Between Heaven and Earth

The Transformative Power of Grace

A few weeks ago, I gave a sermon to the youth at a local church. My message centered on the concept of God’s grace, and I chose to illustrate it using the parable of the wedding feast. Let me summarize my sermon. 

In the parable of the wedding feast, a king invites both good and evil people to attend a grand wedding feast in honor of his son. Remarkably, there are no preconditions for acceptance, and everyone is welcome.  

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. 9 Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ 10 So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Matthew 22:8-10)

The act of accepting the invitation by a guest represents justification. It’s a beautiful picture of how God’s grace extends to all, regardless of our past or present circumstances. We can see this in John 1 also:  

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)

Now, let’s focus on the guests who arrive at the feast.  

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.” (Matthew 22: 11-12) 

This parable emphasizes that after receiving an invitation, guests are expected to put on a wedding garment. The fact that nearly everyone complied, except for one individual, indicates that putting on the wedding garment is a simple task. When the King questioned the guest about not wearing the wedding garment, the guest was rendered speechless and offered no defense for his actions. It appears he had introspected and found himself guilty. 

What does this wedding garment represent?  

For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, 
He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, 
As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, 
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)

According to Isaiah garments represent salvation.  

Now there are two schools of thought on how you get the wedding garment or what it is actually. The first school says these garments are clean clothes that were washed and prepared in advance. A second school argues that given the nature of the last-minute invitation, it would be impossible for everyone to wash their clothes. Therefore, they must have been provided by the King.  

If you like the first school of thought that these are washed clothes, then question becomes how can one wash the stains of sins on their garment of righteousness?  

So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14)

This passage suggests that this robe is nothing but our sinful character, and it needs cleaning. But no matter how much we clean it with whatever soap we can find, stains of sin won’t go away. To remove stains of sin, we need the blood of Christ which cleanses every sinful blemish. The blood of Christ is provided free to us at the great cost to Heaven. All we must do is wash our character in the blood of Christ. Refusing to do so ends us up in outer darkness.  

Coming to the second school of thought that suggests that the wedding garments were provided by the King to every guest, the question becomes what is our part then?  

Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and was standing before the Angel. Then He answered and spoke to those who stood before Him, saying, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” And to him He said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head, and they put the clothes on him. And the Angel of the Lord stood by. (Zechariah 3:3-5)

Here the filthy garment represents our iniquity. God took away our iniquity and provided His Son’s righteousness. Refusing to remove our filthy garment and refusing to put on the new garment requires active resistance in the face of God and angels.  

Coming back to the parable, it appears that this guest believed his own garment to be superior to the one provided by the King. Therefore, he must have actively resisted wearing the King’s garment.  

Washing our sinful nature in the blood of Christ or removing our righteousness and putting on Christ’s righteousness is the process of Sanctification. In this process, we are transformed into the likeness of Christ from glory to glory. The important thing to note here is that no matter which school of thought we ascribe to, in either case, the thing we need to make ourselves righteous is given by God freely to us. We are transformed by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is not our doing.  

After I preached this sermon, during a potluck lunch, a couple of people whom I have known for years approached me with a thought-provoking question: “How does your understanding of grace manifest in your daily life?” Essentially, they were asking how you cannot play a role in your own salvation.  

Interestingly, their inquiry mirrors the one posed by Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, and member of the Sanhedrin, approached Jesus secretly, seeking answers. Their conversation revolved around the concept of being “born again.” Jesus explained that this spiritual rebirth involves both water and the Spirit. Nicodemus, perplexed, asked, “How can this be?” 

Jesus responded by referring to an event from Israel’s history.  

As the Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

In Numbers 21, the Israelites grumbled against God, and as a consequence, venomous serpents plagued the camp. When the people repented and sought God’s mercy, Moses interceded. God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake could look at the bronze serpent and live.  

This thing perplexes me. The normal thing to do would be to remove the snakes. Instead, God kept the snakes but asked anyone bitten to look at the brazen serpent and live. How could a mere gaze at this brazen serpent heal them? It defies logic. Yet, it worked. Sometimes, God’s ways transcend our understanding. 

Similarly, when we face life’s “snake bites or sinful failures,” our natural response is panic and frantic attempts to fix things. We look at ourselves, others, different things, or the snake itself. But Jesus invites us to look to Him and live. It’s not about our efforts; it’s about fixing our gaze on the One who brings healing and transformation. 

Consider this powerful verse from Paul: 

“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

I appreciate the Message Bible’s rendition of this passage: 

“Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of His face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like Him.” 

This verse is self-explanatory. With this verse in mind, I want to ask you:

  • Does this explanation satisfy your Nicodemus question?  
  • Do you still have reservations about how we are transformed into His likeliness? 
  • Are you afraid when you hear this type of message? If so, why? Help me understand.  

Sharon: Kiran’s talk was important because I don’t think we can live—especially those of us in the Seventh-Day Adventist culture—without being constantly reminded that we’re “not good enough” or “not doing enough.” It’s deeply ingrained in us that the idea of freedom in the grace of Christ, being in the process of sanctification, is a lifelong struggle. The messages we received as kids in the Academy were that our skirts weren’t long enough, we weren’t vegetarian enough, we shouldn’t drink coffee, and so on. It’s a lifelong battle to release ourselves to the freedom that we have in resting in the grace of Christ, letting His work be done in us instead of trying to navigate the whitewater of life on our own.

David: I can’t resist saying it makes one wonder about religion as a whole and the extent to which it is a stumbling block. Jesus said, “My burden is light.” I don’t think life is supposed to be so hard that one must live in constant fear, spiritually. That’s not what Jesus meant by saying His burden is light. I think all religions need to look very seriously at the restrictions they place on people and ask whether they need revision.

Donald: By the very nature of personalities, some are more prone to reject organized religion than others. I know people who are incredibly attentive to their neighbors with great needs. I’ve come to understand that this is just the way they live their lives. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with them, and they never bring up the topic of organized religion. 

So, they have taken on the wedding garment, but I’m not sure they go to church. I think for us Adventists, it’s hard not to feel that “pinch”, which Sharon described, of going through the day worrying we’re doing something wrong. I don’t know if my neighborly friends feel guilty or burdened. They seem to be just acting upon their faith and doing good.

C-J: I envy you in that what I’m hearing is that you’ve landed in really good fellowship. Every church I’ve been in feels like a political landscape. I have never been in a church where they truly live the Word of God. For me, my walk with God has been very solitary. I choose to follow what the Word of God says, to try to put on that mantle and not just give lip service to it. 

I can’t even imagine what you describe; I’ve never seen it. It’s like, I’m always waiting for the curtain to be pulled back. And like what you told me, now you’re doing this, it’s a very hard thing. And maybe that’s partly what we’ve all been hearing this morning. I didn’t walk away from God; I considered other avenues to experience God. But in the end, without a doubt, I say I landed on the Christian faith because it’s the only faith or practice that really transformed me. It was the only one that restored what was so broken. The others were just rules, traditions, and history. 

Without the Holy Spirit, the promises, and the provisions of the Christian God, I would never have survived, never thrived, never known how to love others. I would just isolate myself out of protection. But the Christian God says to go out and be the witness. No matter how many times you fall, get up and keep giving. 

I feel very blessed for this group, very blessed for the faithfulness of God, the Creator, the divine.

Don: I’m struck by how the king addresses the man without the robe and calls him “friend.” Jesus addressed three people as “friend” in his ministry, at least that I can remember. One is the vineyard worker who complained about receiving the same pay as those who worked only the last hour; another is Judas, whom Jesus addresses as “friend” when he is betrayed in the garden. 

So, if Jesus identifies these people as friends, it certainly should reassure us that you and I, too, are friends of God. But for some reason, it’s almost impossible for us to leave our salvation to God alone. We just have to help Him, as if He’s inadequate. Somehow, pushing Him in the right direction is our responsibility. It’s remarkable when you think of it in those terms. But as those of us who have been lifelong religiously affiliated people find, it’s the reality we live in, as Sharon said. 

The question that keeps resounding in my head is, why is it so difficult to accept grace? It seems like it should be the easiest and most natural, wonderful expression of relationship with God. But for some reason, we just have to help God. He just can’t quite do it himself. It’s a necessity we can’t seem to get over. I wonder why that is?

Donald: Actually, it’s going beyond the call of duty. I think we’re surprised by the response of someone when we go in expecting them to behave a certain way. So, I go into a bank, expecting the person there to talk to me and know the information I need. But when they do the second and third and fourth thing, like calling someone for me, that’s going beyond the call of duty. That’s grace. We don’t see it very often. Well, I shouldn’t really say that. I think, as I explained earlier, people reciprocate the behavior they’re shown—if you show grace, they’ll give grace; if you’re unpleasant, they’ll reciprocate that too.

Don: But that’s not what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is that you might act unpleasantly, but God still gives you grace.

Donald: That’s God. What does grace look like? It’s like prayer. Okay, let’s have this conversation. Well, it’s a one-way conversation, so that gets a little tricky after a while. But what does grace look like on a day-to-day basis? I understand that God overlooks all of that. And here I am, being unpleasant, and He’s being gracious. But in everyday life, what does grace look like? So that we can have an idea of what grace is.

C-J: I think it’s in Corinthians 13. The difference between hospitality, which is the law of the Bedouin, and the Abrahamic brand. It’s about being patient, kind, loving, long-suffering—all of that. And it’s effortless, not even a choice. It’s not about just doing this because God commands me, but because the Holy Spirit has completely enveloped us, mind, body, and soul. It’s not work; it is a joy unto the Lord. 

I’m not there yet, but I recognize it when it happens. When I step outside of my concerns like, “This is going to hurt” or “Why should I?” I’m never disappointed with how God is always present. I’m never like, “Now you show up?” God is always there, because God is always working. Everyone in the room is blessed.

Don: Donald, does your question imply that one of the reasons we have difficulty accepting grace is because we don’t know it when we see it? Or because we don’t see it very often, or at all?

Donald: I think part of the challenge is that in organized religion, when we go to a church and see people proclaiming they’re Christians, it ramps up our expectations of those we share faith with. I no longer have the same expectations for them as I would for someone down the street working in a shop. But when you go to church, then you start thinking, “This is how I expect you to behave.” 

So it ramps up our expectations of how we should behave towards each other. That’s unfortunate, because usually when you meet someone, you have fairly low expectations, maybe just expecting a smile. But beyond that, you don’t know what you’re entering into regarding their day, their background, or how long they’ve worked there. My point is that I have higher expectations, unfortunately, of organized religious people than I would have of others who don’t profess that faith. 

God certainly understands that. It’s beyond belief that we are flawed, but God accepts us. But for me to see what grace looks like, I guess I have to look at the literal and then try to apply that to something that’s beyond.

Don: I think you’ve put your finger on it now. You say it’s beyond belief. Yes, it is.

Donald: It’s beyond belief. But we don’t live in a world of beyond. We live in a world where the only time we do “beyond belief” is when we pray, when we talk about these kinds of things together. We’re doing “beyond belief” a bit by trying to understand it. But “beyond belief” is by its very definition something I can’t believe. So, it’s intangible.

David: Why do we need to see grace in our lives now? I don’t understand why. I mean, there’s a difference between seeing God’s grace, receiving God’s grace, and seeing that you’re receiving God’s grace. I would dispute that we need to see it at all.

Donald: Maybe, David. Understanding it would be about it. Well, I can’t understand what grace says.

David: The same objection applies: You don’t need to understand grace and you don’t need to see it. What we need is God’s grace. That’s all. We get it even if we don’t know it. Maybe if we don’t have faith that grace exists, then we’re like the guest at the wedding feast who wouldn’t put on the garment. He could not accept that he was at the party by the grace of God—if he did, he’d be wearing the garment. So he’s there by his own efforts, but he doesn’t get to stay, he doesn’t receive the lasting grace. 

I don’t believe we need to see grace. We don’t need to know that grace is Christ-centered. All the people who’ve never heard of Christ still receive grace. Some faiths never even talk about grace. It’s not a concept within their culture. Yet, we must believe, as Christians, that they receive God’s grace. But they don’t understand it, they don’t see it, they don’t know it. And it doesn’t matter.

Don: There are two more things about this parable that I think weigh in on this conversation. One is that of the many people who came, only one apparently refused the wedding garment. This belies the idea that it’s difficult to be saved. I’ve always been taught and grew up thinking that it was going to be really difficult to be saved, and if we were just lucky enough to get invited by the skin of our teeth, that would be our good fortune. But this parable suggests that it’s pretty hard to be lost. 

The second thing that accentuates this point is that here you have a man who is confronted with: “Why didn’t you take the wedding garment?” and he has nothing to say—he’s completely speechless. He recognizes that he’s defenseless in this endeavor. 

It’s just so opposite of what we’ve been taught and what religion teaches us that it’s remarkable to see how far we’ve come off the rails when it comes to understanding God’s grace.

C-J: I think when this man shows up at a wedding knowing he’s not appropriately attired, it’s like saying, “Don’t you know where you are?” I myself have done that. You know, “Accept me as I am. If you don’t want me here, I can leave. I don’t belong with your group. I don’t have XYZ, but somebody invited me, but I’m not going to change. I’m not going to turn myself inside out because I don’t want to be fake with you.” 

The other piece is the narrative of who I am that was given to me, and not the narrative that God gave me. Which is that I am worthy to be loved, I am worthy to be accepted, as I am worthy to expect God to restore and make provision, not by a list of rules. But understanding that love and grace is what transforms me. It’s not about what I’m wearing to church, or the words that I use. It’s often not about being out in public a lot, or with many different people. 

But when I used to teach, I’d walk into a building and be talking with someone, and I’d think, “Right, I’m a Christian,” because the spirit was just God’s Spirit. That grace, it just knew intuitively, this is different. This person trusts God in every walk of his or her life. And they’re just genuinely loving, generous people.

I wanted to add the importance Donald was speaking of regarding the people who help take care of their needy neighbors. It’s much easier to lift the log when there are four or five people who, even if they say, “I’m tired, I’m done with this. It’s not making a difference.” But when you’re together, it’s like, “Yeah, this is good. This is really good. I’m glad we did this.” But when you’re doing it alone, it’s a heavy lift. 

It’s not about somebody else seeing; it’s just that in community, you can do anything. It’s like marching the walls of Jericho, as Carolyn often speaks about. In community, there’s not just power and authority, but a multiplication of the good. It’s just, you stand back and you go for it.

Donald: I don’t want to waste your time, but I always have to tie something to my experience. Maybe that’s part of the thing. I recently rented a car from an airport kiosk. It asked for my license and my credit card. I go through the whole thing and it says, “Okay, this is the car you’ve ordered, would you like an upgrade?” Ah, somebody started to offer me more than I would expect. “Oh, wait a minute. If you do that, we’ll cut you a deal. Right now, before you see the cars. This one will be $10 a day more,” etc., etc. I’m like, “No, I’m gonna stay with what I got.” But the machine doesn’t know whether it’s giving me a good car or not. So I get out to the lot where a guy tells me to “Pick any car you want in the lot.” I mean, now there’s grace! It felt like I hit the lottery. The machine wanted to wring more money out of me but the guy simply says, “The keys are in all of them. Take anything you want.”

C-J: I never mind anybody sharing real-life experiences because we live in this dimension, and we all filter through our experiences and our value system. We don’t live in the clouds; we have to deal with people we don’t like and do things we don’t want to do because we’ve made commitments. Those caring neighbors did not sit back and say “Don’t you have family?” to those in need. 

It’s really important that we show up in desperate times, and it’s better if proximity allows us to do it. Like what a nice surprise, “Come on in, you were in the neighborhood,” when actually, you made an effort to ask, “Is this a good time for you?”

Donald: It’s very important that we show up. So, do I have to even show up? Do I have to be present?

C-J: I think in this dimension, in our reality, we measure things—it’s binary, the way our brain works. In the spiritual world, I think we’ve all experienced the unfathomable grace and love of God, something that nobody but God could have done. “Something is different with me now, and I can’t explain it.” We just go forward, and we try to allow God to do the work He’s intended for us, to be in the purpose of our life. 

But in the real world where we are, and until we are transformed to a different place, I have to tell myself, “Be anxious for nothing. God’s timing is perfect, God will reveal it when it’s needed.” Do the right thing, not because you’re supposed to, but because you are allowing yourself to be a vessel of God.” And that’s hard. It is not an easy gig. 

Sometimes, after it’s all done, because there isn’t joy when I’m getting in my car, picking up my stuff, thinking, “Boy, this is gonna be a real pain. I just know this isn’t gonna go well, I don’t want to do it. They tell me it’s a couple of hours, it’s gonna be all day. I have other things planned.” I have to really make an attitude adjustment. “If you’re gonna go, go with the right attitude. Get yourself together here.” And just leave it alone. Don’t put parameters on it. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. I think that’s the grace. 

I mean, when people have gone through what many of us here have gone through—such as been sick for prolonged periods of time—it’s God’s grace that carries us every day. When we pray for someone that we know is hurting, it’s God’s grace every day. God cycles that thought back, “Lord, keep your hand on this person.” Instead of just throwing it up, sometimes I just tell myself, “Stop, count, and drop to your knees.” This isn’t a time to just say, “Lord, again, keep your hand on that person.” Because I feel heavy in my spirit. It doesn’t happen very often, but when I hear it, I do it because even if it’s pulling the car over, because God is so faithful, God is doing that work and that transformation in everybody on the stage.

Anonymous: I think what we need to see is that we should be thankful and recognize God’s grace in everyday life. We don’t have to understand that it’s there. And when we realize that it’s there all the time, no matter what we do, the only thing we can do—and that’s what we call adding to salvation—is not in addition to anything God does to save us, but just a thankful heart as a response to His grace. The only way we can react to grace is by being thankful and conscious about everything we go through during our lives. 

It’s all put in a way for our good because of God’s grace, and all we have to do is be thankful. We don’t need to understand grace, we don’t need to see grace, because as soon as you recognize that you’re living in this grace, that’s enough. We’ll be thankful all the time.

Reinhard: I think the love of God that we experience in everyday life, or in our actions and the responses from those around us… If we walk with God, I think we can feel the love of God. Then we always have to introspect. When we walk with God, He helps with every decision we make, day in and day out. We can see the love of God in our life, no matter what the situation. 

Of course, we always have challenges in life. But when we walk closer with God, everything is okay. I think the Grace of God, we can always feel in our life. Sometimes it’s hard to accept grace. In my thinking, the problem with salvation is it makes us always worry. “Am I going to be saved?” I think that’s the challenge. 

If grace is cheap, how can it secure our salvation? To me, salvation is for people who believe in God, that’s what distinguishes between those to be redeemed and those who are not going to be saved. I think there has to be something to differentiate people because God is going to choose who’s going to be saved or not. 

And even though grace is free for everybody, there’s always some kind of responsibility for us. So to me, the distinction between salvation and outer darkness depends on how we respond, how we follow God’s commands. We have to obey God’s will in order for us to be saved. 

I think that’s the ultimate challenge for us, to make sure that we will receive this salvation, and God makes a distinction between the saved and not saved according to whether they followed His command. God will separate, and that’s the key. Yes, grace is free for everybody, but I think it is key that God will separate. 

If salvation is the work of God, we cannot do anything; no matter how good we are, we cannot guarantee ourselves salvation, but we cannot afford to not work no matter how good we are. We cannot save ourselves, but our righteousness, our obedience to Him is the distinction God is going to use to choose who’s going to be saved and not be saved.

David: I wonder, is it really a matter of it all boiling down to obeying rules? I’m not sure that’s the case. We’ve got to remember that there were good and bad people at the wedding feast and they were all saved, except for one guy. What was different about him, besides not wearing the wedding garment? 

He didn’t answer when God spoke to him. Why not? We don’t know. We can come up with all sorts of theories as to why he didn’t answer but to me, the answer is that he could not see or hear God, he didn’t realize that he was being spoken to. He did not believe in God, so could not see him nor hear him.

That’s what leaves you outside, in the dark. That’s why you can’t be “saved.” If you cannot see or hear God speaking to you, you can’t respond, so you can’t be saved. I don’t think it has anything to do with obedience.

Don: We will discuss this further. The issue of obedience and grace is still on the table for more thought.

* * *

Leave a Reply