Grace - Part I
What is at stake in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is far more than a disagreement over terminology. At the heart of all this is the grace of God and how we understand it. I am not suggesting that Arminian Christians are deliberately impugning the grace of God in salvation. Nevertheless, by making election conditional upon something that man does, even if what he does is simply to repent and believe the gospel, God’s grace is seriously compromised. To say that something is done by grace is simply to say it is done by God. If salvation is from beginning to end a manifestation of God’s grace then it is from beginning to end a work of God. To inject any human effort or contribution whatsoever is to reject divine grace. Either election is unconditional and altogether of God and his grace or it is conditional and therefore a cooperative venture in which God and man both contribute. Let us consider this in more detail, first by defining what I mean by “grace”.
We happily speak of God as triune, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and immutable. The God of whom these things are true is indeed a great and majestic Being. Who is like unto the Lord and with whom may we compare Him? Is there another whose knowledge and power are without limit, whose life is everlasting, whose will and ways do not change, and for whom the boundaries of the universe offer no barrier? Indeed, this God is a great God!
But to say of God that He is great is not enough. For as Millard Erickson has reminded us, God, though great, "might conceivably be an immoral or amoral being, exercising his power and knowledge in a capricious or even cruel fashion” (I:283-84). We must proceed further in our description of God; we must proceed from His greatness to His goodness. This God whose power and presence are illimitable, whose wisdom and will are incomparable, is a God no less abounding in love and longsuffering, mercy and grace. Therefore, although simple, yet profound is the child's dinner prayer: "God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for this food. Amen."
When we refer to the "goodness" of God we mean very simply that He is benevolent. God's goodness is but the inclination and resolve of His nature to promote the welfare and happiness of His creatures. This more general attribute of goodness may be manifested in the delay of penal judgment, in which case we speak of God's longsuffering. God's goodness as manifested in the restoration of the wretched is what the Bible calls mercy. Likewise, God's goodness as manifested toward the guilty and undeserving is referred to in Scripture as grace. It is this latter display of the goodness of God, in which His love for the hell-deserving sinner is most keenly evident, that concerns us in this lesson.
Grace has traditionally been defined as God's goodness toward sinners and mercy as God's goodness toward sufferers. As a result, mercy does not appear to be as free as grace. John Piper explains:
"when we show mercy, it looks as if we are responding to pain and being constrained by a painful condition outside ourselves. It is a beautiful constraint. But it does not seem to be as free as grace. Grace, however, contemplates the ugliness of sin, and, contrary to all expectation, acts beneficently. This looks more free. Pain seems to constrain mercy, but guilt does not seem to constrain grace. Grace looks more free. I don't mean that God's mercy is in fact less free than his grace. No one deserves God's mercy. And God is not bound to be merciful to any of his creatures. What I do mean is that 'freeness' lies closer at the heart of the meaning of grace. Grace, by definition, is free and unconstrained. It even lacks the seeming constraint of naturalness that exists between suffering and mercy. If God's grace is 'natural' in response to sin, it is owing entirely to something amazing in God, not in the constraining power of sin. Suffering constrains pity; but sin kindles anger. Therefore grace toward sinners is the freest of all God's acts” (Future Grace, 78).
The elect of God are recipients not only of all the benefits of common grace, but also of special grace. In fact, it is precisely the bestowal of special grace which constitutes them as the "elect" as over against those from whom it is withheld, namely, the "non-elect." Special grace is, of course, saving grace, and thus contrary to common grace does have as its design and effect the bestowal of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Herman Bavinck defined the special or saving grace of God in this way:
"Ascribed to God, grace is his voluntary, unrestrained, unmerited favor toward guilty sinners, granting them justification and life instead of the penalty of death, which they deserved” (208).
Berkhof defined it simply as "the free bestowal of kindness on one who has no claim to it” (71). Packer expressed it this way:
"The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity” (Knowing God, 120).
The doctrine of God's grace is a vast and multifaceted subject. Because of this, I have chosen to focus in on ten principles or characteristics relating to the special grace of God, especially as it is found in the Pauline literature.
The first and possibly most fundamental characteristic of divine grace is that it presupposes sin and guilt. Grace has meaning only when men 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," "following its desires and thoughts," and were by nature the children of divine wrath (Eph. 2:1-10).
Second, 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 wholly unrighteous and thus the object of divine 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).
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. According to Lewis Chafer:
"If God should discover the least degree of merit in the sinner, this, in strict righteousness, He must recognize and duly acknowledge. By such a recognition of human merit, He would be discharging an obligation toward the sinner and the discharge of that obligation toward the sinner would be the payment, or recognition, of a debt” (Grace, 8).
Furthermore, grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to withdraw it in the presence of human demerit. Indeed, grace is seen to be infinitely glorious only when it operates, as Packer says, "in defiance of" human demerit. Therefore, grace is not treating a person less than, as, or greater than he deserves. It is treating a person without the slightest reference to desert whatsoever, but solely according to the infinite goodness and sovereign purpose of God.
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. The biblical response to grace received is faith to receive yet more.
Fifth, in respect to justification, grace stands opposed to works (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). However, in respect to sanctification, grace is the source of works. This simply means that whereas we are saved by grace and not of works, we are saved by grace unto good works. Good works are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace (see esp. Eph. 2:8 -10). It thus comes as no surprise that in Scripture grace and salvation stand together as cause is related to effect. It is the grace of God which "brings" salvation (Titus 2:11). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9).
The sixth principle is that this grace that saves is eternal but is manifested in the historical appearance of Christ. Paul speaks of the power of God by which we have been saved and called to holiness, "not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:9-10).
Seventh, this grace is free! Just think of it - free grace! But, of course, if grace were not free it would not be grace. True indeed, but what a glorious tautology it is: “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus[!]" (Rom. 3:24).
Eighth, and something we will dwell on in more detail later, grace is sovereign. That is to say, it is optional in its exercise and extent. Although God is gracious in His eternal being, He need not be gracious or shower His grace upon anyone. If grace were at any time an obligation of God, it would cease to be grace. God's grace, therefore, is distinguishing. He graciously saves some but not all, not based on anything present in the creature either possible or actual, foreseen or foreordained, but wholly according to His sovereign good pleasure.
The ninth thing to note is that grace is described in Scripture as the foundation or the means of among other things, our election (Rom. 11:5), our regeneration (Eph. 2:5; Titus 3:5-7), our redemption (2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 1:7), our justification (Rom. 3:24; Titus 3:5-7), indeed, the whole of our salvation (Eph. 2:8).
Finally, grace is certainly free, but it isn't always unconditional. The grace of election is unconditional (Rom. 9:11). But many of God's acts and blessings are conditional. For example,
"Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible" (Eph. 6:24).
"[God] gives a greater grace . . . God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (Js. 4:6; cf. 1 Pt. 5:5).
"The Lord your God is gracious and compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him" (2 Chron. 30:9).
"He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when He hears it, He will answer you" (Isa. 30:19).
"Let Thy lovingkindness [i.e., grace], O Lord, be upon us, according as we have hoped in Thee" (Ps. 33:22).
"The lovingkindness [i.e., grace] of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting . . . to those who keep His covenant" (Ps. 103:17-18).
But conditional grace is not earned grace. Why? Because "when God's grace is promised based on a condition, that condition is also a work of God's grace. . . . God's freedom is not reduced when he makes some of his graces depend on conditions that he himself freely supplies” (Piper, Future Grace, 79). Or again, "conditional grace is free and unmerited because ultimately the condition of faith is a gift of grace. God graciously enables the conditions that he requires” (235). Or again, "this covenant-keeping condition of future grace does not mean we lose security or assurance, for God has pledged himself to complete the work he began in the elect (Philippians 1:6). He is at work within us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). He works in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21). He fulfills the conditions of the covenant through us (Ezekiel 36:27). Our security is as secure as God is faithful” (248).