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Grace Alone

Only Christ’s grace, not our works, can give us the love, acceptance, and forgiveness we want.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "True North". See series.

True North Backstory

One reason I enjoyed preaching the sermons in this series was the contrast between a "head" message and a "heart" message.

The message on Scripture was a head message—didactic. We asked folks for questions about barriers to taking the Bible as authoritative, and there were so many good ones I had to rewrite the sermon on Thursday.

N.T. Wright's notion of the biblical story as a play with five acts was extremely helpful.
This enabled me to demonstrate how the nature of a story carries authority, and what it means to read the Bible literally.

The message on grace alone was aimed at the heart. One question I always try to keep in mind is, What are people talking about this week? That week, people were talking about the deaths of Steve Jobs and Al Davis. So the message was simple: How successful, tough, talented, attractive do you have to be? The stories of high "bar-setters" helped set the stage for grace.


This past week I have been reading a lot about the amazing life of Steve Jobs. Jobs' level of success was so high that writers have had a difficult time finding a standard of comparison. He has been compared to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He was a visionary genius who revolutionized at least six different industries. He dropped out of college to start a company called Apple. When he was about 30-years-old, he was publicly fired from it, but his resilience was breathtaking.

His legacy includes Mac computers, Apple stores, Pixar Studios, iPhone, iPod, iTunes, and iPad. He changed the way we think about computers, phones, music, movies, and retail stores. He made technology cool, intuitive, elegant, and easy to use. Aren't you glad there was a Steve Jobs? It is awesome we got to be alive during his lifetime.

The New Yorker had a cover tribute to him. It pictures him at the pearly gates, and Saint Peter is checking out the Book of Life, only it has been upgraded to the iPad of Life. There was a quote in the newspaper this week that talked about his impact: "Ten years ago on this planet we had Bob Hope and Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs, and now there is no jobs, no cash, and no hope."

He was an inventor or co-inventor on a record of 340-plus patents. He changed the world. In the nineteenth century, the American dream was this: a boy born in a log cabin might grow up to be the president. But that is not the American dream now. Now the American dream is a kid starting a company that will change the world from his parents' garage. That kid was Steve Jobs, and that company is Apple. Then he died last week of pancreatic cancer.

All of this got me thinking: How successful is successful enough? If Steve Jobs is the standard of success, how well are we doing? How many of you have launched a legendary organization that earlier this year briefly passed Mobil Exxon to become the world's most valuable company? How many of you have revolutionized at least six different industries? How many of you are worth more than seven billion dollars? How many of you have been named Fortune magazine's CEO of the Decade?

People come to the San Francisco area to be successful. People want to be identified by and connected with success. A website I recently read said Portola Valley claims to have more patents per capita than any other city around. Portola Valley claims to have the brightest and the best in fields of technology, medical science, government, banking, finance, real estate, and so on. It is called The Patent Center of Silicon Valley. The website also said Menlo-Atherton calls itself The Heart of Silicon Valley. Milpitas is called The Crossroads of Silicon Valley. San Jose is called The Capital of Silicon Valley. Gilroy is called The Bakersfield of Silicon Valley.

But I'll tell you a little secret: the best and brightest live under a pressure that is killing them. It robs them of joy. We have middle school students who are living so relentlessly under the pressure of performance that they are going to therapy when they are only 13-years-old.

We buy the largest houses we can so we can proclaim our success, and then we overwork ourselves trying to pay our mortgages. We overschedule our kids with sports, classes, private lessons, and personal tutors because we want them to be accepted to the best schools so they can get the best jobs and get the best 401ks. We think if our kids are not the smartest and best, then we are not successful.

How much success is enough?

How much success is enough? I was thinking about this over the last week when Steve Jobs died. This past week, newspapers also reported about Al Davis, a kid from Brooklyn who became general manager of the Oakland Raiders when he was only 33-years-old. He was the youngest guy in professional football to do that, and he was not even a particularly gifted athlete. He did it by sheer tenacity.

In an occupation full of the toughest people in the world, nobody was tougher than Al Davis. His standard was a commitment to excellence. The motto of the Raiders under Al Davis was unforgettable: "Just win, baby." That motto perfectly described Al Davis. He fought to become an owner of the Raiders, even though he didn't come from a lot of money. He named the first Latino head coach in the NFL. He named the first African American head coach in the NFL. He was famous for taking on misfits, renegades, and rebels, people other organizations were not willing to accept.

By sheer will, he led the Raiders to five Super Bowls. Legions of devoted followers across the country called themselves The Raider Nation. When Al Davis was around, no one questioned who was in charge. A newspaper reported that a new player asked Davis, "Who negotiates the contracts for the Raiders?" Al Davis' responded, "Young man, I do the hiring. I do the firing. I decide how many wastebaskets we have in this office."

Davis would not back down from anybody. He sued the NFL to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. He sued again to move them from Los Angeles back to Oakland. He was such a feisty guy. NFL Films rated the top 10 feuds in the NFL of all time. Most of the feuds are between two teams (such as the Bears and the Packers). But the number one feud of all time was between Al Davis and the entire NFL.

He could be extraordinarily generous and loyal, but he was not given to tortured self-doubt or false modesty. When New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner died, Al Davis said, "I judge sports figures based on individual achievement, team achievement, and contributions to the game. George was right up there with me at number one."

How do you judge a life? How does God judge a life? How much winning is enough? How do we compare to Al Davis if he is the standard for winning? How many of you have won three Super Bowls? How many of you are in the Hall of Fame? Have you set the record for the most Hall of Fame presentations? How many of you have a colossal group of followers around the country that take on your name?

How much winning is enough?

We read in the newspapers last week about another California man who died: Roger Williams. He was the first pianist to have his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He started playing the piano when he was three-years-old. By the time he was nine, he could play anything by ear. He was a prodigy. He received a scholarship to go to Julliard, and he went on to become "the pianist to the president." Starting with Harry Truman, he played for nine consecutive presidents.

Of all the pianists who have ever lived, he was the only one to have a number-one song on the Billboard charts. He is the bestselling pianist of all time. He had 18 gold or platinum records. Not only that, he won a boxing championship in the Navy during World War II.

So how talented is talented enough? How do we compare to Roger Williams if he is the standard for talent? How many of you took piano lessons while growing up? How many of you have sold millions of records, received gold stars, performed on TV, played for nine presidents, and won a Navy boxing championship?

How talented is talented enough?

How attractive is attractive enough? George Clooney did not die last week, but my wife thinks he is to die for. Oh big deal! George Clooney! If you are young, and you are physically attractive, people probably tell you, "You look good." But if you live long enough, you hit a certain stage in life, and people will add a little phrase. People will say, "You look good … for your age." Your body now has flab, wrinkles, liver spots, and varicose veins. You look good, not in absolute terms, but in comparison to other deteriorating, rotting, flabby people.

So how attractive is attractive enough? How many of you have been named Sexiest Man or Sexiest Woman of the Year by People magazine?

We are in a series called True North, and we have been putting stakes in the ground: All glory belongs to God alone; Jesus alone is Lord and Savior of this world; and the Bible alone is the authoritative Word of God. Today we will discuss that we are saved, forgiven, embraced, loved, brought into the family of God, declared to be righteous, and accepted into a relationship with God by grace alone. Sola gratia—only grace—is another one of the five Reformation solas.

The nature of grace

Grace is all over the Bible. Paul wrote these words to the church at Ephesus: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). We live in a "boasty" world. We think we have earned what we have. We think we are the reason why we are so successful, talented, or beautiful. But Paul says we are saved by grace. All that we have is because of God's grace. The old definition of grace is "unmerited favor." We have earned nothing, and no one can boast.

The ancient Greeks used the word grace, unmerited favor, when a strong person helped someone who was weak, needy, or dependent. The weak person could not succeed on his own. That is grace. Grace is God's choice to love, forgive, embrace, accept, and help us when we have done nothing to earn it.

If grace came to us, it would most likely say, "Stop. You don't have to be any more successful than you are right now. You don't have to win any more than you've already won. You don't have to be any more talented. You don't have to look better than you do. All of those things are gifts of grace from God. You can't boast about them."

It's not bad to succeed. It's not bad to win. It's not bad to be smart or talented. God can use those things for his glory, but they will not save you. Grace might say, "Your hunger for those items is idolatry, because they determine your level of happiness. Trying to be good enough causes you to overwork yourself. You fail to see the gift of the moment. You overlook people, and you neglect what really matters: to know God and his Word. You are so focused on yourself that you don't pray. You want to serve yourself rather than my kingdom. You don't have a generous heart."

The old alternative to grace that the Bible talks about is salvation by works—I can be good enough, and I can merit salvation by my own effort. Even people who don't believe in God believe in some form of salvation by works. It just depends on how we define salvation.

We all want to be saved. We all want to be free. We all need it, and we all know it. That sense will never go away. Our culture redefines what salvation means. Now it becomes largely economic or therapeutic. Salvation will come if we are successful enough. Then we will be happy enough, so we think. But we have the sense that we are not there yet. So keep running, try harder, climb higher, push your kids just a little more.

Grace would say, "Stop. You cannot be successful enough. You cannot be talented enough, smart enough, tough enough, or good enough."

The message of grace: Stop trying

Grace is good, but it's not soft. Grace is not concerned with making people feel good.
You know the old hymn "Amazing Grace." One of the lines says, "It was grace that taught my heart to fear." John Newton, the man who wrote the words, was a slave trader. He lived a terrible life, but he found grace. He was then able to say, "It was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved." It seems strange to us that grace could teach somebody's heart to fear.

I think grace would say, "It's important that you pay attention to the uneasiness you have about not feeling good enough. You can't relieve yourself of that feeling by accomplishments, by having a stronger will, or by going to the gym more. You need God. You need to be saved from what sin has done and what it is doing to your soul."

We need to be saved from sin. Sin has messed up who we are as individuals. It has ruined our relationship to the universe. And it has ruined our relationship with God.

I have friends who have a daughter named Shawna. She was a strong-willed kid. When she was about four-years-old, she would try to ride her tricycle where she was not allowed to ride. Her mom became so frustrated one day that she went out in the front yard and said, "All right, Shawna! Look, here's a tree. Here's the edge of the driveway. Here's our sidewalk. You may drive your tricycle in between the tree and the driveway, but you cannot take it beyond that. If you take it beyond those boundaries, I will spank you. I am going back inside the house, but we have a big picture window. I will watch you. If you ride beyond these boundaries, I will come out, and there will be spanking."

Shawna was not intimidated. She stuck her little hip out, pointed to it, and said, "Well you better spank me now, because I got places to go." That is a picture of the human heart. This is a picture of the human condition. The human will has become corrupt. The human will has turned from God. Your heart is corrupt, and so is mine.

But here is the problem: Because corruption is universal, because it affects every person like aging and deterioration, we have become used to it. We just get used to this world. Whether it is injustice, poverty, violence, abuse, or apathy, we get used to it, because it is in all of us. But God never gets used to it. It never looks okay to him. He never looks at this broken and corrupt world and says, "That's okay." No, grace doesn't do that.

God's standard is the sinless purity of his very nature. He is not severe or unreasonable. The only conditions under which his creation can flourish are justice, love, and shalom. In God's eyes, in a morally sane vision, sin is the horror of our souls.

I want to read a list of words, and I want you to see if any of these characterize you: prideful, judgmental, cold-hearted, apathetic towards the poor, greedy, envious, lustful, unfaithful, deceitful, promise-breaker, secretly cruel, cowardly, stubborn, self-centered, careless, joylessness, complaining, loveless.

Grace would say spiritual and moral sanity begins with this recognition: "God, I have neglected you and your ways. I have ignored you and your way of life. I have defied you and your ways. There is something wrong, something broken in me, and I can't fix it."

Grace actually came to earth one day. The Gospel of John says, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Jesus shows us how grace lives, and he went to the cross and he showed us how grace dies.

Paul wrote, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified his grace as a gift." By grace, we are declared to be forgiven. We are embraced and accepted "freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Grace would say to you today, "You can have the acceptance, forgiveness, and love you crave, no matter who you are or where you have been. Stop trying to earn it. Stop trusting in your own works, your own accomplishments, and yourself. Humble yourself and receive God's grace like a gift, like a child."

Grace would also say, "I want to invite you to check out of the culture of performance and step into a world of grace. When you wake up in the morning, give yourself to grace. When you go to bed at night, give yourself to grace. When you have a challenge, rely on grace. When you mess up, turn to grace." Now here is the deal: You can understand this, you can believe in God, you can affirm this, and still not be a follower of Jesus. A question remains: Have you responded to grace?

But what does it mean to give your heart to God? All you have to do is acknowledge your sin and say, "God, I confess to you I have done wrong. There's brokenness inside me, and I can't fix it. I want to be forgiven, and I want to be loved. I will stop comparing myself to other sinners. I can never be good enough. I can never give enough. I acknowledge that Jesus died on the Cross in order to save me from my sin, my pride, my selfishness, my hate, and all the darkness inside me. I recognize he somehow paid the debt I could never pay to you, God. He died the death I should have died. I want to receive your forgiveness and your love, not because of anything I have done, but because of what Jesus has done for me. I receive his free gift of grace. God, I want to surrender to you."

A man from our church, who is a pilot, told me there is an expression among pilots that helped him in his spiritual life. For a long time he wanted God in his life. But he realized he was the one flying the plane. He realized he was trying to have control of his own life. So he finally told God, "I want you to fly the plane. I want to surrender to you."

When you give your heart to God, you receive forgiveness and love as a free gift of grace. You just need to surrender. You just need to say, "God, I'm giving my life to you, and I want to walk in your grace every day." Some of you have already done this, and right now you're just saying, "God, thank you," or "God, I just want a fresh experience of your grace." Some of you have never done this, and some of you are thinking your sin is too horrific to be forgiven. There is no sin that grace cannot cover. Forgiveness comes to us through Jesus.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The nature of grace

II. The message of grace: Stop trying