by James Montgomery Boice
All creation joins in praising
Christ, the Savior of our race,
Drawn from ev’ry tribe and nation,
People, language, time and place:
“Holy, holy, holy, holy
Is our God, the God of grace.”
Evangelicals do not deny grace any more than the church of the Middle Ages denied this essential Bible doctrine. Evangelicals do not want to be heretics. The problem is that, although we affirm the grace of God in theory, we reject it by neglect. We do not seem to think it is important.
When the Reformers spoke about “grace alone” (sola gratia), they were saying that sinners have no claim upon God, none at all; that God owes them nothing but punishment for their sins; and that, if he saves them in spite of their sins, which he does in the case of those who are being saved, it is only because it pleases him to do it and for no other reason. Today, large numbers of evangelicals undermine and effectively destroy this doctrine by supposing that human beings are basically good; that God owes everyone a chance to be saved; and that, if we are saved, in the final analysis it is because of our own good decision to receive the Jesus who is offered to us.
This is why the doctrine of election is opposed by so many. It doesn’t seem fair to them. But as soon as we introduce the doctrine of fairness, we introduce a standard of right by which God has to save all or at least give everyone an equal chance of being saved. And that is not grace! If God were motivated only by what is right, without any consideration of a grace made possible by the work of Christ, all would be condemned and all would spend eternity in hell. This is because “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11).
Here is the way the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals explained the problem in the Cambridge Declaration, the paper prepared by pastors and church leaders in 1996:
Unwarranted confidence in human ability is a product of fallen human nature. This false confidence now fills the evangelical world—from the self-esteem gospel to the health and wealth gospel, from those who have transformed the gospel into a product to be sold and sinners into consumers who want to buy, to others who treat Christian faith as being true simply because it works. This silences the doctrine of justification regardless of the official commitments of our churches.
God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary but is the sole efficient cause of salvation. We confess that human beings are born spiritually dead and are incapable even of cooperating with regenerating grace.
The Declaration adds these solemn affirmations and denials:
We reaffirm that in salvation we are rescued from God’s wrath by his grace alone. It is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.
We deny that salvation is in any sense a human work. Human methods, techniques or strategies by themselves can-not accomplish this transformation. Faith is not produced by our unregenerated human nature.1
Today’s evangelical church needs to recapture those strong convictions about grace. For if it does not, it is not just failing to get its theology right, it is failing to be a true church. It is denying the gospel.
AMAZING GRACE OR BORING GRACE?
Here is a trivia question you can ask your friends at your next dinner party: Of all the songs ever written, which song has been recorded the greatest number of times by the greatest number of different vocal artists? The answer, as you might expect from the subject matter of this chapter, is “Amazing Grace,” the classic Christian hymn written in 1779 by the slave trader turned preacher, John Newton:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Amazing grace really is amazing. It is the most amazing thing in the universe, more amazing even than neutrons and neutrinos, quarks and quasars, and black holes. But like all familiar things, grace has lost its ability to enthrall most people. Instead, as theologian J. I. Packer has observed, amazing grace has for many people become “boring grace.”2
How can that be? How can a theme that was a cardinal doctrine of the Protestant Reformation and has thrilled Christian people for centuries be thought boring? If you talk to church people about next year’s operating budget, you will find them interested. You can interest them in social programs or building a new addition to the education wing. You can talk to them about the latest baseball scores or Wall Street listings or national politics. But try to discuss the grace of God and you will discover that they are suddenly in a field of discourse quite beyond their capacities. They will not contradict you. They will listen. But they will have nothing to contribute. Often you will be met only with blank stares. What could have caused such indifference, even among churchgoers?
Packer suggests it is a failure to understand and “feel in one’s heart” four great truths that the doctrine of grace presupposes: 1) the sinfulness of sin; 2) God’s judgment; 3) man’s spiritual inability; and 4) God’s sovereign freedom.3
THE SINFULNESS OF SIN
It is a sad, harmful, and evil characteristic of sin not to recognize how serious it is and to excuse it by treating it lightly. Those who have come to understand the holiness of God and the nature of his grace to sinners in spite of our sin do not do this. Like the remorseful tax collector, they stand in awe of God and cry out for mercy: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). They do not treat sin as if it were inconsequential.
King David is an Old Testament example. After he had been brought to acknowledge his sin through the words of the prophet Nathan, David wrote an affecting confession of sin which we know as Psalm 51. I
t begins with a cry for mercy, followed immediately by a vivid acknowledgment of his transgression. In verse 1 David used three words to express the immeasurable wonder of God’s grace: “mercy,” “unfailing love,” and “compassion.” In verses 1 and 2 he used three corresponding words to express the sinfulness of his sin.
The first word is “transgression” (Hebrew, peshah). This word refers to “crossing a forbidden boundary” with the thought that this is serious “rebellion.” You may recall from the annals of Julius Caesar that as long as the general remained to the north of the River Rubicon he was on peaceful terms with the Roman senate. But once he crossed the Rubicon, which the senate had forbidden him to do, he was at war with that legislative body. Caesar did cross, crying, Alea iacta est (“The die is cast”), and civil war erupted. That is what we have done with God. We have crossed the boundary of his moral law and consequently are at war with him. “It is not merely, then, that we go against some abstract propriety, or break some impersonal law of nature when we do wrong, but that we rebel against a rightful Sovereign,” wrote Alexander Maclaren.4
The second word is “iniquity” (Hebrew, hawon). This means “perversion” and refers to what we call “original sin” or the innate “depravity” of our natures. Significantly, it is also the word used in the first part of verse 5, where David says he was “sinful” from birth.
The third word is “sin” itself (Hebrew, chattath). This means “falling short” or “missing the mark.” We miss God’s high mark of perfection, falling short of it in the same way an arrow might fall short of a target. But it is also true that sin misses its own mark, since by sinning we never hit what we are aiming at.
These three words occur again later in Psalm 51 (vv. 3, 4, 5, 9, and 13), where it is clear that they refer to David’s personal failure: “my transgressions,” “my iniquity” and “my sin.” The words also occur in verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 32, another psalm of confession, though the New International Version does not use the word “iniquity” to translate hawon in that psalm. It uses “sin” to translate both hawon and chattath. The apostle Paul quotes these verses in Romans 4 as part of his teaching about our sin being imputed to Jesus, so that it might not be counted against us; and his righteousness being imputed to us, so that we might be justified before God:
Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him
(Rom. 4:7-8; Ps. 32:1-2).
The nature of sin has left everyone in a deplorable state before God, a state Paul summarizes beginning with verse 9 of chapter 3. According to Paul’s summary, Jews are not better than Gentiles, nor are Gentiles better than Jews. Instead all are alike under sin, and all are thus subject to the wrath and final judgment of a holy God. Earlier Paul had explained how the race had fallen deeper and deeper into sin because of its rebellion against God. Now, quoting from Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3 to show that this is God’s assessment and not merely his own opinion, Paul writes:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11).
1. No one is righteous. In the first part of his summary the apostle writes of man’s moral nature and concludes that the human race is unrighteous. This does not mean merely that we are a bit less righteous
than we need to be to somehow get to heaven. It means that from God’s point of view human beings have no righteousness at all—none, that is, that will satisfy him. We may be righteous in our own eyes and sometimes even in the eyes of other people, if they do not know us too well. But we do not have any genuine righteousness at all. All our comparisons with other people do is keep us from appreciating or appropriating God’s amazing saving grace.
2. No one understands. The second pronouncement Paul makes about human beings is that no one understands spiritual things. This refers to a lack of spiritual perception and not merely to a lack of human knowledge. If we think on the human level, comparing the understanding of one person with that of another, we can see that some people have good minds and obviously understand a great deal, and since we are impressed by that we will be misled about their spiritual condition. We need to learn that, as far as spiritual matters are concerned, no one either truly understands or seeks God.
Paul provides his own commentary on the teaching that “no one . . . understands” in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians were mostly Greeks. They were proud of their cultural heritage and prized the wisdom of their outstanding philosophers—people like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Paul reminds them, however, that when he was with them he did not try to impress them with his wisdom; rather, he determined to know nothing among them “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), for the power is in that gospel. He explains his decision in two ways.
First, human wisdom has shown itself bankrupt so far as coming to know God is concerned. Paul says:
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:18-21).
In making this indictment, Paul was echoing only what the Greeks themselves had concluded. The philosophers knew that they had been unable to discover God by their philosophy.
The second way Paul explains his decision to know nothing but Christ crucified is the statement that spiritual realities can only be known by God’s Spirit. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
This does not mean that a person cannot have a rational understanding of Christianity or of what the Bible teaches apart from the illumination given by the Spirit. A scholar can understand Christian theology as well as any other branch of knowledge. A philosopher can lecture on the Christian idea of God. A historian can analyze the nature of the Protestant Reformation and describe justification by faith very well. But left to themselves, people like this do not believe what they explain, nor are they saved or changed by it. If they are asked their opinion of what they are explaining, they will say that it is nonsense. It is in this sense that they, not being “spiritual,” are unable to understand Christianity.
3. No one seeks God. Having spoken of our moral and intellectual failures, Paul moves to man’s will and concludes rightly that “no one . . . seeks God.”
“But I do seek him,” someone might reply. “I have been seeking him all my life. I was born into a Baptist home; but I couldn’t find God in my Baptist church. So when I grew old enough I joined a Presbyterian
Church. When I couldn’t find God there, I became an Episcopalian. Over the years I have attended every kind of church there is. I have been to Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Bible, and independent churches. But I still haven’t found God.”
A person like that has not been seeking God. He has been running away from him. The man was probably born into a godly Baptist home. But when God got close to him in his Baptist church, he left it and joined the Presbyterians. When things got hot for him there—God can work even in Presbyterian churches!—he joined the Episcopal church. When God got too close to him in the Episcopal church, he left it for Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Bible, and independent churches. If he gets to the end of this circle, he will probably look around carefully to see if anyone is looking and then jump in again at the beginning.
This is what sinful human beings are like. So it is no wonder that those who have no righteousness cannot understand spiritual things, and that those who do not seek God fail to appreciate God’s grace. They not only fail to appreciate God’s grace, they even hate God for it. They resent the suggestion that God needs to be gracious to them. What is incomprehensible is that so many true Christians, who should understand the nature, depth, extent, and horror of their sin, fail to be shocked by it and therefore find grace boring.
MAN’ S SPIRITUAL INABILITY
Our culture has taught us that for mankind “all things are possible.” So the thought that we need the grace of God in order to get right with God seems wrong to us. We assume that it will always be possible for us to mend our relationships with the Almighty. If it is necessary, we will take care of it ourselves in due time.
Those who think like this fail to appreciate another biblical doctrine: man’s spiritual inability or, as it is also sometimes stated, the bondage of man’s will. This is the truth behind Paul’s statement that there is “no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). The reason no one seeks God is that, apart from the prior work of God in an individual’s heart, no one can seek God—because no one wants to. This matter has been discussed at great length in church history. It was the chief issue in the clash between the great Saint Augustine and the British monk Pelagius; between Martin Luther and the Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam; and between Jacob Arminius and the followers of John Calvin. However, the deepest and most significant thinking ever done on the subject of the will and its impotence was by Jonathan Edwards in a treatise called “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will.”5
The first thing Edwards did was to define the will. We think of the will as that thing in us that makes choices. Edwards saw that this was not accurate and instead defined the will as “that by which the mindchooses anything.” That may not seem to be much of a difference, but it is a major one. For it means that what we choose is not determined by the will itself (as if it were an entity to itself) but by the mind, which means that our choices are determined by what we think to be the most desirable course of action.
Edwards’s second major contribution was his discussion of what he called “motives.” He pointed out that the mind is not neutral. It thinks some things are better than other things, and because it thinks some things are better than other things it always chooses the better things. If a person thought one course of action was better than another and yet chose the less desirable alternative, the person would be irrational. This means, to speak properly, that the will is always free. It is free to choose (and always will choose) what the mind thinks best.
But what does the mind think best? Here we get to the heart of the matter. When confronted with God, the mind of a sinner never thinks that following or obeying God is a good choice. His will is free to choose God. Nothing is stopping him. But his mind does not regard submission to God as desirable. Therefore, he turns from God, even when the gospel is most winsomely presented. People do not want God to be sovereign over them. They do not want their sinful natures to be exposed. Their minds are wrong in these judgments, of course. The way they choose is actually the way of alienation and misery, the end of which is death. But human beings think sin is best, which is why they choose it. Therefore, unless God changes the way we think—which he does in some by the miracle of the new birth—our minds always tells us to turn from God—which is precisely what we do.
People who reject this might argue, “But surely the Bible says that anyone who will come to Christ may come to him. Didn’t Jesus invite us to come? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never drive away’” (John 6:37)? Yes, that is what Jesus said, but it is beside the point. Certainly, anyone who wants to come to Christ may come to him. That is why Edwards insisted that the will is not bound. But who is it who wills to come? The answer is: No one, except those in whom the Holy Spirit has already performed the entirely irresistible work of the new birth so that, as a result of this miracle, the spiritually blind eyes of the natural man are opened to see God’s truth, and the totally depraved mind of the sinner, which in itself has no spiritual understanding, is renewed to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. This is teaching that very few professing Christians in our day, including the vast majority of evangelicals, believe or understand, which is another reason, perhaps the major reason, why they find grace boring.
GOD’ S JUDGMENT
Most of our contemporaries, even Christians, have lost appreciation for all cause-and-effect links, especially in moral areas. So a judgment of God at the end of human history, when sin will be punished, seems like fantasy to them. Is it fantasy? Or is it actually the most reasonable thing in the universe? We can approach these questions by thinking of Jesus’ three great parables of judgment, found in Matthew 25: the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the sheep and goats. Each makes similar points, so the cumulative effect of these three stories is quite strong.
1. There will be a future day of reckoning for all people. This first point is so obvious both from the teaching of the Bible and from our experience of life that it seems almost juvenile to stress it. Yet it must be stressed, if only because most people think in precisely opposite categories. Jesus spoke of judgment being obvious, but most people think of judgment as being the most irrational and least-to-be-anticipated thing in the world.
What do most people think of when one speaks of dying? Most probably do not want to think of it at all; they are afraid of dying, and they are not certain of what, if anything, lies beyond death’s door. If they do speak about it, assuming that something does lie beyond this life, most people think of the afterlife in good terms. At the very least they think of something like a continuation of life as we know it. Or, if it will not be that, it must be something better. Very few consider that it may be something worse. They cannot imagine God to be a God of judgment.
Our contemporaries are irrational in this, as they are in other spiritual matters. Ours is an evil world. All sins are not judged in this world, nor are all good deeds rewarded. The righteous do suffer. The guilty do go
free. If this is a moral universe, that is, if it is created and ruled by a moral God, then there must be a reckoning hereafter in which the tables are balanced out. The good must prosper and the evil must be punished.
In most theological volumes on eschatology (the last things), there are three great points of emphasis: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment. But of the three, the only one that is truly reasonable is the last. There is no reason why Jesus should return again. He came once and was rejected. If he were to write us off and never again give so much as a thought to this planet, it would be completely understandable. It is the same with the resurrection: “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). If that is all there is, who can complain? We have had our lives. Why should we expect anything more? There is nothing of logical necessity in either of those two matters in and of them-selves. But judgment? That is the most logical thing in the universe, and these three stories say quite clearly that there will be a final day of reckoning.
In the first story the bridegroom returns suddenly, and the women who are not ready for his coming are excluded from the marriage feast (Matt. 25:10).
In the story of the servants, the master returns to settle his accounts, and the evil, lazy servant is condemned: “Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30).
In the final story the king separates the sheep from the goats, sending the wicked “to eternal punishment” and the righteous “to eternal life” (v. 46).
2. The judgment will be based on our good works or the lack of them. This is a surprising point for Protestants especially. We have been taught that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works, and here the judgment is on the basis of what people have done or have not done. In the first case it is the failure of the foolish virgins to prepare for the Lord’s coming. In the second case it is the disuse of the talents given to the servants by their master. In the third case it is the care or neglect of those who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or imprisoned. This seems wrong to Protestants because we have been taught that the judgment will be on the basis of whether or not we have believed on Jesus as our Savior.
Salvation is by faith, of course. These stories do not deny that. But they are pointing to something else that is also important, namely, that the faith through which we are saved is not a dead faith. Saving faith must be active. In teaching this, Jesus was one with the apostle James, who said, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
Does that mean we are saved by works after all? Were the Reformers wrong? No, but it is a statement of the necessity of works following faith—if we are truly regenerate. It means that there is an unbreakable link between what we think and what we do. Those who are born again think differently from those who are not, precisely because they have been regenerated; regenerated people will begin to live out the superior moral life of Christ. No one believes on Christ who has not been given a new nature, and although that new nature does not show itself completely all at once, if we are justified, we have it and it will increasingly and inevitably express itself in forgiveness of and service to others, just as God has forgiven and done good to us. We are not justified by works. But if we do not do good works, we are not justified. We are not Christians.
3. None of our excuses will have any weight before God. As we read these stories we find that the people who were confronted by the Lord’s return made manifold excuses for themselves, just as people make excuses for their wickedness today. The man who had been given one talent and had hidden it in the ground explained that he had not done more because he knew the nature of his master too well: “Master, . . . I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” (Matt. 25:24-25). The man claimed knowledge of his master’s character as an excuse for failing to do what his master desired. It was a foolish excuse, but many people today do the same. They use justification theology to excuse their failure to care for others practically. They use knowledge of predestination to excuse their failure to evangelize. They use perseverance as an excuse for being lazy.
The master told the servant that if he were right about his master’s character, he should have worked all the harder. He also called him wicked and lazy—wicked because of his unjustified slander, and lazy because that was the actual cause of his zero-growth performance! By those standards, what wicked people must there be in our churches! How lazy some of us must be!
The third story shows another excuse. In that parable the wicked are judged because they have not cared for Christ’s brothers. But they reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (v. 44). They complain that they did not see Jesus in those who were needy. To Jesus that is no excuse at all. He says, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45).
You can get away with giving excuses to other people—your boss, your parents, your pastor. But you cannot excuse yourself before God. The apostle Paul wrote that in the day of judgment, “every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held account-able to God” (Rom. 3:19). When the Judge takes the bench, there will not be a single protest.
4. Many who are condemned will be utterly surprised at this out-come. I have been to a few surprise parties where the person for whom the party was being given was really surprised. Usually they have not been, because they have noticed the clandestine preparations or someone has unwittingly “let the cat out of the bag.” But sometimes the surprise has really come off. When I read these parables I realize that there will be a terrible surprise for many on the day of judgment, and it will not be a pretend surprise either. Many will be astounded and utterly dismayed at Christ’s judgment.
This is seen in each of these stories. The five women who are left outside knock on the door and call out, “Sir! Sir! Open the door for us!” They are amazed when the door is not opened. The man who had buried the talent is equally surprised. So also with the “goats,” who have failed to serve others as they think they would have served Christ. They say, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (v. 44). They mean that they would have done every-thing necessary if they had only seen Christ, but since they did not see him they cannot imagine why they are being judged. Instead of judgment, each of these persons expected to be rewarded.
Here, I suppose, is the perfect portrait of the visible but unbelieving church, a picture of many who in their lifetime called out, “Lord, Lord,” but did not do the things Jesus said and ultimately perished. We would not dare say this if the Lord had not said it first, but on his authority we must say that many who worship in apparently Christian congregations, who consider themselves good Christians, supposing that all is well with their souls, will be utterly surprised by God’s judgment. If people like this will be shut out from God’s presence, ought we not to do as Peter says and “make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10)? Peter
tells how it must be done. He says to add goodness to faith, knowledge to goodness, self-control to knowledge, perseverance to self-control, godliness to perseverance, brotherly kindness to godliness, and love to brotherly kindness (vv. 5-7), concluding, “If you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (vv. 10-11). The emphasis is on “do”!
GOD’ S SOVEREIGN FREEDOM
In this day of multiple human “rights,” most people wrongly assume that God owes us something—salvation or at least a chance at salvation. But in Packer’s discussion of grace, which we referenced at the beginning of this chapter, the author notes rightly that God does not owe us anything. He shows astonishing favor to many—that is what grace means—but he does not have to. If he were obliged to be gracious, grace would no longer be grace and salvation would be based on human merit rather than being sola gratia.6
When we say that God is not obligated to be gracious we are talking about sovereign grace, and when we are speaking about sovereign grace there is no better Bible passage to study than Ephesians 1. Most Christians are aware of Paul’s teaching about grace in Ephesians 2. In fact, many have memorized Ephesians 2:89, which describes grace. What most do not realize is that the meaning of grace in those verses has already been defined by what has been said about grace in chapter 1. Chapter 1 is about God’s sovereign grace from the beginning to the end.
What is the difference between Ephesians 1 and 2? Both chapters use the word grace three times. But chapter 1 looks at the subject from God’s point of view, showing that we are saved because of what God has willed, while chapter 2 looks at the subject from our perspective, showing how these prior decrees of God impact the individual believer. The important thing is that Paul begins with God. What is more, in beginning with God he highlights the role of each person of the Trinity in this work.
1. The role of God the Father: election. “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:4-6). These verses are one of the strongest expressions of sovereign grace in Scripture, for they teach that the blessings of salvation come to some people because God has determined from before the creation of the world to give these blessings to these people—and for that reason only.
Many people today do not like this doctrine because they think it is not just. Some deny it outright. Some admit it but deny its effect by saying that the choice is based on God’s foreknowledge—as if there were anything good in us for God to foresee, apart from his having previously determined to put it there. Some ignore the doctrine. But it is hard to ignore election, since it is found throughout the Bible and in so many critical passages. Without God’s prior election of sinners to salvation, grace is emptied of its meaning.
2. The role of God the Son: redemption. Election is not the only thing God has done as an expression of his grace in salvation. Following the Trinitarian pattern of this chapter, we come next to the doctrine of redemption. What God has done through Jesus Christ is to redeem his elect or chosen people, which also flows from unmerited or utterly sovereign grace. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the
forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding” (Eph. 1:7-8).
The reason redemption is particularly associated with Jesus Christ is that redemption is a commercial term meaning “to buy in the marketplace so that the object or person purchased might be freed from it,” and Jesus did this buying and liberating work for us by dying in our place. To carry the illustration through, we are pictured as slaves to sin, unable to free ourselves from sin’s bondage and the world’s grasp. Indeed, instead of freeing us, the world joyfully gambles for our bodies and souls. It offers its alluring currency—fame, sex, pleasure, power, wealth. For these things millions sell their eternal souls and perish. But Jesus enters the marketplace as our Redeemer. Jesus bids the price of his blood. God says, “Sold to Jesus, for the price of his blood!” There is no higher bid than that. So we become his possession forever.
The apostle Peter wrote, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Charles Wesley expressed it poetically:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.7
3. The role of God the Holy Spirit: effectual calling. The third expression of God’s sovereign grace in our salvation emphasized in Ephesians 1 is the work of the Holy Spirit, who applies to the individual the salvation planned by God the Father and achieved by God the Son. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:11-14).
At first glance the word “chosen” in verse 11 seems to be describing the same thing as Paul’s words about the Father’s choice in verse 4, that is, election. But the idea is actually different. In verse 4 the predestining choice of the Father stands before everything. In verse 11, “chosen” refers to what theologians term the Holy Spirit’s effective call, which follows from and is determined by the exercise of God’s sovereign will in election.
The greatest biblical picture of the grace of God calling a dead sinner to life is probably Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, recorded in John 11. When Jesus returned to Bethany at the request of the dead man’s sisters, he was told that Lazarus had been dead for four days and that he was already putrefying: “‘But Lord,’ said Martha, . . . ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days’” (v. 39). What a graphic description of the state of our moral and spiritual decay because of sin! Dead, decaying, stinking, hopeless. There was nothing anyone could do for Lazarus in this dead condition. His situation was not merely serious or grim; it was hopeless.
But not to God! “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Therefore, having prayed, Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43), and the call of Jesus brought life to the dead man, just as the voice of God brought the entire universe into being from nothing.
That is what the Holy Spirit does to moribund sinners today. God’s Spirit works through the preaching of
the Bible to call to faith those he has previously chosen for salvation and for whom Jesus specifically died. Apart from those three gracious actions—the act of God in electing, the work of Christ in dying, and the operation of the Holy Spirit in calling—there would be no salvation for anyone. But because of those actions—because of God’s sovereign grace—even the worst of blaspheming rebels may be turned from his or her folly and may find Christ.
Whenever I come to a tremendous word like grace, one of the things I do is look in hymn books to see what has been written about it by Christians who have gone before me. When I did that for grace, consulting theTrinity Hymnal, the book we use in our church, I was surprised by the many words for grace and the many varieties of grace that were listed. The Trinity Hymnal lists hymns about grace under the following headings: converting grace, the covenant of grace, efficacious grace, the fullness of grace, magnified grace, refreshing grace, regenerating grace, sanctifying grace, saving grace, and sovereign grace. It also has combined listings, such as: the love and grace of God, the love and grace of Christ, the love and grace of the Holy Spirit, and salvation by grace.
In addition, there are the phrases used in the hymns them-selves, such as: abounding grace, abundant grace, amazing grace, boundless grace, fountain of grace, God of grace, indelible grace, marvelous grace, matchless grace, overflowing grace, pardoning grace, plenteous grace, unfailing grace, immeasurable grace, wonderful grace, the word of grace, grace all sufficient, and grace alone.
Did you know that Francis Scott Key, the author of the national anthem of the United States, also wrote an important hymn about grace?
Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee,
Roused thee from thy fatal ease,
Praise the grace whose promise warmed thee,
Praise the grace that whispered peace.8
My favorite hymn, as least as far as the words go, was written by Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister and former president of Princeton University:
Great God of wonders! All thy ways
Are worthy of thyself—divine:
And the bright glories of thy grace
Among thine other wonders shine;
Who is a pardoning God like thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?9
Theologians speak of common grace, electing grace, irresistible grace, persevering grace, prevenient grace, pursuing grace, and saving grace. Yet even these terms do not exhaust the Christian terminology.
At the beginning of this chapter we took note of John Newton (1725–1807). Newton was raised in a Christian home in which he was taught verses of the Bible, but his mother died when he was only six years old and he was sent to live with a relative who hated the Bible and mocked Christianity. Newton ran away to sea. He was wild in those years and was known for being able to swear for two hours without repeating himself. He was forced to enlist in the British navy, but he deserted, was captured, and was beaten publicly
as a punishment. Eventually Newton got into the merchant marine and went to Africa. In his memoirs he wrote that he went to Africa for one reason only, “that I might sin my fill.”
Newton fell in with a Portuguese slave trader, in whose home he was cruelly treated. This man often went away on slaving expeditions, and when he was gone his power passed to his African wife, the chief woman of his harem. She hated all white men and vented her hatred on Newton. He says that for months he was forced to grovel in the dirt, eating his food from the ground like a dog. He was beaten mercilessly if he touched it. In time, thin and emaciated, Newton made his way to the sea, where he was picked up by a British ship making its way up the coast to England.
When the captain of the ship learned that the young man knew something about navigation as a result of being in the British Navy, he made him a ship’s mate. But even then Newton fell into trouble. One day, when the captain was ashore, Newton broke out the ship’s supply of rum and got the crew drunk. He was so drunk himself that when the captain returned and struck him on the head, Newton fell overboard and would have drowned if one of the sailors had not quickly hauled him back on board.
Near the end of one voyage, as they were approaching Scotland, the ship ran into bad weather and was blown off course. Water poured in, and the ship began to sink. The young profligate was sent down into the hold to pump water. The storm lasted for days. Newton was terrified. He was sure the ship would sink and he would drown. But in the hold of the ship, as he desperately pumped water, the God of all grace, whom he had tried to forget but who had never forgotten him, brought to his mind Bible verses he had learned in his home as a child. The way of salvation opened up to him. He was born again and deeply transformed. Much later, when he was again in England, Newton began to study theology and eventually became a preacher, first in a little town called Olney and later in London.
Of this storm William Cowper, the British poet who became a fast personal friend of Newton and lived with him for several years, wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.10
And so he does! Newton was a great preacher of grace, for he had learned that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20). He is proof that the grace of God is sufficient to save anybody, and that he saves them by grace alone.
1 The complete text of this document may be found on the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals: www.AllianceNet.org.
2 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1973), 117.
3 Ibid., 117-119.
4 Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3, The Psalms, Isaiah 1–48 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1959), part 2, 5.
5 Jonathan Edwards, “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, revised by Edward Hickman with a memoir by Sereno E. Dwight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 3-93.
6 Packer, Knowing God, 117-120.
7 Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,” in The Trinity Hymnal (Atlanta: Great Commissions Publications, 1998), 455.
8 Francis Scott Key, “Lord, with Glowing Heart I’d Praise Thee,” 1823.
9 Samuel Davies, “Great God of Wonders,” in The Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications, 1961), 71.
10 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” in The Trinity Hymnal, 128.
Chapter 5 from the book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace by James M. Boice.