Grace Upon Grace:
The Many Colors of the Grace of God

John 1:16
By Greg Wright
Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on January 6, 2008

Good morning and Happy New Year. Please turn in your Bibles to the first chapter of the Gospel of John. As I look back over the past year and the years before that one, I remember with joy some of our conversations. For there are some conversations that you never forget. They might have occurred in the most casual of situations. Their long-term significance might have been unnoticed at the time. Nevertheless, something was said that fundamentally changed the way you saw life and the way you saw God.

I. The fullness of grace

Several years ago some of us were talking to Dr. Rob Spinney about the different translations of the Bible. During that conversation, I said that I believed that most people were still capable of understanding the King James Version, even though it was almost four hundred years old. Rob, in order to point out some of the difficulties, mentioned 1 Peter 4:10 which says, "As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God."

"Manifold grace of God, what is that?" asked Dr. Spinney.

One of us jokingly answered, "Manifold, oh yeah, that's something on a car, right?" Of course, people who are knowledgeable about cars tell me that a manifold is "a fitting on an internal-combustion engine that receives the exhaust gases from several cylinders." (Websters) But there were no automobiles when the King James translation was written, so we knew that the verse was not using the word manifold in that way.

Then Dr. Spinney playfully replied that it was the "variegated grace of God."

The what? Variegated, what does that mean? I felt like a college student who, having finally mustered up enough courage to ask his professor a question, now found himself asking his professor to explain his explanation.

Webster gives this definition for variegated, "Having discrete markings of different colors." But that is not the explanation Rob gave me. He said, "A box of crayons -- think of the many different colors you find in a large box of crayons."

Rob's definition contained enough glue to make his point stick to my brain. Later, as I learned more, I discovered that this understanding of manifold in 1 Peter 4:10 was also maintained by A. T. Robertson in his book Word Pictures in the New Testament. Moreover, in the NASB Greek-Hebrew Dictionary, the underlying Greek word is actually defined as "many colored." So Rob's point is well supported, and today it informs my understanding of grace as I read in John 1 about the fullness of the grace of God. So let's read. Starting with John 1:14, we will read down through verse 18:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'" For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

We are going to focus on verse 16 where we read, "For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace." What is meant by the word fullness? Looking back at John 1:1-2, His fullness is a fullness of nature. The word for fullness is used in that way in Colossians 2:9 where we read, “For in Him all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form.” By nature Christ is one person who is, at the same time, fully God and fully man. But looking at John 1:16 a different kind of fullness is also understood -- it is a fullness of abundance. The same word is used in this way in Romans 15:29 where we read, “And I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” So the one who is fully God and fully man is also fully gracious. Grace in abundance flows from Him to us.

What, then, is grace? Broadly considered, grace is God's unmerited kindness and favor towards all creation, especially his kindness towards people. This grace can be further divided into two categories: common grace and special grace. Common grace is the grace that is experienced by all kinds of people regardless of their relationship with God. Examples of common grace include sunshine, rain, family, food, health, and employment. In contrast to common grace, special grace is experienced only by the elect (or what the Gospel of John calls sheep). It is experienced only by those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Grace upon grace.
At the end of verse 16 we have the interesting phrase, "grace upon grace." It is a commercial phrase. John deliberately uses a commercial phrase to magnify the fact that grace is not obtained through normal means of commerce. In normal commerce we exchange one thing for another. We provide labor in exchange for a paycheck. We provide cash in exchange for groceries, gas, and a host of other things. As we spend our cash, we have less and less cash until we finally run out. If we did not have either cash savings or something we could sell such as labor or crops, we would eventually starve.

How different the grace of God is! The more we live by grace, the more grace we have by which to live. The more grace we use, the more grace we have available. We never run out. In exchange for grace, we get more grace. Even in emergencies, grace is abundantly supplied.

Of course, you do well to try to prepare for future needs and emergencies. You might have a contingency fund, and you might carry different kinds of insurance.

My wife and I carry dental insurance. We were glad to have it this past year, since my wife lost a tooth and needed an implant, a very expensive procedure. The procedure was done in stages, and the initial stages were covered by our insurance. But in the final stage we had a jolting discovery -- our expenses had exceeded the maximum coverage for the year. The policy had a maximum amount that could not be exceeded in a single year. Many policies are like that. Some have an annual maximum, and some even have a lifetime maximum.

I am very thankful that the grace of God is not like that. There is no limit to His grace. As we read in Lamentations 3:22-23, "The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness."

Therefore, we can face the new year with confidence. We have assurance that no matter what happens in the coming year, we will be abundantly supplied with the grace of God. There is no annual limit, and there is no lifetime limit. The supply is new every morning. The fountain from which the grace of God flows is an eternal fountain -- it will never give out, and it will never run dry.

II. The kinds of grace.

Moreover, there are different kinds of grace to meet the different kinds of needs we are going to have. Just as we find all kinds of colors in a large box of crayons, we will have all kinds of needs, and we will be supplied with all kinds of grace to meet those needs. To help us all to further appreciate the grace of God, I am going to associate ten different kinds of grace with objects and colors. In your handouts, beside each kind of grace I have blanks for colors and objects. You might want to write down the colors and objects I mention, or if there are colors and objects more meaningful to you, you might want to write those down instead. We will be discussing:

  1. Common grace.
  2. Drawing grace.
  3. Saving grace.
  4. Sanctifying grace.
  5. Person-to-person grace.
  6. Intimate grace.
  7. Preserving grace.
  8. Big-picture grace.
  9. Strengthening grace.
  10. Dying grace.

My list is by no means exhaustive. But hopefully it is complete enough to encourage us to rejoice in the fullness of the grace of Christ.

Common grace.
We'll start with common grace. Common grace is experienced by all people, regardless of their relationship with God. We find an example of this kind of grace in Matthew 5:43-45 where we read:

You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

We all live under common grace, but it is a sad thing to have common grace alone. To have common grace alone is to live in a fog. Fog is gray, so I have colored common grace gray.

You live in a fog when you receive the gifts of God and do not know the giver. You live in a fog when you attribute everything to Mother Nature and Father Time. You live in a fog when you explain everything according to luck and fate. You live in a fog when you enjoy the blessings of friends and family but do not have a personal relationship with God. You live in a fog when you enjoy the thrill of sports and recreation and do not recognize the One who gave you strength and ability.

But when special grace comes the fog is lifted, the eyes are opened, and the effects of special grace are seen and enjoyed with a grateful heart towards the God who blesses all with sunshine, rain, food, and many other things.

Thanks be to God for His common grace. The other nine kinds of grace we will discuss are not common grace but fall under the heading of special grace.

Drawing grace.
The first kind of special grace is drawing grace. It is drawing grace that brings us out of the fog and into the sunshine. Sunshine is yellow, so I have colored drawing grace yellow.

Under common grace the masses heard the general call of the Gospel. The general call invites people to repent and believe, but it does not compel anyone to heed it. You heard that call, but because you were still in a fog, you rejected it. But under drawing grace the general call becomes the effectual call. It is said to be effectual because it accomplishes its intended effect. It accomplishes its intended effect because God changes your heart so that you will, indeed you must, repent and believe the Gospel.

We find a discussion of drawing grace in John 6:41-45 where we read:

Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, "I am the bread that came down out of heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, 'I have come down out of heaven'?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.

Jesus was rejected by the community of people who knew Him as a child and as a young man. When He explained their rejection, He said two things:

  1. No one comes to Christ unless they are drawn.
  2. Everyone who has been drawn by learning from the Father comes to Christ.

This verse is one of the reasons that people of the Reformed faith -- people like us -- affirm the doctrine of irresistible grace. The word translated as draw comes from a Greek word that means to pull or drag, as in drawing in a net full of fish. When God begins to pull and drag your heart, the force is irresistible. This changing of the heart is theologically called regeneration. In the Gospel of John it is the experience of being born again. It compels you to repent and believe. Yet, because it is the heart that God pulls and drags -- the heart where the will, the intellect, and the emotions reside -- the heart where the will is conquered and renewed -- when we come, we come willingly. It is the will that has been conquered. The bright sunshine of the drawing grace of God begins to shine in our hearts, the fog begins to lift, and we willingly come to Christ.

Thanks be to God for His drawing grace.

Saving grace.
The second kind of special grace is saving grace. Broadly considered, saving grace would refer to all aspects of salvation. Here I am referring to saving grace mainly with respect to justification. In justification, having been united to Christ through faith, we receive credit for His perfect righteousness. It is saving grace that justifies us, and it is saving grace through which we have peace with God. But the cost was severe -- it required the blood of the Son of God. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins with His own suffering and death. Blood is red, so I have colored saving grace red.

We find support for saving grace all over the Bible. One example is Romans 5:6-11 where we read:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

The gospel of John has a very offensive way of talking about the blood of Christ. In John 6:56 we read, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him." The people who initially heard this were offended because they did not understand that this eating and drinking was spiritual. Many people are just as offended today. In more liberal churches, references to the blood of Christ have been removed from hymn books. The idea that atonement would be made through the blood of Christ is offensive to the reason of man. But God's ways are not man's ways. Without the blood of Christ, there would be no salvation for us.

Thanks be to God for His saving grace.

Sanctifying grace.
In saving grace God saves us from the penalty of sin. But He does more than that. He also saves us from the power of sin. This is called sanctifying grace. It is a purifying grace, because it empowers us to live holy lives. Thus, it brings to mind the gleaming white purity of the new fallen snow. I color it white.

There are two kinds of sanctifying grace: definitive and progressive. One occurs at regeneration; the other continues for the rest of your life. At regeneration you experience definitive sanctification by being set apart and by receiving a new nature. 1 Peter 2:9-10 describes how you are set apart:

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

Then, 2 Corinthians 5:17 affirms the new nature. It says, "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." The effect is you have a power over sin that you did not have before.

Definitive sanctification occurs solely at God's initiative. You have no part in making it happen. Instead, it is God who works to take away your spiritual blindness, remove your spiritual hostility, free you from the power of sin, and equip you to overcome the principle of sin that remains.

In contrast to definitive sanctification, progressive sanctification is a cooperative grace. You cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order to purify yourself from the remaining effects of sin: its drives, its motives, and its actions. That this is accomplished with the help of the Holy Spirit is seen in Philippians 1:6 where we read, " for I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus."

Cooperating with the Holy Spirit occurs in at least five ways:

  1. We avoid grieving the Holy Spirit.
  2. We heed the Spirit's promptings.
  3. We seek God's help in dealing with sinful desires.
  4. We seek to understand the Word of God.
  5. We make use of the means of grace: prayer, worship, preaching, ordinances, etc.

That sanctification occurs through the Word of God is especially emphasized in the Gospel of John, one example being John 17:17, "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.

It is especially important to read the Word and to seek the Spirit's help when struggling with sinful desires. We can get very frustrated with ourselves when we know we want the wrong things. Sometimes our wrong desires have an anchor that is so deeply buried in our hearts that we can't uncover it. But the Holy Spirit knows the heart, and He can show us the things that are dragging us down. He's done that in my life, and I'm sure He's done it for others.

Thanks be to God for His sanctifying grace.

Person-to-person grace.
One of the effects of sanctifying grace is person-to-person grace. This grace begins with God, but it blossoms and blooms through the way you interact with other people. You bless them, you forgive them, you weep with them, you encourage them, you equip them, and you even kneel down with them in the dirt. You are willing to get dirty on their behalf. Dirt is brown, so I color person-to-person grace brown.

An example of person-to-person grace comes to mind as I remember a man who used to be my boss in North Carolina. One day as I walked by his desk he asked, "Have you heard the bad news?" Then he said, "Let's go look at your car; you have a flat tire." What happened after that continues to amaze me -- my boss changed my tire. I had never changed a tire before, and I watched as this man who was my superior in the office humbled himself and got dirty on my behalf. Moreover, he did this for me in spite of the fact that I was sometimes arrogant and disrespectful towards him. I was experiencing the person-to-person grace of God.

For a biblical example of this kind of grace consider Colossians 3:12-14:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Thanks be to God for His person-to-person grace.

Intimate grace.
As sweet as it is to experience the grace of God through people, it is even sweeter to experience the grace of God through an intimate relationship with God Himself. When God breaks through, winter’s icy blast gives way to the gentle warmth of spring; winter’s barren earth makes way for the lush greenery of new crops; and winter’s drab valleys and hills clothe themselves with spring-time’s verdant hues. Because God’s intimate grace reminds me of the fresh greenery of spring, I color it green.

In biblical terminology, sometimes the intimate grace of God is called the light of His countenance. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 4:6-8 where we read:

Many are saying, ‘Who will show us any good? Lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, O Lord! Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for Thou alone, O Lord, dost make me to dwell in safety.

As I was working on this part of the sermon, I received an email from our friend Pat Abbott, who is a World Harvest missionary in Uganda. There was recently an outbreak of the ebola virus in her village, and some of her dear friends and colleagues died. How did she end her email -- grateful for our prayers and desperate to know the intimacy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I can picture Pat finding time to be alone with God, reading the Word, crying, pleading, and opening up her very heart, desperate to know the joy that only God can give in the midst of trials of this magnitude.

Thanks be to God for his intimate grace.

Preserving grace.
In the midst of very difficult circumstances, Pat chose to draw near unto God. However, some who call themselves Christians have a different response. When circumstances are difficult or when persecution arises they do not draw near unto God; they pull away from God. Yet, there are Christians who have endured the flames, the rack, years of torture, and even worse things because they were unwilling to deny their faith. What is it that keeps believers believing? What is it that keeps faith alive?

God given faith is like a tender plant. Without the grace of God it would surely die. But thanks be unto God, for He does not just give faith; He nourishes and sustains the faith He gives. Such faith has been seen again and again as Christians have remained steadfast, even while being burned alive. They have refused to deny God, because God has preserved them by preserving their faith. One of the colors of fire is orange, so I color God’s preserving grace orange.

That God preserves our faith is indicated by Jude 24-25 where we read, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”

We also see God’s preservation of faith in 1 Peter 1:5-7 where the elect are said to be “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Those who have truly been born again will, because of the preserving grace of God, endure to the end. Even if they stray away from God, they will return before they die.

Theologically, this preserving grace is called the perseverance of the saints. Practically, it is called the preservation of the saints through the perseverance of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God for His preserving grace.

Big-picture grace.
One of the reasons God is able to preserve us is because He is able to see the big picture. In contrast, we are like a goldfish in an aquarium. The fish has no concept of the table that supports the tank. The fish knows nothing about the purification process that removes chlorine from the water. And he is mystified regarding that big human giant who occasionally scoops him up with a net. Like the fish, we really do “see through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

In contrast, God sees the big picture. By the way, have you ever noticed that the biggest things in life are blue? When astronauts in outer space look back towards the earth it looks like a blue ball. When we look up at a clear sky and when we look out over an ocean we see blue. We even see blue when we look at mountains. Of course when we see them up close, we see the colors of trees, rocks, buildings, and dirt. But when we see them from a distance, when we take in the big-picture view of the mountains, we see blue. Distant mountains remind me of the big-picture grace of God, so I color it blue.

Because God is, indeed, able to see the big picture, He is able to make plans that work. Consider Jeremiah 29:10-11 where God says:

When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.

Did God keep His promise? Yes He did. After seventy years, the captives from Judah returned from Babylon to their homeland. God had a plan, part of which was to use the Babylonian captivity to purify His people from idols, and it worked.

Today we have similar promises from God, as we find in Romans 8:28 where we read, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

Theologically, God’s big-picture grace is sometimes called Providence, whereby God, as stated in the church constitution, “. . . decreed all things that come to pass, and He perpetually governs all creatures and events.”

Thanks be to God for His big-picture grace.

Strengthening grace.
When difficulties arise, they come as part of Providence; they come as God’s will. When I have personally undergone severe trials, I have understood that they were part of God’s will for my life. Nevertheless, in the early days it would not have helped me to have heard someone say that these difficulties were God’s will, because I lacked a clear understanding of the scope of that will. Initially, God’s will seemed impersonal, distant, and aloof. Now I understand that God’s will does not just affect me; it embraces me. God’s will does not treat me like an insignificant employee in a multinational cooperation; it treats me like a member of the family. God’s will does not treat me like a mere line on an executive’s spreadsheet; it treats me, as in Isaiah 49:16, like those who are inscribed upon the palms of God’s hands.

God’s will is not indifferent to your circumstances; it takes note of your circumstances and of the strength you will need in order to endure them. One of the ways God strengthens us is through the public and private means of grace, for example, the Lord’s Supper. The strengthening grace of God reminds me of the grape juice (or wine) that is served, so I color it purple.

The apostle Paul had to endure many things. He never knew when He was going to be beaten, whipped, or stoned. Yet, God strengthened Him to face all kinds of hardships. In the same way, we do not know all that we are going to face during the new year. We might abound or we might suffer. Either way, there will surely be surprises. Let us learn from Paul, who was able to say:

I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

If you would know the strengthening grace of God, make use of the public means of grace. We need to meditate on the precious things symbolized in the ordinances. We need to hear the Word of God preached, sung, read, and prayed. Also, make use of the private means of grace. Let your private prayer, worship, and Bible study be a means of nourishing your soul. And consider, if you make God a stranger when life is easy, He will seem like a stranger when you need Him the most.

Thanks be to God for His strengthening grace.

Dying grace.
Of all the times when we need to be strengthened spiritually, we especially note the time when our natural strength will be passing away – when our breathing will be labored, when our pains will be intense, when our coughing will be relentless, when our discomfort will be constant – our final battle, our final moments in this life. But what shall we say of the one who has been with us throughout our lives? Having accompanied us for so long, will He then abandon us at the time of the final battle? Surely not! Surely the rod and staff that has comforted us throughout our lives will continue to comfort us in those final moments. Surely we will be able to say with David:

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, "Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night," even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You. (Psalm 139:7-12)

One of the ways God gives people dying grace is by keeping their eyes focused on the distant shore, now so much closer, where we will no longer walk on the comparatively drab, dirty, and troublesome streets of this life, but will walk instead on streets of Gold. Streets of gold remind me of the life to come, the New Jerusalem. Therefore, I color God’s dying grace gold.

After Nan’s father died, I wrote a poem about his death titled “This Is Not Where Life Ends.”

Behold this man in the coffin there whose death our hearts now rends,
He sought to walk in the ways of God; could this be where life ends?

Behold the flowers around the room that loving people send.
The flowers die; must our hope die too? Could this be where life ends?

Behold the grave so precisely dug. The coffin now descends.
The young men cover it up with dirt. Could this be where life ends?

No, this is not where life ends for believers; this is not where life ends for us.
After death’s done its worst it has merely forced us into never ending life.

After death has done its worst – after it has broken our hearts, after it has shattered our dreams, after it has destroyed our bodies -- it has merely forced us beyond death, beyond the grave, into never ending life.

Thanks be to God for His dying grace.

III. The encouragement of grace.

In John 11:25-26 Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”

Then Jesus asked a question. He asked, “Do you believe this?”

I would ask the same question today, “Do you believe this?” Do you believe the Gospel? Or is common grace the only kind of grace you know? Are you among those who know the effects of the common grace of God but do not know God? You walk through the full spectrum of the colors of the common grace of God, but all you really see is gray, and when you die, you will exchange the grayness of spiritual blindness and spiritual rebellion for the blackness of eternal outer darkness. The wrath of God abides upon you, even now. Yet, you are still alive. Lay hold of Christ; cry out for mercy while there is still time.

Meanwhile, I would say to those who are believers, the full colors of the spectrum of the grace of God await you in the coming year. It was God’s drawing and saving grace that made you into obedient sheep. Now Christ, the good shepherd, will lead you:

And how do we know this: “For of his fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.”

Let us pray: Dear heavenly Father, please keep the bright colors of your grace before us, so that you might make our hearts abound with tears of joy. Amen.