‘Grace’ is a beautiful word. Its Christian meaning is ‘the free and unearned favour of God’ (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Eleventh Edition). For most of my life I have tried to apprehend its meaning. It is one thing to understand it at an intellectual level but I had a need to spiritually understand grace so I engaged further in my search over a long period of time. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place. My answer was found in a movie theatre watching ‘The Passion Of The Christ’. This film had a profound effect upon me, hitting me at a spiritual level. It drove home the figure of Christ amidst people, all with their own multitude of responses to Him, with Jesus’ final mission majestically fulfilled in the midst of and despite these human responses. The figure of Christ, pitted against the devil, was a powerful component of the film. What I saw on the screen was a filmic version of the Stations of the Cross, a novel experience for a Protestant. The film produced in me a revitalised understanding of God’s grace at a spiritual level. The film’s harsh criticism from non-believers only served to strengthen my faith in God, knowing that a spiritual nerve had been touched by it.
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit, given to each believer, empowers and enables them to gradually conform to God’s will in their outlook and behaviour. No one claims that they are better than other people through the use of the term, ‘saint’. Rather, Christians do and can claim that they have been transformed or translated from the realm of darkness to the realm of God’s light through the grace of God (justification). Through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, unhindered by reluctance or cowardice in a believer, that Christian will continue to grow in conformity to God’s will for his or her behaviour patterns (sanctification). Grace takes its ultimate role of giftedness to us as God’s people through our ultimately complete release from (the second) death, sickness, sorrow, pain, sin and Satan. The ‘second death’ is mentioned in Revelation and refers to final death following judgement :
Revelation 21:8 (NKJV) 8 “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Let us look at a very significant thing that Jesus said of John the Baptist :
Matthew 11:11 (HCSB Free) 11 “ I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Luke 7:28 is almost identical to Matthew 11:11 except that he uses the term ‘kingdom of God’ rather than ‘kingdom of Heaven’. What does this mean? That we will be fully transformed upon entry to Heaven. Although we may have been Christians on earth, we are so through God’s forgiveness of our sins, and our imperfection continues until the day we die. So our salvation is based upon God’s mercy. Although we will never earn our way into Heaven because we are lifelong sinners and we can never attain perfection on earth, Jesus earned our entry into Heaven for us (the Christian doctrine of grace). But can we simply enter Heaven as we are when we die, fallen, though justified, as we are? The answer is ‘no’. John the Baptist, who at that point in time Jesus considered to have been the best person to walk on the face of the earth, is not as good a person as the very least in the Kingdom of Heaven. So even a wonderful prophet like John the Baptist, said by Jesus to be the best person ever, He also calls less than the “least in the kingdom of Heaven”. How can this be? The least in the kingdom of Heaven have been transformed by God upon death, the first death, that all humans have to encounter. We learn three things about Heaven by Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28; that Heaven contains a hierarchy, that imperfection in believers on earth will be transformed into perfection in them for Heaven, and that God has a moral compass and compares people on the basis of their actions and behaviour. Jesus, in the famous passage of Matthew 11:11, is comparing John to everyone, “among those born of women”, not just to prophets past, so here I go out on a limb, disagreeing with my betters (most biblical commentators). The KJV SB includes good commentary on this verse :
“Them that are born of women means mortal men, the idea being that the greatest of all in this life cannot be compared with the glory of the life to come.”
With grace, it is not as though God doesn’t care what we do or how we live just because He has forgiven us. He has forgiven us because 1. He is a merciful God and 2. He is a just God, having satisfied His requirement of sinless perfection through the atoning work of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for all of humanity. Coming back to us being perfected by God at our death, see what happens in our resurrected state from 1 Corinthians 15:42-49) (ESV) :
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
These verses show that we rise from the dead ‘bear(ing) the image of the man of heaven’ (vs 49). We are ‘raised imperishable’ (vs 42). Note that bearing the image of the man of heaven is a future event to our life on earth (verse 49). And so it was to be for John the Baptist. The Apostle Paul said that we will be changed at the return of Christ “in the twinkling of an eye” (1Corinthians 15:51-52). Although Paul was referring to the return to earth of Christ as Judge of the whole earth, I believe it must also apply to us upon our death. How could any of us, no matter how close or obedient to God, be perfect enough to spend eternity with Him? But God Himself will make us perfect, as alluded to in Jesus’ words about John the Baptist, which compare John’s state on earth with that of the “least” in Heaven, as explained earlier. From Mark 12:24-27 (NKJV) we read,
“Jesus answered and said to them, “Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ ? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken.””
This underlines that the redeemed will be transformed upon entering Heaven and are with God forever. The redeemed rise to a different state from that which they possessed on earth,
25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
This occurs through the power of God (Mark 12:24), as does our salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ killed on a cross 2000 years ago, to be our perfect sacrifice for sin, and finally and fully allowing us to be in God’s presence forever.