Understanding God's Grace

Colossians 1:1-8 


It is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug – between an atomic bomb and a firecracker – between getting fired up for Jesus and warming a pew.  It is that difference between understanding the concept of grace and having your life changed by it.


In the Colossian letter, Paul is writing to Christians who have had their lives changed by it.  And as he opens the letter, he talks about the power of the gospel to transform lives – not only their lives, but the lives of people everywhere the gospel goes.


I want us to spend some time in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church. It is one of his shorter letters, but it speaks to the nature of Christ and the nature of the church and the call to discipleship in such a powerful way that it has the potential to change our lives, if we will really listen and learn from it.


Let me tell you a couple of things by way of introduction:

Several hundred years before Paul wrote this letter, the city of Colossae was a leading city in Asia Minor, our modern day Turkey. By Paul’s day its power and influence had diminished to the point that it was a second-rate market town. Colossae is the town where a man named Philemon lived, who owned a slave named Onesimus, and Paul will also write a letter to Philemon at the same time he is writing to the church in Colossae.


Do you get church bulletins from congregations where you used to be a member?  I get a couple of printed bulletins in the mail and a few e-bulletins over the internet from others.  And I read them looking for familiar names and news of what’s happening and how the church is doing.  They didn’t have church bulletins in Paul’s day, but his interest in what was happening in the churches he had helped establish was an ongoing concern, and so he was always eager for news from travelers through those parts.  And even more so as he finds himself in prison in Rome for two years in Acts 28. 


The minister at the church in Colossae is Epaphras, and Epaphras has made a visit to Paul in Rome.  Epaphras was one of Paul’s converts from his three year ministry in Ephesus – Epaphras had begun preaching the gospel and Paul sent him to Asia Minor where he established the churches in Colossae and Laodicea and Heirapolis (a little string of towns like New Castle, Silt and Rifle).  Epaphras had a special relationship with Paul – probably a lot like Timothy and Titus. Paul calls him his “dear fellow servant,” his “fellow prisoner in Christ,” “a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf.”  Paul apparently had never been to Colossae – some there had never met him – but nevertheless, Paul’s heart is with them. In chapter 2 he will write: For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is. (Col. 2:5) 


Epaphras has come to Rome to see Paul and to deliver some news.  And the news he brings is good: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. (Col 1:3-6a)


The gospel has taken root in their lives and the roots are strong and healthy.  Did you hear some familiar words there?  It’s the ABC’s of the Christian life – faith in Christ Jesus, love for all the saints, the hope stored up in heaven – faith, love and hope.  They define so much about you – they define your relationship with Jesus, your relationship with his church and your relationship with eternity.  They are the pulse of your spiritual life. 


Where did they start?  How did they get there?  Paul says, “you heard about them in the word of truth” – the gospel came into your life.  And Paul never uses the word “gospel” flippantly or without meaning. 


Familiar words often loose their punch – they roll off of our lips with such glibness that sometimes we forget how powerful they are – like the demolitions expert who forgets he is handling dynamite.  I don’t think the word “gospel” ever became a trite expression for Paul.  Listen to how he characterizes it:


“The word of truth” – the bottom line is that in this world Satan lies to us.  He feeds us a line and sells us a ticket on a ship that doesn’t exist.  Look around you at the things this world places ultimate value and worth in and you realize they are buying into a lie.


What we need is a word of truth.  Sometimes that’s painful – sometimes the truth tells us we are sinful and lost and in need of a Savior.  It tells us we aren’t in control and independent.  But more than anything, we need a word of truth. Like the old fable about the emperor’s new clothes, we walk around naked, trying to convince ourselves and others how regally we are dressed, when the simple truth is, everybody sees right through us. We need to hear the truth.


He writes: “the gospel that has come to you.”  I don’t know if your conversion leaves you with the sense of awe and gratitude that mine does.  But I stand in wonder and amazement at the remarkable chain of events that God had to orchestrate to “bring the gospel to me.”  I suspect it took some remarkable efforts to bring the gospel to the Colossians as well.


Gospel is always exactly that:  “good news.”  It is the proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is the gospel that Paul proclaims in Romans 1 “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”


And now, here in Colossians 1:6, Paul broadens the extent of the gospel’s influence – All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.  (Col 1:6)


“All over the world” – this gospel is spreading like wildfire in dry grass.  When we get to vs. 28, Paul tells them, “This is the gospel you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” 


“Bearing fruit and growing” – that’s what the gospel does – it changes lives.  This gospel is not inert – it is not a passive message which sits idly.  It is powerful and active and life changing.


One last thing. This gospel has been bearing fruit and growing all over the world, “… just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth”


What released the power of the gospel in their lives?  Well, there had to be more than just a physical hearing. You remember Isaiah’s calling when he raised his hand and told God, “Here am I, send me”? God looks at him and says, “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into – He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:9-10).  Jesus often condemned the Pharisees, “you listen but you do not hear.” 


We must hear and understand. This was a constant concern of Paul’s. It was his prayer in verse 9: For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.


But what released the power of the gospel was that having heard it, they understood God’s grace in all its truth.  Lots of people hear about God’s grace, but very few actually understand it.


Some will take grace and turn it into a license to live however they want and excuse themselves by saying, “I’m just living in God’s grace. God’s in the forgiving business and business is good.” Others hear grace and say, “yes, but… there are still rules to keep and God only puts up with so much.”


When Paul writes to the Ephesian church he says, “You are saved by grace through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)


Grace means you haven’t earned your salvation, it isn’t by your doing or your goodness – but because of God’s undeserved love – it is a gift.  At the cross of Jesus Christ, God purchased your pardon with the blood of his only Son.  Anything more, anything less is to cheapen the grace of God and rob it of its power and its truth.  When you and I understand the grace of God in all its truth, it is empowering – it is liberating.


When Paul talks about “understanding God’s grace” – he’s not intellectualizing it.  To understand God’s grace is not simply to be able to define it but to have experienced it and have your life changed by it.  When we treat the gospel as simply another set of rules to replace an old set of rules, we have not understood the gospel and we have certainly not understood grace.  If the gospel is no more than one doctrine competing with other doctrines, it is lifeless.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation.”  It is dynamite – let’s not forget what we are handling.


This good news of God’s grace is the point from which Paul starts with the Colossians.  As we read through this letter together we will find that theme woven through the fabric of the letter.  It will be this grace which is the power they need to stand up to the Judaizing teachers and pagan philosophies and ungodly lifestyles which threaten and attack their faith.


This gospel is the very foundation for their faith, love, hope.  It is also the foundation for yours.  Have you understood God’s grace in all its truth?  Take a quick checkup in your life – do you see the gospel bearing fruit and growing in your life, or do you find your faith dull and lifeless?  Is the gospel working powerfully to transform your life or is it a strain just to keep the bare essentials going?


There is no more precious gift than the gospel of Jesus Christ – but let’s not rob it of its power by sentimentalizing it – it is powerful because of what it cost – in was purchased with the blood of the only Son of God.