This week's 'thought' comes to you from James S. Stewart (not the actor). He was the professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and chaplain to the Queen in Scotland. His book on preaching, entitled "Heralds of God," is one of the best I have ever read, and "Preaching Magazine" ranked him the best preacher of the twentieth century -- right up there with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He was a man of deep and passionate Christian faith and I have always found his insights fresh and helpful.
This one comes from his book about the apostle Paul (now long out of print) -- "A Man in Christ." It has to do with the distinguishing mark of the Christian faith -- grace -- and what God's grace is really all about. Enjoy.
"In Paul's thinking grace -- that is to say, the divine initiative -- was fundamental. Everything in religion that matters starts from God's side. Even faith and penitence and prayer -- three attitudes of soul which might appear to originate in man and to be human virtues -- are, if we believe Paul, nothing of the kind: they are God's creation, God's gift. Faith is because it is evoked by the action of God in revealing Himself as worthy of all trust, penitence because it is produced by that divine reaction to sin of which the cross is the culmination, and, prayer because when 'we know not what we should pray for as we ought... the Spirit makes intercession for us.'
In the words of Baron von Hugel, 'The passion and hunger for God comes from God, and God answers it with Christ.' Man's intelligence and will and heart and conscience never initiate anything in religion; and over the best moral and spiritual triumphs of this life the saints can only cry, 'Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but unto Your name be the glory.' In this sense at least, Schleiermacher was right when he defined religion as an absolute dependence. Of ourselves we can do nothing. There is no Creator but God.
'And every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness,
Are His alone.'
This is the meaning of grace, and this is the inmost secret of reconciliation. It is hardly likely that a Gospel so annihilating to human pride will ever be popular with an age conscious of its own enlightenment and trusting in its own initiative for world-redemption and the building of the new Jerusalem upon earth. Nor will Paul ever be persona grata with those -- and there are many of them -- who seek, by a punctilious observance of religious ordinances, to screen from their souls, and from others, the stern and disturbing fact that their first necessity is to have God change radically their whole attitude to Himself.
If Paul's doctrine of reconciliation means anything, then the religion that is tinged with self-satisfaction is, even when it bears the Christian name, a thing downright heathen. The man who thinks that his own deeds and character are doing God credit, and that they have a claim on God's favor, is the victim of a disastrous illusion. To spiritual pride of every degree nothing more devasting than Paul's evangelicalism could be conceived. Where religion walks clothed in the garments of moralism his Gospel will always be anathema.
But it does not matter. It is the Gospel of God and there is no other. It is the very Gospel of Jesus, who proclaimed God's initiative first and last, yes, who was Himself God's initiative become flesh; whose eyes were like a flame of fire to those who would try to propitiate God by their gifts and offerings and character; whose face smiled the welcome of heaven to those who confessed they had no standing before God as all; who did not wait till sinners sought Him but went forth to seek them first; who lived to bring the gift of reconciliation near to men; who died to put it in their hands. No man who is too proud to be infinitely in debt to God will ever be a Christian. God gives forever, forever man receives.
Is it incomprehensible that the holy God should thus deal with unworthy man? No, for as Barth pointedly remarks, 'only when grace is recognized to be incomprehensible is it grace.' For me, Paul would say, religion began on the day when I ceased straining and striving and struggling for heaven's favor, and was content to bow my head and accept the gift I could never earn. 'It is all the doing of the God who has reconciled me to Himself through Christ.' "
Who could disagree? To the proud and self-righteous, or those with a self-esteem that makes them think they can actually curry the favor of God by their efforts and moral strivings, the Gospel comes as a message to be patronized -- a nice "religious ideal" to be brushed aside in the pursuit of more worthy human will-efforts. But to the one who knows their sin has erradicated any possibility of attaining a right standing before God on the basis of their morality, character or religious duties, the Gospel is good news beyond description. For Jesus does, "smile the welcome of heaven to those who confess they have no standing before God as all." There is more hope of the favor of God for the person who despairs of ever attaining it by their efforts, than for the one who clings to the vain notion of placing their confidence (for salvation) in their own efforts or righteousness (Luke 18:9-14).