The first greeting with which Paul begins each of his epistles is grace, and he uses it with its full Christian meaning. Grace! God's grace! The unmerited favor of God toward humanity.
It seems unnecessary to have to emphasize that grace is unmerited, for that is the definition of grace. Yet we must emphasize it. For man always imagines that God loves him for what he is intrinsically. We imagine that God has been gracious to us because of what we have done — because of our piety, because of our good deeds, because of our repentance, because of our virtue. But God does not love us because of that. And God is not gracious to us because of that. Paul says that "God commendeth his love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Christ died for men who were hideous in His sight because of sin. And we are like that. You are like that, and so am I. If we are ever to understand the grace of God, we must begin with the knowledge that God has acted graciously toward us in Christ entirely apart from human merit.
There is a wonderful illustration of the nature of grace in the life of John Newton. John Newton had been raised in a Christian home in England in his very early years. But he was orphaned at the age of six and lived with a non-Christian relative. There Christianity was mocked, and the young boy was persecuted. At last, to escape the conditions at home, Newton ran away to sea and became an apprentice seaman in the British Navy. He served in the Navy for some time. At last he deserted and ran away to Africa. He tells in his own words that he went there for just one purpose: and that was "to sin his fill."
In Africa he joined forces with a Portuguese slave trader, and in his home he was very cruelly treated. At times the slave trader went away on expeditions, and the young man was left in the charge of the slave trader's African wife, the head of his harem. She hated all white men and took out her hatred on Newton. He tells that she exercised such power in her husband's absence that he was compelled to eat his food off the dusty floor like a dog.
At last the young Newton fled from this treatment and made his way to the coast where he lit a signal fire and was picked up by a slave ship on its way to England. The captain was disappointed that Newton had no ivory to sell, but because the young man knew something about navigation he was made a ship's mate. He could not keep even this position. During the voyage he broke into the ship's supply of rum and distributed it to the crew so that the crew became drunk. In a stupor Newton fell into the sea and was only saved from drowning by one of the officers who speared him with a harpoon, leaving a fist-sized scar in his thigh.
Toward the end of the voyage near Scotland the ship on which Newton was sailing encountered heavy winds. It was blown off course and began to sink. Newton was sent down into the hold with the slaves who were being transported and told to man the pumps. He was frightened to death. He was sure that the ship would sink and that he would drown. He worked the pumps for days, and as he worked he began to cry out to God from the hold of the ship. He began to remember verses he had been taught as a child. And as he remembered them he was miraculously transformed. He was born again. And he went on to become a great preacher and a teacher of the Word of God in England. It was this John Newton who wrote:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton was a great preacher of grace, and it is no wonder. For he had learned what Paul knew and what all Christians eventually learn: grace is of God, and it is always unmerited. It is to the undeserving — and hence to you and to me — that the offer of salvation comes.
Grace is unmerited, and that is true. But grace is also abounding. Romans 5:20 says that "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." At one time I came across an item in the Washington Evening Star that told of a young man who had suddenly become a millionaire. The young man had been working as a four-dollar-a-day waiter in Clearwater, Florida, and had suddenly inherited a three million dollar share of his father's lumber business. The headline story read: "$4-a-day Waiter Turns Millionaire." Suppose now that on the day before the settlement of the father's estate the owner of the restaurant had decided, entirely on his own initiative and without any real reason on the part of the young man, to increase the young man's salary from four dollars a day to five dollars a day. That would have been grace. It would not have been required. It would have been entirely unmerited. But it would have been a very small thing. In place of this, however, the young man received three million dollars. Instead of a small raise he experienced what we might call "grace abounding."
It is the same in the economy of God. God tells us that we have not the slightest claim upon Him. We deserve hell at His hands, and anything He might do for us is grace however insignificant. But God's grace is not insignificant. And it certainly does not stop with a single act. It is not a dollar-a-day grace. It is a grace that has made us millionaires in Christ.
Moreover, the Bible teaches that God's grace will go on overflowing throughout this life until the moment of our bodily resurrection, and indeed throughout eternity. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:14-15: "Knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound [overflow, increase] to the glory of God." It was of grace that the worlds were hung in space and the earth was disposed for human life. Grace caused that the mountains were created and that the world was filled with life. By grace man is made in God's image with every capacity for fellowship with Him. By grace after the fall men received the biblical revelation. By grace God chose Israel for a special purpose in history. It was of grace that the Lord Jesus came — to live a life that revealed the Father and to die for human sin. Grace leads men to trust in Christ. Grace sent the Holy Spirit to be our teacher and our guide. Grace has preserved the church through the centuries. Grace will bring forth the final resurrection. And grace will sustain us throughout eternity as we live in unbroken fellowship with God and grow in the knowledge of Him.
Grace unmerited! Grace abounding! It is the knowledge of such grace that inspired Paul to write: "Grace be unto you!" (Philippians 2:1). Yes, grace be unto you. Grace be multiplied.
But along with grace, Paul also extended the greeting, "Peace." Just as grace was the common greeting for the Gentiles, so peace was the common greeting among the Jewish people. Shalom! Grace to the Gentiles, peace to the Jews. How thoughtful of Paul to combine the two in his characteristic greeting to Jewish-Gentile churches! Just as Paul had a deeper meaning in mind for the word grace, so he had a deeper meaning in mind for the word peace. Shalom in the writings of the apostle Paul can never be understood merely as a common salutation. Peace comes from God. Grace is the unmerited and abounding favor of God toward men. Peace is the result of that favor, peace obtained at the cross of Christ. It is the result of the reconciliation of man and God through Jesus' death.
Peace with God! Think of it. We are not naturally at peace with God. We are at war with God, either passively or actively, and being at war with God we are also at war with each other and at war with ourselves. That is why we each experience so much misery and why there is so much unrest in the world. But God gives peace, perfect peace. And He does so in Christ. He will give you peace if you will come to Him in Jesus.
Now, of course, most of this applies largely to the unbeliever. But we must not forget that it is also to be applied to our everyday lives as Christians. Christians have trusted God for their salvation, a salvation from the penalty of sin. They must also trust Him for a daily victory over sin and for a constant provision for all needs; that alone brings the peace that passes human understanding. Paul writes a little later on in the epistle: "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7). Do you know this peace of God? Or are you filled with anxiety? If you are, you need to trust completely in what God has already done for your salvation and then to learn to lay all your requests before Him. If you will do that, the peace of God will "keep your heart and mind through Christ Jesus."
My final point is this: grace comes before peace. In Philippians 1:2 Paul writes, "Grace be unto you, and peace." Not "peace be unto you, and grace." In God's order of things God's hand is always there before any spiritual blessing. And it is so in order that salvation might be entirely of Him.
We see this throughout Scripture. In chapters six through eight of Genesis we read of the great flood and of God's intervention to save Noah and his immediate family. We read of Noah's sacrifice and of God's promise never again to destroy the earth by water. All of these things are marvelous. But before any of them ever happened, we read of God's grace. "But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Genesis 6:8).
The book of Genesis also tells of God's great blessing upon the life of Abraham. Abraham was to be the father of many nations. He was the first to receive the rite of circumcision. God promised that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. We are told of Abraham's faith through which God accounted him as being righteous. But before any of these things — before the promise, before the sacraments, before the faith — God came to Abraham in grace calling him out of Mesopotamia into Palestine and establishing a permanent relationship with him.
Exodus tells of the blessing that came to Israel at Sinai and later in the Promised Land. The young nation received the law, and it received a kingdom. But before any of this we read of God's gracious deliverance of Israel from captivity in Egypt. Thus Moses writes, "Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people whom thou hast redeemed" (Exodus 15:13).
So it has been in all ages. It is the story of David and Solomon, of Moses and the Prophets. It is my story and yours, if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Did you seek God? Did you find any of the fruits of salvation before God Himself was at work in your heart? Of course you did not. If you did anything at all, you ran away from God. And, He had to pursue you like the hound of heaven. Men never seek God. And when men find God, it is only because God comes to them first in grace.
Grace! How wonderful! Perhaps God is coming to you in this moment. If so, you must respond to His grace. And God will pour out, not only peace, but love and joy, and He will give access into His presence, and the sure hope of life beyond the grave.