Paul does exactly the same with the word charis. He takes it out of the commonplace and clothes it with a wonderful new meaning. From the condescending, patronising favour of a superior, Paul turns charis into the most expressive word in our Christian language. So much did Paul love this word that often he could not leave it to stand on its own but felt that he must adorn it with adjectives or adverbs. He writes of ‘much more grace’, ‘abundant grace’, ‘superabundant grace’, ‘abounding grace’, ‘reigning grace’, ‘exceeding grace’, ‘exceeding abundant grace’, ‘glorious grace’, ‘sufficient grace’ and even, ‘incomparable riches of grace’.
For Paul, grace was the only way to explain his salvation, it was the key to all his benefits in the Christian life, it was the single-word summary of his message to the world and the only guarantee that the One who had found him would never lose him. God’s choice of his people is ‘of grace’, we are justified freely ‘by grace’ and saved ‘by grace’, we have access to God ‘through grace’ and all spiritual gifts come to us ‘according to grace’.
Paul seems to have made a conscious decision to commandeer this word grace in order to express God’s response to us. He never once soils it by using it to describe our response to God. On just two occasions in his letters Paul allows himself the use of the word charis to describe our relationship to each other. In 2 Corinthians 8:6–7 he writes of the ‘act of grace’ when he refers to the church’s giving, and in Colossians 4:6 he urges that our speech should always be ‘gracious’—although even these have a clear God-ward dimension. Beyond this, the word belongs to God. If every other word was denied him, grace is the one Paul would retain to explain the very heart of his gospel. If you asked him how sinners could be rescued from themselves, from Satan and from hell, he would reply simply, ‘By grace’; and if you enquired on what ground this could be, he would respond, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’.
Grace is perfect, all-embracing and costly, because grace is expressed ultimately in Jesus Christ who is, in himself, the fullness of grace.
Though grace is ubiquitous—it is everywhere—it is recognised by only a few, embraced by even fewer, and understood fully by none. Grace is often a mystery, a puzzle. There is an enigma about grace. It is present above the mindless destruction and passionate hatred of men; it is there in our shattered plans, frustrated expectations, and broken hearts; and it is to be found even in the dull grind of our daily routine. Can grace really be present here on earth always and everywhere? Yes, because the absence of grace is hell.
For Saul of Tarsus there was nothing more wonderfully reassuring than to receive grace, and there was nothing more dreadful than to come close to it and then to ‘fall away from grace’. The most glorious experience known to Paul was to be embraced by grace—and the most terrifying possibility was to reject it.
John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, one mile down river from the Tower of London, and he died eighty-two years later barely one mile away in the City. His life in between is well summed up by his own epitaph written on a plain marble slab that can be found in the parish church of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. Part of it reads:
once an infidel and libertine
a servant of slaves in Africa
by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
preserved, restored, pardoned
and appointed to preach the faith
he had longed laboured to destroy.
Abandoning his mother’s Christian faith, the young Newton became an arrogant unbeliever. Having rejected God and his conscience, he considered that he was free to live as he pleased—and he did! As a blaspheming, drunken, promiscuous sailor, he filled up his teenage years until, herded onto a warship and pressed into His Majesty’s service at the age of nineteen, he refined his anti-Christ philosophy and dragged others with him. Eventually Newton turned up in West Africa as a slave trader and sunk so low that he became the pity and scorn of slaves himself.
In March 1748 John Newton was on his way back to England when a violent storm smashed into the little ship Greyhound and for weeks the crew nursed their shattered boat across the Atlantic, expecting a choking grave with every shift of wind. In his terror Newton called out to God for help and his prayer was heard. After days of remorseless battering by the ocean and his conscience, John yielded to the claims of Christ, believed the promises of God’s word, and received his first hope of forgiveness. Somewhere on board the broken ship Newton found a little book of sermons, and one in particular he read over and over again, it was based on the words of John the Baptist recorded in John 1:29, ‘Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world’. The Easter sermon was entitled, ‘The merits of Christ’s passion’, and in it he read these words: ‘We can think and talk of Christ dying for our sins and yet live in them. We can hear of his being accused and condemned and yet not condemn nor so much as accuse ourselves for our sin. We can read over the whole history of our Saviour’s passion with dry eyes, and be no more troubled at it than if we had been in no way concerned in it.’ As the shivering, starving sailor read those words he knew they were so true of him. He had for too long responded to the death of Christ exactly like that. Newton read on and learned that Christ had come to take away sin, ‘Not only for some particular sins but sin in general, sin as sin … the strength as well as the guilt of our sin, our inclination to it, as well as our obligation to punishment for it.’
Just four weeks after the terrifying storm that almost sank Newton’s hope of salvation, the broken Greyhound struggled into Lough Swilly, one of the northernmost points of Ireland. The date was 8 April 1748, which in that year was Good Friday—a neat coincidence for the man who had been reading an Easter sermon. Less than two hours after they had anchored in the comparative shelter of the bay, a gale blew at sea with such a force that the ship would certainly have been broken to pieces had it still been beyond the Lough.
John, who was born in the rough waterfront village of Wapping and whose formal education amounted to just two years at an inferior school, found in Christ alone the grace of God. And Saul, who grew up as a graduate in the university city of Tarsus close to the wild frontier of the Roman Empire, had long before found exactly the same. These two men, seventeen hundred years apart, had both experienced the meaning of grace, and each had begun an adventure in which their life would explore and enjoy the incredible wealth of amazing grace. For this reason, since John of Wapping and Saul of Tarsus have so much in common, we will return often in this book to the life of John to illustrate the teaching of Paul. Years later John Newton turned his experience into what has become one of the most popular hymns of the Christian church. It was written for his congregation at Olney in Buckinghamshire to sing on New Year’s morning 1773 and was based upon the text for his sermon from 1 Chronicles 17:16–17.
AMAZING GRACE—HOW SWEET THE SOUND—
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
2 God’s grace first taught my heart to fear,
his grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
3 Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
his grace has brought me safe this far
and grace will lead me home.
4 The Lord has promised good to me,
his word my hope secures;
my shield and great reward is he
as long as life endures.
5 And when this mortal life is past
and earthly days shall cease,
I shall possess with Christ at last
eternal joy and peace.
6 The earth will soon dissolve like snow,
the sun no longer shine;
but God, who called me here below,
will be for ever mine.
John Newton 1725–1807
*Edwards, B. H. (2003). Grace: Amazing grace (13–18). Leominster, UK: Day One Publications.