Reforming Grace

by Greg Albrecht

For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”—Isaiah 57:15

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.—Matthew 23:12

Over 490 years ago, on the day now known as Halloween—October 31, 1517—a young Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted 95 theses, or statements, on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These 95 issues were a summary of what this young, courageous priest saw as problematic teachings and practices in his church.

Martin Luther had come to believe that the god of his church was not the God of the Bible. The posting of those 95 theses were the result of a long, spiritual struggle in which Luther had been engaged.

Luther seems to have become convinced that God was being misrepresented as an angry, wrathful god. Luther began to believe that the church was more interested in using fear to control people than it was helping them embrace freedom in Christ.

Most of all, however, Luther wrestled with the idea that God is holy, and that no matter how hard Luther tried, he was a poor, miserable sinner. Martin Luther could not see how a holy, perfect and righteous God would ever forgive and love a sinner like himself. Luther had done everything the church told him to do, he had performed all the rituals, said all the prayers, done the penance, but at the end of it all, he knew that he did not have the ability to produce the kind of life that would please God.

Then came grace.

As Luther studied the book of Romans, God enlightened him, and Martin Luther came to see that the cross of Christ had set him free from trying to make himself worthy and acceptable to God. Luther came to see that Jesus had made him worthy and acceptable, and that he, Martin Luther, was free to rest in the mercy, favor and grace of God—because of the work of Jesus on the cross.

In the aftermath of religion, Martin Luther discovered Jesus, and as it turned out, so did tens of millions of others who followed him. Martin Luther and so many others, by God’s grace have discovered the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel has been there in the Bible all along, but it has been, and still is, obscured by Christ-less religion.

Initially Martin Luther thought that his church, and the authorities over him in the church, would be delighted to hear this news. But Luther was met with hostility, rejection and persecution. He was branded a heretic. In order to be a Christian, Luther had to leave his church.

It was Martin Luther who led the Protestant Reformation, a reformation of Christendom, a reformation of church-anity, a reformation of religion that had corrupted and counterfeited authentic Christianity. Millions of others have had a similar experience. In order to be a Christian, millions of people have had to stop attending their church. In order to embrace Jesus Christ people have had to turn their back on religious traditions and teachings they recognize as the enemy of the gospel.

Ironically, the Reformation itself did not last. Sadly, there were soon many Protestant churches who themselves had developed new religious traditions that flew in the face of God’s grace.

Every generation needs a Martin Luther. Every church, every denomination needs someone whose job it is to ask whether religious ceremonies and traditions have become more important than Jesus, and whether they have relegated Jesus and God’s grace to the church basement.

So today, over 490 years after the beginning of the Reformation, the Reformation needs to continue. A funny thing happened on the way to the Reformation—the Reformation itself turned into religious legalism.

Today, over 490 years after Martin Luther’s courageous stand, many people continue to be trapped by legalistic religion, whether they call themselves Protestants, Catholics, or neither. Tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, who exist in some shape or form under the umbrella of Christendom, are trapped by religion. They desperately need the cleansing revolution of God’s amazing grace.

How do I know? Here’s a simple test, just two questions:

1) Are you sure that you are saved? Ask most Christians that question. Seldom will you receive a dogmatic “Yes.” Normally you will receive a prevaricating, hedging, two-step-like dance: “Well, yes, I think so—that is, as long as I continue to do such and such.” Or the answer might be something like this: “I hope I’m saved, but I wouldn’t want to be so arrogant as to say I have it made. I still have a long way to go. I hope I make it.” Those kinds of comments are by far and away the majority of comments in response to the question, “Are you sure you are saved?”

2) Are you sure God loves you? Again, the answers are going to go something like this: “I think he does most of the time, because I go to church every week, because I do good stuff and I try real hard not to do bad stuff. But I have to be honest, there are times when God is probably not very happy with me.”

Our passage in Matthew says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those that humble themselves will be exalted. Our passage in Matthew occurs in the midst of perhaps the most scathing denunciation Jesus gave of religious legalism. Within this context Jesus is saying that it seems like religion exalts us, because it suggests that our salvation is either entirely up to us or that it is partially up to us.

But the plain truth is salvation is not up to us at all. Accepting that premise is what the Bible calls repentance. Accepting that we do not control our spiritual and eternal destiny is an act of humility, and it is the reason why many do not embrace God’s amazing grace.

Martin Luther discovered that God’s grace is amazing. He found out, like Paul, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Forgiveness abounds. There is more than enough grace and forgiveness for you and for me. God has all the grace you will ever need. Heaven overflows with grace. Heaven will never run out of grace.

In my opinion, the greatest contribution that God used Martin Luther for is to remind Christians of the New Testament teaching that we are justified by grace. Luther reminded us that the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that God loves us so much that he will never lose his cool with us, he will never boil over with anger at us. God loves us, and, in the Person of Jesus, extends his hand to us.

God, in Jesus, invites us to humble ourselves, to reject the religious stuff that deceives us into thinking that we can make God happier with us on the basis of our performance than he otherwise would have been.

Our passage in Isaiah speaks of the healing God, the God who comforts us, who extends, as the title of our article suggests, Reforming Grace.

In this passage, Isaiah 57:15, God says that he is holy, that he lives in a high and holy place. There is no doubt that we can never pay the rent to live in God’s spiritual neighborhood. The place God lives is a gated community of righteousness. God makes his home in the high-rent district of holiness, his neighborhood is a place of eternally perfect, pure and pristine mansions. God’s high and holy place is so spiritually exclusive (and so spiritually expensive) that a million lifetimes of good deeds on our part couldn’t get us past the front gate.

The one true God doesn’t live in spiritual poverty—he isn’t homeless. He doesn’t depend on us for his housing or food. He doesn’t live in a makeshift cardboard home, which is, by contrast to his heavenly home, our condition apart from him. Apart from him, we are spiritually homeless. The one true God has all of the spiritual and physical resources in the universe. But God is not arrogant, proud, vain or egotistical. He says, in Isaiah 57:15, I am also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.

God is not overly impressed with the lofty, ornate cathedrals humans build. God doesn’t assume that those religious monuments are more holy than little humble church buildings out on some windswept, desolate plain or desert. For that matter, God is not impressed with any building we can build and dedicate to him—as Acts 7:48 tells us: …the Most High does not live in houses made by men.

Worshiping God inside a building that calls itself a church does not exalt you before God. Your presence inside a building that calls itself a church is not the basis of God’s love for you. God is not impressed with religious rituals and regimentations—God does not love you more based on how many prayers you say, how long you pray, how often you show up at church, or with the size of the check you write to your church.

God is not impressed with anything other than your willingness to depend on him, to accept Jesus Christ alone, because Jesus alone can save you from yourself, and from religious legalism, for that matter.

God offers us his grace because without grace we are sunk. Without God’s grace we are toast—so much spiritual road kill. There is nothing that we can place before God that will convince him that he should love us more than he already does.

The great thing about Reforming Grace is that it is always there—always waiting for us. God does not force his grace on us. Sadly, many religious institutions and entities try to hide or obscure God’s grace. Grace is generally not compatible with the status quo of many religious institutions, for if they proclaim grace, they will lose their following.

The problem religion has with grace is that grace will put religion out of business. And eventually, according to the Bible, that’s exactly what is going to happen. But for now, religious legalism is having its way with hundreds of millions.

The great news of Reforming Grace is that each one of us can be a Martin Luther. By God’s grace we can all be reformers—reformers in the sense of being the kind of person that God is empowering, encouraging, inspiring and transforming. Jesus is looking for each one of us. Jesus is there, always, with his hand reaching out—inviting, welcoming, willing to help any who will trust in him—willing to rescue them from the bondage of religious legalism.

The 1959 movie Ben-Hur is a great story that exemplifies Jesus’ rescue and deliverance. Ben-Hur was originally subtitled, A Tale of the Christ. This movie left an indelible mark on me, I was only 12 years old when it first came out. The late Charlton Heston played the lead, a Jewish nobleman who is eventually enslaved by the Romans, set free physically, and eventually spiritually delivered by Jesus.

Ben-Hur describes the friendship between a Roman tribune and the Jewish nobleman, Ben-Hur. Ironically, it is the Roman tribune who is eventually responsible for seeing that Ben-Hur is sent into slavery.

In one of the critical scenes of the movie, Ben-Hur is chained to other prisoners during a forced march across the desert. They stop in a Jewish town called Nazareth for water. The slaves are allowed to drink only after the Roman soldiers and their horses drink—and even then Ben-Hur is not allowed to drink, because he is being more severely punished.

Ben-Hur is severely dehydrated, and collapses into the dirt, exhausted, crying out, “God help me.” Just as he does, a hand reaches out for him—it’s the hand of the carpenter from Nazareth. That hand provides him with a gourd filled with life-giving cool water. Jesus answers Bender’s cry for help.

Seven years go by, Ben-Hur survives many adventures, including being taken to Rome as a slave, but eventually he wins his freedom and returns to his homeland. He returns to his homeland of Judea a hardened, embittered man, bent on taking revenge on those who had a part in placing him in slavery. And, he partially finds that revenge in the movie’s famous chariot race.

As Ben-Hur wrestles with his feelings of hatred, rage and revenge, he discovers that his sister and mother have contracted leprosy, a hideous, terminal disease. They live as outcasts in the Valley of the Lepers.

Ben-Hur is on his way through Jerusalem and arrives just in time to hear of a young rabbi from Nazareth who is on trial. After Jesus is tried and tortured, he is paraded through the streets with his cross on his back, on the way to be crucified. As Ben-Hur watches, he sees Jesus, and, just as the shadow of Jesus passes over him, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus as the carpenter from Nazareth who quenched his thirst with water.

Ben-Hur follows Jesus, and when Jesus stumbles, Ben-Hur goes forward out of the crowd and offers him water, and then Ben-Hur follows the procession and finally watches the crucifixion.

As Jesus is dying on the cross, darkness covers everything and a thunderstorm brings rain, life-giving water. As rain washes over the leprous bodies of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister in the Valley of the Lepers, they are cleansed and healed.

Almost at the same time, in another location, Ben-Hur stands transfixed by the crucifixion, by Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, and says as the movie ends, “Almost at the moment he died, I heard him say it, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’…. Even then I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”

Shortly thereafter Ben-Hur is reunited with his now healed mother and sister and the movie ends with a lingering view of three crosses on a hill, with a shepherd driving his flock on the very place where the crucifixion had recently taken place.

It was in humility that Ben-Hur found his salvation, salvation in and through the humble carpenter from Nazareth who went to the cross as a sheep goes to slaughter.

No matter how trapped you may feel by some kind of religious system—

No matter how deeply rooted religious legalism may be in your life—

No matter how hopeless you may feel your situation may be—

Rest assured, God can and will transform you. Rest assured, God’s Reforming Grace is sufficient for you—it’s all you need. God will give you rest. God will deliver you. God will rescue you.

Reach out your hand, trust in Christ, accept the love he expressed for you on his cross. Compared to the grinding spiritual slavery so many experience, Jesus is the water of eternal life. Reject religious manipulations and traditions that exalt themselves above Christ, and above God’s amazing grace. Accept God’s grace. Be transformed. Let your spiritual thirst be quenched.

Let the Reformation continue.