Grasping the Grace, Hitting the Heart
Editor’s note: This article comes from a Chinese house church pastor. He is responding to a preaching workshop conducted in Shanghai by an American pastor. The workshop focused on preaching through the Gospel of John. The China Partnership is working with the American pastor to develop a curriculum on gospel-centered preaching.
What touched me most in attending the preaching training on the book of John is that our expository sermons should grasp the grace of our Lord. He is the Lord of grace and cares not for our worship, unless we worship in spirit. We must interpret and grasp grace more profoundly.
In John, we see that Jesus attends a wedding, happy and excited, abundantly providing wine to people, bringing us a lot of comfort and joy. Jesus also publicly, radically takes on the work of cleansing [the temple.] The same Lord stands behind both events. If Jesus breaks into our lives, on the one hand providing food and on the other hand turning over tables, these direct images reveal to us his authority.
Why is there a need for sacrifice? Why is there a need for blood? Prayer was the last thing people were doing [at the temple,] and therefore Jesus is angry. Jesus says, "My Father's house, is it only for possession?" He is the holy temple. Without his sacrifice, it would be impossible for us to change. The wedding feast reveals the grace he bestows; cleansing the temple reveals that people need to recognize grace.
Nicodemus comes to talk about theology with Jesus. But contrary to what Nicodemus wants, Jesus teaches that repentance comes from a regeneration that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Only when the Holy Spirit awakens our hearts can we see God’s light. We cannot have the ability to respond unless Jesus calls us, the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and our hearts are changed.
Paul says that we were dead in our transgressions and sins. He uses “were” rather than “are” or “will be.” We have no capability to be born again. We need a power from outside of us to be born again, a power which comes from nowhere but God. Being born again transforms and transcends our lives, which means that we possess a brand new form of life. It gives us greater ability to see a kingdom that non-believers cannot see and to boast a life character that non-believers cannot have. We thus have heavenly eyes to see God’s kingdom.
The way Jesus answers the Samaritan woman demonstrates his ability to point out all our sins. It is God’s work to condemn our sins, yet not destroy us, but rather to build us. The evil spirit accuses and condemns our sins in order to bind us more tightly and to get us further away from God. God knows everything about us, but he still loves us and does not reject us. We have no way to worship in spirit and in truth unless we are born again in spirit and in truth. Life comes before worship. Life comes from God’s grace.
John 8 is a classic picture of grace. It is awful and shameful to be caught in adultery. The profound distinction between Jesus and all other religions is grace. Love pushes you to benefit those in need. However, grace benefits those who have no worth at all. I was his foe, offending and hurting him with sinful behavior. I deserve his punishment, and yet he responds to me with love and blessings - this is grace. While we deserve punishment, he does not punish, but bestows love on us - this is grace. Grace means a great cost on the part of the giver and a great gift to the receiver. This shocks us.
Jesus, high above, came down to live with lowly people. More than living with us, he became a lowly one himself. Leaving his place as King, he became a slave. He not only lived with people, but also became poor. He came not to be served by many, but to serve many.
It is a love of greatness and no other love can compete with it. The Son has glorified the Father and the Father, the Son. They love each other, praise each other, and enjoy each other. If you are self-centered, you are fixed and demand all to turn around you. But the love of the Triune God is dynamic. The fathers in the early church period described this relationship as participating in one another, like dancing. The relationship among them is focused on the others and is internally dynamic with the oneness of union.
Jesus prays for this same oneness for the church, which is the foundation of the church as one body. The strength of the church as one body lies in the Triune God, rooted in his oneness, with Jesus as the High Priest praying for us. In the church, you shall say to your brothers and sisters, “You need to turn around me and I around you; you need to join in my life, and I in yours. We need to dance with one another like the Triune God.” In time, we should be able to say that there are parts of each other’s lives that we need. We should be able to say to each other that if we do not join in the dance of the church, our lives will lose their most important parts.
We need to hit the heart because the work of Jesus is to hit our hearts. The change of our hearts is the most significant. When your wife points out your sin, you will not listen to her when she asks you to do something if your heart is not being changed. The change of the heart is the starting place. Certainly, only after the heart changes can we take action.
It is crucial to do a “heart operation” if we want to learn about our hearts. Do not expect hearts to change quickly since the heart is complicatedly bound up. The surgical knife is a helpful tool - in some people’s hands it brings only some healing pain, but in other’s hands it may be lethal and bring death. One must use it with wisdom. Grace changes our heart, but the change is painful. Therefore, we need to preach the lifelong gospel of grace in order to take every thought captive and make it obey Christ, so that God’s people can be called together to worship him.
As preachers, we need to carefully apply the connections of the gospel and discover Christ’s redemption in the scriptures. Rigid connections and applications should be avoided and replaced by living, vivid, and meticulous interpretation and application. Be patient and accompany your brothers and sisters. Don’t give rushed conclusions. We need to guard against becoming more and more familiar with scripture while losing its pleasant surprises.
I am grateful that our Lord of grace gives us his words and his revelation to enable us to understand his will, knowing his work and grace. My wish is that we can follow his steps joyfully and happily, by his grace to us, in order to accomplish the great commission that he gave first to the disciples and also to us now. Let us be the good soldiers of Christ and fight the good fight.