In the early 1960s no one in Americus, Ga., would have guessed that 10 miles up the road in Plains a peanut farmer was destined to become president of the United States. Nor would they have cared. Americus was caught in the throes of the civil rights movement, and segregation was under attack. There were rumors of a court-ordered integration of the public schools.
A young man named Greg felt the pressure of these times directly. The son of white pacifists from the North who sought to live in harmony with blacks, Greg was jeered and beaten up by his white classmates. But Greg was made of tougher stuff. When his Americus classmates taunted him, he refused to retaliate. When they pushed him down the stairs he picked himself up and silently walked away.
His fellow classmate Deanie, the daughter of a Presbyterian elder, watched with sadness and guilt. Though she felt sorry for these pacifist kids, she watched silently while they were bullied.
Forty-one years later, Deanie still remembered Greg, and one night she had a strange dream about him. Now a committed Christian, she believed–through this dream–that God was speaking to her about how she had stood in silence. As she talked to former classmates she discovered they too felt ashamed.
So, 41 years after the Americus High School class of ’65 had graduated, Deanie organized a letter writing campaign. Greg, now a real estate agent in West Virginia, picked up the first letter at a rural post office. It was from Deanie, asking his forgiveness for the way her classmates had treated him, and for the way she had stood silently by. As Greg drove away, the pain came bubbling up; he pulled to the side of the road and cried. Over the next several days he received other letters begging for his forgiveness. A few weeks later Greg came to his class reunion, welcomed and embraced by those who had broken his heart.
Deanie’s story provides an excellent example of the transforming power of paying grace forward, a topic so important Christ Himself gives us guidance.
At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is the petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And at the end, in Matthew 6:14-15, comes the warning: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.”
Real Grace Versus Illusionary Grace
Grace is undeserved favor. And the Lord’s Prayer is all about beggars coming to God with open hands and asking for grace. It begins by calling God “Our Father.” We don’t deserve that, but by grace we have been adopted into His family. We ask for His kingdom to come. We don’t deserve that either. He could destroy this corrupt world, and all of us sinners in it, and be justified in doing so. We beg for “daily bread” we don’t deserve, and for forgiveness we can’t earn, and for deliverance from temptation we can’t overcome, from a devil we can’t defeat on our own. This prayer is, from beginning to end, a frantic cry for undeserved favor.
But what happens when we receive grace from our Father, but don’t return it—to our family, friends, and neighbors? Again, the fourth petition in Matthew 6:12: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus connects grace received from God to grace given to others. He even warns us in verse 15 that if we don’t forgive the sins of others, our heavenly Father won’t forgive our sins.
Do you want an effective prayer life? Then remember that prayers are hindered by broken relationships. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.”
We can’t come to the altar asking for more grace from God without going to our brother and sister and giving them the same grace we are begging for from God. The apostle gives a practical warning in 1 Peter 3:7 when he says to husbands that they should treat their wives with grace “… so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”
Jesus begins the training of His 12 disciples with His Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. He ends their three-year training in the Upper Room. He has gathered them for His final meal before His crucifixion. Everything in that Upper Room discourse has the compelling urgency of a deathbed confession. But nothing is more critical than His words in John 13:33-34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is not really a new commandment. It actually captures the two great commandments of Moses: that we love God and our neighbors with everything we have. I think that you could render this word “new” as “fresh.” Sometimes old truths need to be restated in a fresh way. We’ve heard certain truths so often they hardly make a dent. “Of course, we are supposed to love one another. That’s what God’s people do.” But that’s not what they always do. That’s not what the disciples were doing that night as they jostled for the highest positions in Christ’s kingdom. And 2,000 years later His disciples are still at it. We need a fresh understanding of this principle: If grace received isn’t grace given, then grace is illusionary.
In John 13:33-34, Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another … .” I never understood the wonder of that love until I was introduced to biblical grace as it was interpreted from Scripture by the Protestant Reformers. They summarized God’s grace (the way Jesus loves us) with five truths:
1. There’s not a single molecule of my being that is not corrupted by sin. Before His grace apprehended me, I was dead in my sins: I had eyes that could not see, ears that could not hear, and a heart that could not feel apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Since I have been redeemed I must still say with the prophet Isaiah that even my “righteousness is like filthy rags” next to God’s holiness. No matter how sanctified I become, I will end my life saying what Paul said at the end of his days: “I am the chief of sinners.”
2. God has chosen to love me unconditionally. He doesn’t love me for what I am, or what He foresees I might be. Nor will He ever reject me for what I am not. As Paul writes in the first lines of his letter to the Ephesians, He loves me for no other reason than it gives Him pleasure and brings Him glory.
3. He loves me specifically. He loves me uniquely, just as I am, the total package with all its weaknesses, eccentricities, and quirky behavior. He wrote my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life before He ever spangled the night skies with a single star. He died for me specifically, not just for a nameless, faceless mass of humanity. He called me to Himself by name. The fact that He loves me like this exhilarates and humbles me at the same time.
4. His love for me is irresistible. I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming without a choice in the matter. When the Holy Spirit opened my eyes, I wanted to run into the arms of Jesus. In the words of John, I loved Him because “he first loved me.” Forty-five years after He found me I find His gracious love more irresistible than ever.
5. His love will persevere to the end. Jesus said, “No one can pluck my sheep from my hands.” Paul put it another way: “Those he justified, he will glorify.” I know that “he who began a good work in me will carry it on to the day of completion.” If today I have the most sinful day of my life, I can know that when I put my head on the pillow tonight, He will not love me any less than He did this morning. And if I have the best day of my life, He will not love me any more.
When Jesus says, “As I have loved you …” this is the love He is describing. Do you know this love? Has it gripped your soul and transformed your life? Jesus says that if it changes your life it must change your relationships with others.
Living out Grace
Jesus goes on in John 13:34 to say, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another … .” It is not enough to claim a vertical relationship with God. That same love relationship must become horizontal in the same way with others.
I recently counseled an angry old man. He was proud of the fact that he embraced the great doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. He had been raised in a Dutch Reformed Church. With tears he would rattle off the five points of Calvin (the five truths about Christ’s love I just shared). He would argue endlessly with those who didn’t buy into the doctrines of sovereign grace. But this man was also estranged from his children. He hasn’t talked to one daughter for more than five years. His wife could barely tolerate him. He has created controversy in every church he has ever attended.
I challenged this man with Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35 and asked him if the five truths that I have shared with you captured the love of Christ for His elect. Without hesitation he said, “Yes!” Then I asked him, “If you were to love others the same way, wouldn’t that require that you love them with those same five points?” I then explained what that means in practical terms.
1. You won’t be shocked, disappointed, disillusioned, or angry when others mess up. You will accept them for who they are: sinners, like you, desperately in need of God’s grace and your love.
2. As a result, you will have no other choice but to love them unconditionally. You won’t love them for who they are, what they do for you, or what you hope they might become. You won’t reject them if they don’t measure up.
3. You will love them with specific grace. It is easy to love all Christians in a general way. It is quite another thing to love specific people for what they specifically are, in spite of their particular weaknesses, eccentricities, and shortcomings.
4. Your love will demonstrate irresistible grace. Such unconditional love will draw them irresistibly to the Christ who has filled you with such irresistible love. It will have an irresistible force drawing others who witness this love to the same Christ.
5. And this grace turned horizontal will persevere to the end. It will never forsake or abandon its commitments or covenants. It won’t run from those who frustrate, reject those who irritate, or wall off those who disappoint. In the words of Paul to the Corinthians, this love “… always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres … .” In short, it never fails.
If these five points of grace encapsulate the way Jesus loves us, then with these same five points we must love others. That day my old Calvinist friend saw that he couldn’t receive this love from His heavenly father without giving the same love to his wife, daughters, and fellow Christians. Nor can any of us.
The truth is, my old Calvinist friend also discovered a supreme and humbling irony that day: the way he treated others was diametrically opposed to his theology about the way God loved him: He didn’t apply his doctrine of total depravity to his daughters. He expected them to be better than that. When they didn’t measure up, he was shocked, disappointed, and disillusioned. He refused them unconditional grace. Because they didn’t measure up to his expectations, he cut off his love to them. He believed in definite atonement, but he didn’t love them for who they uniquely and specifically were. His perverted love was anything but irresistible in its grace. It repelled them, their mother, and most everyone else who came into contact with him. Forget about persevering grace. He cut them off emotionally and then spatially when they failed to please him.
Paying Grace Forward
Jesus ends His new commandment with these explosive words in verse 35: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Our horizontal relationships with people are the proof of our vertical relationship with God.
If we can’t love others the way Christ loves us, then perhaps our faith is illusionary. There is the frightening possibility that it is not real. The writer of this gospel later warns us in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” If it is not illusionary, it is certainly impotent. Love that lacks the power to transform our relationships will never convince the watching world that it is divine love. Therefore it becomes irrelevant to those outside the Church. Unless our relationship with Jesus Christ has the power to transform marriages, families, and every other relationship it will be rejected as illusionary, impotent, and irrelevant. All men will only believe that Christ has made a difference in our lives when they see a difference in our relationships with one another.
Effective prayers begin with humility. Deanie discovered how hard it is to be a warrior in the face of hostility. She kept quiet when she should have given grace. But Deanie also understood that she could come to her Father in heaven and receive forgiveness. But she didn’t stop with receiving God’s grace. She knew she had to find Greg (and even his family members who were affected by Greg’s pain) and ask for forgiveness. It wasn’t easy to track Greg down and organize the letter writing campaign. But she persisted as a woman strengthened and transformed by the Lord’s Prayer.
Deanie lived out Christ’s new commandment, and Greg saw the reality of Christ’s transforming power. How about you? Do you want to receive the fullness of God’s loving grace? Then ask yourself a critical question: Who do I need to seek out and love in a new and gracious way?
Dr. Robert Petterson became the senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Naples, Fla., in the fall of 2002. He was formerly the east coast president of Mastermedia International, a ministry to film and television executives in Hollywood and New York City. Petterson earned his master of divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in 1974 and received his doctorate from Fuller Seminary in 1985.