The Grace of God
By Jeff Paton
A THEOLOGY OF SIN
Any conversation about sin eventually comes to the issue of grace. I am assuming that most of my audience are those that are Christians, or those that have an idea of what "grace" means to them.
Grace is best defined as "unmerited favor," or the "giving of that which we do not deserve." Many times grace is confused with mercy. Mercy by proper definition is, "withholding that which we do deserve." Grace is an act of God which is conferred upon man apart from any merit. Our sins have separated us from a Holy God, and there is no amount of good-doing that could correct the penalty of our sinful actions and depraved nature.
God owes us nothing! No man can claim that they deserve grace. No man can boast that they are the cause of a relationship with God. Anyone that would claim that their right standing with God is based upon their goodness is deceived, and has not the grace of God. Everywhere the Scriptures proclaim that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." (Rom. 6:23). And only "If" "we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.." (1 Jn. 1:9). "Except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish." (Luke 13:3). The Holy Spirit convicts of sin for a reason. Sin separates; sin damns the soul! "And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment." (Jn. 16:7-8). The conviction and admission of sinful failure is essential for faith to be saving faith. The barrier is sin. The offer of forgiveness is grace. The condition is faith; a faith that acknowledges the deserved condemnation of sin, turns from sin in faith and believes the Gospel that Jesus' death was an atonement for their sins. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." (Mark 1:15).
The need for grace is founded upon the holiness of God. I only gloss upon this here for those who have not read Part 2 of this article. It should be sufficient here to make the point that grace towards man would not be needed unless there was something within the nature of God that makes His nature irreconcilable with that of man. Sin is the cause of this separation. Thankfully, God desires for man to be reconciled to Him, for He desires fellowship with man.
Grace and Sin
"The word "grace" in its special Christian sense refers to the freedom of salvation in Jesus Christ. As used by Paul in particular, the word underscores the fact that salvation is freely given by God to undeserving sinners. This is its central meaning..."1 "... we can recognize all the saving acts of God as acts of grace, even when the word is not used." 2 There are at times when Christians, in their attempt to narrow this down to theological simplicity, ignore the greater spectrum of grace. Grace is more than just conferring salvation upon man in one specific act. It contains many acts in which God convicts, teaches, strengthens, enlightens, and reveals Himself to us. Some works of grace may lead to less than salvation in nature, but none the less, transformational in nature. An example of this would be Cornelius, who through the grace of God was a devout man, but yet without Christ. John Wesley is another example. He was guided by God to be an ordained minister, then a missionary, only to use these experiences to lead him to see his need of saving faith. God used grace to enlighten, convict, and to reveal Himself over time. Conversion is not the first instance of God working in one's life. Grace continues after salvation also. He is our Peace, He is our Sustainer, He is our Sanctifier. Grace is more than a single event.
We come now to the issue of grace and its relationship to sin. Sin has a hold on man that he cannot desire reconciliation with God without grace preceding and preventing. (Rom. 3:10-11). God is the Initiator of all spiritual things. God initiates through conveying grace to men that they may be able to respond to the offer of salvation. This is not regeneration, but grace to respond. Wesleyans define this as prevenient grace. It is the grace that goes before, leading men to salvation.
Grace by nature has always had the potential to lead people to a concept of license. This is revealed in Romans chapter 6. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" People were taking the words of Paul concerning grace abounding more as sin itself abounded as meaning that more sin would automatically increase grace. This is not far off from the doctrinal conclusions many draw from their theology of grace today. "A salvation so gracious from beginning to end might be misconstrued as encouraging the continuance of sin in the Christian's life (Rom. 6:1), a notion the apostle denounces in the most vigorous terms... (By no means!): those that have died to sin cannot go on living in it (Rom 6:2). Exactly the opposite is true: while works of the Law (Gal 2:16)... have no part in justification, which is solely of grace (Eph. 2:8-9), good works are to be the very centerpiece of the life of gratitude, which is to characterize those who have been saved by God's grace (Eph. 2:10)." 3
No discussion of grace seems to be adequate without considering the contributions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his classic work, The Cost Of Discipleship. In it, he coined the term "Cheap Grace" to describe "grace sold on the market like cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without a price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? 4
"Dietrich Bonhoeffer introduced us to "cheap grace" 50 years ago. But today's popular evangelicalism, awash with sloppy agape and warm fuzzies, had carried the notion of "cheap grace" to the limits of triviality. Grace is exalted-conduct diminished, forgiveness flourishes-obedience ignored." 5 This idea comes out clear when one raised the question of sinning and the Christian, or of the obedience of the Christian. "It is all of grace!" is touted as an answer of all answers. It is designed to diffuse and excuse failures and sin. I have never seen any good fruit coming from the doctrine. "This cheap grace has been no less disastrous to our own spiritual lives. Instead of opening up the way to Christ it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ , it has hardened us in our disobedience." 6
Using the saying of, "Its all covered by grace" as a blanket to dismiss the seriousness of sin confuses God's grace (unmerited favor) with God's mercy, which is "withholding that which is due." This "grace" is viewed as an unlimited repository of funds that flow to the sinners account to immediately excuse all immoral actions of the believer. This is more than just a philosophical answer, it is rooted in a doctrinal Christianity. That makes such reasoning much more dangerous than a mere layman's philosophical blunders. "Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system." 7 I am not saying that you will open a theology book and see "Cheap Grace" as a heading for a certified branch of someone's theology, but I am saying that you will find the doctrinal foundation for such a teaching if you follow certain popular doctrines to their logical end. When teachers follow this logical outcome, this results in the teaching of such theological absurdities at the local Church level.
Doctrinal Errors Concerning Grace
We have seen that there is a popular idea of grace existing in the philosophical, but it does not stop there. It has its roots, not in the sloppy theology of the layman, but in the theological doctrines that establish what is called sound theology. I will discuss some of these connections to show their source.
I will assert that much of the foundation for the misapplication of grace resides in the logical outcome of the Calvinistic system. The idea that this grace "covers all" is a logical outcome of the Penal Satisfaction theory of the atonement. If "all" of the sins of the elect are already "paid," then it is true that there is a repository equal to all of the sins that they will commit, whether they be lesser or greater. While nothing in Scripture states such a thing, it impacts how we define other doctrines- especially grace! It is a dangerous thing to contort the clear statements of Scripture to fit the theological inventions of men.
"St. Paul is clear and emphatic in his declarations as to grace- it is absolute, gratuitous-'by grace ye have been saved': but he is no less ready and willing to make his appeal to human liberty (Rom. 2:3-10, Phil. 3:15-17): 'Work out your own salvation' he cries, 'with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure' (Phil. 2:12-13), where both element appear together as indefeasible portions of the same Christian experience." 8 One cannot read the New Testament and walk away with a cheap grace that allows the believer to have all sins automatically covered, nor can one walk away with the impression that God expects nothing of the believer in the way of holiness and works. We cannot afford to isolate grace from everything in Scripture that does not fit into our theological understanding of grace. A theological understanding of grace is only of value if it accepts the whole of Scripture on the subject.
The grace of Calvinistic theology "does not so much change the nature of the Christian in relation to sin as it changes the nature of sin in relation to the Christian." 9 This theology does not suggest that the atonement of Christ changes the believer through the New-Birth so that they do not sin and die, but that the sins of these Christians are "already covered," changing the nature of sin instead. Sin gets converted in regeneration, not the believer! The same sin that once damned no longer has that power. Sin has had a conversion! But this is not Scriptural, nor is it sensible. The atonement was for sin because sin caused separation. It goes against the character of God to provide a means of atonement that allows the free continuance in that which He has stated will always bring death. The idea that grace "covers it all" is indirectly stating that grace does not convert the believer, but the very sin that is stated as bringing death is now stated to be somehow impotent. Logically, the "Christian" can sin with impunity. This does not make Scriptural sense, nor does it make good theological sense. Another theological fiction that is appealed to in order to misapply the meaning of grace is the teaching of imputed righteousness. This teaching and its meaning are the logical outcome of a Penal Theory of the atonement. Once again, a doctrine is developed based upon another theory instead of the Scriptures.
The "Gift" of Grace
A very common statement is to speak of grace as being a gift; an object. It would be better defined as the means of conveying spiritual gifts. We see statements that speak of grace as a gift like, 'we are in the grasp of grace,' 'we are covered by grace.' These speak of grace as a possessed object instead of the means of grace that is conveyed. This idea of grace being the "gift" is based upon an erroneous interpretation of Ephesians 2:8.
"For by grace are ye saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God."
The Calvinist will say that the "gift" in this passage is "grace." This cannot be backed up with Scripture. The "gift" in the passage here is "salvation," which is applied by "grace" through the condition of "faith." The idea that grace is the "gift" is implied in their writings elsewhere. "For the wages of sin is death: but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ or Lord." (Rom. 6:23). Here we see the "gift" is eternal life- not grace. "But not as the offense, so also is the free gift. For if through the offense of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded to many." (Rom. 5:15). The gift is by grace; it is not grace.
"To say that grace is free is a tautology, since grace by definition indicates freedom. God is free in giving salvation because He is not obligated, nor constrained by any inner necessity or the moral merits of people who have earned salvation... Strictly speaking, no entity is given the label "grace"; therefore, grace is not a gift. Salvation is a gift; and Paul indicates its giveness by the word "grace." ... In short, grace is not an entity in which God and Christ dispense. Nor is it a moral property of the divine nature. It is a word that epitomizes the freeness of God's saving act on our behalf."10
We have seen that many use the idea of grace in a way in which the Scriptures do not support. We cannot consider grace to be a thing, or an entity which could be given as a gift. Many have confused the vehicle of blessings for the blessing itself. This error has run rampant within the Christian world. Sad to say, but when it is brought up, it usually comes up as an excuse for sin. This in itself should raise every Christian's eyebrow, for God never excuses sin. In a theology of sin, grace cannot be used to determine how God forgives or deals with sin. We see that God freely gives grace, but that grace does not freely forgive sins without conditions.
1. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Grace, 2:547, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1982
2. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (revised), Grace, 2:548, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1982
3. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Grace, page 373, A.B. Luter, Jr., Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. 1993
4. The Cost Of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, page 35, The Macmillan Company, New York. Eight printing 1967
5. The Scandal of Pre-forgiveness, Richard S. Taylor, Page 5, Schmul Publishing Company. 1993
6. The Cost Of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, page 46, The Macmillan Company, New York. Eight printing 1967
7. The Cost Of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, page 35, The Macmillan Company, New York. Eight printing 1967
8. A Dictionary of the Bible, Grace, 2:357, James Hastings, M.A., D.D., Hendickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts. 1988 printing of the 1898 edition
9. A Right Conception of Sin, Richard S. Taylor, page 17, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, Missouri. 1945
10. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (revised), Grace, 2:549, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1982
Biblical Theology Eternal Security
A Theology Of Sin
The Holiness of God
What is Sin?
The Wages of Sin
The Depravity of Man
The Grace of God
Sin and the Atonement
Must we Sin?
Chastisement and the Christian