The Grace of God

 by J.  I.  Packer

What is it that hinders so many who profess to believe in grace from really doing so? Why does the theme mean so little even to some who talk about it a great deal?  The root of the trouble seems to be misbelief about the basic relationship between a person and God – misbelief rooted not just in the mind but in the heart, at the deeper level of things that we never question because we always take them for granted.  There are four crucial truths in this realm which the doctrine of grace presupposes, and if they are not acknowledged and felt in one’s heart, clear faith in God’s grace becomes impossible.  Unhappily, the spirit of our age is as directly opposed to them as it well could be.  It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that faith in grace is a rarity today.  The four truths are these:

1.  The moral ill-desert of man.  Modern men and women, conscious of their tremendous scientific achievements in recent years, naturally incline to a high opinion of themselves.  They view material wealth as in any case more important than moral character, and in the moral realm they are resolutely kind to themselves, treating small virtues as compensating for great vices and refusing to take seriously the idea that, morally speaking, there is anything much wrong with them.

They tend to dismiss a bad conscience, in themselves as in others, as an unhealthy psychological freak, a sign of disease, and mental aberration rather than an index of moral reality. For modern men and women are convinced that, despite all their little peccadilloes – drinking, gambling, reckless driving, sexual laxity, black and white lies, sharp practice in trading, dirty reading, and what have you – they are a heart thoroughly good folks.  Then, as pagans do (and modern man’s heart is pagan  - make no mistake about that), they imagine God as a magnified image of themselves and assume that God shares his own complacency about himself.  The thought of themselves as creatures fallen from God’s image, rebels against God’s rule, guilty and unclean in God’s sight, fit only for God’s condemnation, never enters their heads.

2. The retributive justice of God.  The way of modern men and women is to turn a blind eye to all wrongdoing as long as they safely can.  They tolerate it in others, feeling that there, but for the accident of circumstance, go they themselves.  Parents hesitate to correct their children, and teachers to punish their pupils, and the public puts up with vandalism and antisocial behavior of all sorts with scarcely a murmur.  The accepted maxim seems to be that as long as evil can be ignored, it should be; one should punish only as a last resort, and then only so far as is necessary to prevent the evil from having too grievous social consequences. Willingness to tolerate and indulge evil up to the limit is seen as a virtue, while living by fixed principals of right and wrong is censured by some as doubtfully moral.

In our pagan way, we take if for granted that God feels as we do. The idea that retribution might be the moral law of God’s world and an expression of his holy character seems to us quite fantastic.  Those who uphold it find themselves accused of projecting on to God their own pathological impulses of rage and vindictiveness.  Yet the Bible insists throughout that this world which God in his goodness has made is a moral world, one in which retribution is as basic a fact as breathing.

God is the Judge of all the earth, and he will do right, vindicating the innocent, if such their be, but punishing (in the Bible Phrase visiting their sins upon) lawbreakers (see Gen 18.25). God is not true to himself unless he punishes sin.  And unless one knows and feels the truth of this fact, that wrongdoers have no natural hope of anything from God but retributive judgment, one can never share the Biblical faith in divine grace.

3. The spiritual impotence of man. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People has been almost a modern Bible. A whole technique of business relations has been built up in recent years on the principal of putting the other person in a position where he cannot decently say no.  This has confirmed modern men and women in the faith which has animated pagan religion ever since there was such a thing – namely, the belief that we can repair our own relationship with God by putting God in a position where he cannot say no anymore.

Ancient pagans thought to do this by multiplying gifts and sacrifices; modern pagans seek to do it by churchmanship and morality.  Conceding that they are not perfect, they still have no doubt that respectability henceforth will guarantee God’s acceptance of them in the end, whatever they may have done in the past.  But the Bible position is as stated by Toplady:

  Not the labours of my hand
  Can fulfill thy law’s demand
  Could my zeal no respite know,
  Could my tears for ever flow,
  All for sin could not atone

leading to the admission of one’s own helplessness and to the conclusion:

 Thou must save, and thou alone.

 “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law,” declares Paul (Rom 3:20).  To mend our own relationship with God, regaining God’s favor after having once lost it, is beyond the power of any one of us.  And one must see and bow to this before one can share the Biblical faith in God’s grace.

 4. The sovereign freedom of God. Ancient paganism thought of each God as bound to his worshipers by bonds of self-interest, because he depended on their service and gifts for his welfare.  Modern paganism has at the back of its mind a similar feeling that God is somehow obliged to love and help us, little though we deserve it.  This was the feeling voiced by the French freethinker who died muttering “God will forgive – that’s his job.”  But this feeling is not well founded.  The God of the Bible does not depend on his human creatures for his well being (see Ps 50:8 – 13; Acts 17:25), nor, now that we have sinned, is he bound to show us favor.

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