Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. HEBREWS 4:16
George Gallup, the founder and director of the Gallup poll organization, has made some interesting studies about the religious life of Americans. His surveys of American religious life are insightful. Recently I came across some remarks he made about prayer. He observed that a great many Americans do pray and even believe in the power of prayer but that there is also evidence that our prayers are extremely superficial. That is, for the most part the prayers of Americans only request things for themselves and contain very little intercession for others, thanksgiving, or requests for forgiveness.
The verse mentioned above is a great verse about prayer, but it is also about grace. In its twenty-seven words, the word grace occurs twice. It teaches that God is a God of grace and that we may find grace to help us in every area of need if we will ask God for it.
Prayer Is a Problem
But prayer is a problem, isn’t it? When a person becomes a Christian, prayer is one of the things he or she is told about and encouraged to make a part of his or her life, along with regular church attendance and worship, Bible study, fellowship with other Christians, witnessing, and various forms of Christian service. But of all these important things, prayer is actually the hardest to do. We do not have much difficulty coming to church. That involves only a minor reordering of our weekends and a small amount of personal discipline. Bible study is a bit harder; we have to learn how to do it, and we need the will to persevere. Fellowship is natural. Witnessing is natural at first, though often awkward. Service comes naturally. But prayer is in a category by itself. It is neither easy nor natural. Prayer really is a problem.
Why is this? There are a lot of reasons.
1. Many who pray are not Christians.
I began this study by speaking of those who are Christians and of the difficulty they have in praying. But the greatest problem by far is that many try to pray who are not even Christians and that for them prayer is not merely difficult, it is impossible. One writer whose book on prayer I have in my study began it by emphasizing for most of the first chapter that prayer is a natural and universal instinct, particularly when we find ourselves in some difficult spot or danger. I suppose that is true. A drowning man does not need to be told to cry for help. But the cry of the unsaved person is far removed from what true prayer really is and therefore is not really prayer.
Prayer is talking to God. But the unsaved person does not talk to God. He or she does not know God. God is a stranger. Therefore, the person “says a prayer” — haven’t you heard that expression? — or only meditates, rather than actually praying.
2. Many of us are too busy.
Another problem we have with prayer is that we are too busy, particularly in our fast-paced society. We use this as an excuse, of course. As an excuse it is invalid. Someone has said, “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy.” That is right. At the height of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther remarked that he had so much to do in a day that he couldn’t get through it unless he spent three or four hours each morning praying. He had the right perspective and had ordered his priorities well. But that is not what I am talking about. I mean only that we live in a fast-paced age and that the pressures of life keep us from thinking about anything very deeply and certainly leave us very little time for any significant spiritual activity.
3. We are too sinful.
This strikes a bit deeper at our problem, though we do not like to admit it. We do not have trouble admitting that we are too busy. On the contrary, we are rather proud of that. We like to be busy. But to admit that we are too sinful and that unconfessed or unrelinquished sin is keeping us from prayer is terrible. Yet that is often the real problem. It was with Israel in the days of Isaiah. God had Isaiah write, “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
That is why real prayer must always include confession. Do you remember the little prayer acrostic using the word ACTS? A stands for “adoration.” We begin by reminding ourselves of who God is and praising him. C. stands for “confession.” One thing God is, is holy. So if we have really stopped to think of who he is and what he is like, we will become conscious of our
sin and confess it. After this we have T, which stands for “thanksgiving,” and S. which stands for “supplication” or making requests. In true prayer, supplications come last. Yet this is the point at which most of our prayers begin as well as end.
One specific sin that keeps us from praying, and certainly also keeps us from receiving what we ask for, is an unforgiving spirit. That is why Jesus said, “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).
4. We do not really believe we need it.
When we speak of sin, we are getting close to our problem with prayer, but even so we have not quite hit the target directly, as least in my judgment. Our problem is sin, but above all it is a specific sin, which I would express as a proud self-confidence and self-sufficiency. In other words, it is pride. We do not pray because we do not believe we really need to pray. We think we can do very well by ourselves and in our own ability and strength.
How the devil must laugh at our self-confidence! I think he must look at Americans especially and say something like this: “You Americans are so religious. You have big churches and large budgets. You have so many great religious works. But do you think I care about your big churches and large budgets and many religious works? I have no fear of them at all, as long as you are not praying. In fact, I will even use them to keep you from praying. Ha! Ha! Ha! Build your great church plants. Raise your millions. Start your great evangelistic enterprises. Launch your social programs. They will accomplish no more of lasting spiritual value than the work of secular agencies, and in time I will control them, too, as long as you are not praying. Do you think I fear you? The only one I fear is God, and the only power I fear is his power, which is released through prayer.”
Encouragement to Prayer
It is hard to read Hebrews 4:16 against this background without realizing that it is meant to encourage us in prayer. The first way it encourages us is to teach that the throne to which we are invited to come is a throne of grace.
This is not what we first think about when we think about God’s throne. The first thing we think about, and rightly, is that it is a throne of terrible judgment. This is what the throne of God stands for in the book of Revelation. As early as the fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters, God is pictured as seated on his throne to execute judgments. These judgments issue from heaven in a series of broken seals, sounding trumpets, and destroying plagues. Then, in chapter 20 before the final vision of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven, and the new earth, comes the judgment pronounced from what is referred to as “a great white throne.”
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave us the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (Rev. 20:11-14)
This is a dreadful scene, one rightly to be feared. But when we come to Hebrews 4:16 we find that it is not a throne of judgment that is presented to us but a throne of grace.
Perhaps, if we know the Bible a bit better, we might think not of the throne of judgment presented in Revelation but the throne of God’s holiness described in the sixth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah had a vision of God “high and exalted.” The “train of his robe filled the temple,” and there were seraphs who called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3).
The sight of God’s throne left Isaiah so overcome by an awareness of his sin that he cried out in anguish, “Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (v. 5). He wanted to flee from God’s holy throne. To stand before it was a terrible experience for Isaiah. But our text is not speaking of a throne of holiness any more than it is speaking of a throne of judgment. It is speaking of a throne of grace.
The God of All Grace
Why is the throne of God described in Hebrews as a throne of grace? The answer is obvious. It is because God is a God of grace. Indeed, he is the God of all grace. It is only in God that true grace may be found.
1. God the Father.
Do you remember how Jesus spoke of God in the Sermon on the Mount? He described him as a Father who is anxious to hear and answer the prayers of his dear children.
Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:9-11)
Some time ago I came across a story told by a missionary who worked in New York City during the depression. It was Christmas Eve. It was snowing, and he was visiting some of the poorer families in the neighborhood. He came to one poor apartment, knocked at the door and, hearing no answer, gently pushed the door open and went in. A man was sitting at a broken-down table in the center of the room, crying. In the corner three little children lay sleeping on a straw mat. The man explained that he had lost his job several months earlier, that his wife had died the year before, and that the children had gone to sleep knowing that the next day was Christmas, expecting that Santa Claus would come to fill the stockings they had hung up earlier that evening with innocent expectations. The man was crying because he had absolutely no money and not a thing to give them.
Jesus was saying that if a good earthly father is like that, certainly God, who is a most gracious heavenly Father, will hear and answer the prayers of his dear children.
When I came across that story, my mind went back to an analogous story from my own childhood. It is one of my very best childhood memories. My father was released from military service in World War II in the third week of December 1945, and our family immediately started north from Barksdale Field, Louisiana, where we had been stationed, to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where we had relatives and hoped to stay while my father found a job at the local hospital. We were trying to make McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where we had relatives and hoped to stay while my father found a job at the local hospital. We were trying to make McKeesport by Christmas Eve, and my aunt and grandmother, who were expecting us, had everything ready for a very joyful Christmas.
We weren’t able to make it. On the way north through the mountains of West Virginia we ran into a terrible snowstorm. I remember how the car got stuck on a steep mountain grade
and how we almost slid over an embankment at one point. At last, late on Christmas Eve night, my parents realized that we would never get home and so checked us into one small room of a small hotel in a mountain village. I had two sisters then. So there were three children, and we were all very disappointed that we had not gotten through to McKeesport for Christmas. We were worried that Santa Claus would miss us, too, because he would not be able to find us. Nevertheless, we hopefully hung our stockings from the top drawer of an old wood dresser.
The next morning we were thrilled to find our stockings filled with Life Savers, chewing gum, and candy. My parents had very little money at that time, and they were surely exhausted from the rapid packing, hurried trip, and difficult snowstorm. But they didn’t want to disappoint us. I realized later that they must have gone out late that night, after we had gone to sleep, to get what they could to meet our childish expectations. That is a happy memory for me, as I said. But Jesus is saying that if earthly parents can be like that, sinful and imperfect as we all are, how much more gracious and able to meet our needs is God, our heavenly Father.
2. God the Son.
It is not only God the Father who is gracious, however. It is God the Son, too. Jesus is as much the God of grace as is his Father. This is the point the author of Hebrews is making in chapter 4. He has introduced Jesus as our great High Priest, a theme he is going to develop in a variety of ways throughout the book. But as he begins he emphasizes that he is a High Priest who has become a man like us and who is able to understand and sympathize with us in our problems. The verse immediately before our text on prayer says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (v. 15).
The New International Version is very good at this point, an improvement on the earlier versions. For the point is not that Jesus was tempted in every way we are, that is, that he endured all the varieties of all the temptations we experience. It is rather that he was tempted in all sorts of ways, just as we are tempted in all sorts of ways. In other words, he knows what temptation is like. Therefore, he understands us and sympathizes with us when we are tempted.
We are here reminded of Jesus’ temptation by Satan during the forty days he spent in the wilderness following his baptism by John. There were there temptations, and they were representative. The first was to use his divine power to turn stones into bread. It appealed to his senses. He was hungry. The second was to use worldly means to achieve success and gain power. It appealed to his intellect. The third was a spiritual trial, the devil promising to give him the kingdoms of the world and their glory if only he would fall down and worship Satan. We have equivalent temptations in the areas of our physical bodies, our minds, and our spiritual consciousness or desires.
Jesus also experienced earthly trials. For example, he was poor. He had no home. He was often hungry and thirsty. He was misunderstood, abused, and slandered. He was rejected by those close to him, even his immediate family. He was betrayed by one of his disciples and denied by Peter, one of his closest friends.
If that were not enough to prove the author of Hebrews’ claim that Jesus is able to sympathize with us, we need only remember that he was forsaken by his Father during the moments when he hung upon the cross and was made sin for us. This was such an acute agony for him that he cried out despairingly, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Remember that the next time you feel that God has
turned his back on you, that he is not listening to your prayers, that he has abandoned you. You are not really abandoned. God hears you even when you are certain he does not. But Jesus was forsaken, and because of it, he understands exactly what you are feeling. He is able to help you in your despair.
3. God the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is also gracious. That is one reason he is called the Counselor (John 14:16, 25; 15:26; 16:7). The Greek word is parakletos. It is a rich word rightly translated “helper,” “advocate,” “comforter,” and “counselor,” meaning that the Holy Spirit also strengthens us and pleads for us. But the Holy Spirit is certainly a comfort, too, as any believer who has gone through difficult times surely knows. We sing,
Come, dearest Lord, descend and dwell
By faith and love in every breast;
Then we shall know and taste and feel
The joys that cannot be expressed.
Our triune God is the God of all grace, and each member of the Godhead has a part in hearing and answering prayer. We customarily say that prayer is made to God and the Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.
A Way Opened to God
When we are talking about prayer and speak of God’s throne being a throne of grace and of the triune God being a God of grace, we have to go a bit further and add that it is also the grace of God in Jesus Christ that has made prayer possible. Or to put it another way, it is because of his great grace that God has opened the way to his throne by Jesus Christ.
A little later on in Hebrews, in chapter 9, the author spells out the meaning of Christ’s work by reference to the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant was the sole piece of furniture kept in the Most Holy Place of the Jewish temple. It was a box about a yard long and a foot and a half high and deep, and it was covered with gold. Its lid was pure gold, and it was used to hold the stone tablets of the law of Moses. On top of the lid were two golden figures of cherubim or angels. They faced each other, and God was understood to dwell symbolically in the space between their outstretched wings. In this picture, judgment is represented. For as God looks down on mankind from between the outstretched wings of the cherubim, what he sees is the law of Moses, which each of us has broken. In this form, the lid of the ark functioned as the judgment seat of God.
But the lid was not called the judgment seat. It was called the mercy seat. This is because once a year, on the Day of Atonement, after the high priest had sacrificed an animal for the sin of the people of Israel, the priest brought the blood of that slain animal into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled it on the mercy seat. Now the Ark was no longer a picture of judgment, the holiness of God pouring forth to consume the sinner. Instead it was a picture of grace. The throne of judgment became a throne of grace — because now the blood of the innocent sacrifice, slain for the sins of the people, has intervened.
This is a wonderful picture of what Jesus Christ has done. Only in this case, he is both the sacrifice and the High Priest. And his sacrifice of himself is not merely a symbol, meaningful but unable to take away sin. It is the true atoning sacrifice to which the symbolism pointed. It is he who has made the throne of judgment a throne of grace and by his death opened the way to God for all who will come through faith in that sacrifice.
The author of Hebrews says in reference to the Old Testament priests, “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to
offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27).
Again, “He [Christ] entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
And again, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (vv. 27-28).
Drawing Near in Confidence
The bottom line of this discussion is that, because of who God is and what Jesus Christ has done in dying for us, changing the throne of judgment into a throne of grace, we who trust Christ are to draw near the throne of grace in confidence. If we came in our own merit, we could have no confidence at all. The throne of God would be a place of terror. But since God has done what was needed to take away all judgment for our sin, it is now sin for us to come in any other way but with confidence. If we come in confidence, we can come knowing that God will do exactly what the author of Hebrews says he will do and we will indeed “find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Whatever our need may be! Do you seek forgiveness for sin? You will find God’s grace forgiving you for every sin. Do you need strength for daily living? You will find the grace of God providing strength. Do you need comfort because of some great loss? God will provide comfort. Direction for some important decision? You will receive direction. Encouragement? You will receive encouragement. Wisdom? That too.
Remember what Paul wrote in Romans 8. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but
gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (vv. 31-32). Charles Wesley must have been thinking of this when he wrote,
Arise, my soul, arise, shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears;
Before the throne my Surety stands;
My name is written on his hands.
Five bleeding wounds he bears, received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me;
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
My God is reconciled; his pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for his child, I can no longer fear;
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.
So pray! That is what we need to do. We do not need more lessons on prayer or elaborate instruction on how to pray. What we need to do is pray. So pray! The Bible says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
On one occasion Jesus told a story about prayer.
In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”
For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!” …
Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (Luke 18:2-8)
The point of the story is not that God is indifferent or hard of hearing or difficult to be entreated. It is just the opposite. God is not indifferent. He hears each and every one of our cries. He has opened the way and is easy to approach through Jesus Christ. He does not always answer as we expect or according to our timetables, of course. His ways are not our ways; nor are his thoughts our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:8). But he welcomes our prayers and delights to answer them.
So why do we not pray? Can it be that we do not really believe that God is like this? Or do we just not believe we need his help?
Our text says,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Abundant grace from the throne of grace. It is exactly what we need.