A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!” (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (2nd ed.; London: BCA, 1998), p. 1.)
All Christians should be like that little old lady. Not, of course, that we should insist on cosmic turtles. But there’s something that Christians should insist on, constantly, in every situation, to ourselves, and to everyone we see. It’s God’s grace. All the way down.
We’re saved by grace. When we were weak, when we were sinners, when we were God’s enemies, God showed his love for us. Christ died for us. Jesus’ death cancelled and satisfied God’s wrath against our sin. That’s what grace is, at its heart. But grace isn’t just a doctrine that we need to understand in order to become a Christian. Neither is grace just something that we have to “get right” so we can move on to other things. God’s grace shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ is fundamental to everything else in our lives. We continue to live by God’s grace, day by day.
When we sin, we return to God’s grace for forgiveness. When we’re weak, we cry out to God, and so display God’s grace to ourselves and to the world. When we overcome sin, when we’re strong, when we’re tempted to be proud, we return to this great truth: we can’t boast. It’s all by God’s grace.
When we want to insist that God should do something for us in life, when we decide that God has to bring about this or that life situation or career or relationship, we come back to grace. We remember that we’re actually God’s petulant little children who really have no idea what’s good for us. But God knows what’s best for us. And he loves us. And he’ll listen to us. And he’ll give us what we need to live for him and to become like his Son, which is the best gift he could possibly give. So we pray, confidently and humbly, by grace.
When we’re disappointed because our expectations haven’t been met, again we return to grace. Grace reminds us of two fundamental truths: God doesn’t owe us anything, and God is infinitely good. Grace lifts our expectations beyond our tiny worldly dreams and fills us with hope. Grace changes our character and makes us rejoice, even in suffering.
When we’re complacent in our Christian lives, we remember that God’s grace has made us, saved us, seated us with Christ, and given us good works to do. When wish we could grow in our character, our perseverance, our love, our godliness, we remember that it all begins and continues and ends with God’s grace. When we despair that we aren’t growing, or persevering: we return to God’s grace, for forgiveness and strength.
Any ministry that we are given is a gift from God. It’s not “our ministry”. It’s grace. Our evangelism is full of grace. We’re just saved sinners. We don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, the source of God’s grace.
When our hearts start to become proud because we think we’ve got our doctrine of grace “sorted out”; when we start to think we’re better than other people who haven’t properly understood God’s grace, then we come back to grace. There’s no room for pride here. Knowing about grace is a gift, not an achievement. We also need to remind ourselves that we can’t ultimately grasp it anyway. How could we? You can’t grasp grace. It’s grace. Grace grasps hold of us.
And when we start to feel guilty because we’re not properly taking God’s grace to heart; when we are overwhelmed by the realisation that our lives aren’t truly reflecting God’s grace: God’s grace is big enough to cover that guilt too, to cancel it and forgive it.
It really is grace all the way down.