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Checkpoint Summer 2021: Grace: the heart of mission

Can you remember when God first opened your eyes to grace? CMS QNNSW Branch Director Mark Fairhurst describes such a moment, explains it from the Bible, and explores why this insight matters in the vision for a world that knows Jesus. 

Can you remember when God first opened your eyes to his saving grace in the Lord Jesus Christ? For me, I was 18 years old. I was just about to start university and had been invited to a beginners’ Bible study, the week after joining a new church. Sitting on my bed that night, I opened a small booklet of memory verses I had been given and read these words:  

Altogether too many people make the mistake of measuring the certainty of their salvation by their feelings. Don’t make this tragic mistake; believe God. Take him at His Word…  

These words turned my eyes to Jesus and set me free. I’d spent the previous two years struggling to be a ‘good enough’ Christian, judging my relationship with God on how well or badly I was living, and how close (or more often distant) I felt to him. Suddenly, the Bible came alive to me. Instead of seeing it as filled with unreachable expectations, it became the place where I could know Jesus, and the riches of God’s mercy, love and grace. 

Our vision: grace 

Our CMS vision says: We work with churches to set apart, equip and support long-term workers who cross cultures to share the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

At the heart of the gospel is the message of salvation by grace. As Paul spoke of this in Ephesians, he summed up in this way:  

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved…  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9) 

It’s not surprising that these verses from Ephesians 2 have become memory verses for many Christians. They are such a clear statement of the gospel of grace. 

Yet this concept is fundamentally counter-cultural to every person and society in our world. Natural religion is founded on salvation by some form of human effort. Whether people follow one of the world’s major religions, local cultural beliefs, or even a secular moral system, we naturally judge our ‘righteousness’ on what we do and the genuineness of our response. In the end the focus will be on what ‘I’ do. This is the sea our missionaries swim in, as we do. 

The message of the gospel of grace cuts through these natural beliefs. We can do nothing, and our salvation depends on God’s mercy and grace alone. Paul cries out: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3) 

This belief in grace does not come easily. Our own efforts in evangelism, and the experiences of our CMS missionaries, tell us how strongly natural religion binds to our human hearts. 

The missionary challenge 

Many of our missionaries work in gospel-poor areas of our world, where natural religion is bound into the cultural worldview of those they live among. In some societies, even trying to find a word or idea that will translate the concept of grace is hard because it is so unknown in that culture. Sending missionaries long-term to such cultures is vital if they are to build the linguistic and cultural understanding—and grow the depth of relationships—needed to share the revolutionary message of grace in words and actions that people will understand. 

The task is no easier for those working among churches that are growing rapidly. Equipping Christian leaders with a clear understanding of the gospel is vital for the health of these churches. Despite the gospel being widely proclaimed, it often becomes layered on top of, or mixed in with people’s previous religious beliefs. When the missionary digs beneath the surface, they will often find natural religion.  

Recently CMS missionaries Andrew and Margie Newman, serving in Uganda, shared the story of Tezrah, their language helper. Margie described an early conversation they had about repentance and faith: “We realised Tezrah believed that…salvation was dependent on her constant repentance. As we talked about the completed work of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Tezrah had a light bulb moment about grace.” Tezrah has been sharing her newfound assurance and knowledge of God’s goodness with her friends, her family and the children at an orphanage where she works.  

Belief in grace does not come easily. Our own efforts in evangelism, and the experiences of our CMS missionaries, tell us how strongly natural religion binds to our human hearts. 

Reflecting on this, Andrew said: “We’ve learnt… never to assume an understanding of the gospel even when people have been in church for many years. Here, often people presume their friends are Christians, so telling them about Jesus is not high on the agenda. We encouraged Tezrah to share her Bible stories and see what opportunities for conversation about Jesus would come.” Communicating grace is impossible without God’s help, and so Paul asked the Ephesian Christians to pray for him in the spiritual battle he faced. “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”  (Ephesians 6:19-20)  

We need to be praying this prayer for our missionaries daily, whether they are involved in primary evangelism or seeking to grow Christians in their understanding of grace. 

Living out God’s grace 

The calling we have received by grace must be lived out. At its heart this will be seen in the humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance we show towards each other. 

 Here is what Paul says:  

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3) 

In a church I pastored some years ago, we had services in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (that church has now added Korean and Indonesian to the mix). But  we were always united in the gospel of Christ. Despite significant cultural differences and the potential that brought for conflict, there was a very real love and acceptance of one another in Christ. If multicultural churches are to work, here or in other locations, their daily life together must flow from God’s grace determining all aspects of how people relate to one another.

CMS missionaries are very aware that the gospel of grace must be backed up by a life of grace. But they do this in the midst of cultures and languages they are still seeking to understand. They must ask themselves questions like, is a particular action—one that seems hurtful and ungracious to us—genuinely sin? Or have we simply failed to understand cultural cues and ways of relating? One lesson CMS missionaries learn, that is especially vital in their early years on location, is to withhold judgement until they have begun to understand the situation and culture. Such an attitude can only proceed from a commitment to act with grace. 

A life of grace will make us distinctive in every aspect of our life to the world around us. In Ephesians 4 and 5 Paul speaks of its effect on our speech, sexual purity, family and work relationships – the list goes on. The careful working out of grace in the life we live (5:15) is not only for our personal godliness – it makes the most of every opportunity to show the power of God’s grace in us to the evil world we live among. As the other articles in Checkpoint will show, grace lived is a powerful outward witness to the grace we proclaim. 

Praying for grace 

This is a spiritual battle – it cannot be won in our strength alone. It is God’s grace and power that raises us from death to life, and it is his grace and power that enables us to live and stand against the evil powers of this world (6:10-20). Paul’s prayers reflect this. He prays constantly (1:15-17) because he knows that only God in his power can bring this about. He keeps asking that they may know God better (1:17-19) because he recognises how easily we will move away from this true knowledge of him. He prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts and we will know the length, breadth, height and depth of his love (3:14-21), because this is the only way we will be able to live out the life of grace he has called us to (4:1-2). 

Are we praying these ‘big’ prayers for our missionaries and the Christian brothers and sisters they work among? Praying about the details of their lives and ministries is important, but praying these big prayers is essential if we and they are not to be ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching’ (4:14), but ‘become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ (4:13). 

We work in partnership to send workers to share the gospel of Christ across the world, because we know that grace alone can set people free from the power of sin and death. It is by the proclamation of grace that our Father achieves his good purpose, to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. 

PRAY 

Thank God for the grace that he reveals in Christ. Pray that CMS missionaries would know the length, breadth, height and depth of God’s love so that they can reveal his grace to the people he places in their lives.