It was 1983. At the time, John Abbott was a hard-nosed regional manager with Thornton Oil Co., living in New Albany, Indiana.
John grew up in a church parsonage and eventually he enrolled in a Bible college, from which he was expelled for a minor infraction. John then enrolled in the Air Force, serving his country for over nine years. While in the military, he married and divorced. He later remarried, but in time serious strains occurred that marriage. Finally, his lovely wife LeAnn, a committed Christian, issued an ultimatum: “Either you get your act together and start going to church with me and the kids or this marriage may end.”
John was cornered. He loved his wife and kids and didn’t want to lose them. He had to make a choice. And so with great reluctance, he went to both Sunday school and the worship service the following Sunday.
It happened to be a communion Sunday that day at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in New Albany. John had decided that he was going to surrender his life to the Lord Jesus Christ when the invitation was given at the end of the service. But when he glanced at the church bulletin, he noticed there was no invitation printed.
John then told the Lord that it was his problem. In other words, if there’s no invitation for sinners to go forward and accept Christ as their Savior, then he couldn’t do it—at least not that day, so he thought.
Because of large attendance in their services, usually communion was served to believers in the pews at Wesley Chapel. However, that Sunday, Pastor John Thrasher—a strong evangelical minister—invited the Christians and repentant sinners to receive communion at the altar. John Abbott decided this was his moment. He walked the aisle, knelt at the altar, and promptly:
“God, I don’t know how to pray. I messed up; you can have it.”
Whereupon he took the bread and the cup and returned to his seat.
Sitting in his seat, the words of 1 John 3:9 came to his mind, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins . . .” He was immediately awash with God’s peace. He left church that day a new man.
Days later, John walked out of his company’s office and witnessed a horrific automobile accident. The accident victim was outside his car and convulsing. A television news crew happened on the scene. John had a strong sense that he should go pray for the man. Then he thought, How will this look—me, John Abbott—right next to our headquarters, praying for someone. But rejecting that thought, he hurried toward the man, knelt at his side, and cradled the man’s head in his hand . . . and prayed: “Lord, stop these convulsions and give this man peace until the ambulance arrives.” Immediately, the convulsions stopped, the ambulance came, and John started walking away.
The news reporter stopped John and said,
“I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
I’m sure John thought, I’ve never done anything like that before.
Later John was called by the Lord to vocational ministry. He graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary, in time earned a doctor of ministry degree, pastored three United Methodist churches, and for the past 10 years, Dr. John D. Abbott, Jr. has served on our ministry’s board.1
Now I have a question: Tell me, how did this radical change occur in this man’s life? How?
The Spirit-inspired Word of God holds the answer.
A Message of Change
One cannot read the twenty-seven books which comprise our New Testament Scriptures without noticing that inherent in every conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ is a changed life—changed immediately and definitely at the point of conversion, and continuing to change following the crisis of repentance and saving faith in Jesus Christ.
When the centuries-long prophesied forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist, commenced his wilderness ministry, his Spirit-born message was a message of change: “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).2 After John’s imprisonment, Jesus began his mission and ministry with the same message—the message of change: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Repentance means change—a radical change of mind, which results in a radical change of conduct.
The Old Testament prophets knew this. John the Baptist knew this. The Lord Jesus Christ—the Word become flesh—knew this. And each of the Apostles knew this, including the Apostle Paul.
He who was once a fire-breathing persecutor of this new Christian sect, following a sudden, dramatic, and personal encounter with the crucified, risen, and ascended Savior of mankind, became a changed person himself and thereafter became a powerful agent and messenger of change, preaching until his final breath, Jesus Christ—the life-Changer, the Savior.
Titus and Crete
In the course of time, the Apostle Paul was led by the Spirit of God to pen thirteen letters of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. These letters were written to churches as well as individuals. Those written to individuals consist of four letters, one of which is Paul’s Letter to Titus—the spiritual overseer of the Mediterranean island of Crete.
While at Crete, as he did on all of his mission travels, Paul was enabled by the Lord to establish churches. But in due course, Paul left the island and purposely left Titus behind to carry on the great work. Later on he writes to Titus, reminding him why he left him in Crete: “that you might appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (1:5). He then proceeded to lay down the spiritual qualifications for elders, warned Titus how to deal with false teachers and teaching, and then informed him what he should teach to older men and women and young women and young men and slaves.
After identifying many of the virtues which are to characterize Christian leaders and all believers, Paul uses the little transitional preposition “for,” indicating that all he wrote before, he is now about to tell Titus and us—by the same Holy Spirit who inspired these words—the purpose of why he wrote what he wrote.
The Grace of God
“For the grace of God has appeared” (2:11).
The grace of God has been at work in God’s creation from the beginning of time. It was present when Adam and Eve fell in Eden’s Garden and continued through the preaching of the last of the Old Testament prophets. However, it was the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ that was (and is) the ultimate revelation of the grace of God—God manifesting himself in human flesh. The writer of Hebrews sums it up beautifully.
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:1-4).
The incarnation of Jesus Christ was the visible, manifest appearance of God’s grace—”the Word became flesh and dwelt among” (Jo. 1:14). From his birth in Bethlehem’s manger, throughout his earthly ministry, to his atoning sacrifice, resurrection and ascension—it was the grace of God working in and through the Word made flesh. The apostle wrote: “For the grace of God has appeared.” The grace of God!
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (2:11).
The revelation of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, was the perfect revelation and demonstration of God’s attitude toward fallen, wayward, twisted, lost sinners—which takes in the entire human race from the beginning of time to the end of time. It is called grace because we are undeserving. It is called grace because we have no merit. It is called grace because in the words of the prophet, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Your iniquity; my iniquity—”the iniquity of us all.”
Is it any wonder the first time John the Baptist laid his eyes upon the Lord Jesus that he cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jo. 1:29)? For in Christ, the promised Messiah, John saw God’s very personification, God’s very embodiment of grace. Here was the Lamb—the holy, undefiled, spotless Lamb of God. Here was God bringing salvation for all mankind. Jesus himself was the grace of God . . . “bringing salvation for all people”—on that Cross and out from the Empty Tomb.
Shortly following his conversion, an Anglican ordained minister by the name of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), who eventually penned over 6500 hymns, did his best to express with pen on paper his amazement and wonderment at the manifest grace of God in bringing salvation through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Here are the first three stanzas of this classic Christian hymn:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
‘Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!3
Grace Up Close
Now I want us to turn to an additional passage in the Titus Letter that addresses this matter of salvation and grace from a slightly different perspective. The first passage we looked at identified grace from a more or less historical perspective—that is, God’s grace appearing in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ some two thousand years ago, which resulted in his making an atoning sacrifice for man’s salvation and redemption. But in Titus3:4-7, this subject of grace moves from the historical and objective to the personal and experiential.
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . .” (3:4-5a).
The “goodness and loving kindness” of God was on full display in the incarnation, atoning sacrifice, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you ask whether or not God is good, look to Bethlehem, look to Calvary, look to the Empty Tomb! God demonstrated his goodness in the provision he made for our salvation; but wonder of wonders! God demonstrates his goodness when he receives us one by one as we are enabled to appropriate his salvation—personally and experientially. Oh, the goodness and loving kindness of God! Who can fathom it? Who can comprehend it?
A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), who made it his lifelong pursuit to know God, to walk with God, said of God’s goodness and loving kindness:
“The goodness of God is that which disposes Him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will toward men. He is tenderhearted and of quick sympathy, and His unfailing attitude toward all moral beings is open, frank, and friendly. By His nature He is inclined to bestow blessedness and He takes holy pleasure inn the happiness of His people. . . . Divine goodness, as one of God’s attributes, is self-caused, infinite, perfect, and eternal. Since God is immutable He never varies in the intensity of His loving-kindness. He has never been kinder than He now is, nor will He ever be less kind.”4
Is it any wonder, upon contemplating the goodness and loving kindness of God revealed in the Lord Jesus, that a little 12th century French monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), wrote,
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!5
Paul wrote, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . .” (3:4-5a).
Six times in this little Letter, the apostle refers to God and the Lord Jesus Christ as “Savior.”
1:3, “. . . at the proper time he [God] manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior; . . .”
1:4, “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.”
2:10, “but showing all good faith, so that in everything they [slaves] may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
3:13, “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ . . .”
3:4, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared . . .”
3:6, whom [the Holy Spirit] he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior . . .”
God our Savior! Christ Jesus our Savior! “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . .” (3:4-5a).
He saved us! Saved us from what?
Christians don’t talk much about being saved anymore, do they? I wonder why. We say we “went forward.” We say we made a “decision” for Christ. We say we were “baptized.” We say we were “confirmed.” We say we joined the “church.” We talk about accepting Jesus as our “Savior.” But “Savior” from what?
The angel’s announcement to Joseph was, “you shall call his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus (Yeshua), means “the LORD’S salvation,” or, “salvation from the LORD.”
But what is the person who repents of his sins and puts his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior saved from? God’s Word teaches us that the genuine believer is saved essentially and fundamentally from two things:
The future judgment and wrath of God. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9). Again, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).
Our sins. Of the scores of references to the word “save” (and its cognates) in bother the Old and New Testaments, and of the scores of references of the word “salvation”—they have reference primarily to God through Christ saving the repentant sinner from his and her sins. The angel said to Joseph, “you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Paul wrote to Titus, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . .” (3:4-5a). Now we can’t be saved from our sins without Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sins and his resurrection from the grave. But here Paul is addressing personal salvation, experiential salvation—appropriating for ourselves what God accomplished in Christ two thousand years ago.
He saved us! Saved us from what? What was it we needed to be saved from? Our sins! “You will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
I hear someone say, “I thought I was only forgiven of my sins when I repented and trusted in Christ.” Oh, you were forgiven, to be sure. Thank God, you were! But what did you repent of—if indeed you did experience genuine repentance? Your sins, right? What is repentance? It’s a gift from God which enables us to turn away from our sins and turn toward God. That is the way Paul put it when reminding the Thessalonian Christians the change wrought in them when they received the word of God under his preaching: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
Are you saved, dear reader? What did God save you from? What evil habits were you bound by? What chains fell off when God saved you?
Though having a godly Christian father and mother; though attending a Church of England chapel from the day of his infant baptism; though a graduate of Oxford University, where among other subjects he studied theology; though he could read the sacred Scriptures in their original languages; though ordained to be a Christian minister; though having spent a few years in the United States in the state of Georgia as a missionary—it wasn’t until 31 years of age, while reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians that Charles Wesley saw himself as a sinner and trusted at that moment in God through Christ to save him. In writing later of that experience, he wrote,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.6
“My chains fell off”!
Are you saved, dear reader? Have your chains fallen off? Oh, I don’t mean to imply that at the conversion moment, the salvation moment, that all of sin’s remnants are gone. God has a lot of work to do in us for as long as we are in this world (God’s grace not only saves us, it is “training us” for a lifetime; see 2:11). However, at the conversion event, at the moment we personally experienced God’s glorious saving grace—he saved us from our sins and the Holy Spirit entered our lives and we became his sacred temple. From that moment we have a radical and fundamental attitude change toward sin and sinning.
How else can you explain Saul of Tarsus—the Christ-hater and Christian persecutor, becoming Paul the Apostle—the gentle, thoughtful, courageous evangelist and servant of the Lord Jesus Christ? How else can you explain the change that occurred in him other than his experiencing God’s saving grave from sin. How else can you explain a former hard-nosed executive kneeling beside a accident victim, offering a prayer for God to spare his life, who days before would have looked the other way?
The only explanation is the appearance of the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ, saving and changing repentant sinners. Such changes can’t be accounted for as a mere exertion of the will. The explanation is grace—God’s grace infusing his divine love into our heart, giving us a clean conscience and a new heart and new life, in order that we might walk in newness of life.
To be saved from the future coming wrath of God is wonderful fact and assurance for the Christian. To be saved—delivered from our sins—in this present age by a good and kind God is no less wonderful and amazing.
– Soli Deo Gloria –
- This account has been used with the kind permission of Dr. John D. Abbott, Jr.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Taken from “And Can It Be?” by Charles Wesley.
- A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), 88.
- Taken from “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” by Bernard of Clairvaux.
- Wesley, Ibid.
Taken from . . .
Christ in You: Living the Christ-Life
copyright © 2015
Ralph I. Tilley
(May be copied for noncommercial purposes;
not to exceed 500 copies.)