OCT 21, 2012




            A little over twelve years ago, Trudy and I celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary by going on an Alaska cruise.  One of of our ports of call was Skagway, Alaska.  Skagway was the jumping off place for those who went to Alaska to strike it rich panning and mining for gold.     

            Perhaps there is something in all of us that wants to "strike it rich."  How else can we explain the spread of casinos, the get-rich-quick schemes, the obsession with the stock market, and the seemingly insatiable desire for more?

            Unfortunately, most of the people who got rich in the Alaska gold rush were not prospectors trying to better their family.  They were promoters, con artists, and self-proclaimed experts who were more than willing to take a person's life savings for a tip that often proved to be false.

            Over the next three weeks I'm going to talk about "striking it rich."  As we move into the season of Stewardship and Thanksgiving I want to lead us not on a gold rush, but on a spiritual rush, where we ponder and hopefully experience the immeasurable riches we have in Christ.  Let's explore some of those riches right now.  Please open your bible and follow along as I read.


            You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.


            I am a product of the 60's: the Beatles, the Vietnam War, flower children, tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottom pants.  Some of you who were around at the time will remember a popular phrase from the 60's.  It originated in the personal growth movement, specifically sensitivity training with it's emphasis on personal confrontation, honesty, and no-holds-barred sharing of thoughts and feelings.  It spilled over into other walks of life.  Politicians and entertainers and news commentators picked up the phrase.  The phrase?  "Tell it like it is."  Just about everyone was saying, "I'm just telling it like it is."  The great Walter Cronkite even adapted it, signing off the CBS Nightly News saying, "And that's the way it is."

            The Apostle Paul could have been a child of the 60's, at least when it comes to "telling it like it is."  He minces no words in these first two verses.  He honestly reminds us of our former predicament.  He said we were dead through our trespasses and sins.  Last week I mentioned two kinds of death in the bible.  One we all experience:  physical death.  The other we don't need to experience and it's the type of death Paul refers to here: spiritual death also known as eternal separation from God. 

            Let's continue reading,


            All of us once lived among them in the passions of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he as made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


            This morning I want to focus our attention on one aspect of our spiritual riches.  I want to focus our attention on "the immeasurable riches of God's grace."  In so doing, I want us to consider the three types of grace Paul mentions here. 

            First, let's consider the prevenient grace of God. 

            Let's define terms.  The word "prevenient" comes from the Latin and means "to come before."  So, "prevenient grace," a term first coined by St. Augustine, refers to divine grace that precedes human decision.  It's the grace given by God that precedes  a sinner's embracing Jesus Christ.  The thinking goes something like this: humankind is so corrupted by sin they cannot see straight, and it's the prevenient grace of God that helps humans see clearly.   While we were still sinners, following the course of this world, God's prevenient grace comes to us and wakes us up to what we are doing and engages our free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that offer.  Prevenient grace is the love of God that will not let us go.  Prevenient grace is the love of God that chases after all who have not yet embraced Jesus Christ.

            Before we go any further, a little truth in advertising here.  A strict Calvinist, Calvin being the spiritual godfather of the Presbyterian Church, does not use the term prevenient grace.  A strict Calvinist theologian calls it "irresistible grace."  That is to say, the grace that wakes us up, brings us to our senses, according to a strict Calvinist cannot be resisted.  It's the offer we cannot refuse.  We have to say, "Yes," to God's offer of salvation.  We cannot reject it.  Prevenient grace, held by nearly the rest of Christendom, says, "Yes, we can reject the offer of salvation."  Calvinists say no, you cannot reject the offer of salvation, and most of the rest Christendom says, "Yes, we can reject the offer."  Both camps, however, agree that God's grace precedes our decision to embrace Christ, it's just that one believes it's impossible to resist that grace, and the other believes it's not impossible to resist that grace.

            And you can tell I'm not a strict Calvinist on this point since I said, "First, let's consider the prevenient grace of God," not the irresistible grace of God, and Paul mentions this love that will not let us go in verse four,


            But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ...


            Prevenient grace: the love of God that precedes, comes before, human decision.  The love of God that will not let us go.

            Max Lucado tells the story of Maria, a single mother in Brazil trying to raise a family on a very limited income.  Maria did the best she could, but it became evident that her oldest daughter, Christina, was hungering and thirsting for more.  So, one day Christina caught a bus from their small village and headed for the big city.  Maria knew Christina had little money.  She also knew that being a beautiful teenage girl, she was destined for disaster.  So, Maria went down to the drug store and had as many pictures taken of herself, not Christina but of herself, as she could afford.  Then she caught a bus in search of her daughter.  Once in Rio de Janeiro, Maria visited every bar and cheap hotel she could find searching for Christina.  In phone booths and bathrooms Maria posted pictures of herself hoping against hope that Christina would see one.  Out of pictures and low on hope, Maria went home.

            Time passed.  Then one day Christina stepped into the bathroom of a cheap hotel and suddenly saw the picture of her mother on the mirror.  Christina took the picture and found written on the back these words: "Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn't matter. Come home." 

            God is like Maria.  God loves us with an everlasting love and searches for us with reckless abandon.   Prevenient grace is the love of God who will not let us go. 

            Second, consider the saving grace of God.  Listen to Paul once again.  Note the very end of verse 5 and also verse 8.   


            By grace you have been saved ... For by grace you have been saved through faith, and his is not your own doing; it is a gift of God.


            The word grace literally means "unmerited favor."  We don't earn this.  We don't even deserve this.  We receive our salvation as a gift from God through our faith in Jesus Christ.  We saw this last week.  God did for us what we can't do for ourselves.

            Imagine Trudy and I each get pulled over for speeding.  Now, one of us has had nine speeding tickets in their life, and it's not me, so I know it's easier to imagine one of us getting pulled over for speeding than the other.  Anyway, imagine we both get pulled over for speeding on the same road, under the same conditions, but at different times, once while she's driving and once while I'm driving.  Also, imagine that I got a ticket which eventually cost me $132, and imagine Trudy getting a warning that only cost her a little time.  Trudy got a pardon.  I paid the price.  I got what I deserved.  Trudy did not.  Trudy experienced grace.  I experienced justice. 

            So there's prevenient grace that tracks us down, and saving grace that pulls our bacon out of the fire.  We sing about it all the time in what may be the best known church hymn ever written.  We sing:


            Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wreck like me. 


            That is saving grace.  Our good works, our good deeds didn't save us.  God's "amazing grace" saved us.  All we had to do is have faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  Then, in the next line, we sing about prevenient grace.


            I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.


            It was God's prevenient grace that tracked us down and helped us to see.

            The choice is ours.  What will it be?   Will we put our faith in Jesus Christ and accept God's saving grace?  The choice is ours.  Deal or no deal?  Repentance or resistance? Salvation or stubbornness?

            Then, finally, consider the sanctifying grace of God.

            I like the way John Wesley described the three categories of grace.  He likened God's grace to a house in which we live. In his analogy prevenient grace is the front porch.  Saving grace is the front door.  Sanctifying grace moves through all the rooms of the house until Christ is welcomed everywhere.

            A little boy fell out of bed one night.  When his mother went to comfort him, she asked what happened.  The frightened little boy said, "I guess I fell asleep too close to where I got in."

            It takes grace to relieve our fears.  It takes grace to get through the dangers, toils and snares.  It takes grace to move us to the center of the bed, putting on the mind of Christ, seeing as Christ saw, thinking as Christ thought, to loving as Christ loved.  Paul put it this way.  Verse 10,


            For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


            A sign, one sign, that we are experiencing God's sanctifying grace is good works.  We do not do good works so we can be saved.  We do good works in response to God's grace.   Are we feasting on the immeasurable riches of God's amazing grace?  Are we sharing those riches with others?

            Let me close with a Stephen King story.  In 1999, the best-selling author Stephen King was hit by a car while out walking near his home.  The accident left him with severe injuries.  In an article in Family Circle magazine King writes that having a close brush with death taught him to contemplate the real meaning of life.  He writes, "I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others.  And why not?  All you have is on loan, anyway.  All that lasts is what you pass on. . . . giving isn't about the receiver or the gift but the giver.  It's for the giver.  One doesn't open one's wallet to improve the world, although it's nice when that happens; one does it to improve one's self.  I give because it's the only concrete way I have of saying that I'm glad to be alive . . . "[2]

            We have immeasurable riches.  Let's share them with others.




[1] Many thanks to Dr. J. Howard Olds and his sermon Encountering Incomparable Riches.

[2] What You Pass On" by Stephen King, Family Circle, Nov. 1, 2001, p.156.