However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24 | NIV84)
Human beings are God’s ultimate creative expression and His only creation made in His image. All other aspects of creation were created by God to serve the needs of human beings just as human beings were created to serve God. In that sense, all people are theocentric. Being created in God’s image, is it any wonder why He went to such great lengths to save man?
The apostle Paul was such a man. He was created in God’s image but as it has done to all men, sin yanked Paul farther and farther away from his creator, distorting God’s image within his heart to the point where even though Paul became a master at handling the Scriptures, he neither understood them nor resembled his Creator in any way.
It took a shocking encounter with the risen Lord for Paul to be convinced to his lost condition:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. (Acts 9:3-8 | NIV84)
And it was while he was cooling his heels in Damascus that Paul received his commission from the Lord:
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”. (Acts 9:15-16 | NIV84)
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. (Acts 9:19c-20 | NIV84)
And so the “Gospel of grace” did to Paul what it does to everybody who hears it and accepts it: It radically changed his life and set him free to do the same for others.
Let’s look a little closer at this “Gospel of grace” and discover what it’s all about.
The image of God in man
Grace, we’ve been taught, is “God’s unmerited favor,” meaning that God treats those who have placed their full faith and trust in Him better than they deserve. That’s a good definition, and if that’s all you know about grace, it will serve you well. But for those of us who think too much, we wonder about the whole issue of God’s grace. For me, I wonder what it is about sinful, rebellious human beings that moves God to treat them with grace. The answer is simplicity itself, and it all boils down to these two verses:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image,in the image of God he created him;male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 | NIV84)
Human beings – men and women – were created in God’s image. Both as individuals and corporately, we have been created in the image of God. Actually, if you read Genesis 1:26 a little closer, we see that men have been created in the image and likeness of God. While that sounds like human beings “look like God,” that’s not what’s being taught in those verses. Men and women, because they have been created in the “image” and “likeness” of God, share His morality, His ability to be rational, to be thoughtful, and especially to be able to relate to Him and other human beings on a spiritual, emotional, mental, and intimate level. Beyond nebulous things like those, there’s really no single aspect in any human being you can point to and say, “That looks like God.”
Psalm 8 gives us a sense of what being created in God’s “image” and “likeness” means:
…what is man that you are mindful of him,the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds,and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air,and the fish of the sea,all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalms 8:4-8 | NIV84)
Those verses could never be applied to any other thing God ever created. Only men and women have been created in God’s “image” and “likeness.” Contrary to what too many people think, the Bible teaches equality between the sexes; neither sex is given prominence over the other. This fact should be obvious since both men and women have been created in God’s “image” and “likeness.” Now, of course, there are different roles assigned to each sex and men and women are different; they are not the same and should never be regarded as the same or treated as the same.
While it’s true we are all created in the “image” and “likeness” of our Creator, sin has marred and seriously distorted that image. It has become so warped that you’d be hard-pressed to find God’s image in sinful man. For example, man’s dominion over the earth has been challenged because of sin. Apart from Jesus Christ, human beings cannot live at peace very long with anybody. That’s why we fight and argue and “discuss” with the very people we claim to love! And that’s why no human being can ever hope to relate to God outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter how good a person tries to be, he can never be good enough – he can never be clean enough – to come into God’s presence.
All of us have become like one who is unclean,and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6 | NIV84)
But God still sees His image in every human being, no matter how good or how sinful they may be. And that’s why He yearns to repair the damage caused by sin.
How serious was sin of Adam and Eve? What they did was no moral lapse – a mistake in judgment – but outright, deliberate rebellion against the will of God. They deliberately rejected God’s way for another. They day they disobeyed God, they began to die. The consequences of that rebellion – not the guilt – were passed on to the descendants of Adam and Eve. Consequences like these:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness… (Romans 1:18 | NIV84)
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20 | NIV84)
God’s crowning achievement – man – created in the very “image” and “likeness” of his Creator, now lost and hurting, not knowing how bad off he is, unable to help himself, is actively pursued by God so that He may repair His “image” and “likeness” within that man, thereby restoring that man to his rightful place as a son of God (not THE Son of God).
That’s the Gospel of grace; the same Gospel that changed Saul, the persecutor of Christians, into Paul, the man who would preach that Gospel of grace that changed him so that others may be changed as he was.
Why everybody needs to hear this Gospel of grace
And this is why everybody – EVERYBODY – needs some kind of “conversion experience.” No church can educate anybody’s sinful nature out of them. The apostle Paul spent three years alone with the risen Lord in the desert, learning from Him, but that was AFTER his conversion experience. Going to church won’t save you. Having a “church-going” spouse or parents won’t do you a wit of good. Every human being, like Paul, needs a change. A change that occurs from the inside out, not the outside in.
Because of the sinful nature we inherited from Adam and Eve, we are by nature as hostile to God and as rebellious as Adam and Eve were. Our sinful nature colors every decision we make and influences every relationship we have. That sinful nature makes us sinful people who cannot change on our own. We may, from time to time do the right thing, but we have wills that generally won’t obey God, eyes that cannot see, and ears that cannot hear the truth because we are dead to God. That’s why no human being who has ever lived has “found God” because he was looking for Him. He wasn’t. No human being is looking for God because he can’t. He may be looking for goodness and justice and peace – all the things that come from God – but that sinner isn’t looking for God Himself. Man’s depraved nature – our gift from Adam and Eve – forbids us from looking for God. Being totally depraved does NOT mean we are as bad as we could be, but rather it means that every good thing we may do, while it may help other people, can’t help us with God. We need something else, outside of our tainted, untrustworthy, deprived sinful nature to point us to God. That “something else” is God’s grace. It is God’s grace that draws sinners to Himself. Jesus put it this way:
But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32 | NIV84)
Salvation – coming to Christ in response to His call – is a gift from God that has nothing to do with our behavior but everything to do with God’s grace:
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24 | NIV84)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 | NIV84)
This Gospel of grace is the most remarkable thing! No sinner can lose when he responds to God’s grace. Don’t’ misunderstand what I’m saying here. God does all the work in saving a sinner; He takes the initiative. When people receive the grace of God, their lives necessarily change and that is a testimony to the power of God’s grace. But when they reject God’s grace, that is also a testimony – a testimony of a hard, sinful heart that refuses to accept the best gift they’ve ever been offered.
God’s grace comes to us while we are still sinners and once accepted, that “image” and “likeness” of God becomes more defined and obvious. God does not accept us because He sees us making an effort to change. Grace comes into our lives while we are at our worst, and as we allow God’s grace to work in us, He changes us. God takes us, just as we are because He is a merciful God.