Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask
or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory.
Alexander Pope’s famous axiom, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,”1 points to the theme of this book. It is about our human experience of God’s outworking grace—the sin-forgiving gift of it, the guilt-removing power of it, the soul-satisfying joy of it, the cross-suffering mystery of it, the conscience-cleansing experience of it, the life-transforming quality of it, the muscular faith-building impact of it, the eternally reconciling splendor of it.
Understanding how God works this out and seeing how we experience his grace as human beings is what I am after. It is his Great Work.
I say this for three reasons.
1. Because the problem is the greatest of all problems. “The problem of forgiveness,” wrote John Stott, “is constituted by the inevitable collision between divine perfection and human rebellion; between God as he is and us as we are.”2 What is becoming more self-evident to me, the longer I live, is the deep-seated and pervasive nature of human sinfulness. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was much glib talk of man evolving into a higher level of moral development. The First World War challenged the notion. The Second, reaching the apex of human depravity in the Holocaust, shattered the idea. Today’s terrorism stuns us only as to the depth of human hatred and cruelty.
Jesus said, “he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). If I have only a little problem with sin, I need only a little favor. The faith that turned the world upside down, however, was an amazing grace.
Forgiveness is God’s Great Work for another reason:
2. Because the solution is the most excellent of all solutions. The cross is the greatest surprise of human history. None of the religions of the world could even have thought of such a thing. Indeed even the closest associates of Christ never saw it coming. None understood the plan of it. When one discovers the reason for it and the wisdom of it and the nature of it, one understands why Christianity is “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It is not simply a code of ethics or a set of principles for wise living, like those provided by Benjamin Franklin or Confucius. It is God at work in human life through the cross.
The unique character of Christianity as a religion of music is evidence for this excellence. The cross inspires song. No other religion inspires such a burning passion to put words of praise to music. Hymns, gospel songs, oratorios, choruses pour out of the cross in every language and in every ethnomusicological form in a never ending stream. Take the cross out of the mountain of music and you have a molehill. Such is the wonder of God’s solution to our sin.
The third reason to call God’s work of grace his Great Work is:
3. Because the change it produces is the most extreme change possible. God’s grace takes a thief and convicts him. It not only forgives him for stealing but makes him abhor any thought of ever stealing again. Then it prompts him to make restitution and to find honest work to meet his needs. Then it gives him a heart to work harder and earn more, so that he might have something to give to charity. The apostle Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). This is the change that God does in the work of grace; he turns a thief into a philanthropist.
I have a good friend who is a doctor. Just a few years ago he was an abortionist for Planned Parenthood. He exploited the fears of pregnant women and profited in the shedding of innocent blood. Today he works beside me in running a pregnancy help ministry. He offers his medical services free of charge and has spent large amounts of money to purchase ultrasound equipment so that women might understand their decision more clearly. What accounts for such a transformed life? What explains such a contrasting before and after? God’s grace, in all its ongoing and outworking power.
The grace of God that forgives us changes us. It changes us not just initially but continually as well. It convicts us and troubles our conscience. Later on it comforts us, “wiping away every tear” (see Revelation 21:4). Soon after, it unleashes irrepressible shouts of praise. The grace of God wounds our pride but then increases our confidence. When God forgives, he exposes the most shameful things only to then cleanse them all from our conscience. And that is just the early work of God in the outworking of his grace.
In the ongoing outworking of God’s grace, God reorients our passions. “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11-12). It produces a radical joy and a strong faith, one that can endure great suffering and yet trust that, in the end, God’s plan will lead to our joy and his glory. The grace that turns us from evil makes us “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14, NIV). The American theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) said, “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”3 I want to trace out how this is true and track the human experience of grace doing this perfecting and glorifying work.
I call it “outworking grace” to get away from the more static idea of grace being a singular event, such as going to the movie theater or graduating from college. People get the idea that biblical grace means largely the event of being forgiven. What happens after is either secondary or extra or supplementary. By outworking grace I mean what Christ meant when he commissioned Paul to the gospel ministry: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18). The work of grace here consists of opening eyes and turning hearts and receiving forgiveness and being sanctified. It is all one work of grace but it works itself out in terms of our human experience, in an ongoing, life-changing dynamic.
By outworking grace I am after what Philippians 2:12-13 calls us to go after: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” What is it that we are to work out with fear and trembling? And how is God at work in us producing these changes? What comes with salvation that needs to be worked out into our minds, our tongues, our wallets, and our sex lives? How is it that when my sins are forgiven, my neighborhood is improved?
In terms of human experience, in fear and trembling, we face the responsibility to repent: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come” (Acts 3:19-20). Yet repentance is the work of God. Paul instructed Timothy to teach patiently, saying, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).
We are commanded to believe: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). As a human experience, this comes down to a decision of the will. But God is at work in our willing: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
In fear and trembling, we are to keep God’s commandments: “by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). But this is God at work: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
In working out our salvation we are to set our hearts and minds after God: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). But God is at work when it comes to our hearts and minds. So we find Paul praying “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:17-18).
We are to live to God: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1, NIV). And yet, “you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God made alive” (Colossians 2:13). In terms of human experience we must “be strong in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:10). But because it is God at work, Paul says, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). It is ours as a human experience to “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4). Yet even in this, God is at work in us! “For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work” (Psalm 92:4). We are to take heed and be careful, lest we fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). But it is God “who is able to keep you from stumbling” (Jude 24). We may indeed “serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11), but our honest testimony will be similar to Paul’s human experience: “I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power” (Ephesians 3:7). And we could go on. It is our experience of God’s outworking grace.
But it is not a partnership. It is not “I do half and God does half.” It is God’s work. Instead of a picture in our mind of meeting God halfway, a better picture might be that of dead Lazarus. Jesus called out for Lazarus to rise up (John 11:43), but with the call came the powerful work of grace, as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Without that enabling power, Lazarus would not even have heard the call, let alone heeded it.
Michelangelo’s statue of David shows him as the archetypal man—rugged and handsome, courageous, visionary, manly in form and temperament. The real David is more pocked and cracked. Scripture does affirm that he was a man after God’s own heart (see 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). But he was also like Woody Allen, who said, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
This was David’s condition when we pick up his story in 2 Samuel 11. It was in the spring of the year, when kings lead their armies into battle. But King David was at home. Already in the wrong place, he was vulnerable. Henri Nouwen quotes the rabbinical proverb, “He who thinks that he is finished is finished.”4 First Corinthians 10:12 (NIV) says it this way: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
David was on the roof of his house, killing time, when he spotted Bathsheba bathing nude across the way. She was a very beautiful woman (2 Samuel 11:2) and David wanted her.
Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, was at this time away on the battlefield, risking his life in the service of king and country. David betrayed Uriah’s service and used his own name and position to seduce Bathsheba. Soon after, he learned that Bathsheba was pregnant.
In an effort to hide his actions, David ordered Uriah home under the guise of needing a war report. He then granted Uriah liberty to go home to his wife before returning to battle.
David’s plan, of course, was that Uriah would sleep with his wife and be deceived into thinking that Bathsheba’s baby was theirs. But Uriah was a man of honor. He thought it dishonorable to enjoy the pleasures of marital intimacy when his brothers were away from their families, fighting and dying. He slept on the palace porch that night.
King David increased the pressure. He delayed Uriah’s return to battle another night and insisted he eat and drink with him. He got Uriah drunk in an effort to loosen his code of honor. That too failed. Uriah again slept on the porch. But David would have his way. He sent Uriah back to battle with a note for his general that read, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die” (2 Samuel 11:15).
David, just by being home rather than with his army, was guilty of abandoning his responsibility as commander in chief. That by itself is no small sin, as any soldier will tell you. To this sin he added the sin of lust and the abuse of power. Then the cover-up began. He deceived and manipulated. He rewarded a soldier’s deep devotion with the ultimate
betrayal. He murdered him. As if nothing were wrong, perhaps even to look merciful, David took Bathsheba into his house as a wife and pretended that everything was just fine.
But God, who, we might say, was a God after David’s own heart, now moved to deal with David’s sin. He sent Nathan the prophet to confront David:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel. . . . And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife’” (2 Samuel 12:7-10).
I see in this devastating indictment the profound and life-changing work of God’s forgiveness as it is designed for David’s life. Why do I say this? Because by the time all is said and done in this affair, Nathan will add, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (12:13).
God’s forgiveness was at work here. Nathan’s message to David was “a severe mercy.”5 Nathan’s probing (“Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes?”) and indicting (“You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own”) and reasoning (“And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more”) forced David to consider his life before God (as we will discuss in chapter 1). David’s denial broke: “I have sinned against the LORD” (12:13). This is the prerequisite work of grace. We must own up to our real guilt (chapter 2). David wept and fasted before the Lord (12:21). David discovered what the old preachers called “the exceeding sinfulness of sin” and acknowledged the justice of God’s judgment (chapter 3). He cried,
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment (Psalm 51:3-4).
The ongoing outworking of God’s grace taught David that the consequences of sin outweigh the “fleeting pleasures” of sin. There was loss, though not eternal loss. As for the temporal consequences for David: “Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun’” (2 Samuel 12:11-12). In the subsequent years of his life, David witnessed sexual immorality, betrayal, murder, and death among his own family members (2 Samuel 11–21), just as he had done these things secretly against the household of Uriah. But, although there were serious and painful consequences for David’s sin, as there is with ours, Nathan reassured David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (12:13).
From this David learned to ask for forgiveness and to put his hope in God (chapter 4):
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalm 51:1-2).
How God would answer this prayer (chapter 5) or justify it (chapter 6) was unclear to David. But this did not stop David from seeking a cleansed conscience (chapter 7):
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (51:7).
And still God’s grace is not finished. David anticipated that grace would relieve his burden and gladden his heart (chapter 8):
. . . let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities (51:8b-9).
He prayed for more grace, for a stronger and better relationship with God marked by praise and persevering faithfulness:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit (51:12).
This is what I mean by the outworking of God’s grace. This is why I have concluded that it is God’s Great Work and can say with David,
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s (Psalm 103:2-5).
Here is a “my-life-is-in-the-pits” rescuing work. Here is forgiveness for all my sins. Here is a crowning life-achievement award. Here is the heart made glad with goodness. Here is youth-like renewing strength in God. That’s the human experience of God’s outworking grace that I am after.
1. In this book, “the Great Work” refers to the great work of the gospel. Summarize why we are calling it the Great Work.
2. In your life to date, how have you perceived God at work in your life?
3. We have seen how much change can occur in our lives through the Great Work, turning thieves into philanthropists, for example, or turning a persecutor such as Paul into a passionate proclaimer of the gospel. Whom have you seen changed by the outworking of God’s grace, and how?
4. In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul calls us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” He also calls us to see “God at work” in us when we take human initiative. This is a difficult concept to grasp. How does the raising of Lazarus help us grasp the concept? In what ways have we seen the need for human initiative in pursuing God and yet have seen that this is God at work?