I once heard a story about a man who, while walking along the street one day, saw a beggar. That particular morning, there was an ominous storm brewing and the man took pity on the beggar, since it was clear that the latter would not have any shelter. Stopping in a nearby store, he bought an umbrella, which he gave to the beggar with the assurance that it would keep him dry in the coming storm. “Sure it will,” said the latter, with a dubious expression. “Thanks.” But he was not convinced. The other reassured him and hurried on his way. But later in the day, when he returned by the same street after the storm had come and gone, he was dismayed to find the same beggar drenched to the skin, still clutching the gift, in almost the same position as when he had received it. “It doesn’t work,” he maintained stubbornly. He had, of course, failed to open the umbrella. Indeed, he had not even taken it out of its protective sleeve.
This is not a true story, at least as far as I know, but it illustrates well the point that I would like to make in this post. God’s grace is a free gift, but just as the umbrella needed to be unwrapped and put up in order to accomplish the purpose for which it is given, God’s grace must be unwrapped, as it were, and it must be activated.
How to Receive God’s grace
1. Grace and Truth: Unwrapping the umbrella
John 1:17 says:
For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Grace and truth go together. Or rather, as the verse says, they come together through Jesus Christ. You cannot have grace without truth. And the truth is that since Adam and Eve’s Fall, human beings are born sinful. This means both that we are born under the curse of sin and the sentence of death, and that we are by nature predisposed to sin and thus justly stand condemned not only for Adam’s sin, but also for our own. This truth is known by theologians as “total depravity.” We are born sinners, utterly incapable of saving ourselves by our own effort; incapable even, as Augustine reminds us of willing and choosing to do what is right. That is the condition that God’s grace finds us in. That is the truth. And Jesus didn’t mind telling the truth. I don’t really know why it is that people these days have such trouble with the concept of sin, but I suspect that it has never been a popular message. It just happens to be the truth. When the woman caught in adultery (who I have already introduced in this series) encountered Jesus she encountered both grace “neither do I condemn you” and truth “go and stop sinning.”
2. Faith and Repentance: putting up and holding up the the umbrella
So at the risk of being repetitive, you cannot have grace without truth. Besides, it wouldn’t do you any good. If you don’t actually believe the truth that you are a sinner in need of saving, then God’s grace is really of no use to you. But here’s the deal. You cannot accept God’s truth while still holding onto your own. To believe God’s truth means to let go of my own, and any behaviour that is based upon it. This is called repentance. In short, repentance is confessing that God is right and I am wrong, and changing my behaviour so that it is consistent with that confession. In the Bible repentance refers to a change of mind resulting in a change of direction. It is in fact, the first word of the gospel “repent and believe.” We usually characterise this as an about-face; a 180 degree turn. But in reality, repentance could also be a 20 degree turn, or a 5 degree turn—a definite, though almost indiscernible change in direction, in response to the Holy Spirit shining his light of truth on a previously dark area. In other words, while our initial appropriation of God’s grace and turning from sin may be dramatic, our subsequent and ongoing repentance will, at least in theory, be less so, though no less important.
If “repent” is the first word of the gospel “faith” (or “believe”) is the second. In order to appropriate God’s grace then, it is necessary that I believe God’s truth about my pre-grace condition. I must let go of whatever else I may have believed about myself and trust entirely in God’s gracious provision in the cross of Christ. When my behaviour matches my belief, I can be said to have repented. However, in order to remain under God’s grace it is also necessary for me to believe God’s truth about my position in Christ—my under-grace condition, if you will. I am no longer a slave, but a son and an heir. I carry my Father’s royal authority. Actually grasping this truth, allowing it to penetrate our souls, and affect our behaviour, takes practice. And this is why both repentance and faith need to be ongoing. For we will often need to resist and oppose wrong thinking about ourselves, replacing it with God’s truth (we are forgiven, we are new creations in Christ, we are sons not slaves, God’s other children are our brothers and sisters and ought to be treated as such, etc.) in faith. And this will usually necessitate a correction in behaviour, hence ongoing repentance.
In summary, grace without truth is not sincere. Grace without repentance is not effective. Grace without faith is not lasting.
How long will we sit in the rain getting wet, holding the gracious gift that could keep us dry, yet stubbornly insisting that it is legalistic to put it up?
 This by the way is why the modern virtue of ‘tolerance’ can only ever be a veneer. It is simply insincere to say “well that’s alright for you” if you do not believe the veracity of the other’s claims. And when we declare that the behaviour, whatever it might be, of another ‘ok,’ we must also implicitly affirm that the truth claim on which that behaviour is based is correct. More on that in another post (maybe).
 By the way, from time to time I’ve heard preachers declare, with commendable zeal, that repentance means a “complete 360 degree turn.” It does not. I hate to be pedantic, but that is the only thing that it cannot mean. If you turn 360 degrees, you may be dizzy, but you will still be going the same direction. Trust me. You mean 180.