2 Corinthians 9:8&9 “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.'”
This is virtually the one place in the New Testament where we read these familiar words, “God is able.” (though there is a limited use of the phrase in Romans 11 where the apostle says that God is able to graft into the olive tree unbelieving Jews again). There is also one place where the phrase is found in the Old Testament. It is in the book of Daniel where the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow down before the image of gold on the plain of Dura. King Nebuchadnezzar is outraged and tells them he is going to have them thrown into a blazing furnace. The men reply, “O Nebuchadnezzar we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will deliver us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16- 18). They confessed that their God was able to turn the heat of the furnace into a cool breeze. God was able to save them from the flames. God was able to deliver them from the king’s hand. If God chose not to do so they would still trust him and certainly never serve other gods or worship the image of gold.
God is able because nothing is impossible with him. Remember how Paul conceived of him as the one, “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephs. 3:20). So whatever the power of the devil and his hosts, however great the combined forces of the authorities of this world, however far the professing church has fallen into declension, however weak the people of God may be today this has no debilitating effect on the Almighty Power who reigns in heaven and does whatsoever he pleases. Our God is able. He was able to make the heavens and earth in seven days and all very good. The Lord was able to command the winds and the waves. He was able to raise the dead. He is able to save the chief of sinners.
Of course, God is not able to sin. He is not able to lie. He is not able to break his oath, his covenant, nor his word. He is not able to deny himself. But he is able so to glorify the name of his blessed Son Jesus Christ that every knee must bow before him. Paul has this confidence in God’s omnipotence. He does not look back at creation and say that God was able, or to look back at the burning fiery furnace and say, “God was able to deliver then.” “The unchangeable God is able,” says Paul. So what is he able to do?
1. GOD IS ABLE TO MAKE ALL GRACE ABOUND TO YOU.
Once again in the language of our text Paul reminds us of the prodigal nature of the love of God, the extravagance of God’s grace, and the expansiveness of the blessings God confers on us. It is so typical of the New Testament. Paul tells the Romans that we are “more than conquerors through him that loved us.” We are hyper-conquerors of sin and death and the devil. Peter speaks to his readers of “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Paul tells the Philippians of God meeting all their needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. The Lord Christ said that he came that men might have life and have it more abundantly.
That whole Christian mentality emphasises that our bedrock is the abundant grace of God. Consider the great foundation gift of God’s grace, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ to become our Saviour. God did not spare his only Son. At many levels it was the most prodigal act that the world ever saw, so extravagant and apparently wasteful. God so loved … the world! The holy Creator loved that which is defined as the lust of the flesh, and the lust of eyes and the pride of life, and so loved it that he spared not his Son from Golgotha that worldlings might be spared.
There is no reason whatsoever for that kind of grace. It was not that there were some people in some places in the world that were beautiful people, and God loved them. God didn’t look at certain folk and say, “Those are very attractive people … at least they are trying … they are sincere … they are a little bit different from others and I like them, because of their efforts, and character, and morals.” There was nothing like that at all, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. There is none righteous, no, not one.
Can I put it this way? Nobody is disqualified because he is unattractive. I don’t know if we suffer from those moods of self-depreciation – I’m sure we do. When we stand before the glory of God’s law and gospel, and then the Holy Spirit comes and convicts us of sin, it can be extraordinarily difficult to believe that God could ever smile in welcoming us. We are so inept. You know – far more eloquently than I can preach about it – that your life is a crooked life. You know its ugliness, its double standards, its weaknesses in every possible area. You know that if your salvation depended on your own sincerity, or integrity, or goodness then there would be no hope, and multitudes of our fellow-countrymen have put themselves into that situation, and that is exactly where they are tonight, without God and without hope. They imagine that because of how they have lived there is no hope for them … until they see this, “God is able to make all grace abound to you.”
Think of those men and women in Corinth to whom Paul was writing this letter. Some had been sexually immoral, some had been idol worshippers, some had been adulterers, some had been male prostitutes and homosexual offenders. They had been thieves, greedy men, drunkards, slanders and swindlers. What was their prognosis? What about their future? What possibility of hope lay before them – those poor sinners? None? No! God was able to make all grace abound towards them and they were washed, they were sanctified, they were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (I Cors. 6:9-11).
God looked at all those worthless lives, and he did the most amazing thing. He sent his own Son into this world to save them. It was an action without prudence, or moderation, or measure. How utterly absurd it all seems to be. The Holy One of Israel giving his dear Son to save us. The living God, totally and passionately committed to our salvation. We were sinful rebels, utterly corrupted by our love of sin, depraved idolaters and blasphemers, yet what does God do? He makes all grace abound. He sends to this world his own Son, his only Son, the Son whom he loved. He could look into the eyes of his Son and see his own image. He could see the ardent affection of Jesus returned towards him. There was never a love like the love of the Father for his Son, never was there a Son so lovable, and never a Father so loving. There was never so precious a relationship, so sensitive a parent, and so beautiful a child. Yet God was able to give him up without any reservations. John doesn’t tell us to what God gave him up, but it certainly was an abundant gift because it was to an abundant anathema, and abundant pain and abundant punishment that the Saviour received. Jesus became the great sin-bearer banished into the far country as he is loaded with the sin of the world. Calvary is a display of the abundant grace of God. It becomes the foundation of all that flows into our lives.
It seems to me that God, as he blesses you and me, is responding to the glory of Christ’s death, and that is why the grace of God can never be bare grace, but it must be “all grace” and more, “all grace abounding” towards us. It is as if the cross were saying to God, “Can you match that?” as if the love of the Son who bore my sin were saying to the Father, “Will you follow that? Give my people a redemption commensurate with the price I have paid, a redemption that matches the grace that sent me from heaven to this world.”
It is because of the cross that God is able to make all grace abound. We can say that God can’t get over the cross. It is ever before him and he thrills at its sight, all the splendour of his Son’s devotion and service, all the magnificence of the Son’s obedience to the death of the cross. There was that stupendous courage that sustained the Lord Jesus as for the sake of all that the Father had given to him he made that long journey from the life of heaven to death in this world.
That costly sacrifice pleads before the throne of God for a matchless salvation. The extravagance of the sufferings plead for an equally prodigal redemption. All grace has abounded in the gift of Christ, and it says to God, “Now match the price I have paid, and bless my people with the same abundant grace as my sacrifice deserves.”
So there is the abundance of forgiveness for repenting sinners. God multiplies his pardoning love to each of them. No matter the number of our falls – “Sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” Sometimes our consciences are overwhelmed with the sheer number and ceaseless reoccurrence of our own acts of disobedience. Conscience says, “Listen! For someone with as many sins and such black stains, there can be no hope for you. Grace is wonderful, of course, but it has its limits. For someone in your state what you need is the all abounding grace of forgiveness.” Then the gospel responds, “That is exactly what you’ve got”. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, does not fail to cleanse a single sin.
The sufficiency of the grace of God is the great challenge to our own consciences today. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow. There is the sheer number, and weight, and indefensible quality of the lives we’ve lived, and nothing but the abundance of all grace can meet our needs. Our lies so provocative, our pride so abominable, our lives so ungodly, our religion so inconsistent. Today we could easily be impaled on our own despair. Satan says, “No hope for you. The burden is too great because what someone like you needs is all-abundant grace.” The Gospel says, “That’s exactly what we have, the abundance of pardon.”
I need to get through to my conscience that no matter how numerous and awful my sins are, that before God, through the atoning blood of Christ, God is able to make all his measureless pardon abound towards me. You must never forget what God’s grace is offering you, that whoever you are today, however appalling your record might be, however innumerable your sins, however deep the degradation, there is forgiveness in Jesus’ name for you. Not for other people, but for you! Where sin abounds God’s grace much more abounds.
There was a Brazilian teenager named Christina who longed to leave her poor neighbourhood and ‘see the world’. In her home there was only a pallet on the floor on which to sleep, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove. Christina dreamed of a better life in the city. One morning she slipped off and ran away breaking her mother’s heart. Knowing what life on the streets would be like for her young and attractive daughter, Maria hurriedly packed to find her. On her way to the bus stop she entered a shop to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself.
With her purse full of small photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janiero. Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets the pangs of hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. She went to many of them and at each place she left her picture taped on a bathroom mirror, or tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the stairs of an hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation. “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” She did. That is the invitation God’s abundant grace makes to us.
2. IN ALL THINGS AT ALL TIMES GRACE GIVES US ALL WE NEED.
The resources that God’s grace gives us are also abundant. We are not only liberated from sin, and made averse to it but we are given new life in Christ which enables us to live to the glory of God. Paul makes that astonishing claim in his letter to the Philippians, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phils. 4:13).
One of the church’s losses in the emphasis in Wales upon the need of revival is that believers have tended to have low expectations about their own spiritual lives. There has been a stress on the absence of the Spirit, and the Christian’s spiritual liabilities and weaknesses so that we have failed to see the opposite and balancing New Testament emphasis on the incalculable resources and therefore immeasurable potential of the mere Christian. “I can do everything”, says Paul, and in our text he says that in all things at all times we will have all that we need.
If this is true it means that we will be able to bear any burden, as Job did; endure any pain, as the martyrs did; overcome any temptation as Daniel did; climb any mountain as Joni Eareckson Tada has done; ford any river as David Livingstone did and go on doing all things in the One who strengthens us. “At all times” – as we face the challenge of our own providence, the opposition of men, the devices of Satan, our ill health, the demands of the law of God, the stringency of God’s imperatives then we are facing these things not as mere men who are interested in religion, frail and fallen human beings, but as men who have become recipients of the abundant grace of God.
There is a great prayer in Augustine’s Confessions: “Lord, give what thou dost command, and command whatever you wish.” Lord, give me what you require me to have, and you can ask whatever you like. You can ask me to carry any load, as long as you give me strength to bear it. Give me any office in the church, as long as you give me the wisdom to hold it. In all things at all times you have all that you need. If you today are somewhere in God’s will, and are bearing some burden that God has imposed upon you, facing some temptation, and enduring some sorrow or pain that has its root in the purposes of God then I am saying that if God has decided you must endure this then grasp this comforting fact, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” Just when the will of God seems to be breaking you in pieces it is there that God’s grace keeps you, in fact God never puts you where his grace cannot keep you. Your faith will not fail.
Grace is the strength of God. It is not sentiment or affection or feeling. It is power. When God answered Paul’s cry for deliverance from the thorn in the flesh he told him two things. First, that his grace was sufficient for Paul, and secondly, that his strength was made perfect in Paul’s weakness. The second phrase is the reason for the truth of the first. Grace is the power of God changing our circumstances, and cheering our distresses, enabling us to keep following the Lord in a way that honours him.
What is put forth in grace is the strength of Almighty God. That is why Paul speaks in our text here of ‘all’ grace. He means all sorts of grace, all the resources of grace, of the invincible power and might and energy of divinity. When we claim that our lives have been touched by grace and that we are being kept by grace we are not saying that we are in the grip of a great attitude, or have become the objects of a wonderful mood, but we are in the grip of the might of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The one who raised the dead has us in his hand and no man can pluck us from there.
All our hope of having everything we need in faith and hope and perseverance and love is through the power of God. All our hopes of sanctification and living as a Christian husband, or wife, parent or child, church member or neighbour should live is derived from this emphasis on the mighty energy of God imparted to us. I suspect that for us ‘power’ and ‘grace’ are kept in two different compartments, but that is not the case in the Word of God. There is the closest possible relationship of divine power and divine grace, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “grace to help us in time of need.”
The grace Paul is writing about it, of course, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who sits in the very midst of the throne and legislates and directs the affairs of heaven and earth bringing to a conclusion what God has planned. Our Saviour brings every force in the cosmos to serve the ends of grace, every power that is physical, intellectual, psychical, or spiritual is at his command. He can move heaven and earth and one day will recreate the entire universe atom by atom. Grace supplies all we need because Christ reigns in unchallengeable authority. He sits in the heavens and does whatsoever he pleases. It is not that the church alone is under his control, or that things in heaven do his will, but all matter, forces and powers, men and angels – whatever it might be, if you can conceive it or think of it then it is under his control. Even those powers beyond human comprehension, still being marvelled at by the saints in glory, they too are all under his command.
It is with that confidence and inspiration, impelled by that dynamic, we face all the demands of God. For example, as we confront today the challenge of the Ten Commandments we dare not face them as ordinary men and women, fallen and depraved. If we do then the law stands there and threatens us. If we face the great teaching of the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount as mere children of Adam then that sermon mocks us. If we face the terrible challenge of Ephesians 5 and 6 in the native strength of our own humanity then again that teaching is laughing at our struggles. But if we face the decalogue, and Matthew 5, 6 and 7, and the great concluding chapters of the Ephesians as those who have been gripped by the grace of God, as those indwelt by the triune God, as those who can do all things through Christ who strengthens them then we can face whatever God demands from us with hope and expectation. By God’s grace we can live at a totally new level of attainment, and patience, and contentment, and sheer praise.
Our great text has to live in the light of that humility which is so important an element in Christianity, difficult to define and so easy to misunderstand, because we think it means self-denigration and self-deprecation. So we need to hear the Bible saying to us, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (v.8). You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. We have no right to tolerate either low expectations or tiny levels of achievement. God is continually giving us all that we need. Please look around at your life. Isn’t it a life full of extravagance and the most prodigal graces? Aren’t you a child of God, blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus?
It is no use your saying to me, “That’s all right for you, middle-aged, university educated, owning your own home, enjoying good health, happily married and lacking little.” See what Scripture Paul quotes here, from Proverbs 11:24, “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor.” The man who wrote these words spent years of his life in a prison cell chained to a soldier day and night, with the threat of execution hanging over him day after day. Yet he was saying that God was so generous, scattering abroad his abundant grace to men and women all the world over so that they had all they needed. In the new covenant it is the poor who have the gospel preached to them.
That is my testimony today, that God’s grace has been extravagant, that God’s goodness has been to my heart and conscience one of the great proofs that God is, because he is a strengthening and answering God. The fact of his existence is vindicated in the experience of his goodness.
“All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”
So we should be living lives which are inexplicable apart from the grace of God. I am talking of ordinary men and women who have been washed by the blood of Christ and indwelt by the Spirit of God. The Lord of glory who has risen from the dead is reigning by his grace in their lives. His life is continually coming to them. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loving praise.
3. HIS GRACE ENABLES US TO ABOUND IN EVERY GOOD WORK.
“Why,” men say, “if all this is true, then these Christians can just live as they please because it is all of grace. If our salvation and preservation has nothing to do with a man’s merit then we can please ourselves how we live.” But look at the words of our text, those who have received God’s abundant grace manifest it by doing abundant good works – “you will abound in every good work.” It will happen. It must take place.
You know that there are certain things that are foreordained. We think of our conversion, and it was predestined. Sometimes when we pass through great trials, and when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we comfort ourselves knowing that it is appointed unto men once to die. Our loved ones were keeping an appointment God had made with them. Maybe that is our only comfort, that this was a foreordained death, that the grave does not fill by chance but by the decree of our loving Father. If it were accident or fate we would be justified in fretting, but God did it. The Lord has taken away!
Yet there is something else God foreordained and that is the good works of all his people. Let us be clear about this, that unless we can infer from our lives that we are being divinely energised to do good works, and to abound in them, then who can confess whether that great grace God has ever gripped us and pardoned us for our sins? What right do we have today to imagine that we have some great heavenly prospects lying before us if our lives are not characterised by zeal in good works? I well remember a Sunday when Professor John Murray was preaching and saying, “Saved by good works, and saved unto good works. Just two little prepositions. What is the difference between them?” He replied to his own question, “Heaven or hell.” We are not saved by good works but by the Lord Jesus. But all who are saved by the Lord Jesus are saved unto good works. It is absolutely integral to the grace of God that those whose lives have been affected by grace show it by a totally new attitude to the world, to the congregation, to their neighbours and to their enemies.
The Lord Jesus was once speaking in a sermon to his young disciples. It was right at the beginning of their following him and he said to them, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Then he opened up the Christian life in that Sermon on the Mount, talking to them about handling anger, sexual sin, divorce, oaths, retaliation, loving your enemies, giving to the needy, praying, fasting, judging others, being wise builders. It was all about the good works which those who were his disciples were to show. Ryle said, “Grace that cannot be seen is not grace at all.” So abundant grace leads to abounding in good works.
Men and women around us are not interested in our profession of faith even though our eyes shine when we speak about our God, and we have the most eloquent theological language. They are impressed with what we are and what we do. They will say to one another about us, “Actions speak louder than words.” James says, “Faith without works is dead, being alone.” It is easy to brag about that grace of God that has forgiven our sins, but the only way to show that it’s not bogus is by our works, that is, by how we treat other people. The Lord Jesus warned his boys at the end of that great Sermon on the Mount that i n the day of judgment many would be boasting that he was their Lord but he would speak acknowledging that he never knew them. D.L.Moody said, “It’s a great deal better to live a holy life than to talk about it. Lighthouses do not ring bells and fire cannons to call attention to their shining – they just shine!”
Let me give you an example of a young man abounding in every good work. Bill Harrell, minister in Norfolk, Virginia, told me his story. He said that it was perhaps the most powerful testimony to Christian integrity he could recall.
This young man had graduated from college, and was accepted into the Uniformed Services University to train as an Air Force doctor. A week after his arrival at the medical school, he phoned his parents to confess to them that he had not been completely honest on his Air Force entrance questionnaire. Having been asked on that questionnaire whether he had ever used illegal drugs, he indicated that he had not. Yet, his conscience disturbed him when he recalled that several years previously he had experimented once with mushrooms and once with nitrous oxide. Despite his knowing the grave ramifications of his confessing this to Air Force authorities, he was determined to do so.
The man could have let his lie stand. He could have rationalised that he had been young and foolish, and that his experimentation was infrequent and relatively harmless. He could have said nothing to anyone regarding his misleading answers on the questionnaire, and no one would have known, including his parents. He could have reasoned that his disclosure and its consequences for his future would cause unnecessary suffering to him and to his parents. He could have pietistically reasoned that this past sin was under the blood of Jesus, and thus he was no longer answerable for it. He could have done any or all of these things, and his life, reputation, and future would have been easier and brighter…before men, though not before God.
Accordingly, this young man confessed to his parents not only his drug experimentation, but also his dishonesty, and told them of his determination to inform the appropriate Air Force authorities. When he took the later step, he was suspended from his military Combined Officer Training, and his future in the Air Force is under review. In a letter he wrote, at the request of his training commander, who gathered materials in support of this man of integrity remaining on active military duty, the young man said this:
“I want to express my regret for the mistakes in my past that have brought me to where I’m at today. My disenrolment from the COT program is an immense disappointment. It is not disappointing in the sense of it being a surprise or in the sense of it being unfounded. It is a disappointment in the sense of me losing an opportunity that I have begun to cherish. I realised when I made the decision to admit my experimentation with mushrooms, the consequences to my Air Force career could be high. But I also realised that if I didn’t admit this, the consequences to my character could be higher. I was faced with a decision of right and wrong. And I have failed at this crossroads in the past. Thankfully, my character is now that which will no longer settle for failure at this crossroads of right and wrong.”
We would all agree that that is a very powerful and moving letter and a wonderful illustration of a good work, that is the work a Christian does, strengthened by Word and Spirit, motivated by his desire to honour and please Almighty God at considerable cost to himself. This anonymous young man cast himself on the grace of God and did what he believed was right.
Has he been accepted on the Officer Training Programme? Has the American Air Force been pleased to overlook this youthful folly? I don’t know. God is able to make them do that isn’t he? We began by remembering three other men whose consciences made them stand out from the crowd and refuse to bow to an idol. They believed God was able to deliver them from the furnace, but if not they still would not do what was wrong, and they would face the consequences in the strong grace which God gave them. “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” God promises. He can enable us to abound in every good work. He will not fail for “his righteousness endures for ever.” He will not let you down, “for his righteousness endures for ever.” Not one of his people will be lost, “for his righteousness endures for ever.”
18th November 2001 GEOFF THOMAS