Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. GENESIS 3:21
Here is a trivia question you can ask your friends at your next dinner party. Of all the songs ever written, which song has been recorded most — by the largest number of different vocal artists? The answer, as you might expect from the title of this book, is Amazing Grace, the classic Christian hymn written in 1779 by the former slave trader turned preacher John Newton.
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Amazing grace really is amazing. It is the most amazing thing in this vast universe, more amazing even than neutrons and neutrinos, quarks and quasars, and black holes, each with its own baffling wonders and surprises. But like all familiar things, grace has lost its
ability to enthrall most people. Instead, as theologian J.I. Packer has said, amazing grace has become “boring grace” for many persons.
If you are one for whom grace has become boring or even someone who has never even thought much about it, I hope this book will be an eye-opener. More than that, I hope it will help you find the amazing, saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. If you have found it already, I hope it will help you come to know and appreciate the grace of God more fully. In these pages I want to look at what God tells us about grace in the Bible and show how grace is what you and I need, more than anything we can possibly imagine — more than a good job, many friends, a nice house, excellent health, self-esteem, someone to love, or whatever.
Grace is present in Jesus Christ for all who will have it because the God of grace is, well, a gracious God.
Grace upon Grace
I am a preacher. So whenever I come to a tremendous word like this, I look in hymnbooks to see what has been written about it by Christians who have gone before me. I was surprised by the many words for grace and the many varieties of grace that were listed.
The Trinity Hymnal, used in our church, lists hymns about grace under the headings of converting grace, the covenant of grace, efficacious grace, the fullness of grace, magnified grace, refreshing grace, regenerating grace, sanctifying grace, saving grace, and sovereign grace. It also has combined listings, such as the love and grace of God, the love and grace of Christ, the love and grace of the Holy Spirit, and salvation by grace.
A number of descriptive phrases appear in the hymns themselves, such as abounding grace, abundant grace, amazing grace (the title of John Newton’s hymn), boundless grace, fountain of grace,
God of grace, indelible grace, marvelous grace, matchless grace, overflowing grace, pardoning grace, plenteous grace, unfailing grace, unmeasurable grace, wonderful grace, wondrous grace, the word of grace, grace all sufficient, and grace alone.
Even Francis Scott Key, the author of the national anthem of the United States, wrote an important hymn about grace:
Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee,
Roused thee from thy fatal ease,
Praise the grace whose promise warmed thee,
Praise the grace that whispered peace.
My favorite hymn about grace, as far as the words go, was written by Samuel Davies, a former president of Princeton University.
Great God of wonders! All thy ways
Are worthy of thyself — divine:
And the bright glories of thy grace
Among thine other wonders shine;
Who is a pardoning God like thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?
Theologians speak of common grace, electing grace, irresistible grace, persevering grace, prevenient grace, pursuing grace, and saving grace. Yet even with these terms, I have not exhausted the Christian terminology.
A Need for Grace
If grace is as important as I have been suggesting, it will not surprise you if I begin where grace first appears, in the early chapters of the book of Genesis.
The first and second chapters of Genesis tell about God’s
creation of Adam and Eve, our first parents. They were perfect originally, which we would expect of something made by God, and they were placed in a perfect environment with meaningful work to do. They were what we might call God’s regents in creation. They were to rule over the creation, care for the Garden of Eden, and name the animals. We are not to think of this last task in a silly manner, as if they merely pulled names out of the blue and tacked them onto whatever animals came by. Naming something in a meaningful way is not easy. If they were to name the animals, presumably they were to study and classify them according to their true biological relationships.
Adam and Eve had a perfect and beautiful environment in which to work, a loving companion with whom to work, and interesting work to do.
Would that we had it so good!
But there was a catch. Although Adam and Eve were given what seemed to be a maximum amount of freedom to live and act as they pleased, they were nevertheless made by God and were responsible to God for what they did. God gave them something to remind them of this relationship. He placed a tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden with instructions that they were not to eat from it. His warning was, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Well! Not eat of that tree? And without any explanation of why not? The command seemed arbitrary and, no doubt, offensive. At any rate, it must have seemed so to Adam, for there is no suggestion anywhere in the story that he was deceived by the devil’s talk, as Eve was. He ate simply because the command had been given, and he was offended by it. Why shouldn’t he do what he wanted to do? Especially since it was “his garden” and he was in charge of what went on there!
I understand him. One spring, when I was in the sixth grade, our school principal came into the classroom just before we were to be released to go home for lunch. He had heard that some of the students had been playing with firecrackers, and he wanted to make sure we knew that this was definitely not allowed. Firecrackers were dangerous. They were against Pennsylvania state law. If any of his students brought a firecracker into school, even if he did not set it off, he would be expelled from school immediately.
I did not own any firecrackers. I had not even been thinking about firecrackers. But, you know, once a person starts thinking along that line, firecrackers become an intriguing subject. As I thought about it, I remembered one of my friends who had some.
On the way home from school a friend and I went by this other friend’s house, picked up a firecracker, and returned to school with it forty-five minutes after the principal’s announcement. We went into the cloakroom, invited a friend to come in with us, and said, “You hold the firecracker by the middle of the fuse. Pinch it very tight. Then we will light it. The others will think that it is going to explode. But when it burns down to your fingers it will go out, and everything will be all right.”
What we had not counted on was that the fire would burn our friend’s fingers. When we lit the fuse, it did. Our friend dropped the firecracker. It exploded in an immense cloud of blue smoke and tiny bits of white paper, in the midst of which we emerged from the closet, shaken and a bit deaf.
You cannot imagine how loud a firecracker sounds in an old public school building with high ceilings, marble floors, and plaster walls.
Nor can you imagine how quickly a principal can get out of his office, down the hall, and into one of the classrooms. The principal was in our classroom before my friends and I had
staggered through the cloakroom’s open door. He was as stunned as we were, though for a different reason. I recall him saying over and over, after we had been sent home and had come back to his office with our parents, “I had just made the announcement. I had just told them not to bring any firecrackers into school. I just can’t believe it.” But I am sure that our rebellion, as well as other acts of rebellion by children over the years, eventually turned him into a staunch, Bible-believing Calvinist — as least so far as the doctrine of total depravity of children is concerned.
Eve does not seem to have been quite so rebellious. But she sinned, too, because the devil deceived her. We know how he approached her. He began with a question that cast doubt on God’s goodness. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). I suppose the emphasis was upon the word really, spoken in a somewhat incredulous tone of voice. “Really?” Satan was saying. “I find it hard to believe a command like that. It’s so unreasonable. Could God possibly mean that?”
By the time Eve had straightened the devil out, explaining that God had not forbidden them to eat of every tree in the Garden but only that one tree in the middle of the Garden, the damage was already done, and she had begun to wonder if God was really a benevolent God after all.
Satan’s next thrust was to cast doubt on God’s word. God had said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Now Satan said, “You will not surely die” (v. 4).
Here was a problem! God had said, “You will die.” The devil said, “You will not die.” Whom was the woman to believe? We know what she did. Instead of believing and obeying God implicitly, which she should have done, she decided to submit the matter to her own judgment and so examined the tree, finding it to be “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable
for gaining wisdom” (v.6). That is, she submitted it to a pragmatic test (did it have nutritional value?), an aesthetic test (how would it look on the table?), and an intellectual test (would she learn anything by eating it?) When the fruit of the tree passed those tests, she decided that the devil was right after all and so took some, ate it, and gave it to her husband, who ate also.
And yet, maybe Adam was himself also moved by something Satan said, if Eve reported it to him. Satan had said, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v.5). Perhaps that is what Adam wanted to be, like God. Never mind that he had been created in the image of God already! As long as he was unable to do exactly what he wanted to, without any limitations whatever, he thought that he was not really like God. And as long as he was not really like God, the only way he could assert himself as God was by resisting the only command God had given and so eating from the forbidden tree.
Over the centuries the devil has undoubtedly gotten a great deal more sophisticated in his temptations. But these initial three temptations worked so well that he repeats them again and again. We hear them constantly.
Temptation number one:
“God is not good. If he were good, he would not tell me not to do something I want to do. I will never be happy unless I get to do it. God must not want me to be happy.”
Temptation number two:
“God lies. God may have given us the Bible, but the Bible does not say the same thing as today’s psychiatrists, scientists, authors, artists, and politicians. It is contradicted by today’s newspapers, books, movies, and television shows. The Bible must be wrong.”
Temptation number three:
“I cannot be fulfilled unless I am free to do anything I take it into my mind to do, regardless of what it may do to other people. I want what I want when I want it. I want to be God.”
As soon as we analyze these temptations and the consequent fall of Adam and Eve into sin, we see that this account in Genesis is not merely a record of something that happened long ago, though it did happen. It is also an accurate description of our condition now. Those temptations are precisely our temptations, and their disobedience and fall is a true picture of the state of all human beings in their rebellion against God.
A Time for Judgment
Whether we like it or not, it is still God’s universe. And since God is a just and moral God, it is always the case that sin must be judged. In this case, God came to Adam and Eve at once, demanding to know what they had done. They tried to make excuses, of course, just as we do. God asked Adam where he was, and Adam, who had tried to hide when he heard God coming, explained that he hid because he was naked. God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (v.11)
Adam could hardly deny the fact. He had eaten from the tree that was in the middle of the Garden. But he pled extenuating circumstances. It was not his fault, he said. He had been misled by the woman. “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (v.12). Of course, hidden in Adam’s excuse was the not-too-subtle implication that in the final analysis the fault must be God’s, because he would not have sinned if God had only given him a better woman.
Next God confronted Eve, “What is this you have done?”
Adam had already blamed her, and she could hardly blame him. But Eve could blame the devil, which is what she did. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (v. 13). On the surface this seems to have been a better excuse than Adam’s. The devil had deceived her. That was better than blaming God. But, of course, it comes to the same thing in the end. For who was responsible for Satan anyway, if not God? Who was it who let him into the Garden?
One of the saddest things about sin is that sinners almost never admit their responsibility for it. Instead, they blame something or someone else.
“I got my bad temper from my father. I can’t do anything about it.”
“Everyone else is doing it.”
“You wouldn’t blame me if you saw the neighborhood where I grew up.”
Behind all of these excuses is the suggestion that in the final analysis it is God and not ourselves who is responsible for this present evil world. God doesn’t take the blame, however. He places it where it belongs. And he judges it, too, as he did in the case of our first parents. In this case he began with the serpent:
Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:14-15)
God judged the woman, saying,
I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your
desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (v.16)
To Adam God said,
Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat of it,” Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. (vv. 17-19)
In these three judgments, God decreed suffering for the man and woman, as well as their offspring, and foretold an eventual physical death for them and their posterity.
Grace When Least Expected
I suppose that at this point you may be wondering what happened to grace, the theme with which we started, since thus far the story seems to be one only of sin and tragedy. True, but it is against the dark background of sin that grace emerges. Grace means God’s favor to the undeserving. So it is only in the context of sin that grace can be appreciated.
Where is God’s grace here? It is in three things.
1. Adam and Eve did not die, at least not immediately.
Some writers have pointed out that Adam and Eve did die spiritually, which they showed by trying to hide from God when he came to them in the Garden following their disobedience and fall. That is true. But physical death was also punishment for sin,
and God had said, “When you eat of it you will surely die.” The New King James Version says, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Adam and Eve must have expected a swift execution of that sentence. Yet after the judgments had been pronounced and God had left them, they were still standing there in the Garden. Fallen, but alive! In other words, they now had time to repent of their sin and believe God about the Savior who would come, just as earlier they had doubted God’s word and disobeyed him.
In the next chapter common grace will be discussed. Common grace is the grace God shows to all people whether or not they come to personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. But already we have an example of common grace in the way God gave Adam and Eve time to repent and believe him.
It is the same today. If you are not a believer in Christ and are nevertheless alive, that alone is an example of the common grace of God. If you are not in hell, where your sins will eventually take you if you do not repent, it is because God is gracious. One day you will die and be judged, but today is still a day of spiritual opportunity.
2. God promised a Redeemer who would undo the devil’s work.
The second great demonstration of the grace of God in the account of Adam and Eve’s fall is the promise of a Redeemer found in verse 15. Theologians call this the protoevangelium, the first announcement of the gospel in the Bible. At this point Adam and Eve could not have known very much about what God was promising. They did not know when the Redeemer would come. They probably thought their firstborn son was the Redeemer, because they named him Cain, which means “acquired” or “here he is.” To their dismay Cain turned out to be the world’s first murderer. Adam and Eve did not know the name of the Savior either. That name was not revealed until thousands of years had gone by, when the angel of God told a man named Joseph and a woman named Mary, “You
are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21; cf. Luke 1:31). Still, Adam and Eve knew enough to believe that God would send a Savior and that their only hope of salvation was in him.
That is why Adam named his wife Eve (Genesis 3:20). Eve means “life” or “life giver,” and Adam named her Eve because of the promise of God to send a life-giving Savior through her. It was Adam’s way of saying that, although he had disbelieved and disobeyed God earlier, he wanted to believe him now. He was willing to stake his spiritual destiny on this first, unembellished promise of a Savior.
3. God saved our first parents.
That is, God justified them on the basis of what Jesus was to do (they looked forward to it), just as God justifies us through faith in what Jesus has done (we look back).
Adam and Eve could not absorb all the details of that atonement, which was yet to come. So God taught them by means of a dramatic illustration. At the end of the story, in verse 21, we are told that after Adam and Eve had believed God, which Adam showed by naming his wife Eve, “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” In order to make clothes of skin, God had to kill animals. It was the first death Adam and Eve had witnessed, as far as we know. It must have seemed horrible to them and have made an indelible impression. “So this is what death is; this is what sin causes,” they must have exclaimed.
But even more important, the death of the animals must have taught them the principle of substitution, the innocent dying for the guilty, just as the innocent Son of God would one day die for the sins of those God was giving to him. When God clothed our first parents in the animal’s skins, Adam and Eve must have had at least a first faint glimmer of the doctrine of imputed righteousness. Later in the Bible we read of our being clothed in Christ’s righteousness
(cf. Gal. 3:27), and Jesus himself suggested the idea when he referred to the wedding garments worn by those invited to the great marriage supper of the Lamb (cf. Matthew 22:11-12). God saved Adam and Eve from their sins by clothing them in the heavenly righteousness of Jesus Christ, which he symbolized by their being clothed with skins of animals.
Surprising? It must have been mind-boggling to Eve and Adam. The grace of God is always mind-boggling to those who experience it.
Adam and Eve expected to die. Instead they found life.
They must have expected an immediate execution of God’s sentence without appeal and without any hope of God’s mercy. Instead, they received a promise of a Savior to come and were brought from a state of condemnation to a state of justification by believing in him.
Amazed by Grace
It has always been like this.
Do you remember Thomas? He was the doubting disciple, the one who said that he would not believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he should see the wounds in Christ’s hands and be able to thrust his hand into the wound in Christ’s side. Why should Thomas have been saved? After all, his cynical words expressed utter disbelief, not faith. Yet even Thomas was surprised by grace when Jesus, instead of condemning him or abandoning him, appeared to him and invited him to perform his empirical test. Instead of doing it, instead of putting his finger or hand in Christ’s wounds, Thomas was overwhelmed by grace and fell at Jesus’ feet, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
And how about Peter? Peter had boasted of being able to stand by Jesus even unto death. How little he knew himself! That
very night he denied the Lord three times. But although he was rightly ashamed of what he had done and wept bitterly afterwards, Jesus did not cast him off. Instead Jesus came to Peter to recommission him to service.
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” said Peter.
“Take care of my sheep,” said Jesus. Jesus repeated the question and charge three times, corresponding to Peter’s three denials (John 21:15-17). Amazing! It was not only grace in salvation that was shown to Peter. It was grace commissioning him to useful service.
And Paul, the first great persecutor of the church? He took his hatred of Christians to the point of securing the condemnation and death of Stephen, the first martyr. And when he had accomplished that, he left for Damascus with the thought of arresting and likewise punishing the believers there. If ever anyone deserved a swift retaliatory judgment, it was Paul. Yet Paul, too, was surprised by grace, as Jesus stopped him on his fiercely bigoted path, calling, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). And when Paul responded in faith, recognizing that the one he was persecuting was Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus commissioned him to be the first great missionary to the Gentiles. “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”(Acts 26:17-18).
Surprised by grace? Yes! That is exactly it. “Surprised by grace” is the story of all who have found salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.