You’ve done it before, right? You’ve looked at your life and looked at your short fallings. Things are looking bad, you’ve messed up-- but then you look over at that other person and you think, “I’m not as bad as they are. They’re really a mess up.” And you start to feel better about yourself. Sure, you’ve messed up, but you’ve got it together more than they do.
In our gospel lesson we have a man who believes himself to be righteous and a man who comes to God in all humility, beating his chest in his guilt. The righteous man says, “Thank you, God, for making me better than this guy.” The tax collector says, “I have messed up. Please forgive me.” Jesus says that it is the tax collector, the sinner who went away justified, rather than the man who was declaring to God all that he had done well.
Today we’re talking about justifying grace, but before we get too far into it I want to be clear about something. Justifying grace is not for those who have everything together, for those who have it all figured out, or for those who are guiltless. Justifying grace is for the guilty, the sinful, those in need of redemption.
I’m sure many of you have heard the second verse of Amazing Grace. Sing it with me if you will, “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed” Last week we talked about a grace called prevenient grace—the grace that goes before us; the grace that prepares the way. This week we are talking about justifying grace—the grace that goes beside us.
That first part of verse two, “t’was grace that taught my heart to fear,” that’s the grace we talked about last week: Prevenient or preventing grace—the grace that goes before. The grace that lets you know, everything is not, in fact, all right. The next part of that verse, “And grace my fears relieved,” THAT is justifying grace. Justifying grace is the grace that goes along, the one we find at the cross.
[Drawing of prevenient & justifying] Things in the garden were good, but then we get to the fall of humanity, the fall out of what we call the “Imago Dei” or the Image of God. Now, the grace that goes before is enough to bring us up to where we understand that we are not ok and that we are in need of God. But we need more than that. We need this grace that goes along. This is what we call Justifying Grace.
Justifying grace is the one that says we cannot do enough good, work hard enough, or act well enough to justify us. We are sinners, we’ve failed, we have irrevocably messed up. We are done for. You know those mistakes you make that you cannot make right? That’s where we are. And justifying grace says, “Yeah—you messed up pretty badly. But that’s not the end of the story.”
Many of you have heard the story we find in Matthew 9. A woman who had been suffering from hemorrhaging for 12 years reached out and touched Jesus’ cloak. When Jesus turned and saw her, he said, “Be encouraged, daughter. Your faith has healed you.“ All she needed to be healed was faith. We have a sickness—it’s called the human condition. It’s like we have a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell, except that we have a disease called sin, and the only prescription is grace. The only way we receive justification is by faith. Faith isn’t something we just wake up having, instead, we receive faith from justifying grace.
If you’re taking notes, write that down. If you’re not taking notes, memorize it. Justifying grace produces faith.
Last week we said that repentance is a part of what prevenient grace produces. Repentance is more than a recognition of our sin, for those under the law recognize their sin, it is recognizing our sin and also turning from that sin.
Have you ever been around a person who doesn’t know how to apologize? You know who I’m talking about—it’s the person who says, “I’m sorry that I did this, I know it was wrong, but.” You were doing so well! Your apology was great! And then you said “but.” And it doesn’t really matter what comes after that word, you’ve just ruined the apology. Repentance need not involve our excuses. Instead, just as the tax collector, it should involve us standing before God saying, “I am sorry and I cannot fix this. Forgive me.”
Justification is intricately tied to repentance. Our repentance, however, does not have the power to save us. Instead, “We believe we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but that penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is absolutely nothing we can do to justify ourselves before God, we can only accept the grace offered to us.
We live lives that are wholly imperfect and a result of the fall. We live in sin and death, but the justifying grace found in Christ’s death and resurrection justifies us, not through our own power but the power of God. Through justifying grace we are freed from sin to live a life full in the life of Christ. Without justification, we would merely live our lives in what Wesley describes as the one who is awake, yet not fully alive. We would recognize our sin but be incapable of rising above it. Through justification, however, we are no longer as those under the law, but as those who are fully alive in Christ.
Now, this concept is hard. I get that. It’s hard because it involves something entirely counter-intuitive. It requires depending not on ourselves but on God. We must depend on God to provide Prevenient and Justifying Grace. None of this is done by our power, but by God’s.
John Wesley told his preachers, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Am I saying fake it until you make it? Yes and no. Don’t wait around for a certainty in Christ to start forming habits that make encountering grace likely. Michael mentioned several weeks ago that for many people in Wesley’s day, they found that they were practicing Christian habits of daily prayer, study, and group meetings for quite some time before they ever felt that they were being stirred.
Part of the way we make ourselves aware of the grace around us is through what we call works of mercy and works of piety:
*Works of Piety *
Individual Practices – reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others
Communal Practices – regularly share in the sacraments, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study
*Works of Mercy *
Individual Practices - doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others
Communal Practices – seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (for instance Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor
I could preach about this for another hour, probably even longer than that. Here’s what I want you to hear:
Justifying Grace is convincing grace. While Prevenient Grace produces repentance, Justifying Grace produces faith. And this faith is all you need to be saved. This grace is for the unrighteous, the sinner. Those who are without sin do not need forgiveness. Justifying Grace is for those with sin. Repent and have faith.
Now, don’t go as far as to think that justifying grace makes us just and righteous. This is sanctification. Sanctifying grace is about what God works in us by his Spirit, justifying grace is about what God does *for us* through his Son.
If you receive this Justifying Grace you’ll find that you are given assurance, forgiveness and new birth through faith. It is one of the greatest gifts and it is just waiting for you to say, “yeah, I want that!” Once you say yes, you’ll find that this convincing grace is good, but a lifetime in Christ has a lot of bumps and turns. There’s a grace for that too. We’ll get to that next week. For now, will you say yes to one of the greatest gifts? Will you say yes to justifying grace? Sure, you’ve messed up. And I’ve got news for you—you will never ever get it right. Jesus died for you anyway. Jesus’ love for you is so great that he went all the way to death and back to convince you of his love. Justifying grace is here for you. Will you accept it?
-- Rev. Samantha Lewis Associate Pastor First United Methodist Church Crestview, FL