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Grace - Part II

Grace is more than an attitude or disposition in the divine nature. It is surely that, but an examination of the usage of this word in Scripture reveals that grace, if thought of only as an abstract and static principle, is deprived of its deeper implications.


The grace of God, for example, is the power of God's Spirit converting the soul. It is the activity or movement of God whereby He saves and justifies the individual through faith (see esp. Rom. 3:24; 5:15,17). Therefore, grace is not something in which we merely believe; it is something we experience as well.


Grace, however, is not only the divine act by which God initiates our spiritual life, but also the very power by which we are sustained in, nourished, and proceed through that life. The energizing and sanctifying work of the indwelling Spirit is the grace of God. After Paul had prayed three times for God to deliver him from his thorn in the flesh, he received this answer: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Although Paul undoubtedly derived encouragement and strength to face his daily trials by reflecting on the magnificence of God's unmerited favor, in this text he appears to speak rather of an experiential reality of a more dynamic nature. It is the operative power of the indwelling Spirit to which Paul refers. That is the grace of God.


We should also consider in this regard the many references to the grace of God in Paul's opening greetings and concluding benedictions (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:3; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess.1:1; 2 These. 1:2; Titus 1:4; 2 Cor. 13:14). This no mere literary formality, but an earnest and constant wish of Paul that his converts may continue to experience grace, that they may know afresh the gracious power of God moving in their lives, that they may find in that grace the spiritual resources by which to live in a way pleasing to Him.


It is interesting to observe that without exception the blessing at the beginning of each of Paul's letters says, "Grace [be] to you," while the blessing at the end of each letter says, "Grace [be] with you." Why? Piper suggests that "at the beginning of his letters Paul has in mind that the letter is a channel of God's grace to the readers. Grace is about to flow 'from God' through Paul's writing to the Christians. So he says, 'Grace to you’” (66).


But what becomes of this grace after his readers are done with his letter? The answer is that grace is now to be with you. "With you as you put the letter away and leave the church. With you as you go home to deal with a sick child and an unaffectionate spouse. With you as you go to work and face the temptations of anger and dishonesty and lust. With you as you muster courage to speak up for Christ over lunch” (Future Grace, 66-67). Thus we learn that "grace is ready to flow to us every time we take up the inspired Scriptures to read them. And we learn that grace will abide with us when we lay the Bible down and go about our daily living” (67).


Besides the general soteriological usage of the word with which everyone is familiar, grace can also denote the particular acts of God whereby He grants enablement for some service or authorization for a specific duty or mission (Rom. 12:3; 15:15-18; 1 Cor. 3:10). It is not without significance that the word grace and its derivatives are used in the description of what we call "spiritual gifts." We read in Romans 12:6: "We have different gifts [charismata], according to the grace [charin] given us."


Finally, the word grace is used in a variety of ways in the course of Paul's discussion of Christian stewardship (2 Cor. 8-9). It is used with reference to the supernatural enablement bestowed by God, as a result of which one gives despite poverty (2 Cor. 8:1,9). It refers to the ministry of giving (2 Cor. 8:6, 7, 19), the privilege of giving (2 Cor. 8:4) and even to the gift itself (1 Cor. 16:3).


So, how is all this relevant to the subject of divine election? It is relevant in that it would seem that only the doctrine of unconditional election preserves the integrity of divine grace. According to the notion of conditional election, God graciously makes possible, but not certain, the election of all people by restoring to each that power and freedom of will of which they had been deprived by Adam’s fall into sin. Whether or not God elects any person is therefore dependent on the way in which he or she makes use of this ability. By establishing the condition for election as faith, God is thereby obligated to elect all those who, by means of their now purportedly free wills, believe in the gospel of Christ. But surely, then, election itself can be neither of grace nor according to God’s good pleasure.


I suppose one might say that it was gracious of God to restore in all people sufficient ability to believe and that it was gracious of God to impose the condition of faith in Christ (by which one qualifies for election). But it is certainly not possible to say that election is itself gracious. To choose men because they believe is an obligation to which God is bound; it is a debt he must pay.


If it would be unjust of God, having made faith the condition of election, not to elect those who believe, then election is a matter of giving man his due. Election would be the divine response to what a person deserves. He deserves being chosen because by a free act of will he has fulfilled the condition (faith) on which election was suspended


But grace is, by definition, treating a person without any regard whatsoever to his or her merits or demerits. How can election be gracious if it is something God must do because justice requires it? Election is gracious precisely because it is the bestowal of life on those who deserve only death.


The same may be said of election as an act according to the divine “good pleasure” (See Matt. 11:25-30; Rom. 9:11,16,18; Eph. 1:3-11; 2 Tim. 1:9-10). If election is conditional, if it is an act required of God in response to man’s free will faith, then it cannot be according to God’s “good pleasure.” Why? Because it is impossible that God might have willed not to elect such a man. In other words, if it is conditional, election cannot be a matter of God willing or not willing the salvation of a man in accordance with his (that is, God’s) desires. An election that occurs only and always in response to a fulfilled condition is a matter of law, of debt, of obligation. If election is conditional God cannot will either to elect or not to elect. If the condition is met, that is to say, if there is faith, God must elect.


Of course, it is true that even in the Calvinistic understanding of election God must save if a person believes in Christ. But there is an eternally significant difference. According to Calvinism, the faith of a person in response to which God saves is itself the gracious gift of God. Simply put, saving faith is the effect, not the cause, of God’s sovereign good pleasure in election. Paul Jewett explains:


“If those in the Reformed [Calvinistic] tradition insist on the ‘divine condition’ of salvation, as obviously they do, why, it might be asked, do they speak of ‘unconditional election’? The answer has been given that election is not conditioned on any foreseen merit in the sinner – that is, faith is not the condition but the gift of grace. The grace of salvation secures – if we might so speak – the condition of salvation” (Paul K. Jewett, Election and Predestination [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], p. 112, n. 87).


Let me now apply all this to our hypothetical twin brothers, Jerry and Ed. Arminians who believe in the doctrine of total moral depravity insist that although both Jerry and Ed are by nature unable to come to Christ, the Holy Spirit graciously restores in them the power they need to act in faith by their own free will. I will forego making much of the fact that there is no clear and unequivocal text of Scripture which affirms the idea, a point that I will take up in more detail in a subsequent lesson. I will assume merely for the sake of argument (but against Scripture, in my opinion), that it is true.


Our situation, then, is this. Both Jerry and Ed (like every other human being, says the Arminian), have been endowed from on high with equal ability to believe the gospel. Neither has an advantage over the other. If Jerry acts and improves upon this power of will so as to repent and believe the gospel, but Ed does not, to whom or to what do attribute the difference between them? It seems clear enough to me that if Jerry avails himself of the opportunity, but Ed does not, the reason or cause must be something in Jerry that is not in Ed. It cannot be because of something the Holy Spirit graciously did in and for Jerry that he refused to do in and for Ed. The Arminian insists that if God, according to his sovereign good pleasure, does for one (Jerry) what he declines to do for another (Ed), he is guilty of partiality and injustice. To restore a greater and more effective power of will in Jerry than in Ed is unfair, says the Arminian. Justice demands that God must do the same for both.


Therefore, the fact that Jerry believes and Ed does not can be explained only by what Jerry is and does in himself, as over against his twin brother. That Jerry should suddenly be sorrowful for his sin and repent can be due only to Jerry. That Jerry should suddenly understand the gospel, humbly repudiate all reliance upon self, and embrace by faith the redemptive merits of Jesus Christ can be due only to Jerry. It cannot ultimately be because of God the Holy Spirit; otherwise Ed and every other human being would repent and believe in like manner, since they have received from God as much help as Jerry has.


It would appear that, if the Arminian scenario is correct, in answer to the apostle’s question, “Who maketh thee to differ?” (1 Cor. 4:7a, KJV), Jerry can justifiably (and with pride of heart?) say, “I did!” It will not do to say that were it not for the Holy Spirit no one at all, neither Jerry nor Ed, would have been able to believe in Christ. For if it is not the Holy Spirit who guarantees and secures Jerry’s belief in Christ, he has eternal life because of what he, not God, has done.


At best, the Arminian may say that the opportunity to be saved is of grace. At best, he may insist that the possibility for Jerry and Ed to get to heaven is of grace. But he simply cannot say that salvation itself is wholly of grace. In the Arminian scheme, God has said all that he can say and has done all that he can do once he has restored in all people an equal ability to believe. From that point on, the reason one person believes and another does not is a human reason. To that degree, salvation is not of the Lord, but of man, and we could with sincerity no longer sing:


“Pause, my soul! adore, and wonder!

            Ask, ‘Oh, why such love to me?’

Grace hath put me in the number

            Of the Saviour’s family:


            Thanks, eternal thanks, to Thee!”