ďCommon Grace and Special GraceĒ†††† Genesis 20:1-18††††††† August 2, 2009

 

SI:We are studying the life of Abraham.

Heís called the father of those who believe in Jesus Christ.

†† His life demonstrates the fundamental truths and experiences of the Christian life.

 

Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90.

The Lord had just told them that in one year they would have a son.

†† That good news was overshadowed by the destruction of Sodom.

May have been the reason that moved away from the hill country,

†† to the desert region in the south, the Negev.

 

This is what happened.


 

INTRO:When I graduated from college, got a teaching job for the fall.

But I needed to make some money that summer, so I found work at the

†† Palm Beach Co. Courthouse.

My boss was a cussing, chain-smoking, cocktail dress-wearing,

†† New Jersey transplant.You know how all the old movies talk about

†† dames and broads.That was her.She was tough as nails.

 

My job was to take all of the legal documents that came in by mail,

†† sort them, and then take them to the right people.

At the end of the summer, they hired an elderly man to take my place,

†† and my boss told me to train him in sorting the mail.

I tried and tried and he just couldnít get it.He kept putting stuff in the wrong place.

†† My face must have showed irritation because my boss called me into her office.

 

That was the good old days when you could still smoke inside.

†† She lit up a Virginia Slim and looked at me for a few seconds.

Then she said:Youíre going to be a school teacher in a few weeks.

†† How the blank do you think youíre going to teach if you donít have patience?

 

I could see where this was going and didnít like it.

†† So I started to say something but she cut me off and said:

†† Heís old enough to be your grandfather.

I want you to be patient with him, and respect him, and teach him how to do the job.

†† Now get out of here!

 

That hurt.I was humbled to the dust.

Here I was, the Christian.The preacherís kid.The Christian college graduate.The soon to be Christian school teacheró

†† being lectured on the virtues of patience and respect for the elderly, by an

†† unbeliever (and a Yankee!)It was a Genesis 20 experience.

 

Whoís the good guy in this story?Not Abraham.Not the father of the faithful.

†† Itís the Canaanite king Abimelech who is decent, straightforward, and generous.

Abraham was indifferent to the honor of his wife,

†† Abimelech was more concerned for Sarahís reputation.

Abraham didnít think about the descendants God had promised him.

†† Abimelech was deeply worried about the danger posed to his people and nation.

Abraham showed little reverence for the words God had spoken.

†† Abimelech couldnít act on Godís warning fast enough.

Why is the believer in this story the bad guy and the unbeliever the good guy?

†† And why is this so often our experience in the world?

Certainly there are a great many very good Christian people whose

†† lives adorn the Gospel and are a positive witness for Jesus Christ.

 

But we have to admit that very often Christians themselves

†† are the strongest argument against Christianity.

We sometimes encounter Christians who are mean, impatient, and dishonest.

And on top of that, we often meet good, decent, honest non-Christians,

who love their families and are kind to their neighbors and honest in dealings.

 

When a person is born again, God forgives his all his sins right then and there.

†† A born again person is justified with one stroke of Godís grace.

So if God does that, he could sanctify us completely the moment we are born again.

†† He could make us perfectly good people.And even if God decided to save our

†† complete perfection for heaven, he could have made us much better than we are.

Think what a powerful argument Christians would have

†† if God made the worst Christian better than the best non-Christian.

 

Just think what it would be like if all Christians loved their enemies.

†† And if all Christians loved their husbands or wives and enjoyed marriages

†† that the world dreams about having but rarely finds.

 

And what if all Christians loved their neighbors so much that they were generous

†† to a fault in giving to the poor.And what if all Christian faced illness and death

†† cheerfully, and resisted temptations so strongly, that their reputation all over

the world was one of purity and contentment.

Wouldnít that be great?

†† But thatís not how it is.And sometimes these things become a stumbling block.

†† Itís hard to believe that decent unbelievers like Abimelech are going to hell,

†† but cowardly, shameful believers like Abraham are blessed with eternal life.

 

And even closer to home, if the Lord hates sin, and teaches his people to hate it,

†† and if he loves his children, why has he decided to let us struggle with it all our

†† lives?Why doesnít he just eradicate it?He could.

This story in Genesis 20 is a magnificent answer to these perplexing questions.

†† Weíll look at it under two points, two questions.

†† 1.Why are unbelievers often so good?

†† 2.Why are believers often so bad?†† Weíll apply these answers to Christian life.

MP#1Why are unbelievers often so good?

Hereís the short answer:Common grace.

Common grace is the grace God shows to all mankind,

†† even to those people who hate him and are objects of his wrath and curse.

It consists of three things:

 

1.Itís all the good gifts that sustain and enhance life in this world.

God gives good things to all people without distinction.

Jesus said:ďGod causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good,

†† and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Ē

Who gets sunshine and rain?Only Christian farmers?No, all farmers.

 

Who gets food and health and marriage and children?

†† Who gets musical talent and athletic ability and business skills?

All sorts of people.God scatters those gifts broadly throughout the human race,

†† and it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they are believers are not.

Abimelech was a Canaanite king, but he had wealth and wives and children

†† and administrative skills and leadership qualities.Thatís common grace.

 

2.Common grace is the restraint of sin.

The Bible says that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.

†† Every aspect of our personhood is corrupted by sin.

Sometimes the depravity of human nature is revealedó

†† Columbine High School or the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

But most people, vast majority of people in the world arenít as bad as they could be.

†† Thatís because common grace restrains sin to make human society possible.

 

Abimelech said to God:Donít kill me.

†† I didnít know Sarah was his wife and I didnít touch her.

God said:I know, I kept you from sinning against me.

†† It doesnít tell us how God kept Abimelech from sinning, but we can guess.

God usually restrains sin through the human conscience.

†† Even though the human race is fallen, God preserves the conscience.

†† So most people, believers and unbelievers, have a sense of right and wrong.

 

God also restrains sin through the threat of punishment.

Lots of people would do bad things

†† if they werenít afraid of getting caught and punished.

So they behave and society functionsóthatís common grace.

And sometimes itís just the way God arranges things so people donít have

†† the opportunity to sin.They would if they could but they never get a chance.

The restraint of sin has nothing to do with being born again or the Holy Spirit.

†† It is simply Godís common grace to all humankind.

 

3.Common grace is the ability to do civic good.

Iím throwing some theological terms at you this morning.

†† Civic good is the way theologians say good for this life only.

Not spiritual good, not eternal good, but the good things big and small

†† that people do for other people.

A dad providing for his family. A philanthropist building a hospital.

†† People the world over do those kinds of good things,

†† no matter what their beliefsóthatís common grace.

 

Abimelech was a good king and leader even though he was a pagan Canaanite.

He did all he could to restore the honor of Abrahamís marriage.

†† He could have said:I donít care if Sarah is his wife.Iím the king.

†† Iím keeping this hot, 90-year-old woman in my harem.

Instead he sent her back and he showed his good kingly qualities

†† by giving generous gifts to Abraham and honoring Sarah.

 

But common grace doesnít make a person good enough for salvation.

†† It doesnít forgive sins or make salvation possible.

That point is driven home when Lord says to Abimelech,

†† youíre going to die unless my prophet Abraham prays for you.

Thatís startling, isnít it?God will hear the prayer of one of his own children

†† who has been very bad, but he wonít hear the prayer of an unbeliever who

†† has been very good.That shows common grace goodness wonít save.

 

But even though common grace wonít save a person, itís still from God.

†† So it teaches us to have humility and respect when dealing with non-Christians.Listen to what non-Christians have to tell you.Bosses, teachers, neighbors.

†† If what they say is true, then itís true.All truth is from God.

 

John Calvin said this about the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers:

†† ďThe mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with Godís excellent gifts.If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it where it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.Ē

All truth is from God, if you despise it or reject it because it comes from an

†† unbeliever, then you are dishonoring God himself.

So common grace teaches us to listen to what non-Christians have to say,

†† and also to respect their work.

Even though they donít know it, their work is a calling from God.

†† And we must respect that and honor the good in it and their contributions.

 

Let me apply this to a subject that Christians sometimes butt heads overó

†† the subject of education.

I believe in Christian education.I believe that the most complete education

†† must take place in a setting that allows teachers and students to talk openly

†† about God and human nature and the Bible and Christianity.

 

If you donít have that, and if teachers are restricted by the government from

†† addressing the big moral and spiritual issues of human life in the classroom,

then you arenít preparing children for the real world.

Education is limited to one very narrow viewpointóthe secular viewpoint.

†† So I believe in Christian education.Broadest, most open-minded education.

 

But that being said, I also believe in common grace.

†† That means I believe a non-Christian, teaching in a public school has a

calling from God that must be honored.

In that calling she is able to do good for her students and impart knowledge

and advance learning and promote civic virtues.

And common grace also tells me that she could be the best teacher in town

†† because God scatters those talents to all sorts of people, not just Christians.

 

Paul put it this way in Romans 13.He said Christians must honor the magistrate,

†† because he is Godís minister to promote good and punish evil.

†† Think about that.Government officials in Paulís day were pagan Romans.

Paul was not saying that there is no such thing as an evil magistrates,

†† But he was saying that in a common grace sense, God calls all magistrates.

He uses them to promote the good and welfare of society.Abimelech such a one.

†† Christians should remember that and honor God by honoring them.

 

And when a Christian does that.When he believes in common grace,

†† and listens to unbelievers and respects their callings and contributionsó

†† it sets the stage for much more effective evangelism.

Thatís necessary because as good as common grace is, it doesnít save anyone.

Salvation only comes through Godís saving grace.

†† Thatís where we turn now with our second big question:

MP#2Why are believers sometimes so bad?

Letís start to answer that question by looking more closely at Abrahamís behavior.

†† Weíve looked at Abimelechís common grace goodness,

†† now letís look at the badness of our father in the faith.

 

First thing that stands out about Abrahamís cowardly behavior

†† is that he did this before.He did it 20 years earlier.

Back in chapter 12, shortly after coming to the Promised Land, went to Egypt.

†† When Pharaoh saw Sarah, he wanted her.She was really a babe then, only 70.

Abraham was afraid Pharaoh would kill him and take her if he found out

†† they were married so he said, tell him youíre my sister.And Pharaoh took her.

And the promise of the ages hung in the balance.Without Sarah, there would

†† be no promised son, with no promised son, no Jesus and no salvation.

God intervened, he restored Sarah, and Abraham was shamed.

 

20 years later, Abraham was old and wiser, and had more experience with God.

†† And Godís goodness and judgment were very fresh and vivid in his mind.

†† God visited his tent and said that Sarah would have a son in one year.

†† And then the Lord destroyed Sodom, and Abraham saw that.

But in spite of all of his spiritual growth, and all these spiritual highs,

†† Abraham committed the same sin.And it wasnít a little sin.

†† It was big.And it had the potential for devastating consequences.

 

He was taken to task by Abimelech.And that had to be humiliating.

†† God spoke to an unbeliever, and used that unbeliever as his Holy Spirit.

†† (Thatís the part that reminded me of getting reprimanded by my boss.)

And then, instead of saying:Forgive me.I lied to you.I wronged you.

†† I shamed my wife.I dishonored my God.What did Abraham do?

 

He tried to defend himself.And in doing that he dug a deeper and deeper hole.

First he said:ďI said to myself, There is surely of fear of God in this place,

†† and they will kill me because of my wife.Ē

I didnít think you people had a conscience or any respect for marriage.

†† Abimelech was probably thinking:Thanks for the compliment!

 

Then he said:And besides, she really is my sister.Well, my half-sister.

†† That doesnít exactly put Abraham in the best light.

And then he gave the worse excuse of all.

†† I had to do this ever since God made me wander from my fatherís household.

†† He blamed God for putting him into a situation where he had to lie.

 

And then finally he said:I told Sarah long ago that this is they way she could

†† show her love to me, by telling people she is my sister, to keep my life safe.

He tried to make it sound like this had been his general policy for years,

†† when the fact is he had only done it once before.

But maybe he did on other occasions.Neither explanation reflects well on him.

 

Abimelech responded to these lame excuses by giving Abraham servants and land.

You have to laugh at what he said to Sarah when he gave them the last gift:

ďI am giving your brother (wink, wink)

†† a thousand shekels of silver to cover the offense against you.Ē

He was shaking his head at this believer, this follower of the Lord.

Thereís some humor here and itís ok to laughó

†† as long as you know youíre laughing at yourself.

 

Weíve all been here.Weíve all committed the same old sins.

†† The compromises weíve made with evil long ago have weakened us.

And then when they are exposed, we respond defensively.Make excuses.

†† But later, when you have had time to think about it,

†† and think about Godís goodness to you, and how he didnít strike you down,

†† but instead mitigated the consequences, and continued to pour out blessings,

Youíre so ashamed, and so amazed at his love.

†† And you tell yourself, never again.Never again will I sin against Godís love.

 

Robert Rayburn tells a story of his father-in-law, who was one of eight children

†† during the Depression.Times were hard and sometimes food was even scarce.

So dessert was a rare treat.Once his mother prepared ten desserts, one for each

member of the family.But he snuck one of them before supper, so only nine.

His punishment for stealing, was that when dessert was served after the meal,

†† he was required to eat his motherís dessert

†† He had seconds while she had none.

 

Thatís what God did to Abraham.

†† Whenever Abraham saw one of those servants, or that silver or land Abimelech

†† had given him, he must have hung his head and said:

I donít deserve this.I deserved to have Sarah taken away.

I deserved to lose everything.I deserved hell, but the Lordís blessed me instead.

†† O Lord, never again, Lord!I hate my sin.I promise Iíll be true to you.

Now, with that vision of Abraham in our minds, letís answer the question:

†† Why are we Christians so bad?

Why doesnít God sanctify us completely when we are born again?

†† Why doesnít he just wipe all of our sinfulness away when he forgives us?

 

Thatís a question godly people have long pondered.

†† And preachers of old have said that there are four reasons God permits

†† sin to remain so active and powerful in the lives of his children in this world.

 

1.To humble us.

†† Humility is the fountain of all virtues in the Christian life.

†† Out of that humility grows patience, kindness, gentleness, contentment,

†† self-controlóand so many more beautiful things.

Nothing humbles us more than seeing our sin and weakness.

†† The loveliest Christians are most aware of their sinfulness.

 

2.To strengthen our faith.Faith is strengthened in conflict, not in ease.

The greatest conflict, the daily, lifelong conflict is with our sinful hearts.

†† That battle forces us to trust Jesus our Captain.

†† And to call out to his Holy Spirit for strength.

†† And to make use of all the Gospel weapons.

Christians who know their sinfulness and fight it have strong faith.

 

3.To assure us of our salvation.How do you know if you are born again?

Many people think they are Christians, but they arenít.

†† The best way to know for sure whether you are a Christian is the response

†† you have to the sin in your heart and life.

When a person is sick at heart over his sins.Sorrows over offending the Lord.

†† There is no more certain evidence that he is born again.

 

There is that incredible testimony of Paul.

†† ďChrist Jesus came into the world to save sinnersóof whom I am the worst.Ē

Paul didnít learn that just by looking back at his pre-Christian days.He couldnít

†† have said that right after he became a Christian.He learned it after years of

†† walking with God and his experience of his sinfulness as a Christian.

It was the sorrow for his sin as a Christian, t

†† that led him to an even deeper assurance of his position in Christ.

But the fourth reason might be the most important of all:

4.To glorify Godís grace in your life.

What does the Lord call Abraham after his all the bad he did?

†† This man is my prophet.I hear is prayers.

Thereís noting at all fair about that.Abimelech is the better man.

†† But Godís graceóhis saving grace, his special grace is magnified in Abraham.

 

And itís a keen view of your own sins that makes Godís grace

†† shine out to you that much more.

ďAmazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me . . .Ē

 

ďAlas and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die;

Would he devote that sacred head, for such a worm as I?Ē

 

There will be a day when we are perfect and without sin.

†† When Jesus comes, Bible says when we see him we shall be like him.

†† In a moment, we will be perfected and glorified.

 

But until that day, this is Godís plan for your life in this world.

†† Like our father Abraham:

†† He wants you humbled by your sinsóand out of that humility, virtuous life.

†† He wants you growing in faith as you fight themótrusting Jesus.

†† He wants you assured of your salvation as you sorrow over them.

 

And mostly, he wants to magnify his grace in youó

†† so that he gets all the glory in your life.