Unmerited, undeserved, unearned
Robert Robinson was 8 years old, living a carefree life in a small English village, at the time of his father’s death in 1743. He was a very bright, headstrong boy who became increasingly more difficult for his mother to handle. When Robert turned 14, she sent him to London for an apprenticeship with a barber. Robert proceeded to get into even more trouble. He had little purpose in life and began drinking heavily and gambling away any meager earnings he made.
At 17 Robert and some of his drinking buddies decided to attend an evangelistic meeting, with a plan to make fun of the proceedings and mock the evangelist. When George Whitefield began to preach about Jesus, Robert felt an unexplainable stirring deep within his heart. Strange feelings of love for this Christ awakened within. The thought of God’s grace overwhelmed him.
He did not respond to the altar call that night, but the words of the evangelist would haunt him for the next three years.
On December 10, 1755, at age 20, Robert finally yielded his life to Christ, and very soon after answered a call to the ministry. Three years later, as he was preparing to preach a sermon at a Methodist chapel in Norfolk, England, Robert wrote “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” to complement his sermon.
The hymn’s words speak of a grace we do not deserve and a debt we cannot pay. They speak of mercy beyond belief, forgiveness beyond comprehension, and grace beyond human understanding.
You likely know the words well and have sung the old hymn many times.
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
It is the third verse that moves me most:
O, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind me closer still to Thee.
The apostle Paul certainly was overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace.
Paul and Grace
The book of Romans is overflowing with God’s grace. Paul points us to the single motivation powerful enough to enable God’s church to proclaim the everlasting gospel to all the world in preparation for the coming of our Lord.
“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’ ”(Rom. 1:14-17).1
It is this sense of indebtedness that prompts and motivates Paul’s witness.
Paul was a debtor. In Christ he found mercy; in Christ he found forgiveness; in Christ he found pardon; in Christ he found grace; in Christ his life was transformed, made new, and he found a new reason for living.
The crucified Christ redeemed him from the condemnation and guilt of his past.
The resurrected Christ gave him power for the present, and the returning Christ gave him hope for the future. Paul cries from the depth of his being, “I am a debtor to grace.”
More of this amazing grace can be found throughout the book of Romans. Let’s get a glimpse of the Holy Spirit’s revelation of the magnificence of grace throughout the book.
“Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:24-26).
Notice the three main points in the passage: (1) we are justified freely by grace; (2) grace is a declaration of God’s righteousness; and (3) through grace God justifies those who believe in Jesus.
Finally, here is another grace-filled portion of Romans:
“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8).
Grace That Does Not Make Sense
Christ’s grace is unmerited, undeserved, unearned. Jesus died the agonizing, painful death that lost sinners will die. He experienced the fullness of the Father’s wrath or judgment against sin. He was rejected so we could be accepted. He died the death that was ours so we could live the life that was His. He wore the crown of thorns so we could wear a crown of glory. He was nailed upright in torturous pain upon a cross so we could reign on a throne with the redeemed of all ages wearing the robes of royalty forever. Marvel of all marvels, wonder of all wonders, in our shame and guilt Jesus did not reject us—He reached out in love to accept us.
Ellen White explains the significance of the cross powerfully:
“Upon Christ as our substitute and surety was laid the iniquity of us all. He was counted a transgressor, that He might redeem us from the condemnation of the law. The guilt of every descendant of Adam was pressing upon His heart. The wrath of God against sin, the terrible manifestation of His displeasure because of iniquity, filled the soul of His Son with consternation. All His life Christ had been publishing to a fallen world the good news of the Father’s mercy and pardoning love. Salvation for the chief of sinners was His theme. But now with the terrible weight of guilt He bears, He cannot see the Father’s reconciling face. The withdrawal of the divine countenance from the Savior in this hour of supreme anguish pierced His heart with a sorrow that can never be fully understood by [us]. So great was this agony that His physical pain was hardly felt.
“Satan with his fierce temptations wrung the heart of Jesus. The Savior could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal. Christ felt the anguish which the sinner will feel when mercy shall no longer plead for the guilty race. It was the sense of sin, bringing the Father’s wrath upon Him as the sinner’s substitute, that made the cup He drank so bitter, and broke the heart of the Son of God.”2
This is the story of grace. This is the story of a Savior’s love beyond measure. This is the story of a Jesus who loves us so much that He would rather experience hell itself than have one of us lost. This is the story of a boundless, unfathomable, incomprehensible, undying, unending, infinite love that longs for us to be with Him eternally. He was willing to assume the guilt, condemnation, and consequences of our sin and, if necessary, be separated from His Father forever if that is what it would take to save us.
It was an understanding of this divine love that led Paul to exclaim, “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel” (Rom. 1:14, 15).
The Obligation of Debt
Greeks in the time of Paul considered themselves sophisticated intellectuals, the educated elite, the skeptics who believed they were superior in every way to everyone else. Barbarians were all the non-Greeks whom the Greeks considered uneducated heathen or illiterate idol worshippers.
Paul is saying, “I am in debt to the educated and uneducated, to the rich and the poor, to the royal class and the working class. I am in debt to all humanity.”
Catch a glimpse of Paul’s passion for lost people. In Acts 16 Paul tells the story of God’s grace to a businesswoman from Thyatira, and her life is transformed. Continue reading the chapter and we find Paul and Silas singing of God’s grace in prison and the Philippian jailer and his entire family being baptized. In Acts 17 Paul shares God’s grace with the philosophers in Athens, and some respond to the claims of the gospel. Later in the book of Acts he unashamedly tells the story to Felix and Agrippa, and while imprisoned in Rome, he even has converts in Caesar’s household.
Throughout Acts Paul never tires of telling the story. He echoes it from Jerusalem to Rome. He proclaims it to Roman rulers and Jewish slave girls. He shares it in prisons and on ships, in marketplaces and in private homes.
What prompted him, what motivated him, what compelled him, to witness for Christ under the most challenging circumstances? What kept him going in the most difficult times? He was motivated by one thing and one thing alone—love. He makes this plain in his letter to the Corinthians: “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:14, 15).
Paul’s Passion Is Ours
We who are saved by grace echo these same sentiments. Grace liberates us, grace empowers us, grace changes us, grace transforms us. Grace compels us to tell the story. We can do no other. Good news is for sharing. We too are debtors to all humanity because of grace. What has Christ done for you?
In God’s providence you too have been touched by grace. His grace has pardoned you. His grace has freed you from guilt. His grace has redeemed you. His grace has empowered you. Through His grace you are a son or daughter of God. Through His grace you have been led into the Advent movement.
This is the story of a boundless, unfathomable, incomprehensible, undying, unending, infinite love.
Love prompts us. It motivates us—it compels us. We are not motivated by numbers. We are not motivated by statistics. We are not motivated by the desire to attract attention. We are not motivated by the desire for notoriety or publicity for our ministry or our institution. We are not motivated by the desire to be first or to be the greatest. The world’s motivational techniques have no attraction for us.
We are motivated by grace. We are motivated by love for the One who redeemed us. We are motivated by the Christ who hung on Calvary’s cross at an infinite cost to heaven, saving us. We are motivated by a love that is so powerful, so redeeming, so life-transformational, that we can do nothing else but tell the story.
What has motivated Adventists for centuries to leave their families and friends to cross oceans, traverse deserts, climb rough mountain passes, ford rivers, and brave mosquito-infested jungles to reach people whose culture and language and customs were dramatically different from theirs?
What has motivated Seventh-day Adventist laypeople to leave comfortable homes, prosperous businesses, and familiar surroundings to commit their entire lives to mission? Only one thing—the love of Christ. They were saved by grace, charmed by love, broken at the cross, and compelled to tell the story.
One of the hallmarks of much of today’s Christianity is its complacency. Many Christians have lost the “fire in our belly.”
They have lost the burning desire in their hearts.
They have lost the zeal.
They have lost the vision.
They have lost the passion.
My friend and General Conference director of the Office of Archives, Research, and Statistics, David Trim, shared with me this remarkable story of Georg Riffel’s conversion and his burning desire to share the love of Christ with lost people. Consider the life of one who sensed his debt and captured the passion.
Grace in Action: Georg Riffel
Georg Riffel and his brother were ethnic Germans, members of the Moravians, living in Russia. About 1870 they decided to emigrate to the Americas: Frederick went to the United States, Georg emigrated to South America, initially to Brazil. After four years Georg emigrated again, this time to the province of Entre Ríos in Argentina, boasting a large German-speaking community, including other immigrants from Russia.
The Riffels farmed there for six years, but successive years of crop failure because of drought were followed by a grasshopper plague. Georg moved on again, to the United States, making a home in Kansas, where Frederick had also settled—both brothers now farmed in Marion County.
God blessed Georg and his family there. Locals remembered him as the richest farmer in the county. But in 1885 the two brothers and their families were converted to Adventism. Now that Georg had heard the truth, he could not rest. His friends in Argentina were on his mind. After earnest prayer the family decided to return to Argentina as lay evangelists.
Early in 1890 they settled near a river port, Diamante. Known as Jorge to Spanish-speaking locals, Georg spoke little Spanish and therefore chose to work among his fellow ethnic Germans. He found a particularly favorable response among a German community around the town of Crespo. Within two years Riffel had studied with 50 people and baptized them. He wrote to the General Conference with the good news—and received a rebuke! Only ordained ministers were to baptize. In that case, Riffel replied, church leaders in the U.S.A. should send an ordained minister, one who spoke German, as quickly as possible. Eventually, in 1894, Frank Westphal, a German-American minister from Wisconsin, arrived. He organized the first Seventh-day Adventist church in the territory of what is now the South American Division on September 9, 1894. But Westphal initially reaped where Riffel had sowed.
Adventist colporteurs had already spread literature in Entre Ríos, and Riffel had mailed tracts to his friends. But while these prepared the ground, it is highly unlikely that the first local congregation of Seventh-day Adventists in South America would have emerged where and when it did, as early as it did, in Crespo; the development of the church across South America might have been much slower had it not been for the fact that Georg Riffel gave up a comfortable life in Kansas and traveled back to Argentina, driven by a desire that his friends should hear the good news of present truth and be with him in the kingdom.
Laypeople motivated by love have made sacrifices for Christ and witnessed throughout the centuries. The history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is replete with stories of laypeople and pastors so moved by grace that they have given their lives in service for Christ. And they are doing it today and will do it even more as we approach the return of our Lord.
Listen to Jesus’ words: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). John, on a rocky, barren outcrop on the island of Patmos, saw an angel fly in the midst of heaven, “having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, KJV).
The preaching of the everlasting gospel leaps across geographical boundaries; it penetrates earth’s remotest areas; it reaches people of every language and culture; it impacts the entire world.
“Servants of God,” wrote Ellen White, “with their faces lighted up and shining with holy consecration, will hasten from place to place to proclaim the message from heaven. By thousands of voices, all over the earth, the warning will be given. Miracles will be wrought, the sick will be healed, and signs and wonders will follow the believers.”3
“I saw jets of light shining from cities and villages, and from the high places and the low places of the earth. God’s Word was obeyed, and as a result there were memorials for Him in every city and village. His truth was proclaimed throughout the world.”4
As the apostle Paul triumphantly proclaimed: “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20). Grace is greater than sin. The power of Christ is greater than the power of the evil one. The love of Christ is a stronger motivation than the world’s cheap allurements. The appeal of the eternal is greater than the appeal of the transitory pleasures of this life.
God’s plan and purpose and people will triumph at last. The church, battered by Satan’s attacks, oppressed by the powers of evil, harassed by the forces of hell, and crushed by persecution, will rise and proclaim God’s last-day message of grace in the context of the three angels’ messages to the ends of the earth.
This is the destiny to which you are called. This is heaven’s calling to your heart. This is Christ’s appeal to your soul. Will you accept heaven’s appeal? Will you answer Christ’s call?
As a debtor to grace, will you give all you have to this Christ who paid such an infinite price for you and participate in His mission of sharing His grace with a dying world?
- Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 753.
- Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacifc Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 612.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, pp. 28, 29.