and fish than we can take credit for our height or eye color. All is by his grace.

The miracle of grace

Then our Father demonstrated his grace even more miraculously. Not just by making our world or by making us, but by entering our world as one of us.

His Son left his throne in glory for our crown of thorns. He left the worship of angels for the ridicule of crowds. The One who made all of life chose to die.

The sinless Son of God became sin for us, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Now, because of his grace, we can have not just life but eternal life. We can live not just on this fallen planet but in his perfect paradise. We can know God not just as our Creator but as our Father.

All is by his grace.

What does the creative, miraculous, gracious love of our Father mean for us in a world filled with disease and disaster? It means this: we have a choice to make: we can choose to see our Creator through the prism of what we don’t understand about his creation, or through the prism of what we do understand about his creation.

We can lean into the disasters and diseases in our fallen world and hold God responsible for them. We can do this, even though the world is broken because of the Fall and human sin, not because of his providence (Romans 8:22). Since we don’t understand why he allows the storms of our world, we can decide not to trust him with the storms in our lives.

Or we can lean into the wonders and majesty of creation and glorify their Creator as a result. We can measure what we don’t understand by what we do understand. We can decide that a God who can make bacteria so tiny that 13,000 can fit into a human hair can care for us. We can decide that a God who can make a body with enough DNA to stretch to Pluto and back can design our lives. We can decide that a King who rules a universe with one billion trillion stars can rule us.

When we do, we’ll say with David: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”


John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was a young pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, killed in action during World War II. Among his effects was found this poem:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbled mirth

of sunsplit clouds—and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and

swung—high in the sunlit silence.

Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting winds along,

and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air,

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue, I’ve topped

the windswept heights with easy grace,

Where never lark or even eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high

untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

So can we.