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Continuing in the Grace of God

The word of exhortation delivered by Paul to those gathered in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia contains many of the essential elements of apostolic preaching (Acts 13:14-52). There was the historical linkage that began with the fathers (13:17), transitioned through Egypt and the wilderness (13:17-18), brought Israel into the land of promise (13:19), led to the Judges and Samuel (13:20), and then king David (13:22), from whose seed he raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus (13:23). This Jesus is portrayed as the One in whom there was no cause of death, but crucified nonetheless by an elect nation that condemned him (13:27-28). In so doing, they fulfilled the prophetic scriptures by nailing him to a tree (13:29). But God raised him from the dead (13:30).

According to Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ had now become the basis for forgiveness of sins (13:38). It is worth nothing that this synagogue crowd consisted of both Jews and Gentiles, all of which were recipients of the word of salvation (13:26). Paul clearly believed that the death of Christ was inclusive of all men without exception or distinction. If Paul had believed in a limited atonement, there is no way (with good conscience) he could have preached the forgiveness of sins to every man in that synagogue. But when Paul preached the cross, he made a universal application of its merits, and excluded no one in his appeal! If the cross and empty tomb do not represent hope and good news for every sinner, then who can know with certainty (apart from a subjective experience) whether there is a value in that cross for them?

There are two observations to be made from our text. The first is from Paul’s opening remarks, and the second from Paul’s interaction with the hearers after the meeting broke up. Both of them provide valuable insight into the mind of Paul regarding his perspective on grace.

In his introduction, Paul referred to his audience as “Men of Israel, and ye that fear God” (13:16). Mid-way through his message, he addressed them as “children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God” (13:26). Now, this is the same man who wrote: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). Is Paul contradicting himself? What could have caused Paul to attribute the fear of God to men in this crowd and deny it to the entire race of sinners in his epistle to the Romans?

The answer lies in what Paul immediately perceived as he sized up the congregation prior to speaking—the grace of God was at work in Antioch of Pisidia long before he arrived! God’s drawing grace alone could account for both Jewish and Gentile hearts ready to receive the Word with reverence and awe. And as the apostle to the Gentiles, it must have thrilled Paul’s heart to see so many Gentiles hungering for the truth of God. This was grace at work...and the Gentiles were in the midst of it!

The second observation finds these same God-fearing Gentiles begging for another dose of the gospel on the next Sabbath day (13:42-43). This is grace in durative action. God prepared their hearts before Paul came on the scene, and continued to stir their souls by his Spirit regarding his Son after the preaching had ended. Many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who “persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.” Paul was aware of what God was up to with his grace, and convinced these men that they should remain open to the truth they had heard until it bore the fruit of salvation in their souls!

Now, we can call this grace of God drawing grace, illuminating grace, or quickening grace (that awakens the soul that is dead in trespasses and sins to the light of gospel truth so that the will is able to respond to it in faith). Paul discerned the work of God in their midst, but also realized it was possible for them to discontinue the journey toward gospel truth, and frustrate the grace of God.

The manner in which Paul dealt with these men is totally inconsistent with the philosophical notions of “unconditional election” and “irresistible grace.” If Paul had been a “sovereign grace” preacher, as some have mislabeled him, he would have been content to let God regenerate his elect without regard for their continuance in grace or the lack thereof. In fact, the seekers would have had no choice in the matter. But Paul appealed to them as one who knew they had a responsibility to cooperate with the grace of God, knowing that eternal danger was close at hand for those who rejected the work of grace (13:40-41).

During my years as a pastor, I witnessed on many occasions the grace of God working in the hearts of lost sinners. They would often come back to church Sunday after Sunday with an apparent hunger for the truth. It was always my prayer that they would continue in the grace of God, and during visits to their homes I would try to encourage them to do so. At times I would say, “The church cannot get you to heaven, but it’s a great place to catch the bus that can.” The metaphorical bus of which I spoke is the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have a lost friend, loved one, or acquaintance that is searching, then know that the grace of God is at work within them. Do all you can to persuade them to continue in that precious grace!


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