I often say as I listen to preaching that I can tell where the theological thrust of focus of the preacher is. We preach what we believe. My core belief, the one thought that I hope and try to convey to persons in every sermon that I preach is this: God’s grace is real and available, without qualification or precondition or any stipulation. It is “good to go.”
Paul Tillich says in the book The Shaking of the Foundations: "We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace … Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance" (p. 162).
Grace is kind of a hard thing for us to get our minds around. We keep thinking that we have to "do something" to merit or earn it, which in fact makes it no longer grace if you have to do that. What we can't quite fathom is that grace is an experience, not an idea. We did nothing to earn it and nothing about our determination to "do right" (as much as we might like to think that is the catalyst) makes grace happen. This is because before you "declared" or "decided" anything, God had already acted in grace!
What makes grace so particularly unbelievable is that we can't nullify it. That's right: you can't "undeserve" or be disqualified for what you never "deserved" or were qualified for to begin with. Of course, you can reject grace, you can ignore it perhaps, but you can't make God change God's mind about making you a candidate for grace that God was determined to give you. May our preaching and witness always reflect that God’s grace acted on me before we acted on it. There is no reason or room to congratulate ourselves; God did it! And we just have to accept, preach and demonstrate God’s grace.
Dr. Kenneth Q. James is adjunct professor for the expository preaching course at Northeastern Seminary. He also serves as senior pastor of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, N.Y., and has authored 4 books including Go Crazy—Just Don’t Expect Me To Go With You (2013).