Grace is central to the Christian worldview. At the core of the Christian understanding of reality is that although man has fallen from his exalted position in which he was created, God has stepped in to secure his salvation. And this salvation Paul has declared to be by grace:
“For by Grace are you saved” (Eph. 2:8)
How then does grace play out? What is involved in God’s display of saving grace? Let us briefly examine five themes which highlight how God’s grace works out in the salvation of individuals.
Man’s utter sinfulness
The Bible describes the condition of fallen humanity as one of death. God issued this threat if our first parents disobeyed His injunction (Gen. 2:17). Sadly, they did. And the sentence was passed in keeping with divine justice. All the miseries and ills befalling humanity ever since – crime, broken homes, dishonesty, cruelty – are the outflow of that initial sentence. We lost communion and fellowship with God. A sense of dread, fear, and ultimately, hatred crept in and now distorts our relation with God. His commands now seem burdensome and ugly. Why should I not be free to avenge myself? Why must I love those who don’t care about me? We nurture pride, hate, lust, and all forms of cruelty in our hearts. These all are various ways in which humanity’s dead nature plays out. And like a person who is physically dead, we need a power outside of ourselves to raise us up and make us alive.
By implication, the natural person is insensitive to God and spiritual matters. He might have been brought up under religious teachings, but he cannot grasp it because of his state. Until God makes him alive, the gospel remains an unopened perfume jar – the fragrance hidden, the delight unknown.
Several passages refer to this sad condition including 1 Cor. 2: 14; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 1:9; Eph 2: 1-3, 12; Jer.13:23; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:10-12; Job 14:4; John 5:21; John 6:53.
God’s sovereign election
Just as the Bible teaches that all men are lost in sin, it reveals that God has mercifully chosen to save. Given that we are dead in our sins, no one can be saved unless God reaches out to deliver them. And he begins this work of salvation long before we are even born.
According to scripture, anyone who believes in Christ had been elected long before creation to be a member of God’s family. So no one can boast that his or her salvation was achieved by their own strength. This goes to show how comprehensive God’s plan is and how amazing his grace.
The idea of election runs through the entire story of redemption. When humanity had rebelled against God and He was to destroy the entire world, God spared Noah and appointed him to form a new humanity. Among all his siblings, God chose Abraham to form a new community of faithful humans. Between the duo of Jacob and Esau, God made a choice of Jacob as the bearer of the line of redemption. Generations later, God would remind the descendants of Jacob that they were not selected because they were larger than other tribes. They were merely recipients of His sovereign favour and love (Deut. 7:7-8). This very idea applies equally to believers in Christ.
Jesus spoke of how impossible it is for anyone to believe in Him except by a prior selection from God (John 6:65), an idea he repeats in other passages like John 6:37; 13:18; 15:16.
Paul wrote of God choosing believers from the beginning (2 Thess. 2:13). He refers to the same idea in various passages, such as 1 Thess. 1:4; Rom. 8:33; 11:7, 2 Tim. 2:10, etc. Peter echoed the same theme in 1 Peter 2:9.
This theme is not difficult to understand when we consider that God is in complete control of everything in history. All the tiny acts and the huge events – he rules them all. And his selection of people to be members of his family is but one aspect of this cosmic function.
Christ’s definite atonement
In line with God’s plan to redeem his elect, He chose a Redeemer to atone for their sins through his life, death, and resurrection. In other words, God purchased his people back to himself. As Peter describes it, he does this not with gold but with the precious blood of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18, 19).
The death of Jesus was described as a ransom in Scripture (Mark 10:45, 1 Tim. 2:6). It was a payment designed to rescue believers from the grip of sin and death. And it was effective in securing the salvation of all God’s elect.
The sacrifice of Christ was foreshadowed in the various sacrifices of the Jewish community. He was the Passover Lamb who was killed on the night of their deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 12). He was the scapegoat who took away the sins of God’s people out into the wilderness (Leviticus 16). And he was the lamb given in the place of Isaac several centuries before Moses was even born (Gen. 22:13).
The Bible speaks of Christ’s sacrifice in several passages.
Matt. 20:28, John 10:14,15; Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25; John 15:13; Luke 1:68 (cf. Matt 1:21); John 11:49-52
God’s effectual Grace
Now that God has chosen his people from all eternity and given a Redeemer to obtain their salvation, he effects this work in their hearts. At a point in time, he makes them aware of their sinful state and their need for a Saviour. He then opens their eyes to see Jesus as that Saviour and gives them faith to trust in him. As it were, God raises His people from the dead and brings them into a new life. This is the work of Regeneration, or what John referred to as being ‘born again’. A 17th-century Christian council described it thus:
“[God] penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.” (Article 11, Canons of Synod of Dort)
“It is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead, as Scripture (inspired by the author of this work) teaches. As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received, is also rightly said to believe and to repent.” (Article 12)
This aspect of grace is referred to in Titus 3:5; John 5:24; John 3:3; Col. 2:13; Ezek. 11:19; Acts 16:14; John 17:2.
The Holy Spirit’s preservation of believers
It is a Christian’s privilege that the grace which brings us to faith in Christ does not abandon us in the struggle of our lives. It sustains us all the way. The Holy Spirit continues to walk with and work in every believer to bring everyone ‘to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13).
The believer often sins and dishonours God. He can, through carelessness, bring shame to the name of Christ. However, God does not cast him off. Sin will not have dominion over him (Rom. 6:14). In the words of C.H. Spurgeon, ‘the believer, like a man on shipboard, may fall again and again on the deck, but he will never fall overboard.’
Paul reminds us of God’s firm hold on every believer when he wrote in Rom. 8:35,36:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
Jesus assured us that whoever believes in Him has eternal life as a present reality (John 4:14; 5:25; 6: 47,51). And they are so secure in his hands that no one is able to snatch them away (John 10:28).
In Phil. 1:6, Paul expressed the conviction that the work begun in believers would continue until Christ returns. He revealed the same certainty about himself in 2 Tim. 4:18 and described how the believer’s future glorification is inextricably tied to God’s predestination long before the person was even born (Rom. 8:29, Eph. 1:5)!
The apostle John also wrote of how the believer has eternal life as a present benefit (1 John 5:11,13).
This calls for joy on the part of the Christian. He is not only a recipient of grace but of a grace which is unshakeable and unending. He is firm in the grasp of his Creator who has also become his Redeemer. Nothing can alter this remarkable privilege.
Amazing grace, indeed!