How grace takes us by surprise
William Guthrie (1620–1665) was minister of Fenwick in Ayrshire who is best known for his valuable book on salvation and assurance The Christian’s Great Interest.
10 Nov, 2022

Our thoughts are programmed to expect certain consequences from certain circumstances. But God’s thoughts are not like ours. Where we would expect doom and judgment, God’s way surprises us with forgiveness and mercy. Sometimes as we look at other Christians too, our prejudices too often come into play and we don’t leave space for the powerful grace of God to bring disproportionately good effects from sources we tend to dismiss and overlook. We don’t even understand the appearances that God gives of His work, like when Jesus seemed to actually ignore the woman of Canaan who petitioned Him to help her daughter. Defying our expectations, Jesus was in fact drawing her increasingly closer to Him and preparing to pour out His blessing on her at the point when it looked least likely. In the following updated extract from his sermon on Christ’s interactions with this woman in Matthew 15, William Guthrie develops this theme of the unexpectedness of grace.

God’s grace often confounds our expectations

Variations in grace and gifts are not due to people’s natural characteristics. Often those who do not look very promising, and who are very young or weak in the faith, come through a time of testing just as well as those who are of a greater stature. Shrubs will sometimes stand, and even small plants in God’s garden, when the tallest cedars will split, fall, or break in pieces before the wind of temptation.

It is very consistent with the nature of grace that where least is expected most should come forth to the praise of God. Grace runs in that channel, “Not many wise, not many noble, not many mighty are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world, to confound the things which are mighty.” This is most congruous to what Christ said, “Many that are first, shall be last; and the last shall be first.”

In the experience of the people of God in all ages it has turned out that most good was found in the hands where little was expected.

What seems likely to us is often irrelevant

What then are these things that make us expect little at some people’s hands?

Maybe they come from a bad background and are poorly taught, like the woman of Canaan would have seemed to the disciples. But it is a small matter with God to make someone like this profitable. The woman of Canaan was as wise as any in all that country.

Perhaps they live in unfruitful soil, and do not have access to better instruction. But that is no sure sign, for there is many an open-hearted Christian that no one can tell where he got his knowledge from, for you would think that in his spiritual pastures he could not get so much as one full meal.

Or this person does not make a very impressive claim to be a Christian. This makes us suspect them and we do not look for much good from them. Nothing much was ever heard of them. But this means nothing to God’s grace.

Perhaps they fell so easily into some temptation that you would never expect any more good to come of them. But what would you have thought of Peter, who was so shamefully put out by a simple girl? Well, Peter would be hanged for the same thing afterwards for all that. There may be many like Nicodemus, who do not dare make much public confession for Christ, and yet they are richly forthcoming afterwards.

The surprising effects of grace

However, these unlikely cases will often bring forth much fruit.

In a time of difficulty, they may well make a solid acknowledgment and witness to the truth, when others who have greater knowledge and gifts slip up badly and disappear. Those who never knew a tenth of what they knew will stand out to the utmost.

When they encounter opposition, those we might least expect will cling to the faith and pure gospel ordinances. It is easy professing the truth as long as you are not called to account for it. But wait till trial comes, and then you will see someone who never dared to profess much unexpectedly cleave fast to pure gospel ordinances, when many who now profess much draw back and fall behind in the truth.

In terms of practical expressions of Christian love, much will be forthcoming where little was expected. There is much talking of religion, but how well do you evidence your religion by works of love to God’s people who are in straits for His sake? Many who make no great profession are liberal in love and kindness to the people of God. And I assure you that this is no small piece of religion. True love to Christ’s friends when they are in need for His sake is not one of the least parts of religion.

Finally, in terms of patient suffering for Christ, some of whom you expect little may yet be as free and frank as can be, and even go beyond others that more might have been expected of.

Some reasons why grace works this way

What makes our Lord Jesus Christ take that way?

God loves to take a way of His own with all His works. We see ordinarily that whenever we hit on the way that we think is most fit, suitable, and convenient for doing anything, it is a hundred to one if God ever takes that way!

Also, where there is much, people are ready to idolize the stock of grace they have and trust much to it. But where there is little to hand, we have to rely much more on God by faith in duty.

How can we use these facts?

Avoid boasting

If you have made a great profession of Christianity, the more is expected of you. If you come short, there will be greater loss and disadvantage to the cause of God, and to yourselves also. Failure on your part will be more shameful than many others. Be careful too of how you anticipate a time of trial. People say they will do this and that and the other thing, and what not, when they are not put to it. Away with such foolish fantasies. Suffering for truth will be very different in reality from what you think. Some think they will do great things because of what they have received, and because of their former resolution and great gifts. But this is only trusting to their own strength. Truly if you expect to stand firm like that, it is a hundred to one if you do not fall, shamefully. You must never reckon on your steadfastness in even one trial, or your resolutions and engagements, or the fact that other folk think well of you. Ordinarily in the time of trial God stains the glory of all flesh. If others think much of you, think little of yourselves.

Keep close to God

If you want to keep your feet in a time of trial, keep up a constant trade with heaven for fresh supplies from God, for that will do it. Be content to be amongst those who have the least respect from others, for we always hope that the Master will have the most praise from the faithfulness and honesty of those who have least help or hope in themselves.

Then pray for those of whom we have little expectation, for their standing will be greatly for the Master’s praise. For it has pleased the Father to reveal these things to babes and sucklings, and hide them from the wise and prudent.

Be willing to sacrifice social status

Those of you who are gentlemen, great folk and respected church members, I would like to engage you to bear testimony for the truth. Please do not think it foolishness to commit yourselves wholeheartedly to God. Don’t think that we expect little of you when it comes to faithfulness and being valiant for the truth. Do not be overly concerned to comply with people’s sinful wishes. Commend the truth, including the truths that are now under attack, to your families and to those you have any influence with. Keep yourselves free of sinful compliance. Say, “I have resolved to give up what I have, just like others, before I sin. I will be as self-denying as anyone, and maybe I shall go to prison like others, before I deny the work of God and break the Covenants.” Do not give way to despondency, but leave room for God’s promises when push comes to shove, for God will bear your costs and pay back your expenses.

Live up to the name of Christian

If you have made a profession of faith, take care to do as much as you can to the Master’s praise, both in word and deed. Think carefully how you do in faith, in doctrine, in temperance, and in holy walking with God. His glory is closely connected with your being faithful. His glory and your standing are twined together, and that connection is of much value.

If you are to stand in these evil times, it is an accomplishment of the great gospel promise in the Word for your comfort. Further, you have the prayers of the people of God with you for your consolation. There is many a beautiful cloud of prayers going up on behalf of those who remain faithful to the truths of God. Even if you are not praying yourself at any given moment, yet there will be someone still praying for you.

Then behave yourselves honestly. Has God given you Christ? How much more will He give you with Him every good and perfect gift? So, have you got Christ? Truly, then, all other things will be very little beside that. Faith is the more precious for enduring temptations – faith that dares cleave to Him against all opposition. Faith and patience are no empty things. The woman of Canaan found this. She got no bare compliment from Jesus, but an effectual word. “Her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”



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