As we enter a new year, there are a lot of different things we can focus on. Many people set resolutions for themselves: “New year, new me”, etc. We have hopes and dreams for what we hope to accomplish, and what we hope to avoid from the previous year. While the world focuses on anything from pleasure to family, money to fitness, and much more, we have to ask ourselves what is most important for us to focus on, as followers of Jesus Christ and as people working with teenagers. This morning, as we’re only 9 hours into 2018, I want to offer the most important thing I think we can contemplate: grace.
Grace is absolutely foundational to what we believe and have devoted our lives to. It is by grace that we are saved and only by grace that we are justified, made right, in God’s sight. Grace becomes the framework we live under in Christ and is given to us continually by God. We are instructed to draw near to the throne of grace and to be strengthened by grace. In this post, I don’t intend to unpack exactly what the word for grace means or how grace actually works out. Instead, I want to consider the implications of grace in our lives personally and in the lives of the teenagers we work with.
In order to do that, I want to provide the simple definition I’ve understood for grace. Grace is unmerited favor. We receive what we do not deserve. It’s not like we’ve partially earned what we receive. Grace is often intertwined with mercy, but where grace is receiving what we do not deserve, mercy is not receiving the punishment we do deserve. The grace of God is very clearly demonstrated when Paul writes, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When we were God’s enemies, he loved us and died for us. Before we did anything to change our disposition toward God (not that we could have), he offers his grace.
The issue with grace is not one of understanding. J.I. Packer, in his best-known work Knowing God, says this about grace: “But many church people are not like this. They may pay lip service to the idea of grace, but there they stop.” We understand what grace means on paper, but fail to apply it to our lives, and especially the lives of those around us. Earlier this week, I saw a tweet from Rich Villodas, a pastor in New York City, that captures the issue with not applying our theology perfectly. He said “Our theology, no matter how good, becomes irrelevant & idolatrous when it’s not used in service of loving God and our neighbor.” A proper theology of grace is only proper insofar as we actually demonstrate grace to the people around us.
In order to do that, we have to understand the depth of the grace that has been shown to us. We have to truly consider just how hopeless we were before God intervened in our hearts. We have to understand that Paul’s statements in Romans 3 that there are none who are righteous and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God apply to us too. Just because we’ve been following Jesus for years doesn’t mean that we somehow have surpassed the need for grace. Walt Mueller at CPYU often shares this quote, which is attributed to John Bradford: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” When we look out at the people in our lives and in the world, we cannot point our finger and scoff as if we’re better than them. Instead, we have to be driven to our knees in humility and thank God that by his grace he is changing our hearts and preventing us from doing the same.
This year, consider how the grace of God actually impacts your life. Are you driven to thankfulness and praise because of the boundless love and grace you have been shown? Or do you become prideful and feel like you have earned what you’ve received? How we answer those questions will reveal how good we are at showing grace to other people. Extending God’s grace can be as simple as being patient with the cashier who’s going a little slow for us or as involved as showing consistent and unconditional love to a family member who has very evident failings. How great would it be if our resolution this year (and every year after, but let’s start with one) was to grow in our understanding of the depth of God’s grace in our lives and how we have to extend that grace to others? If we do not extend grace to those around us, then we demonstrate that we don’t truly understand the grace of God.
What does this have to do with youth ministry?
The first reason that a true theology of grace is necessary for youth ministry should be easily apparent. We are responsible for imparting a good theology of grace to the teenagers we serve. The fact that we are saved by grace and not by anything we have done is foundational. Too many teenagers leave their youth group without a clear understanding of grace and how salvation works. The ramifications of that grace in the rest of our lives then has to be interwoven in everything else we teach and discuss. Second, youth ministry is the perfect venue for us to show grace to other people. If you’ve never been frustrated with a teenager, then you either have 0 kids in your youth ministry or you are lying. The teenagers we serve are going to fail, and we have the opportunity to show them how grace responds to that failure. We do not excuse it, and there are still appropriate consequences, but we do not respond in shame or harsh vengeance like we might want to. As we teach them about the grace of God, we must then show them the grace of God in action.
I didn’t include as many references to books as I have in other posts, and for good reason. Grace is discussed in almost every book we could read about theology and ministry, or at least it should be. Grace is so foundational that if we get it wrong, there’s nothing else worth saving. And in order to get it right, grace has to be actively present in our lives and in our actions. Will you join me in making 2018 a year of grace?
 Ephesians 2:8, Romans 11:6 ESV
 Romans 3:24 ESV
 Romans 6:14, Galatians 2:19-21 ESV
 John 1:16, James 4:6 ESV
 Hebrews 4:16 ESV
 2 Timothy 2:1 ESV
 Romans 5:8 ESV
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 129.