What is Grace?

Luke 15:11-32                                                    

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So, he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

  1. For a lot of people, Lent is a season for making resolutions. They give up chocolate or sweets. They’re going to pray more, or actually go to church every Sunday. Beyond that, many of us have little understanding of what Lent is about.
  2. I want to help us understand and engage this season more appropriately.
    1. Lent, like the thaw between winter and spring, is a time of preparation.
    1. It’s a season when we are invited to prepare the soil of our lives for growth.
  3. Although some people no longer acknowledge Lent, it is one of the most ancient Christian practices.
    1. The early church observed Lent even before Christmas became a holiday.
    1. For those of you unfamiliar with Lent, it is a 40-day period before Easter when we are called to take inventory of our lives, commune more intimately with God, and clear out those things that may distract us from our commitment to him.
    1. In a sense, it is a season of preparing for spiritual growth.
  4. To help us better understand what spiritual growth looks like during Lent we will be working with the hymn Amazing Grace — we find the hymn on Page 378 of the UMC Hymnal.
    1. Each week we will expand to the next verse. Today we will work with Verse 1 “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.
  5. Amazing Grace was written by John Newton in the 1700s.
  6. John Newton, a former sea captain, wrote the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” for a sermon on New Year’s Day 1773 as he could see the “prodigal son” in his early life. His own father tried on several occasions to help him, but Newton was a hardened prodigal, a self -confessed “wretch” (this is a word that we find in Romans 7:24).
    1. Newton was very distant from the heart of his father and from the heart of God. Still John Newton discovered that God in Christ’s deep and abiding love does not give up on anyone.[1]
  7. As we look at the first stanza, we are reminded, very much, about the story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke.
    1. Newton described his being blessed by the mercies of Christ’s saving grace.
  8. So, today, let’s explore what is so amazing about grace.
  9. “Grace,” according to the dictionary, is the unmerited favor of God toward humanity. The word “grace” is used over 170 times in the New Testament alone.
    1. Grace is not bought. It is a free gift of almighty God to needy humans.
    1. When I picture Jesus Christ dying on the cross, I see the free gift of God’s grace in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.
    1. I sing with the songwriter, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
    1. Our human mind, with its philosophy of an equal return for favors done, can hardly comprehend the full meaning of this grace of God.
    1. But when you catch, by the inspiration of God, its full meaning, you will leave the limits of human reasoning and revel in the spiritual riches of divine truth and privilege.
  10. From Billy Graham, Yes, the grace of God is a reality. Thousands have tried, tested, and proved that it is more than a cold creed, a submissive doctrine, or a tedious theory.
    1. The grace of God has been tested in the crucible of human experience and has been found to be more than an equal for the problems and sins of humanity.[2]
  11. The story of the prodigal son is one of my most favorite stories in the Bible. All of us know it – because many of us have been the prodigal or the elder son.
  12. The parable about the lost son is recorded only in Luke, a book written primarily to Gentiles who also need to know the Father’s love for them. [3]
    1. Anyone who sins against God, whether Jew, Christian, or unbeliever, needs to know God’s love and acceptance.
    1. We must not miss this main message, which is that God loves those who sin, forgives them, restores them, and rejoices over them. We learn much about this grace from the parable.
  13. Grace is Risky. To understand God’s forgiving grace later, we must first see his initial grace in giving his son freedom to make bad choices.
    1. Since the father obviously represents God, doesn’t this tell us that God created us with the freedom to make choices?
    1. Can the possibility of reciprocal love exist under any other condition? Love and grace are risky.
    1. This father can determine to love, but not to be loved. Love offered is not always returned. We are not pre-programmed robots, but free agents with moral responsibility.
    1. God is willing to risk the rejection of His free love rather than have a pre-determined compliance to His forced love, because voluntary love brings Him glory.
  14. Freedom is Dignifying. As a free moral agent, the erring son makes choices allowed by his father.
    1. The father could have chained his son to a pole to keep him from leaving, but that would be degrading. Not only does he let him leave, but he gives him his inheritance.
    1. Even in sin, the son’s human dignity is preserved as he exercises his moral prerogative as one made in the image of God.
    1. God is free and has created humanity to share that freedom. Humanity is not bound by a will forced upon him by God. This son, made in the image of God, retains enough of God’s image to realize he does not belong in the mud of a pigsty. He gets up and goes back to his father.
  15. Grace Never Cancels the Relationship. The son’s will does not permit him to negate the reality of the father-son relationship. The son always remains a son. He may reject his father, but His father never rejects him. He may have gone to a “far country,” but he could not stray outside his family relationship or wander beyond God’s loving reach.
  16. Repentance is a Change of Mind. When the son realizes his foolish choice to live a reckless life, Jesus describes an “Aha!” moment in the pigsty. “He came to his senses”.  
    1. In other words, he had a change of mind; in other words, he repented.
    1. The description in the text shows this repentance clearly. The son changes his mind in the mud.
    1. As a result of his repentance, he gets up and heads home. This movement from the mud to going home is the fruit of repentance. A changed life after repenting.
  17. God’s love and grace exceeds our sin. As the son nears his home, his father sees him and runs to him. Though the son had sinned big time and gone far from his father’s will, he was never separated from His father’s love.
    1. So great is the father’s love that he not only forgives his son, but has a celebration in his honor.
    1. The father’s acceptance shows amazing grace; the celebration shows abundant grace.
  18. The father’s love rejoices in a son who was “dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32). Here, we see that “dead” is also used as a figure of speech, but to signify separation from the father, not the total inability to respond. Like fallen Adam in the Garden, the prodigal son was able to respond to God’s will.
  19. Grace Means we don’t have to run any more. Upon returning home and seeing his father’s love and forgiving grace, we can surmise that the son realizes he does not need to run away ever again. He is safe in his father’s love. He is free to grow into a new future.
  20. Some will not comprehend God’s grace. The older brother, who was a faithful son, resents the grace shown toward his prodigal brother (Luke 15:25-30).
    1. The older brother is depending on his outer performance to earn his father’s favor, and indeed he has, but the father’s love goes beyond deserved recompense to underserved grace.
    1. The older brother evidently has never needed to avail himself of his father’s grace, so does not appreciate it.
  22. Misunderstanding grace continues today. Both brothers are prodigals to God’s grace, which is reflected in their faulty thinking.
    1. The younger brother thinks that if he returns home and promises to be good and serve, he will deserve his father’s favor (Luke 15:19).
    1. The older brother thinks that because he has done good and served, he deserves his father’s favor (Luke 15:29-30).
    1.  One conditions grace on promised human performance; the other conditions grace on proven human performance.
    1. The one thinks the father will owe him; the other thinks the father already owes him. Neither comprehends the magnificence of unconditional grace of love that the father shows each son.
  23. Grace shows us that God, like this father, will never cease to love and forgive sinners. Should we sin and even relapse, God will never cast us out. Only God’s free grace can simply say, “You are loved and always welcome home!”

Thanks be to God.


[1] From “Amazing Grace” Devotions for Lent

[2] 5 Quotes from Billy Graham on Grace – The Billy Graham Library Blog

[3] Grace Lessons from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32 (gracelife.org)