Why Grace is Still Amazing
We’re now ready to look at some of the distinguishing characteristics of grace. I’m going to mention eight, four in this article and the final four in the next.
(1) The first and possibly most fundamental characteristic of divine grace is that it presupposes sin and guilt. If you believe in the inherent goodness of human nature, grace will never register in your soul. It will make no sense. It will be viewed as unnecessary and irrelevant.
Grace has meaning only when men and women are seen as fallen, unworthy of salvation, and liable to eternal wrath. It is precisely because people today have lost sight of the depths of human depravity that they think so little of divine grace. What makes Paul's declaration that we are saved "by grace" so significant is his earlier declaration that we were "dead" in trespasses and sins, “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature," "carrying out the desires of the body and the mind," and were by nature the children of divine wrath (Eph. 2:1-10).
(2) Second, and very much related to the first point, grace does not contemplate sinners merely as undeserving, but as ill-deserving. So often we are inclined to think of ourselves prior to our salvation as in some sense "neutral" in the sight of God. We are willing to admit that we have done nothing to deserve his favor. Our works, regardless of their character, are unacceptable in his glorious presence. But this is entirely insufficient as a background to the understanding of divine grace.
It is not simply that we do not deserve grace: we do deserve hell! Fallen and unredeemed humanity is not to be conceived as merely helpless, but as openly and vehemently hostile toward God. It is one thing to be without a God-approved righteousness. It is altogether another thing to be utterly unrighteous and thus the object of divine wrath. See Eph. 2:1-2 (“by nature children of wrath”). It is, then, against the background of having been at one time the enemies of God that divine grace is to be portrayed (Rom. 5:10).
(3) Third, grace is not to be thought of as in any sense dependent upon the merit or demerit of its objects. This may be expressed in two ways. In the first place, grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to bestow it in the presence of human merit. In other words, if there is anything at all in us that is deserving of God’s recognition and reward, grace ceases to exist. If we have by our own effort and strength done things that merit God’s favor, he is obligated as a matter of law to give us a reward or to pay us according to what the law requires.
So, what I’m saying is that if God is for whatever reason compelled or obligated to bestow grace in the presence of human merit or effort, it is no longer grace. It is payment of a debt.
So again, grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to bestow it in the presence of human merit. Furthermore, grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to withdraw it in the presence of human demerit.
The fact is, grace is seen to be infinitely glorious only when it operates "in utter defiance of" human demerit. Grace is not when God treats a person less than he deserves. Grace is not when God treats a person greater than he deserves. Grace is when God treats a person without the slightest regard to desert whatsoever! Grace is when God treats a human being simply and solely according to the infinite goodness and sovereign purpose in God’s heart. Human merit and human demerit simply don’t factor in!
(4) Fourth, grace cannot incur a debt, which is to say that it is unrecompensed. Since grace is a gift, no work is to be performed, no offering made, with a view to repaying God for his favor.
If someone comes to you this Christmas, a person with whom you’ve had a rather rocky relationship, and gives you a marvelous gift; totally unexpected, totally undeserved, totally a surprise, your instinctive reaction is to say: “Oh my, I’ve got to pay him back. I’ve got to go purchase a gift of at least equal value to give him in return for the gift he has given me.” But you shouldn’t! If the person blessed you with a gift and did so with the highest and most holy of intentions, their desire was simply that you would be blessed, not for anything you’ve done or failed to do. If you try to repay them you spoil their purpose in giving. Don’t ever turn a gift into a debt.
You cannot pay back God for his grace! You must not try to pay back God for his grace. What you should do is posture yourself to receive yet more! Put yourself in that frame of mind and spirit where God can magnify his mercy and grace all the more.
We’ll finish this study of grace in the next article.