THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
A Sermon by Rev. Donald L. Rose Preached in Bryn Athyn November 6, 1994
The book of Revelation begins with the salutation of John: “Grace be unto you … ” and it ends with the blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
There is a saying in True Christian Religion that warns us lest we make the Divine grace of no account. The word “grace” has become so associated in religious circles with arbitrary election and associated ideas that we might shy away from thinking of grace. The same might be applied to faith. It can be associated with notions of “faith alone.” But we should not undervalue faith. Nor should we undervalue the beautiful gift of grace. The hymn that begins “O praise ye the Lord” says in the final verse, “O tell of His might, O sing of His grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy is space” (p. 439).
“The Lord will give grace and glory. No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). The frame of mind that belittles grace or the kind of feeling that belittles grace is a feeling of self-merit, a feeling that we deserve everything we have, that we have earned it.
Here is the way the passage in TCR begins: “It is harmful to ascribe merit to works which are done for the sake of salvation, for in this lie concealed many evils of which one is unaware. These hidden evils are: a denial of God’s influx and operation with us; trust in one’s own power in matters concerning salvation; faith in oneself and not in God; self-justification; trust in salvation by one’s own strength; making of no account the Divine grace and mercy; rejection of reformation and regeneration by Divine means” (TCR 439).
If you asked an angel of the highest heaven a celestial angel how he came to be in heaven, what might the answer be? Would it be: “I put in a lot of hard work, and I made the right decisions, and I deserve to be here.” Or would it rather be, “I am here of the Lord’s mercy.” If you asked an angel of a lower heaven, or asked a spiritual angel, the emphasis would be on grace. All angels are averse to praise or credit for themselves, and they are in the acknowledgment that all good is from the Lord. The celestial speak of mercy and the spiritual of grace (see AC 981).
When the Writings say that the celestial speak of mercy and the spiritual of grace, they say that this comes from the difference in the humility (see AC 598, 5929). Those who are in deep humility think of the Lord’s mercy, and those less humble speak of His grace. And those who are not humble think rather of their own strength and their own credit.
Where do we fit in, we who are neither celestial nor spiritual angels? Let us start with an example of a person who died and went to the other world. It is a short striking story and happens to be the first time “grace” is mentioned in the Writings. Grace is mentioned more often than is usually realized, both in the Writings and in the Sacred Scripture. The reason this is not realized is that different English words are used. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that is translated “grace” is also frequently translated as “favor.” In our lesson from Genesis 33 we twice have the phrase “find favor in your sight.” We also have the phrase “God has dealt graciously” (v. 11). The fifth Psalm ends with the saying, “For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous; with favor You will surround him as with a shield.” This could also be surrounded with “grace” as with a shield.
In the New Testament we have the same situation with the Greek word charis. It is translated “grace” for example “grace be unto you” and “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” It is also translated “favor.”
In the Writings the Latin word gratia is sometimes translated as “kindness.” If you look up “kindness” in the Swedenborg Concordance, you will be told to turn to the word “grace.” And “kindness” has been the familiar rendering of the little story early in the Arcana Caelestia when the word “grace” is first used.
It is a story that is deservedly well known, because it is the only full example of someone who virtually went directly to heaven after he died. Generally speaking the interval between awakening to life after death and going either to heaven or hell is considerable, often lasting for years. But there are exceptional cases of being “elevated to heaven immediately after death” (AC 317).
In this case, described in n. 318 of Arcana Caelestia, a man who died first realized that he was in the other life. And then it struck him that he owned nothing. He had no house or possessions, and anxiety came upon him, as he did not know what he would do. One might be reminded of the story in our lesson from Genesis 32 and 33. Jacob first crossed the Jordan owning nothing except the staff that was in his hand. Years later he was a man with a large family and many possessions, and he said, “I am not worthy of all the mercies … You have shown Your servant” (33:10). “God has dealt graciously with me … I have enough” (33:11).
We are told in this Arcana story that the man was left for a time in his state of anxiety “that his thoughts might take their wonted direction.” And while he was in this state of anxiety he was brought into association with some celestial spirits from the province of the heart. They lovingly provided him with anything he might need. To quote: “They showed him every attention that he could desire.”
Then he was left to himself, and his reaction was the key. The thoughts that came to him were to the effect: “How can I repay such great kindness?” It is translated “so much kindness,” and we may render it tantam gratia, “so much grace.” That reaction to the Divine grace was the sign of his charity and faith, and “he was therefore at once taken up into heaven” (AC 318).
What about ourselves? Do we feel that we are objects of the Lord’s grace? Do we feel we are recipients of His mercy? The question is not whether the Lord has been merciful to us, for He certainly has. The question is not whether the Lord has been gracious to us, for He most certainly has. The question is whether we have any realization or acknowledgment that this is true.
What if you are asked whether you feel lucky or fortunate? Those words are not ideal, because they might be used with the idea of some random fortune. Better to say, Do we feel blessed? Our feelings vary in this. They vary through different stages of our life. They vary from week to week. They vary in the states of a single day.
Suppose you were to be asked, Has the Lord been kind to you? Has He favored you? Has He granted you grace? And suppose you were to answer in the affirmative and say some words about the Lord’s grace. You can say the words, and sometimes they are hardly more than words, whereas at other times you might have deep feeling about it. A passage about this in the Arcana ends by saying that anyone can know this about himself by observing his state when “he uses the expression `the grace of the Lord'” (AC 981).
Can you control the degree of sincerity you have in this respect? If you are a cocky and self-assured person you might say you cannot transform yourself. But circumstances can set the stage for a peeling away of some of our veneer, and room can be made for a more full feeling.
What, for example, is the classic phrase when you see another person far less fortunate than yourself? “There but for the grace of God go I.” You might for a few minutes observe someone on television losing his home in a flood or fire. You might see someone bereaved or handicapped or suffering. And you might have experiences in life in which you really sense the experience of someone less fortunate, so much so that you are so thankful for what you have, be it your health or whatever.
Do you have a husband or wife, a loving relationship? If so, how did that come about? Was it the result of your intelligence or effort? Do you take the credit for conjugial love? The Writings tell us that love is a deliberate gift of the Lord, a gift into which He has gathered delights from first to last.
There are intervals in life when we do deliberately put ourselves into a state of appreciation. They can be anniversaries or even birthdays in which a train of thinking sets the stage for a state of appreciation, a state which you might be able to express in words and you might not.
The Holy Supper has something of this characteristic. It is not merely that you take the bread and the wine, but what is your acknowledgment as you do so? If you have not honestly looked at your life, you might not feel that you have any need of repentance. As you take bread and wine, do you have a sense that every good feeling your heart has known and every truth your mind has enjoyed is a gift of the Lord alone?
When we speak of the Lord’s mercy and grace, the important question is the humility that is involved. Part of the path we follow involves states of temptation that are so humbling. They are states in which we feel wretched, sometimes sensing a despair that we can ever be saved. The lessons we learn in those states are precious.
One passage on them ends: After despair “they can be led into a true confession, not only that all good is from the Lord, but also that all things are of His mercy; and at last into humiliation of heart before the Lord, which is not possible without self-knowledge; and when they are in that state even to despair they then first receive comfort and help from the Lord” (AC 2994).
We have spoken of a man who died and went straight to heaven in confession of the great grace that he received. Let us conclude with another individual who died and in the world of spirits showed no concept of the Lord’s loving Providence. “Afterwards the same spirit was reduced into the state of his infancy, and the Lord showed the angels what his quality had been at that time, and also what was the then foreseen quality of his future life, and that every detail of his life had been led by the Lord, and that he would have plunged into the most atrocious hell if there had been even the least cessation of the continual providence of the Lord” (AC 6484).
There are many things of the Lord’s mercy and grace in our past lives that we do not even know about. And fortunately there are things that we can know about, acknowledge and rejoice in. Of His fullness have we all received “and grace for grace” (John 1:16). Amen.
Lessons: Genesis 32, 33; TCR 439, 440; AE 22; DP 330
True Christian Religion 439
To ascribe merit to works that are done for the sake of salvation is harmful because evils lie concealed in so doing of which the doer is wholly ignorant. There also lies hidden in it a denial of God’s influx and operation in man; also a confidence in one’s own power in matters of salvation; faith in oneself and not in God; self-justification; salvation by one’s own abilities; a reducing of Divine grace and mercy to nought; a rejection of reformation and regeneration by Divine means; especially a limitation of the merit and righteousness of the Lord God the Savior, which such claim for themselves; together with a continual looking for reward, which they regard as the first and last end; a submersion and extinction of love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor; a total ignorance and lack of perception of the delight of heavenly love as being without merit, and a sense only of self-love. For those who put rewards in the first place and salvation in the second, and who value salvation for the sake of the reward, invert order and immerse the interior desires of the mind in what is their own, and defile them in the body with the evils of the flesh …