Christmas provides a wonderful opportunity to give gifts to those I love. I enjoy doing all I can to surprise them with a particular gift. I am sure you do as well.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize: too often I can put more thought into the gifts I buy them than I do the content of my conversations with them at Christmas. In fact the content of my conversation can be a gift of greater substance and of more enduring value.
By using words that are carefully and skillfully chosen, we can give the gift of grace to others. And Christmas provides us with many opportunities for conversations with a variety of friends and family. But are you prepared?
The Apostle Paul writes, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
This promise is stunning! By carefully choosing my words I can give grace to those I care for.
Yet as Charles Spurgeon once noted in a sermon, “I consider that one of the great lacks of the Church nowadays is not so much Christian preaching as Christian talking.” In fact, a preacher may invest more time in carefully thinking about the words he will use in one sermon than most of us will invest thinking about the words that will come from our lips all year.
And the result is that we often waste our words. Corrupt talk is a daily temptation. Rarely do we consider the decay that we spread through our speech. And rarely do we consider the grace-giving potential of our speech. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
So what words fit a particular occasion? Consideration for one we are conversing with must inform our words. So before I speak I must observe and listen. I must ask questions. I must take an interest in them.
- If they are Christians, are there evidences of grace I can draw their attention to?
- If they are not Christians, are there evidences of common grace in their life?
- Is this person experiencing prosperity?
- Or is this person experiencing adversity?
- If they are suffering I want to give them comforting grace through my words.
- If they are weary, I want to give them sustaining grace through my words.
- And to all, when and where appropriate, I want to share the gospel, for that is the most effective way to give grace through my words.
So here is my point. Buying the appropriate Christmas gift for someone requires that we know and study them. But this is no less true of our conversations.
So as you consider certain individuals, and seek to buy meaningful gifts for them, also consider how you can give them grace through your words.
(The final selection from C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
Let me move on to the fourth and final quote. This is my most recent favorite quote, because one of the great things about having access to your quotes is not only the difference they make in my private life, in my understanding of pastoral ministry and preaching, but also the difference they make in individual sermons. So if I really don’t have much else to say—and often I don’t—the “go to” quotes make all the difference.
So this particular quote is for pastors, although any and all readers will benefit from the content of this quote. You write,
Only by seeing our sin do we come to see the need for and wonder of grace. But exposing sin is not the same thing as unveiling and applying grace. We must be familiar with and exponents of its multifaceted power, and know how to apply it to a variety of spiritual conditions. Truth to tell, exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter. Therein lies our weakness.
This line is just filled with discernment for pastors and filled with discernment for everyone.
So without in any way minimizing the doctrine of sin—because you opened by saying it’s only by seeing our sin we come to see the need and the wonder of grace—how can we effectively expose sin and yet ultimately unveil and apply grace?
At least for myself it’s returning to a principle with me: Make sure you have gone back to basics. Make sure that you think back from first principles.
Part of the first principles of the gospel are these categories, sin
. I think the thing that I am trying to get at here is the correlation between my ability to grasp the grace, grace of grace
and my grasping the sin, sin of sin
(what Ralph Venning calls the “exceeding sinfulness of sin”). The sin is mine and therefore natural for me to see. It’s grace that isn’t natural to me and therefore difficult to see. Therefore I am going to struggle to bring the sin I am so familiar with to the grace I am unfamiliar with. And therefore I need to find ways given to me in Scripture of discovering the graciousness of God.
And I find a couple of paradoxes here. On the one hand, it’s almost easier for me to explore the vocabulary for sin in the Bible than the vocabulary for grace. And I notice this in the literature, too. As a preacher it is wonderful to be able to say to people, “Sin is a multi-headed monster. One of the richest areas of vocabulary in the Hebrew language is for sin. There is transgression
, there is iniquity
...” And in the addressing the substitutionary atonement of Christ, it would be right for me to speak about that.
But on the other hand I find that, because I am a sinner, I have got to work harder intellectually and mentally to see there is an even richer vocabulary for grace. Under the principle of Romans 5:20—“where sin abounds, grace super-abounds
”—has got to be a principle on which I will live my Christian life. I’m reminded of the hymn,
O Jesus! full of pardoning grace,—
More full of grace than I of sin.
And if somebody quibbles by saying surely the work of Christ is equivalent
grace to sin, I think, “No. Paul is saying there really is more
grace in Christ than sin in me.”
Here is an illustration. Because American houses are bigger, we have a washing machine and a tumble dryer in the house. Because houses tend to be smaller in the United Kingdom, many families have a washing machine and spin dryer all in one machine. It takes longer because the thing goes through the washing cycle and then it goes through the spin-drying cycle.
I often think, “That’s my life as a Christian. I am in the machinery of the exposure of my sin. Then I get thrown around to discover grace. But the thing about grace is that grace is Christ
, it’s not substance. It’s not washing powder that’s thrown in.
Christ. When I am in
Christ I am going to become more conscious of my other sins and the same sins at deeper levels. I realize what I thought was the sin was actually only the manifestation of the real sin.
I am constantly being turned in this sin/grace, sin/grace, sin/grace cycle all my days.
I still hold the, kind of the classical Augustinian view of Romans 7:14–25 that Paul is actually speaking about himself. I don’t think he is speaking wholesale about himself; I think he is speaking about himself from a particular perspective. But I think Paul understood this sin/grace cycle. And it’s not like now it’s grace, now it’s sin, but it’s both at the same time. It’s in this that you realize why looking at yourself in a certain light, this tension is expressed in a deep-seated contradiction of being—is bound to make you cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
But that is exactly the point where, as Christians, we need to learn that we are in Christ
, but we are not yet in heaven
. The dominion of sin has been broken, but the presence of sin has not been abolished.
And I think it is R.L. Dabney who says that surely there is no more extraordinary contradiction in the universe than that sin continues to dwell where Christ indwells. Or, sometimes I put it this way: Once you have got a lodger in your house he may be extremely difficult to dislocate from the house. And sin is like that. Sin used to be the owner of the house. Sin is now a lodger in the house, but lodgers can be very, very difficult to get out.
By God’s grace, the great thing has been done and sin’s dominion has been broken. But we are, in an ongoing way, discovering how sin is not a commodity that can be abstracted. It is in our bones. And it is battle all the way to the end.…
You have been exceedingly generous with your time, Dr. Ferguson. And actually, we must get you to lunch. But before we conclude: You have made different references to preachers and others who have had this profound effect on you. I want you to know you have had that same profound effect on me. And if anyone is perceptive when I am preaching, they will hear your influence in and through my preaching. And so one of the highlights for me has been just to sit here and not only learn from you, but now be able to say, “Thank you.”
Thank you for example, your teaching, your writing, your preaching. It has made, not a minor difference, and not even a significant difference. I would say it has made a profound
difference, and for that I am profoundly grateful to God.
Thank you, Sinclair.
Thank you, C.J.
The above quote from Dr. Ferguson was published on the Reformation21 blog here
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke