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ALL GRACE ABOUNDING
In addition to all his other qualities the Apostle was an extremely good man of business; and he had a field for the exercise of that quality in the collection for the poor saints of Judea, which takes up so much of this letter, and occupied for so long a period so much of his thoughts and efforts. It was for the sake of showing by actual demonstration that would ‘touch the hearts’ of the Jewish brethren, the absolute unity of the two halves of the Church, the Gentile and the Jewish, that the Apostle took so much trouble in this matter. The words which I have read for my text come in the midst of a very earnest appeal to the Corinthian Christians for their pecuniary help. He is dwelling upon the same thought which is expressed in the well-known words: ‘What I gave I kept; what I kept I lost.’
But whilst the words of my text primarily applied to money matters, you see that they are studiously general, universal. The Apostle, after his fashion, is lifting up a little ‘secular’ affair into a high spiritual region; and he lays down in my text a broad general law, which goes to the very depths of the Christian life.
Now, notice, we have here in three clauses three stages which we may venture to distinguish as the fountain, the basin, the stream. ‘God is able to make all grace abound toward you’;--there is the fountain. ‘That ye always, having all-sufficiency in all things’;--there is the basin that receives the gush from the fountain. ‘May abound in every good work’;--there is the steam that comes from the basin. The fountain pours into the basin, that the flow from the basin may feed the stream.
Now this thought of Paul’s goes to the heart of things. So let us look at it.
I. The Fountain.
The Christian life in all its aspects and experiences is an outflow from the ‘the Fountain of Life,’ the giving God. Observe how emphatically the Apostle, in the context, accumulates words that express universality: ‘_all_ grace . . . _all_-sufficiency for _all_ things . . . _every_ good work.’ But even these expressions do not satisfy Paul, and he has to repeat the word ‘abound,’ in order to give some faint idea of his conception of the full tide which gushes from the fountain. It is ‘all grace,’ and it is abounding grace.
Now what does he mean by ‘grace’? That word is a kind of shorthand for the whole sum of the unmerited blessings which come to men through Jesus Christ. Primarily, it describes what we, for want of a better expression, have to call a ‘disposition’ in the divine nature; and it means, then, if so looked at, the unconditioned, undeserved, spontaneous, eternal, stooping, pardoning love of God. That is grace, in the primary New Testament use of the phrase.
But there are no idle ‘dispositions’ in God. They are always energising, and so the word glides from meaning the disposition, to meaning the manifestation and activities of it, and the ‘grace’ of our Lord is that love in exercise. And then, since the divine energies are never fruitless, the word passes over, further, to mean all the blessed and beautiful things in a soul which are the consequences of the Promethean truth of God’s loving hand, the outcome in life of the inward bestowment which has its cause, its sole cause, in God’s ceaseless, unexhausted love, unmerited and free.
That, very superficially and inadequately set forth, is at least a glimpse into the fulness and greatness of meaning that lies in that profound New Testament word, ‘grace.’ But the Apostle here puts emphasis on the variety of forms which the one divine gift assumes. It is ‘_all_ grace’ which God is able to make abound toward you. So then, you see this one transcendent gift from the divine heart, when it comes into our human experience, is like a meteor when it passes into the atmosphere of earth, and catches fire and blazes, showering out a multitude of radiant points of light. The grace is many-sided--many-sided to us, but one in its source and in its character. For at bottom, that which God in His grace gives to us as His grace is what? Himself; or if you like to put it in another form, which comes to the same thing--new life through Jesus Christ. That is the encyclopזdiacal gift, which contains within itself all grace. And just as the physical life in each of us, one in all its manifestations, produces many results, and shines in the eye, and blushes in the cheek, and gives strength to the arm, and flexibility and deftness to the fingers and swiftness to the foot: so also is that one grace which, being manifold in its manifestations, is one in its essence. There are many graces, there is one Grace.
But this grace is not only many-sided, but abounding. It is not congruous with God’s wealth, nor with His love, that He should give scantily, or, as it were, should open but a finger of the hand that is full of His gifts, and let out a little at a time. There are no sluices on that great stream so as to regulate its flow, and to give sometimes a painful trickle and sometimes a full gush, but this fountain is always pouring itself out, and it ‘abounds.’
But then we are pulled up short by another word in this first clause: ‘God is _able_ to make.’ Paul does not say, ‘God will make.’ He puts the whole weight of responsibility for that ability becoming operative upon us. There are conditions; and although we may have access to that full fountain, it will not pour on us ‘all grace’ and ‘abundant grace,’ unless we observe these, and so turn God’s ability to give into actual giving. And how do we do that? By desire, by expectance, by petition, by faithful stewardship. If we have these things, if we have tutored ourselves, and experience has helped in the tuition, to make large our expectancy, God will smile down upon us and ‘do exceeding abundantly above all’ that we ‘think’ as well as above all that we ‘ask.’ Brethren, if our supplies are scant, when the full fountain is gushing at our sides, we are ‘not straitened in God, we are straitened in ourselves.’ Christian possibilities are Christian obligations, and what we might have and do not have, is our condemnation.
I turn, in the next place, to what I have, perhaps too fancifully, called
II. The Basin.
‘God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that ye, having always all-sufficiency in all things, may,’ . . . etc.
The result of all this many-sided and exuberant outpouring of grace from the fountain is that the basin may be full. Considering the infinite source and the small receptacle, we might have expected something more than ‘sufficiency’ to have resulted.
Divine grace is sufficient. Is it not more than sufficient? Yes, no doubt. But what Paul wishes us to feel is this--to put it into very plain English--that the good gifts of the divine grace will always be proportioned to our work, and to our sufferings too. We shall feel that we have enough, if we are as we ought to be. Sufficiency is more than a man gets anywhere else. ‘Enough is as good as a feast.’ And if we have strength, which we may have, to do the day’s tasks, and strength to carry the day’s crosses, and strength to accept the day’s sorrows, and strength to master the day’s temptations, that is as much as we need wish to have, even out of the fulness of God. And we shall get it, dear brethren, if we will only fulfil the conditions. If we exercise expectance, and desire and petition and faithful stewardship, we shall get what we need. ‘Thy shoes shall be iron and brass,’ if the road is a steep and rocky one that would wear out leather. ‘As thy days so shall thy strength be.’ God does not hurl His soldiers in a blundering attack on some impregnable mountain, where they are slain in heaps at the base; but when He lays a commandment on my shoulders, He infuses strength into me, and according to the good homely old saying that has brought comfort to many a sad and weighted heart, makes the back to bear the burden. The heavy task or the crushing sorrow is often the key that opens the door of God’s treasure-house. You have had very little experience either of life or of Christian life, if you have not learnt by this time that the harder your work, and the darker your sorrows, the mightier have been God’s supports, and the more starry the lights that have shone upon your path. ‘That ye, always having all-sufficiency in all things.’
One more word: this sufficiency _should be_ more uniform, _is_ uniform in the divine intention, and in so far as the flow of the fountain is concerned. Always having had I may be sure that I always shall have. Of course I know that, in so far as our physical nature conditions our spiritual experience, there will be ups and downs, moments of emancipation and moments of slavery. There will be times when the flower opens, and times when it shuts itself up. But I am sure that the great mass of Christian people might have a far more level temperature in their Christian experience than they have; that we could, if we would, have far more experimental knowledge of this ‘always’ of my text. God means that the basin should be always full right up to the top of the marble edge, and that the more is drawn off from it, the more should flow into it. But it is very often like the reservoirs in the hills for some great city in a drought, where great stretches of the bottom are exposed, and again, when the drought breaks, are full to the top of the retaining wall. That should not be. Our Christian life should run on the high levels. Why does it not? Possibilities are duties.
And now, lastly, we have here what, adhering to my metaphor, I call
III. The stream.
‘That ye, always having all-sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.’
That is what God gives us His grace for; and that is a very important consideration. The end of God’s dealings with us, poor, weak, sinful creatures, is character and conduct. Of course you can state the end in a great many other ways; but there have been terrible evils arising from the way in which Evangelical preachers have too often talked, as if the end of God’s dealings with us was the vague thing which they call ‘salvation,’ and by which many of their hearers take them to mean neither more nor less than dodging Hell. But the New Testament, with all its mysticism, even when it soars highest, and speaks most about the perfection of humanity, and the end of God’s dealings being that we may be ‘filled with the fulness of God,’ never loses its wholesome, sane hold of the common moralities of daily life, and proclaims that we receive all, in order that we may be able to ‘maintain good works for necessary uses.’ And if we lay that to heart, and remember that a correct creed, and a living faith, and precious, select, inward emotions and experiences are all intended to evolve into lives, filled and radiant with common moralities and ‘good works’--not meaning thereby the things which go by that name in popular phraseology, but ‘whatsoever things are lovely . . . and of good report’--then we shall understand a little better what we are here for and what Jesus Christ died for, and what His Spirit is given and lives in us for. So ‘good works’ is the end, in one very important aspect, of all that avalanche of grace which has been from eternity rushing down upon us from the heights of God.
There is one more thing to note, and that is that, in our character and conduct, we should copy the ‘giving grace.’ Look how eloquently and significantly, in the first and last clauses of my text, the same words recur. ‘God is able to make _all_ grace abound, that ye may _abound_ in _all_ good work.’ Copy God in the many-sidedness and in the copiousness of the good that flows out from your life and conduct, because of your possession of that divine grace. And remember, ‘to him that hath shall be given.’ We pray for more grace; we need to pray for that, no doubt. Do we use the grace that God has given us? If we do not, the remainder of that great word which I have just quoted will be fulfilled in you. God forbid that any of us should receive the grace of God in vain, and therefore come under the stern and inevitable sentence, ‘From him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath!’
GOD’S UNSPEAKABLE GIFT
It seems strange that there should ever have been any doubt as to what gift it is which evokes this burst of thanksgiving. There is but one of God’s many mercies which is worthy of being thus singled out. There is one blazing central sun which shines out amidst all the galaxy of lights which fill the heavens. There is one gift of God which, beyond all others, merits the designation of ‘unspeakable.’ The gift of Christ draws all other divine gifts after it. ‘How should He not with Him also freely give us all things.’
The connection in which this abrupt jet of praise stands is very remarkable. The Apostle has been dwelling on the Christian obligation of giving bountifully and cheerfully, and on the great law that a glad giver is ‘enriched’ and not impoverished thereby, whilst the recipients, for their part, are blessed by having thankfulness evoked towards the givers. And that contemplation of the happy interchange of benefit and thanks between men leads the fervid Apostle to the thoughts which were always ready to spring to his lips--of God as the great pattern of giving and of the gratitude to Him which should fill all our souls. The expression here ‘unspeakable’ is what I wish chiefly to fix upon now. It means literally that which cannot be fully declared. Language fails because thought fails.
I. The gift comes from unspeakable love.
God _so_ loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. The love is the cause of the gift: the gift is the expression of the love. John’s Gospel says that the Son which is in the bosom of the Father has _declared_ Him. Paul here uses a related word for _unspeakable_ which might be rendered ‘that which cannot be fully declared.’ The declaration of the Father partly consists in this, that He is declared to be undeclarable, the proclamation of His name consists partly in this that it is proclaimed to be a name that cannot be proclaimed. Language fails when it is applied to the expression of human emotion; no tongue can ever fully serve the heart. Whether there be any thoughts too great for words or no, there are emotions too great. Language is ever ‘weaker than our grief’ and not seldom weaker than our love. It is but the surface water that can be run off through the narrow channel of speech: the central deep remains. If it be so with human affection, how much more must it be so with God’s love? With lowly condescension He uses all sweet images drawn from earthly relationships, to help us in understanding His. Every dear name is pressed into the service--father, mother, husband, wife, brother, friend, and after all are exhausted, the love which clothed itself in them all in turn, and used them all to give some faint hint of its own perfection, remains unspoken. We know human love, its limitations, its changes, its extravagances, its shortcomings, and cannot but feel how unworthy it is to mirror for us that perfection in God which we venture to name by a name so soiled. The analogies between what we call love in man and love in God must be supplemented by the differences between them, if we are ever to approach a worthy conception of the unspeakable love that underlies the unspeakable gift.
II. The gift involves unspeakable sacrifice.
Human love desires to give its most precious treasures to its object and is then most blessed: divine love cannot come short of human in this most characteristic of its manifestations. Surely the copy is not to surpass the original, nor the mirror to flash more brightly than the sun which, at the brightest, it but reflects. In such a matter we can but stammer when we try to find words. As our text warns us, we are trying to utter the unutterable when we seek to speak of God’s giving up for us; but however such a thought may seem to be forbidden by other aspects of the divine nature, it seems to be involved in the great truth that ‘God is love.’ Since He is, His blessedness too, must be in imparting, and in parting with what He gives. A humble worshipper in Jewish times loved enough to say that he would not offer unto God an offering that cost him nothing, and that loving height of self-surrender was at the highest, but a lowly imitation of the love to which it looked up. When Paul in the Epistle to the Romans says, ‘He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all,’ he is obviously alluding to, and all but quoting, the divine words to Abraham, ‘Seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me,’ and the allusion permits us to parallel what God did when He sent His Son with what Abraham did when, with wrung heart, but with submission, he bound and laid Isaac on the altar and stretched forth his hand with the knife in it to slay him. Such a representation contradicts the vulgar conceptions of a passionless, self-sufficing, icy deity, but reflection on the facts of our own experience and on the blessed secrets of our own love, leads us to believe that some shadow of loss passed across the infinite and eternal completeness of the divine nature when ‘God sent forth His Son made of a woman.’ And may we not go further and say that when Jesus on the Cross cried from out of the darkness of eclipse, ‘My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ there was something in the heavens corresponding to the darkness that covered the earth and something in the Father’s heart that answered the Son’s. But our text warns us that such matters are not for our handling in speech, and are best dealt with, not as matters of possibly erring speculation, but as materials for lowly thanks unto God for His unspeakable gift.
But whatever may be true about the love of the Father who sent, there can be no doubt about the love of the Son who came. No man helps his fellows in suffering but at the cost of his own suffering. Sympathy means _fellow-feeling_, and the one indispensable condition of all rescue work of any sort is that the rescuer must bear on his own shoulders the sins or sorrows that he is able to bear away. Heartless help is no help. It does not matter whether he who ‘stands and says, "Be ye clothed and fed,"‘ gives or does not give ‘the things necessary,’ he will be but a ‘miserable comforter’ if he has not in heart and feeling entered into the sorrows and pains which he seeks to alleviate. We need not dwell on the familiar truths concerning Him who was a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ All through His life He was in contact with evil, and for Him the contact was like that of a naked hand pressed upon hot iron. The sins and woes of the world made His path through it like that of bare feet on sharp flints. If He had never died it would still have been true that ‘He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.’ On the Cross He completed the libation which had continued throughout His life and ‘poured out His soul unto death’ as He had been pouring it out all through His life. We have no measure by which we can estimate the inevitable sufferings in such a world as ours of such a spirit as Christ’s. We may know something of the solitude of uncongenial society; of the pain of seeing miseries that we cannot comfort, of the horrors of dwelling amidst impurities that we cannot cleanse, and of longings to escape from them all to some nest in the wilderness, but all these are but the feeblest shadows of the incarnate sorrows whose name among men was Jesus. Nothing is more pathetic than the way in which our Lord kept all these sorrows close locked within His own heart, so that scarcely ever did they come to light. Once He did permit a glimpse into that hidden chamber when He said, ‘O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you, how long shall I suffer you?’ But for the most part His sorrow was unspoken because it was ‘unspeakable.’ Once beneath the quivering olives in the moonlight of Gethsemane, He made a pitiful appeal for the little help which three drowsy men could give Him, when He cried, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. Tarry ye here and watch with Me,’ but for the most part the silence at which His judges ‘marvelled greatly,’ and raged as much as they marvelled, was unbroken, and as ‘a sheep before her shearers is dumb,’ so ‘He opened not His mouth.’ The sacrifice of His death was, for the most part, silent like the sacrifice of His life. Should it not call forth from us floods of praise and thanks to God for His unspeakable gift?
III. The gift brings with it unspeakable results.
In Christ are hid ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ When God gave us Him, He gave us a storehouse in which are contained treasures of truth which can never be fully comprehended, and which, even if comprehended, can never be exhausted. The mystery of the Divine Name revealed in Jesus, the mystery of His person, are themes on which the Christian world has been nourished ever since, and which are as full of food, not for the understanding only, but far more for the heart and the will, to-day as ever they were. The world may think that it has left the teaching of Jesus behind, but in reality the teaching is far ahead, and the world’s practise is but slowly creeping towards its imperfect attainment. The Gospel is the guide of the race, and each generation gathers something more from it, and progresses in the measure in which it follows Christ; and as for the race, so for the individual. Each of Christ’s scholars finds his own gift, and in the measure of his faithfulness to what he has found makes ever new discoveries in the unsearchable riches of Christ. After all have fed full there still remain abundant baskets full to be taken up.
He who has sounded the depths of Jesus most completely is ever the first to acknowledge that he has been but as a child ‘gathering pebbles on the beach while the great ocean lies unsounded before him.’ No single soul, and no multitude of souls, can exhaust Jesus; neither our individual experiences, nor the experiences of a believing world can fully realise the endless wealth laid up in Him. He is the Alpha and the Omega of all our speech, the first letter and the last of our alphabet, between which lie all the rest.
The gift is completed in consequences yet unspeakable. Even the first blessings which the humblest faith receives from the pierced hands have more in them than words can tell. Who has ever spoken adequately and in full correspondence with reality what it is to have God’s pardoning love flowing in upon the soul? Many singers have sung sweet psalms and hymns and spiritual songs on which generations of devout souls have fed, but none of them has spoken the deepest blessedness of a Christian life, or the calm raptures of communion with God. It is easy to utter the words ‘forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance, fellowship, eternal life’; the syllables can be spoken, but who knows or can utter the depths of the meanings? After all human words the half has not been told us, and as every soul carries within itself unrevealable emotions, and is a mystery after all revelation, so the things which God’s gift brings to a soul are after all speech unspeakable, and the words ‘cannot be uttered’ which they who are caught up into the third heavens hear.
Then we may extend our thoughts to the future form of Christian experience. ‘It doth not yet appear what we should be.’ All our conceptions of a future existence must necessarily be inadequate. Nothing but experience can reveal them to us, and our experience there will be capable of indefinite expansion, and through eternity there will be endless growth in the appropriation of the unspeakable gift.
For us the only recompense that we can make for the unspeakable gift is to receive it with ‘thanks unto God’ and the yielding up of our hearts to Him. God pours this love upon us freely, without stint. It is unspeakable in the depths of its source, in the manner of its manifestation, in the glory of its issues. It is like some great stream, rising in the trackless mountains, broad and deep, and leading on to a sunlit ocean. We stand on the bank; let us trust ourselves to its broad bosom. It will bear us safe. And let us take heed that we receive not the gift of God _in vain_.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 9". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24