In February 2016, Baptist leadership teams gathered to consider how we approach the priority of mission within New Zealand. Five priorities emerged, centred on the theme of grace, and Baptist churches are being encouraged to explore these this year. Here, Craig Vernall reflects upon one of these priorities—what does it mean to discern grace?
It is my privilege today to talk about discerning grace. Now, discernment is an act of the Spirit. It is to be in tune with what the living God is talking to us about, and to hear his voice. It’s the very essence, I believe, of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I want to share some of the significant times in my life that have taught me about grace. These are times that have caused me, and my church, to go in certain directions, and they have given us confidence that we are hearing the voice of God. Now, sometimes these journeys can seem like two steps forward and one step backwards—just enough to keep us humble I guess—but I hope that some of this learning can help you.
These following words from Romans have been tremendously formative in my life, and I want to take us through them because they will give you an understanding of what has driven me over the years.
An analogy from marriage
“Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime? Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress” (Romans 7:1-3).
At first glance, this passage appears to be a discussion about marriage. But it’s not about marriage: it’s an analogy that describes us as married people—married to a husband called the Old Testament law. When we are married to this law, we cannot separate ourselves from the marriage and make a new covenant, because by doing so we would be committing adultery. But the trouble with this husband, the law, is that it is very demanding and very controlling. It never speaks until we do something wrong, it intimidates us and hovers over us, and it always corrects us but never encourages us. We have no freedom to defend ourselves; if we violate the law, then we are lawbreakers and the law will condemn us. And the worst thing about this husband, the law, is that it never dies. It is alive and active today. Subsequently, there is only one way out of this marriage. Romans goes on to explain:
“In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:4-6).
What Paul is saying here is that the only way we can escape this marriage to the Old Testament law is by dying. Then comes the good news: Jesus Christ came to this world and lived a perfect life—perfectly perfect—and that perfect life has been credited to us. It’s as if Jesus went into our exam, took our exam, and we got 100%. That’s good news. But there’s even better news: not only has the life of Christ been credited to us, but the death of Christ has been credited to us as well. And when the death of Christ has been credited to us, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives within us. And it is on that basis that we can depart from our old husband, the law. Why? Because we have died: we have died in Christ and therefore we are free to marry another. And who is our new husband? It is the husband of grace—the person of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
That is the gospel—that’s why it is called good news: we are no longer married to that which intimidates us, frightens us, holds us in abeyance, and only speaks when we do something wrong. We are instead married to a new husband, called grace, who encourages and strengthens us, and whose Spirit is sent to empower us. That’s amazing news. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:19-21). Grace wins us by dying for our sin. Grace saves us for eternity. But moreover, grace empowers us (like a loving husband would) for the present and the future. That’s amazing news.
This revelation set my life on fire. It set me in a direction that allowed me to see that relationship with Christ is a covenant relationship, of course, but it is also a relationship of mutual love and of empowerment. This understanding of grace is present and active in my life, and in the lives of those I have the opportunity to lead. This is the privilege of grace.
Nothing except Jesus Christ
I love this line from the Apostle Paul: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Why? Because that’s all he needed to say! When Paul went to the different towns and villages, he sat down and said to the people there: “Let me tell you about the man Jesus Christ. Let me tell you about my new husband, because I have died to the old law. Let me tell you about Jesus and the goodness he brings. Let me tell you about the miracles he did. Let me tell you about the covenant he’s made.”
You can imagine the people saying to him, “Paul, could you talk about end times?”
And his reply: “No, no, no—I’m going to talk to you about Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Perhaps you can hear the question, “Paul, do you know about this sort of worship and how we should do it?”
And again: “No…I only know about Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
“Paul, can you speak about anything else?!”
“There’s only one thing that I want to tell you about—Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is all that you need. This is the new covenant. He is our new husband, and I would suggest that you walk down the aisle and meet him.” Paul only had one message because it was good news; powerful news; life-changing news. This is the grace of God.
Transformed to see reform
As messengers of this grace, we will see God working through our words and actions. Over time, we will encounter the miraculous and the impossible being done in and through our everyday Christian lives. It’s the day-by-day transaction of grace that gives us confidence that we’re being led by God.
Such reformation is created by the transformational presence of God in our lives. This is what we mean when we talk about discerning grace. We’re not talking about a theological disposition; we’re talking about grace that is tangible and transformational.
So our churches must be transformational communities. What do I mean by this? We need to provide space for the Spirit within us to glorify the Son, who will bring glory to the Father. As we do this, the Spirit will be powerful and present. Our churches must be places where our first priority is to worship the Lord, and where we draw people into the presence of God. I often encourage our folks at church to come and have prayer. You won’t get that offer anywhere else—you can’t say, “Can I have a burger, fries, and prayer please?” We must be different from what is out in the world and we need to be places where transformation can happen.
Reformation is created by ministering where the life is
We also need to be discerning what God is doing, and what he wants to do in our lives.
When I graduated from Carey Baptist College, my heart was filled with faith and hope...lots of hope...and more hope. I graduated in the year that the ‘Toronto Blessing’ became a phenomenon around a lot of the church world, but despite being filled with faith and hope, I have to admit that I just didn’t know what to do with it.
We had a weekend of prayer and ministry, but in the week afterwards I was really seeking God and asking, “Lord, what do we do with this phenomenon?”
I sensed him reply, “Craig, if you can trust me I’ll give you a Bethlehem blessing.”
In return I asked, “Lord, what does that look like?”
His response was, “Just one day at a time.”
What I’m saying here is that we don’t need to look for second-hand anointings or blessings. My God, your God, is big enough and powerful enough to meet us where we are at. I want to encourage you that there can be a Pakuranga blessing, a Kaiapoi blessing, a St Albans blessing, an Otumoetai blessing, and a Whakatane blessing. We can’t compromise who we are at the altar of expediency by trying to pick up where somebody else has left off.
Perhaps it’s like this story. Years ago, we got a new camera. One night, there was a big lightning storm and so I decided to capture some pictures. Every time the lightning illuminated the sky, I went ‘click.’ But when I took my film into the developer, what did I get back? Photo after photo of black skies. You see, the lightning had occurred, and as it was riveted in my eyes, I had taken a picture. But I had taken a picture after it had passed. It seems at times that God does something amazing somewhere else—like a lightning bolt—and it is a blessing, it brings power, and it brings light. But it can’t necessarily be captured.
I want to ask you to have the courage to ask for a blessing from God wherever you are at. God is big enough. He doesn’t have favourites. We are all his children. Ask him: “Lord, what is going on in this church that needs to be blessed by you?”
We Baptists are a reformation people. After nearly one hundred years of following Luther’s extravaganza of revelation, a conversation began and the Baptist church family was born. We are a reformation people. But in talking about reformation, and all that it can bring, we must start with Christ and let his Spirit lead us.
This, for me, is an exciting time to be living. I think we are in a time of reformation. So let us allow the grace of God in us to inspire us to good works, and may we be each other’s cheerleaders.
Discerning what we can’t understand
When I first arrived at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Neale was a one‑man cheerleading team. Whatever I did, Neale cheered me on. He’s one of those guys that every pastor needs when they’ve had a bad day!
Neale drove a Kenworth, and one day something catastrophic happened. The truck jackknifed and Neale went flying through the windscreen, sustaining a serious brain injury. After weeks in hospital, Neale was sent home but he had amnesia, was reliant on his wife, Lin, for personal care, and days were spent staring vacantly into space.
We had an intern, David, in our church at this time, and he went to see Neale. Lin told David that Neale had woken up in the middle of the night repeating a phrase: “Two men, and a third man in the middle who is really bright.” Now, David was discerning. He called me and said, “I wonder if Neale’s dream could be you, me, and Jesus. Should we go and pray for him?”
“Well,” I thought. “You’re the intern…full of faith!” And so we went around and prayed for Neale. Within thirty seconds, Neale began to shake….like vibrate…like something supernatural was going on. David and I wondered if this was good or bad, but we just kept praying. We prayed whatever came into our mouth; the sort of stuff that you can’t remember afterwards. After about ten minutes, the shaking subsided.
Then Neale opened his eyes. He looked at David, and looked at me, and he said, “David. Craig. What are you doing here?”
“We’ve been praying for you,” we replied.
“You had a bad truck accident, and you’ve been really hurt,” we explained.
Neale, unsurprisingly, was a bit disorientated. We tried to fill in some of the details and we grabbed a magazine from the coffee table to show him how long he’d been unwell for. “It’s February. You had the truck accident in November.”
“Really?!” He paused. “I missed Christmas!”
Slightly disorientated ourselves, we responded, “Yes... you did... but Neale—this is a miracle!”
“Is it?!” Neale paused again. “But I missed Christmas!”
Well, we were bawling our eyes out and Neale was wondering what was going on! “What’s wrong?!” he asked. We kept trying to explain what had happened. With that, Lin went to get Neale a glass of water. She walked up to him and put it to his lips—as she had been doing for months. And Neale just looked at her and asked, “What are you doing?!” He took the water off her and drank it himself. Then his daughter came home from school and went racing past us into the kitchen saying, “I’m in a hurry! We have to get Dad to physio!” Well, Neale stood up... walked into the kitchen...and gave his daughter a hug. All we heard was the scream from his daughter. She could not believe what she had seen!”
You know, It’s moments like these that give me strength—because I’ve been there when other folk have passed away despite my prayers. If I knew what I did right in this instance, I would can it and sell it! But you can’t can the grace of God.
Grace is beyond our understanding, and even in the midst of our discernment, we don’t get to know what God is doing all of the time.
Story: Craig Vernall
Craig is the National Leader of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand.
This article is adapted from a talk given by Craig at the Baptist Hui 2016. You can view a video of the whole talk at lifelonglearning.nz/grace-discerned, which contains more stories about God’s grace.
We acknowledge the work of Ken Blue. His exploration and communication of grace first impacted Craig twenty-five years ago, and has continued to influence his life since.
- Where have you discerned God’s grace in your life?
- How does your church practice glorifying God? Have you seen this bring transformation?
- How can you encourage your church, and those in other churches, to continue discerning the grace of God?
Photo credit: Tom Keenan/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.