The Paradox of God’s Grace
Read Psalm 107
We all have favourite hymns but would probably agree that John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” is one of the best known both by those who would consider themselves on the fringe of faith as well as those who are well-churched. Although I have sung that hymn innumerable times over many years, there is a line which only recently grabbed my attention: “ ’twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.” How is it that the same agency, God’s grace, can both cause us fear and also relieve that same fear? Why did Newton write that line into a remarkable hymn?
Grace can be defined in many ways but essentially, in this context, it represents God’s persistent and unwavering favour and goodwill toward us despite who we are! It is an expression of God’s love that is not contingent on anything that we have done or not done. This certainly is not the business model that operates in our world for the most part!
There are three key thoughts to consider:
- What does God’s grace have to do with fear?
- How does that same grace operate to remove fear?
- What can interfere with that kind of grace and relief of our fear?
John Newton’s father was a sea captain, away most of the time leaving John Newton under the tutelage of his mother who taught him bible, catechisms, hymns and poems until she died when Newton was only 7 years old. He ended up in boarding school and wrote in his autobiography: “I was now permitted to mingle with careless and profane children, and soon began to learn their ways.” He goes on to say that “…in the process of time I sinned away all the advantages of these early impressions [taught by mother]”. A bit later he wrote: “I was presently religious in my own eyes. But, alas! This seeming goodness had no solid foundation, but passed away like a morning-sound, or the early dew. I was soon weary, gradually gave it up, and became worse than before. Instead of prayer, I learned to curse and blaspheme, and was exceedingly wicked.”
He went to sea with his father at age 11 and as he was growing up into his early twenties, he was undisciplined and rebellious and at one point he was publicly whipped and paraded through the streets of Plymouth, England. He also had a number of close calls with death, illness, personal slavery, misery and disfavour with ships’ captains.
When he was 23 he was on a ship just off the banks of Newfoundland when overtaken by a particularly vicious storm. Had the ship not been carrying a load of wood and beeswax (which float), the ship would have been sunk. Even as it was, the event was filled with fear and the anticipation of likely death.
Real fear! Did God send the storm to shake Newton up? Or, did God use a fearsome event to help Newton get perspective on his eternal destiny? Either way, the fact is that Newton woke up to his need and started a new direction in his life. Over the course of a few years, he became a changed man. It was not instantaneous but the old life was progressively shed and the new life in Christ became well rooted. Newton became a preacher and in due course associated himself with Wilberforce and those working to abolish the slave trade.
There are many things that generate fear within us. There are fears that are groundless and some are disabling phobias. Fear can limit the full experience of life and may cause unnecessary anxiety and stress. It can create panic and compromise good judgment. On the other hand, fear can protect us from real harm. It can motivate us to better things. It can also provide perspective on ourselves and our lives—our finiteness and fallibility! Newton was brought to the end of his rope through his own sin, disregard for others, illness, punishment, storms and brushes with death. He was a “tough nut to crack”; but God used fear to eventually get his attention and then to start the process that would change him into the man that he was created to be.
The bible speaks of fear in relationships to God in many ways. Here are some passages to meditate on:
Psalm 111:10 “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
Psalm 119:71 “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”
Hebrews 12:9-11 “Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! … God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Isaiah 66:2 The Lord says, “These are the ones I look on with favour; those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word [i.e. have reverential fear of God].”
Hebrews 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptable with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
God has covenanted with his people to be faithful in leading them into the wholeness of a healthy life and onwards into his Presence. Whether adversity is part of the natural world, or, whether it is the result of our own waywardness, God in his grace can use the negatives to achieve a redemptive purpose. Psalm 107 speaks of these scenarios.
However, we can block that grace, as Newton did for his first 23 years! The obstacle list is lengthy including: blindness to spiritual reality, unbelief, ignorance, rebellion and sin, pride, prejudice, competing allegiances!
So, what can we take away from all this? The God that we should reverentially fear with awestruck wonder is the same God to whom we should run in full assurance of his expensive and expansive love for us! Why should we not …. run to a God who has only the best in mind for us? Always!
If you are Jesus’s person, when things are difficult and fears surround, be reflective but never doubt the fact that God loves you and he will bring you into his perfect presence in due course. The Cross is the essence of God’s grace toward us. Jesus took one of the worst tortures in the history of this world for our sake, so that we would be healed of our sin and be given a hope and a future with him. He is the risen Christ on our now!
Romans 8:15 “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about our adoption to son-ship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’
God will not abandon us to our fear but His grace intervenes with his Presence and redemptive activity in the midst of our fears. That is why Newton wrote: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved!”