Preaching this morning at College Church, Northampton where I served as pastor 1980-2005. It was a privilege to be back.
Mid-way through the eighteenth century, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) wrote his classic work The Rise and Progress of Religion In The Soul, the book which led William Wiberforce to become a Christian. It traces God’s work of salvation from the point of conviction of sin through conversion; from awakening to the life of God, to preparing for death. After a lengthy discourse on the depths of human sin, Doddridge begins his presentation of the good news of the gospel.
“Look upon our dear Redeemer! Look up to this mournful, dreadful, yet, in one view delightful spectacle, and then ask in thine own heart, do you believe he suffered and died thus? And why did he die? Let me answer in God’s own words, He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, that by his stripes we might be healed; It pleased the Lord to bruise him and to put him to grief, when he made his soul an offering for sin; for, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. You have indeed been a very great sinner, and your offences have truly been attended with the most heinous aggravations; nevertheless you may rejoice in the assurance, that where sin abounded, there shall grace much more abound…That righteousness, to which on believing on him, thou wilt be entitled, shall not only break those chains by which sin is (as it were) dragging thee at its chariot wheels with a furious pace to eternal ruin, but shall clothe thee with the robes of salvation, shall fix thee on the throne of glory, where thou shalt live and reign forever among the princes of heaven…But I have the authority of God’s Word to tell thee, that if thou this day sincerely believest in the name of the Son of God, thou shalt this day be taken under his care, and be numbered among those of his sheep, to whom he graciously declared, that he will give eternal life; and, that they shall never perish…With this gospel, O sinner, which is my life, and which, if thou dost not reject it, will be thine too.”
My soul confides in your goodness, O God. I adore the patience with which you have carried me for so long, and the grace which now makes me wiling to be yours—on your terms. As I prepare for this Holy Week, have mercy upon me and unite me to yourself, so that none of the allurements of this world may draw me back from you and plunge me into guilt and ruin. May I keep my hold upon you until at length I know more completely how sufficient a Savior you are. Through Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.
Note: Here is one of the 400 hymns that Dodderidge wrote. It is titled “Stupendous Grace,” and was set to music by Franz Haydn, 1798.
Stupendous grace! and can it be
Designed for rebels such as we?
O let our ardent praises rise
High as our hopes beyond the skies!
This flesh, by righteous vengeance slain,
Might ever in the dust remain:
There guilty spirits sent to dwell
Midst all the flames and fiends of hell.
But lo! Incarnate Love descends;
Down to the sepulcher it bends;
Rising, it tears the bars away,
And springs to its own native day.
Then was our sepulcher unbarred,
Then was our path to glory cleared;
Then, if that Savior be our own,
Did we ascend a heav’nly throne.
A moment shall our joy complete,
And fix us in that shining seat,
Bought by the pangs our Lord endured,
And by unchanging truth secured.
O may that love, in strains sublime,
Be sung to the last hour of time!
And let eternity confess,
Through all its rounds, the matchless grace.
Once there was a potato farmer in Blackfoot, Idaho who desperately needed additional workers to get his crop harvested and to the market by 6 pm. So he hired a bunch of day workers and promised to pay them a wage of $180 for 12 hrs of work. The workers were glad to have the opportunity to work so they agreed. They started work at 6 am. It soon became obvious to the farmer that he needed more help in order to make the deadline, so he went into town and drove by the Unemployment Office where he saw guys just standing around.
“If you want to work for a fair wage, I could use you right now.” They agreed and jumped in his truck and went into his fields. They began at 9 am. The farmer saw that he needed additional help and made two more trips into town to collect workers. One group started at 12 noon and the other at 3 pm. On an errand, the farmer drove by some more men just standing around. He pulled up in his truck and said, “Why aren’t you guys working?” They replied, “No one has hired us.” “I’ll hire you to help me finish picking my crop. Hop in the truck.” They started work at 5 pm.
When the whistle blew at 6 pm, all the potatoes were picked, washed, loaded, and on the way to a potato chip company in Pennsylvania. The farmer gathered all his hired help so he could pay them. He started with the guys who began work at 5 pm and gave them $180 each. The he went to the ones who started at 3 pm and gave them each $180; those who began at noon, $180; and those who started at 9 am, $180. He finally came to those he originally hired at 6 am. What do you think they expected? He gave them $180.
As they looked at their money one of them complained, “You paid these guys who started last and worked the least just as much as us- who started first and have worked the longest. It’s just not fair!”
“My friend, how much did I promise to pay you? And how much did I pay you? Don’t I have the right to be generous with whomever I choose- after all, it is my money. Are you jealous of these others because of my generosity?” (A direct quote, Matt. 20:15)
These men overlooked the generosity that had been shown to them because they were so focused on the generosity of the farmer towards those they considered less deserving. It was the same attitude depicted by the elder brother at the grace and mercy shown by his father towards the prodigal son.
I remember a dream that I had a couple of years ago. I think I had it because of a sermon series that I was preaching at my church. The dream was so vivid that I wrote it down. It was about an old man named Joe who shared with me his life story. He told me that when he was young he was a member of a violent gang; his alias was Joey the Fang. He told me about his crimes including rape and murder. He then related how he had heard the gospel and came to Christ and received God’s grace and mercy of forgiveness. I remember that instead of being happy I remember feeling anger and hatred towards him and felt like punching him out. And then I woke up and marveled that my reaction was so much like the Pharisees and the elder brother.
It is only in Christianity that we have this tendency towards “unfairness” because God is gracious, and no one is beyond forgiveness. In fact, God’s grace is so amazing that it can seem downright scandalous to our limited human sensitivities. The Puritans often called God’s grace “promiscuous,” because it was so indiscriminately given to those that least deserved it.
I wonder if some 18th century African Christians questioned the conversion of the old slave trader, John Newton; or perhaps some early Christians had been scandalized because Paul wasn’t punished for his crimes against the church. We are scandalized by God’s amazing grace until we become the objects of that grace. The workers hired at 6 am thought the farmer’s generosity unfair. Those hired at 5 pm were amazed by it!
I hope we have not only personally experienced God’s grace in the gospel, but that this grace has gone down so deep into our hearts that we have become “gracists” (coined by Pastor Dave Anderson). A gracist is someone who has been so overwhelmed by the amazing grace of God in his/her own life that they rejoice when any prodigal comes home. It is the gracist who can say along with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim. 1:15)