I’ve been reading II Corinthians for my morning devotions the past month or so. Today I came across a puzzling passage: “But as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you-see that you excel in this act of grace also” (8:7).
The question I raise is “How does someone ‘excel’ in an ‘act of grace’ when Paul begins the passage by explaining that the grace God has given the churches in Macedonia has moved them to give, and even in the toughest situations? I mean if grace is given, then how can someone excel in it?
At first look it sounds like a contradiction. But I think I might at first glance have been falsely dichotomizing two truths. God gives grace and this grace is responsible for any good work in the life of a Christian. Yet we must respond to this grace. Westminster Shorter Catechism question 35 defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace,(1) whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,(2) and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
God works in us= grace. Because God works in us to will and work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13), then we do live out our salvation (Phil 2:12). In other words we are enabled by his grace to lay aside our own innate selfishness and follow Jesus more nearly. In order to “excel in this grace” we are then to regularly respond to the grace given to us.
How might we regularly respond? Jesus told the disciples to freely give as they have received. In order to ‘excel in this grace’ I imagine we would need to actively realize how much we have been given, and actively repent from our own love of money. Of course, who works that repentance in our lives? God in His grace. Fortunately we can pray for a repentant heart.
Did Paul’s exemplary church in Macedonia excel in this grace because they simply had ‘more grace?’ I don’t know (I really don’t know what that means anyway). But one thing I do know is that a lack of response to God’s grace is never blamed on the fact that God didn’t ‘give’ enough grace. Giving is a spiritual gift-and some are more giving than others.
But a lack of excelling in this grace is more probably due to a lack of reflection and belief in that grace. At least for me. So probably I can’t use that excuse when challenged to give!