Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:1-2)
Grace. Paul begins and ends every letter he wrote with talk of God’s grace. It is the foundation of everything else included in his theology. I wonder if we really grasp the significance and meaning of grace. As a student of the revered Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), young Paul learned early on what God’s grace had meant to the Old Testament fathers.
When we first acknowledge our belief in God, we ‘feel’ our sin as guilt. If we’re not careful, we can become stuck in this feeling of unworthiness. God provides us with the gift of grace to keep us moving forward in our faith. In Isaiah 6, the prophet has a vision of the Lord “sitting high upon a throne,” surrounded by seraphim, his voice shaking the foundations. But Isaiah’s first words aren’t spoken in awe. Rather, the guilt of his sinfulness in the presence of God’s holiness, leads Isaiah to speak out of fear:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5)
Then the unexpected happens, for God doesn’t strike Isaiah down out of anger because of his sins, as Isaiah fears God might do. Instead, God meets Isaiah’s fear with grace. In a moment, God removes Isaiah’s guilt, declares his sin atoned for, and sends him out as his personal messenger to Israel – a job that Isaiah now feels worthy enough to volunteer for!
Let that sink in: God has the power – and desire – to return us to a state of holiness so that we may come into his loving presence without fear. No longer will sin and guilt be wedged between God and his creation. Keep in mind, we don’t deserve this second chance. We don’t deserve new birth. We don’t deserve new life.
But just like he did for Isaiah, God gives us grace anyway.
Paul wasn’t aware of this truth only from his scripture lessons as a young boy, though. Paul could speak of God’s miraculous grace from first-hand knowledge. At one time, Paul (known also by his Jewish name, Saul) had imprisoned Christians and even witnessed the stoning to death of the deacon Stephen (Acts 7:58 – 8:3). One need not hurl a stone to be complicit in murder, though, which brings to mind the words of Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Woe is me, indeed.
But just as he did for Isaiah, God extended to Paul his unexpected, unmerited, undeserved grace. Paul never writes of his dramatic conversion to Christianity, but Luke gives an account in Acts 9. Struck blind by God for three days and asked by God, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me,” Paul is later revealed to be chosen by God to spread the gospel to the Gentiles and is filled with the Holy Spirit, strengthened through Christ Jesus.
Grace is the power and the depth of God’s love made visible. Grace allowed Paul to understand his sin as separation from the Creator. Grace transformed Paul from persecutor to Apostle. As Paul later writes to the Ephesians, God has the power to make us “holy and blameless” in his eyes (Eph. 1:4).
God’s grace knows no limit. Paul experienced God’s infinite grace personally. He would never again persecute Christians. Rather, Paul began a new life with new purpose and urged Jew and Gentile alike to do the same, united as one body in Christ. Paul preached a theology of forgiveness, sanctification, election, and the revelation of God’s divine mystery – a theology he lived and experienced, only... because God first showed him grace.