Praying at my mother’s knee, saying grace at meals, sandbox sanctuaries, and memory verses were a large part of my childhood years. Now in my 80s, my twilight years are full of Bible study classes and church services. While time dims some things, others become brighter and more focused. With me, assurance is the engine that keeps me going. It carries me through my lessening physical stamina and the loss of personal friends and family members. It enables me to contemplate on the great themes of Scripture and empowers me to reaffirm my spiritual perspective every time I hear the Word spoken as an essential evangel to a hungry, distressed, and dying world.
In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, I recall George Marsden telling the story of Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In an attempt to magnify the love of Jesus, Edwards painted a picture of an angry God holding each sinner like a spider over the open flames of hell. He drew such a vivid picture that he brought the congregation to hysterics. By the time he got to the loving Jesus standing at the open door welcoming sinners into His bosom, no one was rational enough to hear—let alone understand.
How often preachers make that mistake, for they do not say enough about God’s wonderful grace. Of course, a need exists to speak about sin, about guilt, about judgment, but above and beyond all about God’s infinite love and grace. There is a need for sermons to periodically move from guilt to grace to gratitude to generosity.
We are all sinners. “All have sinned,” says Paul, “and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, KJV). We carry this burden of sin, this guilt of breaking not only God’s law but His heart as well. We live in a spiritual prison house, imprisoned by our sin, facing the penalty of death from which we will find no escape outside of God’s provision. The awareness of this moral debt and spiritual bankruptcy becomes part of the burden of guilt that we carry. Paul cries out the inexpressible burden involved in this guilt. “Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24, KJV).
Life without deliverance could be awful, meaningless, and directionless. But the beauty of the gospel is that we are not left in the wasteland of guilt; it bids us to enter the oasis of God’s grace. Following Romans 7:24, Paul does precisely that: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 7:25; 8:1, NIV).
God designed guilt to drive us to the foot of the Cross. Satan uses it to drive us to insanity, sometimes to self-destruction, to a path away from God. Kelly is a case in point. During World War II, I was assigned to Kelly, a medic in the 40th Infantry Division. Kelly was a hard-driving, 24-hour-a-day dynamo. Within two weeks I was working solo but next to Kelly. We worked our way through three assault landings in the Philippines and were regrouping to invade Japan when the war in Europe was over. One day, we were assigned to pick up cigarette butts and trash. I was walking next to Kelly and suddenly found him crying. “What’s the matter?” I asked. He just shook his head and waved me off.
The next day the company commander asked me what the matter was with Kelly. I said, “I don’t know, sir. I asked him, and he refused to talk.”
The major told me to try again. “I am very worried. Find out. You are the closest one to him.”
Later in the afternoon, I found Kelly sitting on the side of his cot crying. I sat down beside him and said, “Kelly, whatever it is, you can tell me. The major is very worried and so are all the guys.” Then he told his story. Kelly was raised a devout Christian. He lived a Christian life in all the months I had worked with him. When the 40th Division was deployed to Oahu, the camp was surrounded with taverns and bordellos.
One night the guys got Kelly drunk and got him into a bordello. Kelly fought the rest of the war so full of guilt he constantly worked trying to live it down. Now he was just wasting time with no work to do. He was just waiting for orders to go home as a “high point” man. The guilt of that one night overwhelmed him.
I got out my Bible and read to him passages about the woman caught in adultery. I read the passage in Matthew: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (11:28, KJV). I read the great invitation, “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’ ” (Isa. 1:18, NIV). I recounted the story of David and Bathsheba, I knelt at his side and prayed for him and invited him to pray with me. He declined.
I reported back to the major. “I am afraid Kelly needs long-term care, he is carrying a guilt he cannot shed.” Two days later Kelly shipped out still crying. A life of guilt, without opening up to the possibility of grace, can be dreadful.
But there is good news. God has intervened with everything having to do with sin “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6, NASB). We are the beneficiaries of Christ’s atonement. Jesus Christ died for all humankind without distinction or qualification. This gracious act is the next step of the Christian gospel—free grace—free to us but costly to God.
Uncle Roy was a banker, a merchant, and a gentleman farmer. He just about owned all of the little town of Pound, Wisconsin. He drove a Cord convertible. His cousin owned a private phone company that covered three counties. Uncle Roy knew every single telephone operator in all three counties. He found the “good life” very pleasant indeed, but as he entered his 60s, it didn’t seem to agree with him. He was hospitalized for tests, and he was in a critical condition. I was in California and called his room, and he responded in a very weak voice. We talked for a few minutes. I asked if I could read a scripture and pray with him.
He said, “Oh yes, Tom.”
So I read, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden . . .” As I read I could hear him say over and over again, “Oh yes, oh yes.” Then I prayed. After prayer, we said Goodbye. Hours later Uncle Roy passed away. But those quiet words, “Oh yes,” assured me that he found peace in God’s grace. I know I will see him again in the morning.
The next step in the Christian proclamation can be described as gratitude for the bounties of God’s salvation. Being debt-free does not mean no more credit card living, but rather a living witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the celebration of His victory over sin and death.
King David was exuberant in his gratitude for the forgiveness and acceptance of God. His response provides a model of public and private worship as acts of celebration for the creative power and redemptive love of God.
The praise psalms of David carry two themes: the glory and power of a Creator God and the love, mercy, and compassion of a redeeming God. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1, KJV). “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 136:1, KJV).
When we are saved by God’s grace, we are not only free from the guilt of sin but we are full of joy and happiness. Our life becomes a continuous expression of gratitude and thanksgiving, with our worship as simply the celebration of the living, dying, resurrection, and reigning of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Master. As Christians we can say more, but we cannot say less than that Jesus Christ is Lord! “Thanks be to God” becomes not merely a benediction but an enlistment to be His witnesses!
Generosity is the final step of Christian proclamation. “Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8, KJV). The natural impulse of the one freed from sin is to rejoice and be thankful for the new life and then to share that newfound status. With evangelism as a call to witness the grace of God and celebrate Christ’s life and redeeming love, such a witness does not become a grudging testimony, but an outpouring of generosity. The truly redeemed individual responds with “My cup runneth over.”
Such a spirit of generosity knows no frontier, picks no favorites. Everyone in need of God’s grace or goodness becomes the object of Christian generosity. We are called to serve all, serve well, and serve to the measure with which God has blessed us.
Christian life thus turns into a movement away from guilt and into the joy of redeeming grace—a celebration of a life of gratitude and generosity.