Grace and Forgiveness
Up to this point in your conversation, you should seek to convey that God does in fact love us; He wants us to have a full and meaningful life, but we are separated from God and His plan due to our sinfulness. They should see their sinfulness not so much as bad behavior, but as failing to live up to the standard of God’s holiness.
Admittedly, this is bad news. This is also as far as many misconceptions of Christianity go in their understanding. The Gospel has been communicated as the condemnation of mankind, rather than the salvation of mankind. Hopefully now you can help this person realize that the problem of sin has been answered, and that by Christ.
A key verse to really highlight here is Ephesians 2:8-9. It reads, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” This passage is rich with truth and life, but it is also rich with words that need to be clarified with a non-believer.
The first question to ask is what the word ‘saved’ means. Ask them what we have been saved from. Even non-believers hear a lot from Christians about being saved, but few know what is being talked about. To help them along, refer back to John 3:16 (‘none should perish’) and show them the parallel here, that we have been saved from perishing, or being separated from eternal life.
Next, ask them what ‘faith’ means. The most common answer will be ‘blind faith’, which is wrong. Blind faith is ignorance, and nowhere in the Bible does it commend ‘blind faith’. Faith means to believe something that you have good reason to believe. I believe my wife will not have an affair with another man. This is not ‘blind faith’, because I have good reason to believe that she won’t. I believe that when I step on the brakes in my car, that my car will stop. This is not ‘blind faith’. I have good reason to believe that my car will stop. Likewise, we believe Christ because we have good reason to believe him, such as evidences, testimonies, changed lives, miracles, and more. This is what faith means.
Ask next what they think ‘grace’ means. The most common answers are dinner prayers and the beauty of something, like a dancer has. Chances are that you will not meet anyone outside of the church who has a good understanding of what grace means. Grace, of course, is simply unmerited favor. It is receiving something that we don’t deserve, and could never repay.
Use this illustration: offer the person with whom you’re speaking $1,000,000. They will probably laugh because they know you don’t have it. But ask them, “What have you done to deserve this from me? How long will it be before you could repay me?” This example is particularly effective with students, as they are thinking a lot about the money they hope to make after graduation. This is an example of unmerited favor, and this is how God gives to us.
Ask then what the word ‘works’ means. It simply means the good things we do to try to earn God’s favor. Ask them to think of some examples of works, like giving to the poor, or going to church, or being nice to people, or whatever. Ask them, according to the Scripture you shared, what role works have in saving us or reconciling us with God. Help them to see that works do not save us; rather, they are the fruit of a changed life.
Before you move on, make sure they understand how a person is saved. Ask them a question like, “How many good things must you do to earn God’s favor?” Their answer should, of course, be that they couldn’t do enough good things; God’s favor is granted or given, not earned.
This illustration may be helpful: Three men are standing on a pier on the Pacific Ocean. The first man says, “I am going to run as fast as I can and jump to Hawaii.” He speeds off and jumps 10 feet, right in to the water. The next man laughs and says, “That was terrible. I can do better!” He runs and jumps over the first man, and goes and goes, and lands 20 feet out. Well, the third man is a former college athlete, who trained for years to jump. He simply shakes his head, starts his approach run, leaps like the champion he once was, sails over both men, and splashes down an incredible 30 feet out into the ocean. Which one reached Hawaii?
The point is this: God is infinite, and so is His holiness. We are finite. The gap between a finite object and an infinite object is an infinite gap. Only God can span an infinite gap. It is impossible for a finite person to do anything on an infinite scale.
The last verse to share in this section is John 14:6 – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Ask them what they think this means. Help them to see that Jesus is the vehicle for God’s grace.