Two passages of the Word, firstly in the letter to the Romans,
chapter 11. Letter to the Romans, chapter 11 at verse 33: "Oh,
the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of
God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past tracing
out". The letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3, verse 8: "Unto me,
who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to
preach unto the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ".
Here is a man whom you know from the many things that he has
placed on record; a man who had many otherwise-inexplicable
experiences. His catalogue of sufferings and adversities of every
kind is written for us, largely in his second letter to the
Corinthians; half a chapter is taken up with the things which
befell him, and in other places too, he makes reference to his
sufferings in Christ. And if ever a man had a reason to ask why,
it was that man. "Why, Lord, are you letting me spend a night and
a day in the deep? Being again and again and yet again thrashed
with rods. Imprisoned, dealt with treacherously by mine own
brethren..." and so on and so on. "Why, Lord? I am devoted to
You. I have a heart for You. I am not seeking mine own ends, but
Yours! I am utterly committed to Your interests. There are many
who are not so committed, and they don't have to go the way that
I'm going. Why?" For such a man, with such a devotion,
such an abandon to the interests of his Lord, suffering more than
any other man, perhaps of the whole apostolic company. Not one of
us will measure up to this manís suffering, although we may
sometimes think that ours are just about the limit. But, very few,
and I imagine that very few in this little company this afternoon,
have not had times when they've asked the big "Why?" as to the
strangeness of the Lordís dealings and the Lordís ways with them.
Does it not strike you very forcibly, this? It's very significant that such a man, such a man cries for language to express what he has seen in the Lord Jesus and says: "Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable... and past finding out... To me, not the greatest of the apostles; to me, not the greatest saint; to me, not as one more than any other, but less than all; the least of all saints, to the least was this grace given, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ". The riches... a man who we know because for two thousand years the Church has been drawing upon the riches which he reached and received through trial and suffering, riches which are coming to us from that man, still, today, perhaps now... may it be so, today, for that reason. It may sound discouraging, but there is no other way.
Some time ago, on one of my visits to India, we came down in the flying boat on the Persian Gulf. And as I stood on the Gulf of Persia, the confluence of the Euphrates, I looked out and saw the pearl fishers way out there in the depths, spending their long, patient hours seeking goodly pearls; a lonely and perilous business. For there, as I saw, just leaping out of the water, sharks looking for prey. And then later that night, after dark, I went into the Persian market, the bazaar, through the narrow aisles between the stalls, and I saw displayed on those stalls the glorious pearls and other gems, almost priceless. There they were, been brought in from the depths, polished and displayed. And then, as I boarded the flying boat to go on to India, a pearl merchant came on with his cabinets of gems and pearls. These were bound in iron, with strong padlocks on them. And as that sheik sat in his seat, he kept his eye on those cabinets and would not take his eye off of them all the time, until we landed and he delivered them to the merchants in India. Values... precious things, from the depths. They were costly, because they had cost. They were valuable, because there was painful and lonely vigil behind their obtaining. Perils had been associated with securing them.
This is a parable, this is what Paul is really talking about - the
perils, the loneliness, the long drawn-out vigils, the sufferings
and the afflictions to obtain the riches, and that not for
himself, but for the Church. He said, "I fill up that which comes
short of the sufferings of Christ... for His bodyís sake, which is
the Church". I say, there is no other way for us to do more than
talk about and read about and use the language of the riches.
There is no other way for us to possess them than to go into the
depths and find them.
The unsearchable riches. Does that sound like a contradiction? You have them and they are unsearchable? You have them and yet they're too deep to lay hold of? It sounds like that, but Paul simply means all the meaning, all the value, all the wealth that is here, only a little of which we may know in this life, all that wealth is really beyond us, it's too great... past finding out. Well, that is where we begin with the riches, but we don't end there, for we are going to look, as the Lord will help us, at some of these riches, these unsearchable riches.
And if you at any time care to look into your New Testament with
that word in hand: "riches", you will see how it is connected with different things: the
riches of this and the riches of that, the riches of another
thing. The riches are of... well, "The riches of His
grace", "The riches of His Glory", "The riches of His Inheritance
in the saints", "The riches of full assurance of understanding",
and so on. These are many-sided riches. I don't know how far the
Lord will lead us, but we can begin where the riches do begin, and
where we have to begin: "the riches of His grace".
The Riches of His Grace
There is another word linked with that: "the riches of His grace and goodness." "Despisest thou" asked the apostle, "the riches of His grace and goodness?" That word itself will always be beyond us. We may as well settle it now and throw up our hands in utter despair right at the beginning. You and I are never going to fathom that depth, comprehend, that fullness, understand that grace. I don't hope for a moment to be able to plumb the depth of that word; here we can only just dip into these depths, "the riches of His grace and goodness".Now, we have a very hackneyed way of defining grace. It's been put into a phrase, and we throw it off, and we don't get very much further than that. Ask, "What is the meaning of grace?" the traditional answer is: "Grace is unmerited favour". Yes, it is, it is. Unmerited favour. That very definition does introduce us to the basic character of grace, but it's weak; it's a weak definition. Unmerited favour... yes, thank God for that, but what do you mean by that? That you have no merit, and God just comes to you because you have no merit; nothing to merit grace.
But I want to say to you, dear friends, that it's more than that, it's worse than that on one side, on our side. Grace does not only come to where there is no merit, grace comes where there is a great deal of demerit. Demerit! That's stronger than no merit. No merit may be negative, demerit is positive. Everything that is not only without merit, but of the nature and character - that is perfect demerit. You and I are not only without worthiness, you and I are worse than that. Everything, everything positive that we should not be!
If you turn again to the man who is speaking this way, not only
does he say, "To me, who am less than the least of all saints", he
says: "I am the chief of sinners", "of whom I am chief". That's
positive; not only less than the least, but positively, the chief
of sinners. "I persecuted the Church... I gave my consent to the
murder of His beloved servant Stephen". And he will tell you a
great deal more about his demerit, not only his lack of
merit. Everything that was there that was an offence to God, and
that stood, if it could stand, if anything could
stand in the way of grace, it was there. But, you see, grace just
means that demerit, not only no merit, but demerit does
not set grace aside. Grace is just grace, whatever the condition,
however great the demerit... that is grace. You and I as
Christians have got to learn that. Oh, this, as we shall see
perhaps as we go on, is something that the Christian has to reckon
with even more than the unsaved. I say that, and leave it for the
And if you and I are really moving with God, you and I are coming more and more to the place where we do say from the depth of our being, "But for the grace of God... for me, a Christian, after all these years, but for the grace of God I will not be saved, I will not get through." It takes, as I understand it and see it, a great deal more grace for me now as a Christian than it did to save me at the beginning.
Now, that may seem strange to say that, but I am returning to it again. For, are we not discovering what we didn't know even at the beginning, the presence of the demerit in ourselves? But that is just the character of grace, that is what grace means, you see. Grace has no meaning unless that is true. And then let us note this other thing about grace: Grace never recognises any debt. Grace is not a payment of any debt; grace is not in our debt at all. God is not dealing with us in grace because He owes us something. This is only another way of speaking about the absence of merit and the presence of demerit. No, no one has a claim upon the grace of God. This God is not our debtor; grace doesn't recognise any such thing as being in debt and having to pay its way with us. Grace (and here is our superficial language again) grace is free grace, free grace. It is not something with which God is trying to pay us back for something. It is all the other way around, isn't it? We are the debtors, God is the creditor, and grace is just grace. And there is nothing else to say about it; it is just His free, spontaneous movement without any obligation; without any obligation. That is the basic nature and character of grace.
When we realise that, when we realise that, the demerit about ourselves, and God is under no obligation to us, and then He just makes "grace abound where sin aboundeth, grace does so much more abound". Then we begin to understand what the depth of the riches may be. We are introduced into a realm that is beyond us, isn't it? It's beyond us. And any soul that has not come to the time and state of just wondering in amazement at Godís voluntary, spontaneous, free, unmerited favour... the soul who has not come there, has not begun to know the meaning of such words as "the riches of His grace". That can never be a wealthy soul.
So much for the present, at any rate, about the character of grace, but you know that grace is always set over against works. And although we are so familiar with this truth, let us just dwell upon it for a moment, upon works and grace. You see, this represents a change, a complete change and reversal of position; of position. Grace changes place with works, or changes the place of works. Grace does not obliterate works. Grace does not say there are never to be works. Grace will demand works and, if it is rightly appreciated, grace will get much more and much better works than any before. But grace does just change the place of works, you see? Works, the works of the Law... what were the works of the law, or are the works of the Law? They are the works in order to get merit, are they not? To get merit, that is the idea. To get merit, to obtain merit, to pay God back with your merit.So look at the Scribes and the Pharisees. Oh, how abhorrent, obnoxious, was their behaviour, their activities and pretences to the Lord Jesus Himself. Merit by works... giving God something for His enrichment. Yes, works of the Law to obtain merit with which merit to give as currency to pay God; putting God into our debt making Him our debtor?! And we are doing all these things, you see, to get ourselves out of discredit, discredit and give our credit to God. The works of the Law, in order to obtain that, to present to God our merit. Works, in that place; the merit. When grace comes in, you see, grace puts the works in another place altogether and takes them out of the first place and puts them into the last. And instead of Law being first, it's grace first; it's grace first. Instead of works for merit being first, it is just Godís own grace without any works whatsoever to obtain any satisfaction and pleasure of God.
And then what? All works haven't been ruled out of the universe. When grace has come in, you and I, if we have really grasped the meaning of grace will work more than anyone else has ever worked. But now they're the works of appreciation of grace, not to obtain it, not to merit it, but the works of thanks to God for His unspeakable gift of grace. It changes the place of things, puts things right around the other way. Someone has put this into a rather cryptic phrase: "Works do not justify, but the justified person works". Well, that is quite true. "I laboured," said the Apostle, "more abundantly than them all". And that was true, that was true, but was he seeking merit? Then he had no right to talk about grace, but he is the man who does talk about grace, and he "laboured more abundantly than them all" because of the overwhelming grace of God to him. The position was entirely reversed; not law and works to obtain favour, but works of love and devotion because of favour obtained. It's a complete reversal.
Now then, what about Godís work of grace? And we'll begin this
part and leave it for the time being.
God's Work of Grace
What was true in the first material, natural creation, is true spiritually in the new creation. And you know it so well, it only needs to be mentioned, and at once you will jump to it. There was chaos, there was darkness, there was the absence of God. God moved in, dispelled the darkness, turned the chaos into cosmos order and got to work: He got to work, step by step, and stage by stage, upward, upward all the time; creating, ordering, providing a beautiful earth, a beautiful earth - a wonderful place. So is the description of it. And then, when He could look upon all His work and pass His verdict, the verdict of an infinitely perfect God, so meticulous, so exacting, Who will never pass anything that is imperfect. When He has finished it all, He puts man right into the middle of it, and says: "There you are, that's your inheritance. That's your inheritance! Your inheritance is what I have already done. What you've come into, is something, not that you have got to make, but what I have already made. Not that you have to do, but I have already done. You begin your vocation in gratitude where I end My work on your behalf, for you".
You can clearly see the corresponding truth in the New Creation. It's not working unto something, it's working after everything has been done! You and I come into Godís perfect work. Of course, the simple form of preaching the gospel is to speak about "the finished work of Christ", but do we understand these glib phrases? All that God has done in, and through, and by His Son Jesus Christ in the perfecting of salvation, of redemption, of His work so that the reception of His Son back to heaven is simply because God has nothing more to do so far as providing the ground is concerned. He could never have gone back to heaven unless the work was full, and final, and perfect. If there had been one further touch or stroke, He would not have gone back. They would not have received Him in the heavens. If we may so speak, they would have said, "Look here, You have left undone something - I have not found Thy works perfect before My God". And He would have had to come back again, but He didn't. God had in Him perfected and finished His New Creation and then He began with us, to bring us into it and say, "Look here, you haven't got to work unto this, you've got to inherit it, take possession of it, live in the good of it, learn to understand what you've got and appreciate it". These are the works of God. They're finished! They're finished, so far as the Lord Jesus is concerned.
The works of grace... if that garden and that creation is
something grand, beautiful and glorious from the hand of God, and
wholly satisfies His heart, His Son is more than that. More than a
symbolic creation, an earthly thing, His Son is the final fullness
of perfection. And He gives us His Son! He give us His
Son. You and I have not grasped that, this is where we are in so
much trouble, dear friends, there is no doubt about it. I would go
so far as to say that nine-tenths of our spiritual troubles are
here, that we are listening all the time to the accuser and the
condemner. When things go hard, difficult, contrary, and against,
and the devil is saying, "It's because of something about you,
your demerit; something's wrong with you". And you go and plead
with the Lord, and say, "Lord, what is it that You've got against
me?" You spend your hours pleading with God to show you what He's
got against you, and why it is, and what the thing is that He has
against you that is resulting in His dealings with you in this
way. And so the enemy is just turning us aside from this. But
while there's a work of grace going to be done (and we will come
to that presently) to conform us, to change us, we are not now
under judgment and condemnation. We are under grace! And satan
will never cease in this life to undercut grace and bring
us back under law to bondage. But you and I really do need (are we
seeing?) to grasp these unsearchable riches of His grace. The riches
of His grace.
Godís work is completed for us to inherit. There'll be a battle,
a tremendous battle, as there was with Israel in the land after
they crossed the Jordan and got through the death of
Calvary - the battle in the land to get the possession of our
inheritance. But, and is it not hackneyed again and so familiar,
that before ever we get a foothold, the Lord has said, "I have
given it to you"? "Every place that the sole of your foot shall
tread upon, I have given you." "I have given you!" It is secured
in Christ for us.
Now, there I must leave it for the present, but I think that though these are truths with which we are familiar, the great truth remains. You and I as the Lordís own people, beloved of Him, have got to learn more and more deeply the meaning of the first thing: the grace of God. The grace of God... what grace really is and what grace really means. And with all, how deep, how vast, how unfathomable and unsearchable are what the Word calls, "the riches of His grace".