THE GRACE OF GOD IN VAIN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 5:19-21; 6:1-2
9-19-71 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the First Baptist Church morning worship hour, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Grace of God in Vain. It is an appeal, simply that. Reading out of the last verses of the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians and the first two verses of the sixth chapter:
God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
For God hath made Christ to be sin for us, Him who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
We then, as workers together with Him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.
(For He saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)
[2 Corinthians 5:19-21; 6:1-2]
And the title of the message, of the appeal, is the Word itself, The Grace of God in Vain. “We then, as ambassadors for Christ, as fellow workers with Him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain” [2 Corinthians 6:1].
Here in the text are two words of diametric extremity. One is the most beautiful and the most meaningful, “charin, grace, unmerited love and favor.” When a child is named “Karen,” “charin,” “Karen,” it’s a beautiful and meaningful name. The grace of God, the Lord’s outpoured Spirit and appeal and love and invitation to us; but the other word is one of the most tragic in the language, kenos, kenos, translated here, “vain” [2 Corinthians 6:1]. Actually, it means “empty futility.”
Could I read from the [fifteenth] chapter of the first Corinthian letter, where Paul uses both of the words? “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and His grace,” charin, charis, charismatic, charisma, a beautiful word, “and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain”; did not reach toward sterility and futility and nothingness; “but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me” [1 Corinthians 15:10]. Then the last verse of that same chapter, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not,” and there’s that word again, “in vain, in futility, in empty nothingness, your labor is not in vain in the Lord” [1 Corinthians 15:58]. And this is a fine scriptural definition of the word in the text: “We then, as workers together with Christ, beseech you,” plead with you, pray with you, “that you receive not the grace of God,” the loving favor, the shepherdly care, the benedictory remembrance, His every provision for us now and forever, “that ye receive not the grace of God in kenos” [2 Corinthians 6:1], in empty futility, in sterile, barren nothingness, that it come to naught what God has done in your life.
In the Scripture you find such poignant illustrations of that word kenos, futility, emptiness, in vain. The Lord chose His people and called them out of Egypt [Hosea 11:1]. The miracle at the Red Sea [Exodus 14:22], the giving of the law at Sinai [Exodus 19-24], the care of the flock, guiding them through the days of the wilderness [Nehemiah 9:21], and then up to the Promised Land [Deuteronomy 1:21], and Kadesh-Barnea [Deuteronomy 1:19], and the people in rejection and unbelief turned back [Numbers 13-14]. For all that God had done to guide, to save, to deliver, to bless, to enrich His people, coming finally to rejection and futility and vanity, reaching toward nothingness, barrenness, the very bones bleaching under the hot, searing sun of the Sinai desert; receiving the grace of God in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1]; the goodness of the Lord in us and for us, reaching out toward nothing.
Another illustration and a poignant one, the prophetic preparation of God’s people, His chosen race and nation through the years; and guiding them through captivity, and through all manner of national misfortune, and finally the ringing voice of John the Baptist announcing the great, gracious purpose for which God had led the people to that strategic consummating moment in history [John 1:29; Hebrews 9:26]; when the King came, when God was incarnate [Matthew 1:21-23], when the whole purposes for which God had made the universe found its meaning in the life and introduction of Christ [Ephesians 1:10]. And the people received Him, looked at Him, despised Him, crucified Him [Matthew 27:32-50], rejected Him. And John summed it up in the first chapter and the eleventh verse: “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” [John 1:11]; the grace of God in emptiness and futility coming to nothing, to naught [2 Corinthians 6:1].
And how poignantly also can I illustrate that word kenos, in vain, to nothingness, in one of the sad fortunes in my own life. My father took the little family, and I was five and six years old. He took us to New Mexico. And there he got a piece of land, a farm. And in that place he sought to build a homestead. I can well remember, though so very young, I can remember his building the house. And I watched him build the house, and the barn, and dig the well, and the windmill. And I saw him build the fences around the place and around the field. I helped him, such as a little boy could. I carried him the staples that he drove into the fence posts when he tightened the barbed wire. Then I saw him plow. And as a little boy, though so small, I was out there running a go-devil. Did you ever hear of a go-devil, a plow that straddles a furrow with a blade on each side, and little disc wheels at the back? As a little boy I drove one of those plows. And, of course, my father had every hope, every dream; the farm, the house, the well, the fences, the plowed fields. Then the days of the burning sun, and the drought, and the howling wind, and the sandstorms, and I can remember walking over those fences, they were beneath my feet. The drifting sands had covered them out of sight. And every dream and every hope and all of the work of his hands failed in sterility and vacuity and nothingness, in vain, all of it. The grace of God in vain, for all that God hath purposed and wrought, it comes to nothing in our lives, as though it had never been [2 Corinthians 6:1].
The sacrifice of Christ [Matthew 27:30-50]; just why did it come, were it not for us? [Hebrews 10:5-14]. Just why did He suffer, were it not for us? [Romans 5:8]. Just why did He die, were it not for us? [1 Corinthians 15:3]. Why the encrimsoning of the ground at the foot of the cross, when He poured out His life [John 19:33-34], were it not for us? And for so many it is as though it were not; the love, the grace, the outpouring of God, His sobs, His tears, His suffering, His sacrifice, as though it had never been. Passing by in colossal unmitigated, indescribable indifference, “I could hardly care less”; passing Him by; the Lord, dying for us; the grace of God in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1]; anything but indifference.
When Jesus came to Golgotha,
They hanged Him on a tree.
They drove great nails through hands and feet,
And made a Calvary.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns;
Red were His wounds, and deep;
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.
But when Jesus came to Dallas town,
They simply passed Him by,
They hurt not a hair of His head,
They only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender,
They would not cause Him pain;
They simply passed on down the street,
And left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, Forgive them,
They know not what they do;
But still it rained that bitter rain
That drenched Him through and through.
The crowds went home, and left the streets
Without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall,
And cried for Calvary.
[“Indifference,” G. A. Studdart-Kennedy]
The vast, unspeakable indifference of so many to the grace and mercy of God is inexplicable, unimaginable. The grace, and mercy, and love, and care, and sacrifice, and redemptive goodness of God, all of it, in futility as it reaches toward us [2 Corinthians 6:1].
The grace of God in vain; these who love us, and pray for us, and care for us, and invite us; sometimes coming to see us, knocking at our door, calling our name at the throne of grace in intercessory prayer. Nothing; pass it by; empty futility; comes to no end and no fruition at all. And the church, I like a church to look like a church, like this one. It’s an old church, but I never pass it but that it seems to me a sermon in stone and in brick, the very shape of it, and oh dear God, the inside of it, the people here who pray and sing so gloriously, and love God, and extend with open arms invitation to those who pass by. And yet for all of the love and prayers, and moving Spirit in the service and place, it is nothing, empty futility; the grace of God in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1].
And our home in heaven; the Scriptures say the Lord told His disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you” [John 14:1-3]. There’s a mansion up there in the golden city, and “I go to prepare a place for you.” But for all of His loving care and for all of His sweet preparation, it is nothing to us, just pass it by, receiving the grace of God in vain. If Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem [Luke 19:41], I wonder, does He weep over the great cities of the world today who pass Him by? The grace of God in vain: and the home in heaven and the mansion in the golden city, it is nothing, emptiness, futility, sterility, barrenness, nothing, in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1].
I never read a more poignant story than of a mother in a home and a prodigal boy who had left. Every meal she set the table for that boy. Maybe he will come, maybe today. Every night she went upstairs to his room, turned back the covers, fluffed up the pillows, put a light, a lamp, in the window; maybe tonight he will come. She did that the rest of her life. Would you not be glad if I could say, announce, that the story closed, the boy came back home? There he sat in his wanted place, there did he bring joy and gladness to father and mother. As I read the story, he never came; the grace of God in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1]. For all that the Lord has done, it finds no repercussion and no response and no fruit in us; just pass it by.
The Lord described that in one of His parables. “Behold,” He said, “there went out a sower to sow. And it came to pass as he sowed, as he scattered the grain, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up, took it away” [Matthew 13:3-4]. It brought no fruit, no response. The fowls of the air took it away. Oh, how often do I see that! There will be an executive who just ruined a young man in the company. He’s the leader, but he doesn’t lead toward God, and his life doesn’t flow Christ-ward. Here’s a professor in the university, and he decimates the faith of his students. It is taken away.
And when you look at men like that, men in the pulpit, men in the divinity school, when you look at them it is hard to understand, even the Lord said in the [thirteenth] verse describing that, He said, “Seeing they do not see, they do not perceive; and hearing they do not hear, and they do not understand” [Matthew 13:13]. The Word brings nothing but futility and emptiness in their lives. And somehow the spirit of unbelief takes it away.
I sat here in the city of Dallas, pleading for a great cause. I sat here with the pastor of one of the great churches of the earth and invited him to share in a marvelous program and appeal, one that I described at the earlier service, and I feel I ought not here. And after he turned down the appeal and the other ministers had left, I talked to him. I stayed there at the table a full hour. As I spoke to him, I could hardly believe the answers as I’d ask. Do you believe in the deity of Christ? [Titus 2:13]. “No.” Do you believe in the resurrection? [Matthew 28:5-9]. “No.” Do you believe in the coming again of the Lord? [Acts 1:10-11]. “No.” Do you believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures? [2 Timothy 3:16]. “No.” Do you believe in the miracles? [Acts 2:22]. “No.”
Here is a man; does he read the Word? He’s theologically trained. He has a degree in it, a graduate degree in it. He stands in the pulpit. He delivers the message of Christ, but reading it, he doesn’t hear, and he doesn’t see [Matthew 13:13]. There’s a veil over his face; receiving the grace of God in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1]. He had as well be a philosopher, a speculative metaphysician. There’s no power. There’s no grace. There’s no revelation of God in the Word more than in any other of the recountings of the searchings of men in history for an answer over and beyond themselves; the grace of God in vain—the Word taken away, hidden from their eyes, a veil over their hearts.
And some of them on stony ground, they are adamant. You could appeal to them every hour on the hour, every day in the week, in the month, in the year, and every year of a lifetime, and their answer is adamantine, “I will not! If fire were to fall down from God out of heaven, I will not respond! I’ll not go down that aisle. I’ll not accept the Lord. I will not!” Some fell on stony ground [Matthew 13:5], where it had no opportunity to grow; the grace of God in vain, in futility. And some of it fell among thorns that choked it and destroyed it and killed it, choking it [Matthew 13:7].
Ah, the reason I had you read this story this morning about the rich young ruler is because of a Greek word used to describe that young man. He came, he was so fine, everything, everything commendable about him. From his youth he had lived an upright and exemplary life. His deportment was impeccable. And the Book says, as he stood before the Lord and asked Him, or knelt before Him and looked up in His face, and answered as he did, “All these have I kept from my youth up” [Mark 10:20]. The Book says the Lord looked upon him and loved him [Mark 10:21]. I could understand that, such a fine, noble, gifted young man. Then He said to him, “If you would have life abundant, eternal, everlasting, you have the world in your heart. You love it more than you love God. Give it up; get rid of it, give it away, and come follow Me! You will have life eternal” [Mark 10:21]. And then that Greek word: “And the young man stugnazō, stugnazō” [Mark 10:22]. Used but twice in the Bible, there, describing the rich young ruler, and once else. In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the third verse, the Lord says to the Scribes and the Pharisees, that you can read the sky and the weather report, “For in the [morning] when it is red and lowring,” stugnazō, “you say it is going to be foul weather; you can see the signs of the skies, but you do not know the signs of the times” [Matthew 16:3]; that word stugnazō. When you see the sky in the [morning] red and lowring, stugnazō; and I can just see the word in dramatic form; the boiling clouds, the reddish hue, the coming of the storm and the wind and the thunder and the rain; stugnazō, the sky is lowring.
That’s the word used to describe the young man. That is, the war in his soul was reflected in his face. And the conflict by which he faced that decision was written plainly on his open countenance; and the young man stugnazō, fighting the war in his soul. And the love of the world choked it out, and he turned and went away [Mark 10:22]; the grace of God in vain [2 Corinthians 6:1].
But it isn’t all that. Some, and the word was taken away; some on a hard and stony heart; some, and the love of the world choked it to death [Matthew 13:5-7]; but some, “Other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased, and brought forth some thirty, some sixty, and some an hundredfold” [Matthew 13:8]. To some, the Word of God is like life itself. What a glory, what a change, what a new day, what an incomparable blessing, what an enrichment!
In that meeting in Anchorage, I do believe one of the filthiest, dirtiest young people in the earth was converted; and I couldn’t help but notice. They had a mourner’s bench right down in front of me, as we have the altar rail right there. And that teenager came down, and all the time that I gave the appeal, and the appeal was long, that teenager knelt there, right down there in front of me, with his hand raised up like that; head bowed, praying before God, and his hand raised up. One way, and he had found it. One way, there’s just one way!
Egō eimi hē hodos kai hē alētheia kai hē zōē, “I am the way, the truth, the life” [John 14:6]. And to us who have found it, it is an open door into glory. Will you let God speak to your heart, too? Will you come and join with us, too? A family, a couple, or just you, the grace of God, “reaching down to me, and here I come, here I am.” You, in the balcony, you, on the lower floor, down one of these stairwells at the front, at the back and on either side, into that aisle, down there to me, to the pastor, “Pastor, here’s my hand. I’m coming to Christ today; what Christ has done for me, I, in gratitude, accept it. The marvelous goodness of the Lord, and here I am, here I am. May He write my name in the Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27]. May He come into my soul and live in my life. Here I am. Here I come. And in this blessed and precious congregation, I join with them in prayer, in worship, in service to God. I’m coming this morning.” Make the decision now in your heart where you sit. And in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming. Down one of these stairwells, into that aisle and here to the front. “I’m coming now. I make it now.” Do it. Do it. The greatest step you’ll make in your life is that step. The greatest decision you’ll ever make in your life is that decision. “I am accepting Christ, His grace, His forgiveness, His goodness, His mercy, His care. I’m coming, Lord, and here I am.” Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.