The human problem is far greater and deeper than we’ve ever imagined. Not only are we all guilty before God, but we are also dead-hearted toward God and we don’t have His Spirit uniting us with Christ or with each other. This was not God’s design. He made us to live in the freedom of guiltless fellowship with Him, our hearts being stirred continuously by the Spirit so that our lives might be lived in the abandon of response to the love of God.
The problem is profound, but the gospel is truly a glorious solution to all of this. In Acts 13 we find Paul in Pisidian Antioch (modern-day Turkey). He preaches a biblically saturated sermon in a Jewish synagogue, urging the listeners to trust in the risen Christ for forgiveness of sins and justification. He warns them not to reject the message and the writer describes Paul and Barnabas urging the new believers to “continue in the grace of God.”
So the grace of God was the emphasis, referring to the forgiveness of sins and justification. The focus is on the guilt being dealt with because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Simple trust in his work at Calvary makes it possible to be legally justified. A clear conscious. A record wiped clean. Satan may bring up memories and guilt, but we are free of that if we are recipients of God’s grace.
My sin, O the bliss, of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
Our “criminal record” before God is such a serious issue, but it can be wiped clean by the grace of God.
So what about the rest of the problem? Does this passage only point to the legal, but not the relational problem?
The passage goes on to describe Paul’s return the following week and concludes with a summary from verse 49. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region, but as was typical, the reaction of the non-responsive religious folk drove Paul and Barnabas away. But the story ends with this: “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”
This is the fruit of the grace of God at work. It was not merely legal, as amazing as that is. It was relational too. These people who had been dead in their hearts are now filled with the Holy Spirit and their hearts are alive to God with overflowing joy. There is the legal and the relational, the forgiveness and the friendship. That is the grace of God – big enough to deal with the whole problem!
I know my tendency is to allow the gospel to reduce to a merely legal and forensic offer. If I am witnessing to someone else or preaching, I do okay – that is, I know that it is more than that and try to communicate the richness of forgiveness and real union, true relationship with Christ. But, personally? I think I tend to let the gospel shrink as I live my own life.
That is, it is easy to allow my gaze to be drawn by lesser attractions, and it is easy to go quiet in my relationship with God and start walking through the day apparently alone, and it is easy to start to see myself as just a sinner saved, technically, legally, in my status, by God’s wonderful justification. I don’t think this is what it means when it speaks of continuing in the grace of God. I certainly don’t think this is what it means to be filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel is amazingly good. The world needs to hear it. And as we live out our Christian lives, our hearts need to hear it too.