Because we’ve just entered a new year, the year 2024, my text today is from Acts 20:24. I thought that verse – at least the reference – would be easy to remember and for each of us to review from time to time.
During Paul’s third missionary journey, he decided to sail past Ephesus so he could arrive in Jerusalem by the Day of Pentecost. Let’s pick up Luke’s historical narrative in Acts chapter 20, beginning with verse 17:
“From Miletus [Paul] sent [a message] to Ephesus and called to him[self] the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:17-24)
So, back again to our text for this first Sunday of 2024 – Acts 20:24: “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”
Last week, during part two of my Christmas Acronym sermon, I used the letter ‘T’ in Christmas to represent the word, “Take’ – as in ‘Take the message of the manger and the cross with you into 2024.’ I want to develop that concept a bit further in today’s message. Why? Because God's HEART grieves today – January 7, 2024, and every day – He grieves over lost sheep wandering aimlessly – yet relentlessly – toward the edge of a disastrous cliff that falls off into a Christless eternity. They amble along a comfortably broad road toward that wide-open gate that leads to eternal perdition.
But God invites use YOU and me to participate with Him to alter their inevitable destiny. He grants us the incomprehensible privilege to be, as St Paul described it, “Laborers together with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:9); And as Fanny Crosby wrote, “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; Weep o'er the erring, one lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful. Jesus will save.”
The words St Paul spoke to the Ephesian church leadership ought to be our PRAYER throughout 2024: “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”
The gospel of the GRACE of God. Do you believe God is telling the truth when He says: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
St Paul believed it. And so, he continued: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written – And now Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:7 – “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Romans 10:11-15)
How will they hear unless someone brings them the message. And don’t think for a moment that ONLY pastors and missionaries are sent with that message. The entire breadth and length of both testaments is a testimony to the individuality of the Great Commission Jesus gave at the end of Matthew’s gospel.
YOU are sent. I am sent. The question is: Will we go? And if we are to go, what is it He has given us to tell? Which brings us to the main thrust of today’s message: What is the message of God's grace? And why is it such good news? Let’s talk about those things for a few minutes because there are many, many facets to the good news.
One of those facets is this: God is holy. He never changes. He never compromises his holiness, nor His requirement that WE be holy in all our lifestyle. God never acquiesces to our opinions of right and wrong, of what is fair and what is not. If God says white is white, then it’s white, and it is never any shade of white. If he says black is black, then it is always black and never a shade of black. As He solemnly warns through the prophet: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
God has given us His many commandments, and He alone will judge everyone according to how we obeyed or disobeyed those commandments. (2 Corinthians 5:10) “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
And if we think critically about this facet of the good news of God's grace, we will realize that it IS good news that God never changes. It’s good news because we always know what He expects of us and where we stand with Him. And we can always know what will happen to us if we persist in living life ‘My way’ and not His way. For example, listen to these two texts:
First, His dreadful promise in Revelation 20:12-15 to those who persist in disobedience: “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. . . . 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
And now, from Isaiah 33:17, 24, to those who live according to God's rules: “Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; They will behold a far-distant land . . . And no resident will say, “I am sick”; The people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.”
Listen, everyone who is familiar with the Scriptures AND believes the Scriptures to be inerrant and infallible – everyone knows that the soul is eternal. EVERY soul will live forever. That is very good news for some, but it is very bad news for others.
The wage of sin is always death. You’ll find that particular verse in Romans 3. And Paul was not referring only to physical death, for we all die. But the death Paul speaks of here in context with the rest of that verse – and entirety of Scripture – is an eternal death, meaning a consciousness of a forever separation from God's love and light and beauty. In other words, eternal forever darkness without hope.
Listen to Daniel 12:2 – “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (See also Matthew 25:46) Many of you know the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. But do you realize the Rich Man is still today, as we sit here 2000 years later – the man is still suffering the agony of eternal death?
The good news of God's grace. What a wonderful message Jesus and the writers of the New Testament give to us – and which YOU and I can give to others: NO ONE needs to join the Rich Man of Luke 16 in eternal torment. And God has told us again and again how to escape that horrific destiny – which brings us to the next facet of the good news of God's grace: The complete ERASURE of the penitent’s sins.
It’s been my experience over the half-century of speaking to countless numbers of people about God's forgiveness – it’s been my experience that Christians have one of two views of God's forgiveness. I compare those views to two child’s toys with which many of you are probably familiar – the Magic Slate and the Etch-a-Sketch.
As I remember it, the Magic Slate was a stiff piece of cardboard about 8 inches wide and maybe 12 inches high. The center of the cardboard was covered with a black waxy film which was then overlaid by a thin translucent sheet. When you wrote on the sheet with a stylus, the black wax behind it caused marks to appear. To erase what you wrote, you just lifted the translucent film and all the writing disappeared. But you didn’t have to look too closely at the black wax underneath to see the indentations of the stylus on the black wax. They were always there.
By contrast, the Etch-A-Sketch was a box of approximately the same length and height of the Magic Slate, but the box had a glass screen coated on the underside with a metallic powder. The box had two knobs, one on the left and one on the right. By turning the knobs, a stylus inside the box moved across the screen either horizontally or vertically and caused marks to appear in the powder under the glass. To erase the marks, the user simply turned the box upside down and shook it. Doing so caused the lines to completely disappear. But unlike the Magic Slate, the stylus DID NOT leave any depressions on the glass. Once erased, the user had a completely clean surface on which to write.
When it comes to the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins, I think all Christians fall into two general categories. I call them the ‘Magic Slate’ category, and the ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ category.
Those in the Magic Slate category think that when they confess their sins to God that He ‘lifts’ the translucent film and our sins disappear. But – and to keep the metaphor – God can always see the traces of those sins still embedded in the black wax.
However – and this is quite important – such an fallacious idea of how God treats our confessed sins is utterly contrary to how God actually DOES deal with our confessed sins.
According to His inerrant promise, when God forgives sins – the Greek word used by the New Testament writers means to ‘remit’ our sins – when God remits our confessed sins, He treats them as if they’d been written on an Etch-A-Sketch. With our confession and repentance – again, to keep the metaphor – God turns the Etch-A-Sketch upside down and gives it a mighty shake. And when He turns the instrument right side up, every trace of our sins – let me say that again for emphasis – EVERY trace of our sins is gone. Completely erased even from God's memory because He CHOOSES to erase those sins from His memory.
Here is Jeremiah 31:34, God promises the penitent: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” He tells us through Micah that He casts our sins into the depths of the deepest oceans. Through the Psalmist, He assures us that He casts our confessed sins as far from us as east is from west. (See Micah 7:19 and Psalm 103:11-13)
Now, think what that means for yourself. Scripture tells us (2 Corinthians 5:17) “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
Christian, that applies not only to when we first come to Christ, but it also applies to our everyday sins for which we repent. God considers them as if they never existed. He has turned them upside down and given them a great shake – and they’re all gone. Nothing remains. It is as if each time we repent, God gives us a NEW slate. A NEW beginning. A NEW start. We can have this attitude with St Paul (Philippians 3:13b-14) “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, [We] press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The gospel of the grace of God means a plethora of wonderful and infallible promises – one of which is this critical point: We are new people in Christ. All our confessed sins are gone. That’s why the Christian never needs to fear judgment after death. As St Paul who wrote: (1 Corinthians 5:6, 8) “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord . . . 8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
And St John wrote: (1 John 4:17-18) “By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment . . . 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
In Acts 20:24, Paul proclaimed to the church leaders of Ephesus: “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”
What we have looked at today is only a portion of the gospel of God's grace. One facet has to do with His utter holiness. And we saw that such a thing as His holiness is a GOOD thing, because His holiness means He is not capricious. He does not require of us one thing today and something else tomorrow.
Another facet of His grace is His promise to humanity that NO ONE has to spend eternity in the Lake of Fire, forever sent from from the beauty of God's incomprehensible mercy and light. The good news of God's grace means that everyone, anyone – you and me – that God invites us to eternal life, to eternal peace, to forever joy when we come by obedient faith to His Son, Jesus.
The last facet of the gospel of the grace of God we looked at today centered on God's immutable VOW to the penitent that his or her sins are FORGOTTEN.
Christian, please – do not be a ‘Magic Slate’ Christian. Don’t tell God you don’t believe Him when He tells you He has CHOSEN to forget your sins – regardless how terrible those sins might have been. But instead, be an “Etch-A-Sketch” Christian, trusting that when God says He remembers your sins no more – that He means it.
We’re out of time today, so let’s hold off until next week to look at some of the other facets of God's grace. But for now, let me remind us all that what you heard today is the message God's privileged us to bring into 2024. So, let’s ask Him day by day to give us opportunities to bring that message to others.