What Relationships are Made of…
I met my wife through a chance encounter at a mutual friend’s house. Today, eleven years later, we have five years of marriage and three children to show for that fateful meeting. We would not have gotten here if we had met and then simply waited for today. Our relationship, like every relationship, has been made up of one encounter after another.
Relationships grow due, almost completely, to the encounters that make them up. When two people quit encountering one another, their relationship ends. This is true whether we’re talking about friends, family, or our relationship with God. Think about it for a moment. Remember that best friend you had from elementary school that you quit talking to as you grew older? How’s that relationship? It’s nonexistent. On the other hand, if you had continued encountering that person through the years – through phone calls, lunches together, or even solely through e-mail – things would be completely different because the encounters that you would’ve had would’ve kept that relationship alive and growing. Even the word ‘relationship’ reveals the importance of sustained connectedness. The origin of the English word ‘relationship’ goes back to an old French word for ‘connection’ or ‘correspondence.’
The origin of the English word ‘relationship’ goes back to an old French word for ‘connection’ or ‘correspondence.’
If encounters or meetings are necessary for any relationship to thrive, what does that tell us about our relationship with God? It should communicate to us the importance of encountering God. The question then should be, how do we encounter God?
We can’t ring God’s doorbell or call him on the phone.
We can’t like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, or send him an instant message.
We can’t even tune into his radio or TV station – he hasn’t produced any Netflix or Amazon Prime specials.
So how do we encounter God?
Do You Know the Way to his Presence?
In Psalm 5, David writes, “But as for me, by Your abundant lovingkindness I will enter Your house, At Your holy temple I will bow in reverence for You.” The Hebrew word that David uses which the NASB translates ‘lovingkindness’ (and the KJV translates ‘mercy’) is hesed. This is a word with a range of ideas behind it, including love, mercy, covenant faithfulness, kindness, and grace. In fact, it would probably be best to think of it as including all of these different aspects. This is a word that reminds us of God’s calling, his unearned love, his promises, and his faithfulness to his word. And in Psalm 5, David says that he enters God’s house (or his presence) by God’s “abundant hesed.” In other words, we meet God through his gracious love and willingness to be met.
And this makes sense with all of scripture.
Why did God choose Abraham out of all the men in the world? It was his abundant hesed.
Why did God call Moses from tending sheep to deliver his people from Egyptian slavery? It was his abundant hesed.
Why did God give Israel opportunity after opportunity while they rebelled in their desert wanderings? It was his abundant hesed.
Why did God so often, throughout the Old Testament, meet rebellion with mercy? It was his abundant hesed.
Why did God send Jesus to redeem all of creation back to himself? It was his abundant hesed.
We meet God through his gracious love and willingness to be met.
From Genesis to Revelation, we see that God has been drawing men and women into his presence and his Kingdom through his abundant hesed. And just as we must, if we are going to communicate on a human level, have a way to get to one another (either a car or our feet or a phone or a computer, you get the picture) so it is with God. If we’re going to meet with God, we must go through some means. That means is his hesed. And Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the ultimate display of that abundant hesed.
Hesed and New Testament Grace
Some people speak of grace as if it’s equivalent to forgiveness. This is far too weak an understanding of God’s grace. Grace does not function merely as a forgiving agent. It’s much, much more.
In Galatians, Paul writes, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). From this comment it’s obvious that Paul viewed the Gospel itself as “the grace of Christ.” Grace permeated every square inch of the Gospel. Likewise, in his letter to Titus, he says that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). Paul understood grace in a much more broad sense than simply ‘forgiveness.’ And this is where the abundant hesed of God comes in.
Paul knew the Old Testament. He knew what God’s hesed was and his understanding of hesed colored the way that he spoke about grace. This is why, when he talks about grace, he (and the other New Testament authors) talks about it in a variety of ways.
God calls us by his grace. (See Rom. 4:13-18, Gal. 1:15)
God saves us by his grace. (See Rom. 3:24, Rom. 5:15-17, 1 Cor. 15:10, Eph. 1:7)
God sanctifies us by his grace. (See 1 Cor. 15:10, 2 Cor. 1:12, Heb. 10:26-29, Jam. 4:1-8)
God sustains us by his grace. (See Rom. 5:2, 2 Cor. 8:1-9, 2 Cor.12:9, 2 Tim. 2:1, Heb. 4:16)
God empowers us for service by his grace. (See Rom. 1:5, Rom. 12:3-8, Eph. 3:1-3, Eph. 3:8, 1 Pet. 4:10)
Grace is the engine to the entire Christian life. We are not saved and forgiven by grace but then must eke out the rest of our Christian lives without his grace. Grace is the Christian life from beginning to end.
Grace is the Christian life from beginning to end.
Some might then ask, Does this mean that we don’t have any part to play? Hardly! Listen to the way Paul describes his Christian experience, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Read that last part again.
According to Paul, our every work is made possible by the grace of God.
And this is essentially what Jesus said when he was encouraging his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
But this all leads to a very important question. Where do we find this grace?
Meeting Christ in Grace
We don’t run into God’s saving, sanctifying, empowering grace at random. God has told us exactly where he can be met. He has given us his address.
God has provided certain means of grace.
The 18th century pastor John Wesley described the term ‘means of grace’ this way: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”
God has given us certain practices, physical acts, that when accompanied by faith give us access to God’s grace.
“By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” – John Wesley
Prayer, for example, is a physical act. We bow or stand or lay flat and speak or think words to God. All of this is physical. It involves our physical bodies. And yet, when we do these things in faith, we believe that God works through these normal physical actions to produce real grace in our hearts. Through this act of praying, God gives us saving grace, he empowers us, he sanctifies us, he encourages us, etc.
Likewise, when we approach scripture, whether through the hearing or reading of it, we perform a purely physical action. But when these actions are accompanied by faith, real grace is communicated to us. This same thing could be said about a variety of practices that God gives his people in both the Old and New Testaments: Baptism, the Lord’ Supper, Sabbath, Fasting, Feet Washing, Fellowship, and others could be identified as such means of grace.
If God’s people could get ahold of this understanding of grace and the means of grace, they would no longer view these practices mentioned (along with others that haven’t been mentioned) as chores or steps toward legalism and away from grace. Instead, they would realize that these are the very things through which God gives us access to his saving, sanctifying, empowering grace.
Join me over the next several weeks as we explore these means of grace in greater detail and examine how they can help us live the kind of Christian life that we’ve been called to.
The LORD bless you, and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.
– Numbers 6:24-26