The Necessity of Grace

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:19–31).

Wealth is not a sin nor is poverty righteous, yet in Jesus’ parable they depict the spiritual condition of two men. If there are exceptions to these characterizations, why would Jesus use riches and poverty to convey spiritual truth in this parable? The rich man is clothed in the finest clothing. The basic need is not only met but exceeded, even to extravagance. The basic need of food too is met and exceeded. He does not merely eat fuel for the fire; he feasts sumptuously. In the enjoyed leisure of his fine apparel and cuisine, the rich man is gated away from the less fortunate, a fixed chasm of luxury. In a word, the rich man is self-sufficient and self-serving in this life without regard to the gracious Giver of life. He is the perfect picture of the unconverted heart, isn’t he? Not poor but rich in spirit, needing nothing.

Outside the rich man’s gate lies Lazarus (the only named character in all of Jesus’ parables). Rather than robes of refinement, his body is covered with sores. The squalor of his condition is evident from head to toe. His diet trickles down from the rich man’s table, scraps for the scavenger. He is not protected by a gate but at the mercy of the urchins of the streets. Depicting the converted heart, the poor in spirit is utterly dependent upon grace, flowing from the Giver of all good things. Indeed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3); only the spiritually bankrupt need and are given the riches of Christ. This parable reveals to us the necessity of grace, a topic many of us believe we understand by now, but so often we forget.

The story is told by one of the study assistants of John Stott, the great Anglican theologian, about his afternoon coffee. He recounts, “Every afternoon at 4:30 p.m. I bring Uncle John a cup of coffee.  As soon as I set the cup on his desk, he almost always says, somewhat playfully, ‘I’m not worthy,’ usually without moving his bowed head from his papers. One afternoon last week I felt that it was particularly silly for him to equate worthiness with a cup of coffee. When he said, ‘I’m not worthy,’ I responded, ‘Sure you are.’ After a few moments he said, ‘You haven’t got your theology of grace right.’ I said back, ‘It’s only a cup of coffee, Uncle John.’ As I went into his kitchen and began putting things away, I heard him mutter, still with his head bowed to his papers, ‘It’s just the thin end of the wedge.’” What Stott saw in a cup of coffee we can so easily miss in the wide-end-of-the-wedge eternal matters, crowded out by the cares and concerns of this life. We, like Stott’s study assistant, need to get our theology of grace right.

When we begin Jesus’ parable, we are drawn to the pleasures of the rich man, and we pity the poor. If the parable stopped in this life, we would want to be the rich man, wearing his clothes, dining at his table, protected behind his gate. Our pity for the poor man does not extend to a desire to be like him. We do not want to eat his food. We do not want his sores. We are reviled by the licking dogs. But our perspective changes when we see the eternal destiny of each man.

The rich man in this life has no need of grace, concerning himself only with self-satisfaction. Gated behind worldly pleasures, his heart has no concern for eternity. And why should he, with all of the entrapments of this life? In contrast the poor man depicts the converted heart, dependent upon the provision of grace even for a crust of bread. Suffering the sickness of this present darkness, every time a dog licks his crusted sores in this life, he longs for the next. As only a parable of Jesus can do, we see the stark contrast of the abundant worldliness of the unconverted heart and the spiritual poverty of the recipient of grace. How often we confuse the two in this earthly kingdom.

When Jesus told this parable, wealth was considered a depiction of God’s favor. A wealthy son of Israel in hell contradicted their pre-conceived notion of God’s favor. Nothing has changed. We still confuse life in the earthly kingdom with the heavenly, if not more so. We need to get our theology of grace right, and let’s begin with what the rich man learned the millisecond after his death: The reality of eternity.

The Reality of Eternity

After death, the rich man is no longer adorned in his purple robe, dining on his sumptuous cuisine, secured within his gated community. He is burning in hell. In his unceasing suffering, perhaps as a greater torment, he sees the Patriarch Abraham, who too was rich in this life but poor in spirit. In the paradise of heaven, next to Abraham stands Lazarus, the poor man. So high is the heat and great the suffering of Hades, the rich man seeks relief requesting in his arrogance to be served by the humble: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.”

While there are no atheists in hell, there appears to be no repentance, only a pleading for relief. While the residents of hell do not doubt its reality, there is the memory of life before suffering. The rich man is given no encouraging word but is directed to his remembrance. Heaven for the rich man was the pleasures of this world, while Lazarus’ poverty produced a need for grace. The circumstances of this life do indeed play a powerful role in our spiritual perception. Jesus said, “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23). Why? The cares and concerns of this life can cause us to forget the reality of eternity. But at that moment, the joy of heaven for Lazarus was as real as the anguish of hell was for the rich man. It was real, and it was final.

There are no do-overs in eternity. Purgatory is a dangerous myth crushed under the weight of Abraham’s words: “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” The chasm between heaven and hell may not be traversed after death and is as wide as the span between believing and not believing in the atoning provision of the Son of God. The rich man had not trusted the promise God made to Abraham but had rested in the fleeting pleasures of his worldly wealth, perhaps trusting in his covenantal heritage rather than the promise given. Too late for repentance, he now pities the unbelieving yet to descend into torment. Without a drop of water to wet his parched tongue, the man who once fed his scraps to a beggar pleads, “I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” He pleads for the sake of his family that they may not know the suffering of hell, as certain as the Scripture that tells of it.

The Certainty of Scripture

Pleas from hell fall on deaf ears in heaven, but the Word of God has been sent to earth. Indeed, God had given His promise by His Word to Father Abraham, and he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). So gracious is the Word of God, Abraham explains that the rich man’s brothers have “Moses and the Prophets,” meaning the Bible, the inscripturated Word of God. Consider the spiritual magnitude of this truth and the condemnation of its neglect. God has chosen to reveal Himself in writing, in a book, accessible by the rich man’s brothers, and you and me. Carried along by the Holy Spirit, Moses and the other prophets wrote the Scriptures that we may know God, know about Him, and know our duty to Him.

From a worldly perspective, we look on the opulence of the rich man, but looking backward we see that the real wealth is found in the Word of God. Let us not be guilty of the same. As certain as the torments of hell, is the certainty of Scripture. As certain as the joys of heaven, is the certainty of Scripture. But, the rich man’s disregard for Scripture has followed him to hell: “No, father Abraham,” he argues, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (If the back-from-the-dead-beggar shows up at my brother’s house, then, and only then, he will believe.

Do you hear the echoes of this argument today? Experience trumps the written Word. The subjective extraordinary experience supersedes the ordinary means of grace. What you believe or do not believe about God is dependent upon your own subjective experience. The rich man then and the unbelieving today argue: If you want people to believe the things of God, they need more than the Word of God; they need the sensational: send back someone from the dead. But this is a foolish argument from hell. Knowing the certainty of Scripture, Abraham explains, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Even if one dies, is buried, and is resurrected from the dead, they will not believe.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin and under the law, lived a perfectly obedient life, died an agonizing death upon a Roman cross, as the sacrificial lamb of His people and bearing upon Himself the wrath of God. He died a real death and was buried in a real tomb, and on the third day He really arose from the dead. It is on this Easter Sunday, and every Lord’s Day, that we celebrate His resurrection. Foretold by Moses and the Prophets and confirmed by the Gospels.

According to the rich man’s argument, the resurrection of Jesus should have been the convincing blow to any and all unbelievers, forever. Send back someone from the dead and everyone will believe. Yet, the Son of God arose from the dead and still there were those who did not believe. Why? Today after the convincing resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we have Moses and the Prophets; we have the eyewitness accounts of the Evangelists; we have a complete canon of Scripture delivered to us by the prophets and apostles; and yet, there are still those who do not believe. Why is this? Moses and the Prophets may be read, the Son of God may be resurrected, the apostles may have contended for the faith, but apart from God’s grace no one would believe. No one is argued into the kingdom of heaven, but God works through His Word by the power of His Spirit according to His grace to lead us to repentance and faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, as Savior.

The Necessity of Grace

The reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity. As the Apostle Paul soberly explained, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). Yet, it is not the resurrection that produces faith. It is the grace of God. As Paul had received, he preached, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” yet he confessed, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and this grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 10).

Perhaps you are here today and by God’s grace you have been awakened to the reality of eternity, prior to death. Perhaps you have heard the Scripture, as if for the first time. By His grace, God has revealed to you the good news that Christ died for your sin and was raised from the dead on that first Easter morn. You need not wait for the rich man’s wish of Lazarus resurrected and warning, for Jesus Christ has risen from the dead conquering both sin and death according to Scripture.

Looking back from hell is too late! Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, for “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). By God’s grace through faith in Christ, you will rest with Abraham, and all the saints who have gone before us, separated by a great and unpassable chasm from the torments of hell. Such is the grace of God, which leads new and old believers alike to praise God for what He has done for us in Christ.

As John Stott taught his study assistant, when we get our theology of grace right, then we see the necessity of grace in all things, which leads us to worship, whether it be the thin end of a cup of coffee or the wide end of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Uncle John was right: We are not worthy, but Jesus is. And in His life, death, and resurrection we trust. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

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