Grace, grace. Is that all there is to know about Christianity? Well, no. But if you miss that . . .
Give attention to the public reading of the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God in 2 Corinthians 12:2-10:
2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord will endure forever. Let us pray.
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. And let me preach as if never to preach again, as a dying man to dying men. In Jesus’s name, I pray. Amen.
Into the Sermon
I repeat the question: what does Grace have to do with it?
I remember some years ago my friend, Dr. Harry Reeder, formerly of Christ Covenant PCA Presbyterian Church in Matthews North Carolina, preaching at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. I will never forget his assessment of the passage he was preaching from Saint Paul:
“You have not preached Grace until someone has charged you with preaching license.”
It was a remarkable statement. But he was accurately reflecting the predicament of Paul in Galatians, in Ephesians, and, indeed, in all of his epistles. I believe that my colleague and friend got it exactly right. It is sometimes hard for us to believe, and I say that the word “believe” guardedly, that we are saved based on what God has done for us without our contribution. Everything in this life is contingent upon an exchange.
I shall never forget when I was serving as Chaplain at the United States Army Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.We had been warned about inmates in a particular section of that historical correctional facility. The detention area being discussed in our morning meeting that day was notorious for violence. Violence is rare in a military disciplinary unit as compared to, say, a state or federal correctional institution. The order and ethos of the military carry through into the Disciplinary Barracks as well as into any other part of the military. That being said we were instructed to be very careful about our ministry in this particular area. One of my colleagues was a young Pentecostal minister and an Army Chaplain. He would report each day when we had our report back sessions that he had been making quite a lot of progress with one particular inmate. One of the other Chaplains said to him, “Remember what the Colonel said, that we must be careful in our ministry to the souls.” The young minister was quite confident he was making great spiritual progress with this gentleman whose presence at Leavenworth was on account of attempted murder. Well, a few days passed and all of a sudden we heard the lockdown horn. We listened to another blast of a sound, like a trumpet, indicating that someone had been hurt. We gathered back to our station, and in our case, that meant a return to the Chapel and Chaplain offices. When we all arrived, the Colonel gave us the news. It was the young Pentecostal minister – Army Chaplain. The lad had been assaulted by an older inmate to whom he was ministering. The Colonel called a meeting. We later learned that the dutiful and determined Chaplain had been reading the Bible each day to the inmate. On this occasion, the inmate asked that the Chaplain do him a favor. The favor that he had asked for was against regulation. As I remember I think it was to take a letter outside and mail it. The Chaplain refused ever so meekly. With that refusal to do as the inmate expected, the inmate grabbed the Chaplain through the cell bars and began beating the gun ministers head against the steel door. The military inmate bloodied the young Chaplain’s face, broke his nose, and was going to take his eyes out before he was stopped by guards. Our friend and colleague was rushed to the hospital at Leavenworth. We had a special meeting in which we were told, I should say in which we were scolded, that sociopathic inmates operate on a predictable pattern of a law of exchange. In the mind of this inmate, he had listened to what the Chaplain had to say for five days or so. In his conception of the war the world worked, the Chaplain was now bound by this sociopathic compact to carry out his wishes. That was the deal, so he thought. The Chaplain paid dearly for underestimating the sociopathic law of the inmate.
The “law of the jungle” is a response to the fallen condition of the world and its inhabitants. The “law of the jungle”—a sociopathic contract, if you prefer—states that there is a pure exchange: “you do this, and I’ll do this for you. If you fail, then I will either give you retribution or, in a kinder response, merely have nothing to do with you anymore.” Or, as one hardened homicide detective once told me, “Everyone, including you, pastor, is a criminal to me until you prove otherwise.” Years of seeing the sociopathic compact at work The red tooth and claw world can create a callousness on the soul, and I am afraid that was the case with this detective. However, in another sense, he was precisely reflecting the “law of the jungle”: tit for tat, this for that, and woe to you if you violate this “contract.”
Now if we extend this way of thinking (and living) into our relationship with God, for instance, we can get into much theological and soul-strangling trouble. We can begin to think that the “law of the jungle” is also how it works between God and his children. You do this for God, and he is bound to do this for you. If God fails you show your anger at God. If you fail God, you will find it impossible to forgive yourself, much less to receive the forgiveness of God.
Grace is an altogether foreign or we might say metaphysical ideal. Grace, God’s free gift of eternal life, and the other expressions of beauty that come with that are incomprehensible outside of God. Grace is too good to be true. Except for the fact that it is. Thank God, it is.
“ In the Old Testament the concept of grace is found in two words: hesed – which is translated ‘mercy’, ‘loving kindness’, ‘kindness’ or ‘goodness’, ‘unfailing love’, and hen – which is translated ‘grace’ and ‘favour.’ The New Testament has the words charis – referring to a free gift, and eleos – meaning mercy. Jesus is not recorded as using the word ‘grace’ [in the Gospels; my addition], but the concept of grace pulsates through his teaching and his purpose.”
I very much appreciate that summary of grace. But there is one problem that many also get wrong. Jesus did use the word, “grace.” In our reading, Jesus tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
In 2 Corinthians Chapter 12, the Apostle Paul tells the story that is very personal. His humility and modesty prevent him from even speaking in the first person. He talks about a man he was once caught up into the third heaven. That man is of course himself. However, the experience that he has is so overwhelming that he cannot speak of it in the first person. St. Paul is caught up into heaven and sees things that no mortal man has seen. Paul has witnessed the ultimate beatific vision of the universe. The great Apostle tells us that as a consequence of his enlightened understanding that came with the ethereal visitation, he was given a thorn in the flesh so that he might not boast. The Third Heaven is the Hebrew expression for the dwelling place of God. The first heaven is the sky and the second heaven is the space outside and beyond the sky, and the third heaven is the dwelling place of God. Paul saw heaven. He could never be the same. The devil sent a thorn in the flesh to buffet the great Apostle, and no doubt seek to obstruct his Gospel effectiveness. But in true Gospel form the very thing that tried to hurt Paul because, in the hands of a loving and sovereign God, an instrument to advance the Gospel. Satan is once more undone.
However, a thorn in the flesh must be dealt with. At the time of the mysterious affliction, Paul was understandably desperate to remove the thorn. So, the Apostle Paul prayed three times that the thorn might be removed. The thorn is not named in this or any other text. Some commentators have believed that it was a malaria-like headache. Others think that it was a problem with eyesight. Some have opined that it was epilepsy. From medical journals to Greek scholars and even novelists the mystery has been given an answer. The truth is, though, that the Apostle Paul does not tell us. Scripture nowhere reveals it. I have found that whenever the Holy Spirit conceals a matter, He often uses mystery to provide a way for all to identify. In this case, the Apostle Paul is suffering “every man’s thorn.” It may be yours. It may be mine. It is, in fact, an affliction that is perpetrated by the devil but allowed by God, like the Cross of Christ, to form us into the image of Jesus Christ and to cause us to be dependent upon Jesus Christ. We know this because after the third prayerful appeal — and we do not know the time lapse between each prayer, whether it was days or years — Jesus speaks to St. Paul and, once more, whispers those glorious words of joy in the midst of trial, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It is this statement that transcends the pain and removes any sense of the rule of the jungle relationship between Paul and the Lord. We might think, “Paul was giving his life for the gospel. Surely, then, God will answer his prayer and removed the sickness.” But that is not the response of God. Instead, Jesus says that his grace is sufficient. Paul will have to live with this thorn. The beginning of his message in chapter 12 of Second Corinthians is, in fact, the spiritual deduction that Paul makes.
Grace breaks the “law of the jungle” into smithereens. The Cross has established a new motif of living in the Christian life. Put quite simply; “yes, Virginia, it is all about grace.”
Look at the passage, and we will see how this is so.
I. Grace is the providential foundation of our relationship with God.
Paul is caught up into the third heaven. He is shown things that are too great to articulate. This is an act of grace on the part of God towards the great apostle. We must understand that this was not a reward to Paul for him having preached the gospel. There was no reward for Paul whenever Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. That was an act of grace. Moreover, Paul’s vision of heaven is also an act of mercy. He did not deserve to see what he saw. He did not deserve the incredible insight and the “behind the curtain” vision of our ultimate home. But God’s grace established the relationship between God and Paul.
I remember very well when I heard Dr. D. James Kennedy preach from Ephesians 2:8,9:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
There was a Mike Milton before Dr. Kennedy expounded on that great “grace passage” and there was a radically different Mike Milton afterward. The “law of the jungle,” the “sociopathic contract” gave way to the Covenant of Grace. I can hardly remember the other fellow. I sometimes think that I do not want to remember him. I do not want to live without the relationship of God’s grace. 
That passage, of course, teaches us that our relationship is thoroughly grounded in grace. There is no shred of human contribution to the equation of how a person is saved. That Biblical fact makes some people nervous. “It cannot be like that,” they say. But that is the divine “deal.” Grace is the keyword of all keywords in the Scriptures. No one will boast before God about the things he did to win God’s favor. God will receive all the glory. The Bible says that God does not share his glory:
“I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8 KJV).
So, my relationship with Christ is based solely on the loving, merciful condescension of a holy and perfect God to this filthy and rebellious center. At the cross the ancient compact of God with Man was ratified in the blood of God’s Son: by faith, believers receive Jesus’ life—His righteousness and His atonement for our sin—and He bears our sin. That is the divine decision: What God has required, God has provided.
If you are hearing this and you have determined that your relationship with God can be established upon your faithfulness or your intellect or your knowledge or anything other than the pure mercy of God upon you, then I implore you to repent and believe right now. No one will ever be able to have enough works of good to overcome the degradation of God’s law. No one will be able to make an atonement for himself. Our righteousness, as well as our atonement, is altogether in the person of Jesus Christ.
Do you know this gracious God? Have you received his salvation by grace through faith? Could it be that someone is listening to my voice or reading these words who cognitively know the “law of heaven” but is treating God and others with the “law of the jungle”? It is time to lay down your supposed good works before the altar of God. It is time for you to come home to grace.
God establishes his relationship with us through grace. Also, we also see that grace is at work in the Christian life. We can put it like this:
II. Grace is the predominant feature of the Christian life.
The attitude of St. Paul towards himself and others is grounded in the relationship of God’s grace to him. He recognizes that having received God’s grace in salvation and in this relationship, which allowed Paul to see the glories of heaven, such love and mercy obligates Paul to the “duty of grace.” Grace has to show grace to others. Grace is not merely a theological concept that explains the forensic application of redemption, but it is also a description of the resulting life of that recipient of grace. We have received grace, and therefore we live graciously.
I have often said that it is hard to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and cry. Peanut butter and jelly makes me happy. When I bite into that gooey, sweet and salty, glorious concoction sandwiched between two slices of pure white Wonder Bread my world cannot be shaken. This is intuitive and has nothing to do with the decision to feel good. Peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches are merely good for the soul. Now, of course, I jest, kind of. However, this little illustration from my taste buds of the soul (and perhaps yours) reflects the attitude of grace in the Christian life that pervades whenever we are feeding on a relationship of grace.
I have known some sour saints in my life. I am almost sure that I have also exhibited a sour-pickle-perspective myself. Whenever we act like or encounter such a sour sentiment in a church member, we can be sure one of us has become disconnected from the graciousness of God, Or we never really knew his grace in the first place.
Which is it with you? Have the daily concerns and distractions of life so overwhelmed you that you have neglected the grace of God which is at the foundation of your relationship with God? Alternatively, could it perhaps be that someone connecting with this message has understood Christianity to be about the “law of the jungle” — a give-and-take deal? I believe that so many of you know Jesus Christ. I am calling you today to meditate upon the goodness of God’s grace to you. Then it is almost impossible to express anything other than grace to another person.
Now, thirdly, and finally, we can see this:
III. Grace is the perpetual power in the Christian life.
Our Lord told the Apostle Paul that, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul had to learn the powerful paradox of the gospel not only in the salvific equation, “saved by grace,” but also in the salvific function, “kept by grace.” Paul shows us the better way of living when I am weak then I am strong. Know what exactly does he mean by that?
The Apostle Paul is saying that paradox now forms the way of life for believers. Whether it is good and evil, the possibility of victory lies proleptically in the presenting issue. Grace in living is often like Russian Winter Wheat buried beneath the frozen ground in the vast Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. Spring will come, and we will see that the seeds were never inactive, never dead. They were pregnant with life. The golden grains of God’s goodness is always present, even in the hard, frozen winter-long land of the living. God’s grace is magnified in our weaknesses, not necessarily in our strengths. The idea is that if we are strong, even if we say, “Look how God had answered my prayers when I appealed to him three times,” then there is a sense of self-glory. When we say, I have prayed, I have learned the divine response of God is not a give-and-take, a do this and do that kind of religion, but is instead a graciousness that sustains me in all circumstances of life.
This is God’s call to you today: to receive his grace as the providential foundation of your relationship with God; as the predominant feature of your relationship with God; and as the continuous sustaining power of your relationship with God.
I shall never forget the young man who came to me so very troubled by his misunderstanding of the gospel. He had, in fact, received the Lord Jesus Christ. He even was joining me as we went out into our community to share the gospel of Christ with people who live in our parish boundaries: house to house, in apartment complexes, and in the open markets. In his youthfulness as a Christian, he had failed to move from salvation by grace to live by grace. Sam told me that he was exceedingly disturbed that he had promised God that he would tithe all of his income to God and that as a result, his business was worse off than it ever had been. I asked him questions about his spiritual life to assess if a spiritual pathology or other problem was existing between himself and his family that was hindering his walk with God. I did not discern anything other than a very immature understanding of God’s grace. He told me, “I am just not going to be able to follow this God if he can’t come through for me when I needed.” I had to tell him that God does not operate by the law of the junk. You cannot have a sociopathic relationship with the holy and Almighty King of the universe. Your relationship is grounded in grace, and it must grow in grace according to the Bible. That conversation took all of about 15 minutes, but it lasted for about 15 years. I watched as God’s dealings with him tempered this man. He became a very gracious man with others as he began to see that his relationship with God was not only grounded in grace but was sustained in grace. And yes his business grew to a very great enterprise. I am confident that it is not only the blessing of God but the release of his spirit to soar with all of the entrepreneurial gifts that God had given to him. In other words, grace liberated him to be the person God had intended him to become.
And that is the glorious good news of the gospel for you today. It is almost too good to be true, but it is. You are saved by grace. You are shaped by grace, and you are sustained by grace.
My beloved, whenever death’s dark shadows come upon you, and you are translated from this world into the next and angels escort you into the company and the presence of the living God through Jesus Christ his Son, you will know that it is all of grace. How else could you or I come into the presence of a holy God without His grace?
What does grace have to do with it? I think you know the answer. And if you don’t know, then today is the day to receive the Good News.
Oh, yes, the answer: if somehow I was unclear:
it is, indeed, all about grace.
In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Banks, R. Reconciliation and Hope: New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=L8lLAwAAQBAJ.
Bardsley, Rosemary. “2 Definitions of Grace.” Blog. God’s Word for You. Last modified 2009. Accessed July 7, 2018. http://www.godswordforyou.com/thoughts/75-understanding-grace/486-2-definitions-of-grace.html.
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Buckmaster, Henrietta. And Walk in Love – Based on the Life of Apostle Paul. Fourth Printing edition. Random House, 1956.
Chrysostom, Saint. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians. Lulu. com, 1889.
Garland, David E. “Paul’s Apostolic Authority: The Power of Christ Sustaining Weakness (2 Corinthians 10–13).” Review & Expositor 86, no. 3 (1989): 371–389.
Glueck, Nelson. Hesed in the Bible. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011.
Göbel, H., H. Isler, and H.-P. Hasenfratz. “Headache Classification and the Bible: Was St Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh Migraine?” Cephalalgia 15, no. 3 (n.d.): 180–181. Accessed July 7, 2018. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1468-2982.1995.015003180.x.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. But for the Grace of God: Divine Initiative and Human Need. Westminster Press, 1965.
_____. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1962.
Landsborough, David. “St Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 50, no. 6 (1987): 659–664.
Martin, R. P., N. L. deClaisse-Walford, and L. A. Losie. 2 Corinthians, Volume 40: Second Edition. Zondervan, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=1rc1DwAAQBAJ.
Milton, Michael A. What God Starts God Completes. Updated edition. Fearn: Christian Focus, 2012.
Mullins, Terence Y. “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh.” Journal of Biblical Literature (1957): 299–303.
_____. “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76, no. 4 (1957): 299–303. Accessed July 7, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3261900.
Piper, John. Future Grace, Revised Edition: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God. Multnomah, 2012.
Routledge, Robin. “Hesed as an Obligation: A Re-Examination.” Tyndale Bulletin 46 (1995): 179–196.
Witherington, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995.
A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 1973. https://books.google.com/books?id=GDZSAQAAIAAJ.
 I appreciate Philip Hughes’ definition of grace from But for the Grace of God: “The doctrine of grace lies at the very heart not merely of all Christian theology but also of all Christian experience. If we have an incorrect or inadequate understanding of the biblical teaching on grace, our whole grasp of the meaning and purpose of Christianity will be deficient in consequence. … Grace speaks of God’s initiative, of the priority of God’s action on behalf of us poor sinners. … Grace enriches, and the enrichment it brings is owed entirely to God’s prior action of mercy in Christ Jesus. Divine grace precedes all. That is the whole point of grace.” See Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, But for the Grace of God: Divine Initiative and Human Need (Westminster Press, 1965), 9, 10. For distinctions between “grace” and “mercy” we are instructed well by John Piper in Future Grace: ” . . . all of God’s acts of grace are also acts of mercy, and all his acts of mercy are also acts of grace.” See John Piper, Future Grace, Revised Edition: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Multnomah, 2012), 75.
 I follow the style rules for the Office of the Chief of Chaplains and capitalize references to United States Chaplains, Soldiers, Civilian employees, and Families of service members.
 Rosemary Bardsley, “2 Definitions of Grace,” Blog, God’s Word for You, last modified 2009, accessed July 7, 2018, http://www.godswordforyou.com/thoughts/75-understanding-grace/486-2-definitions-of-grace.html.
 See Michael A. Milton, What God Starts God Completes, Updated edition. (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2012).
 I am always delighted when someone answers a door and says, “Oh, we are not interested in Jehovah Witness material.” I get to say, “Sir, we are Presbyterians.” Their surprise and confusion is both an indictment and an invitation.