by John W. Ritenbaugh
November 6, 2012
Almost every letter authored by the apostle Paul ends with the benediction, "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" (for example, II Corinthians 13:14). However, it would be careless to assume from Paul's writings that grace is associated only with Jesus Christ to the exclusion of the Father. It is a matter of fact that the phrases "the grace of God" and "grace from God" occur even more frequently than "the grace of Christ." Almost every epistle authored by Paul opens with the greeting: "Grace and peace from God." This certainly, at the very least, strongly implies the Father.
There is no doubt God's greatest acts of grace have been the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His sinless life, death, and resurrection (John 3:16). Jesus Christ is the supreme expression of the Father's grace. However, He does not stand alone as the giver of these priceless gifts. Jesus Christ, as our Savior and High Priest continues to pour out His gifts in our behalf as we struggle against the carnality remaining within us and with the world that attempts to persuade us against God's purpose for us.
The Bible shows grace as a means of rescue that the sons of God cannot do for themselves. It is a marvelous, outstanding characteristic shared by both Father and Son and one conferred in many forms. On occasion, Paul speaks of the "grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thessalonians 1:12). Grace should rightly be understood as coming from the Father through the Son to man. Jesus Christ is the God-ordained means by which grace most effectively reaches us in our need.
As the previous article stated, we need to understand grace's value to our salvation by seeing it more clearly against the backdrop of God's justice. However, this article will focus most directly on Christ's participation in our lives through grace. We saw that the book of John begins with the apostle exclaiming that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, and that it is from Christ's fullness that we receive grace upon grace, which most certainly implies a continuous flow of grace to provide available help in every circumstance (John 1:14-17).
The last article detailed the background of the secular usage of the Greek term charis and introduced its spiritual usage. It is necessary to understand the term's secular usage because the Bible's usage of it makes it clear that God, through the apostles, gave the term spiritual significance far beyond how the man on the street would use it.
To recap, the normal Greek term indicates that people with charis are perceived as gifted and tend to be influential with others. Thus, the term contains a sense of being enabled or empowered. The apostles appear to have picked up on this, using it to signify the undeserved benevolence of God toward sinners. This is considerably different from its secular usage.
In secular usage, the emphasis is on physical gifts received. In the Bible, the emphasis is on spiritual gifts given by God to enable the recipient to meet His requirements to glorify Him, overcome, and grow so that he can be created in God's image. Grace thus implies divine empowerment for service, accomplishment, and sometimes rescue. The aspect of grace being received is still retained, however, which results in thanksgiving to God for His abundant and merciful providence, as its recipients recognize and acknowledge Him for so doing.
Our salvation is accomplished through God's benevolence from beginning to end. Grace, the divine assistance, is not given because God is obligated, compelled, forced, or duty-bound to us to do so. It is freely conferred. Scripture contains not one example of it being given as a reward. Conversely, Romans 4:4 clearly states, "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt."
Under no circumstance is grace our due. God gives grace freely, not by constraint. Truly, all He owes us is the death that we have earned through sin. He gives grace because that is His character. He gives it because He is working out His purpose, not because He owes us for what we think we have earned or for what our pride is demanding for us because we believe we are entitled to what we desire.
We can conclude, then, that spiritually, our gifting by God takes on a vastly greater dimension in two areas: First, God's grace is the single most important aspect of our spiritual and eternal salvation. Second, God's giving of it is completely and totally unmerited. There are no automatic entitlements.
God is not fulfilling our every desire but our every need as His spiritual creation of each of us moves toward His conclusion. To appreciate this truth fully, we must understand that He does not owe us one tiny jot or tittle of it.
Just as surely as every morning in the wilderness the manna appeared to sustain those unconverted Israelites, and the pillar of cloud hung in the sky by day and the pillar of fire by night to guide them, God is supplying our every need in relation to His salvation and purpose. It is all freely given toward His glorification and to fulfill His purpose of creating us to occupy positions in His Kingdom. The apostles used charis in many other situations, but most especially in regard to the powers given by God to meet our spiritual needs.
Jesus, Grace, and Empowerment
Jesus tells His disciples in John 14:1-4:
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.
The instruction in this chapter is helpful regarding living by faith. Christ had told them that He was returning to the Father, and they were concerned about how they would get along without Him. He meets their concerns in the following way.
In the first four verses, He reminds them that there is a place for them in God's Kingdom. Beginning in verse 5, He tells them in an overall sense that they will be busy, and in verse 15, that much of their activity will focus on their expressions of love for Him through keeping God's commandments. He is speaking, not just of the Ten, but of all of God's instruction within His purpose of preparing them to fill their places in His Kingdom.
John 14:16-18, 26 then begins to detail how the apostles will be empowered by Him to fulfill their responsibilities.
And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. . . . But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.
The instruction is that He will gift them—and us too—by His grace with a Spirit that will be the means of enabling us to meet our responsibilities in submitting ourselves to God's creative purposes.
Notice, He specifically says in verse 18, "I will come to you." The point is clear. The gift will not be a Third Person in a Trinity. He expands on the personal nature of this gifting by adding in verse 23, "We will come to [you]," meaning the Father and Son. He is revealing to all the children of God that both the Father and Son are personally involved in our spiritual creation.
Their personal involvement by means of the Holy Spirit is all by itself one of God's most gracious of all gifts. This ties directly into John 1:14-18 and John's "grace upon grace" comment, confirming it. In John 14, we begin to see indications of the fact that grace, God's gifting, is power in many forms. Other scriptures confirm this major gifting.
Jesus says in Luke 24:49, "Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high." This directive and promise occurs after the instruction given in John 14. Notice especially that Jesus clearly links this specific gifting with power. Acts 1:8 confirms this truth, linking grace with power: "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, to the end of the earth."
Grace in a Different Light
Paul teaches in Titus 2:11-15:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.
This passage on grace will take us in a somewhat different direction, but one important to our understanding. Paul sometimes uses "grace" as a broad catchall term to declare the way God acts toward His converted but still occasionally sinful children.
In every case, whether referring to a singular gift or a continuing package of gifts that result in salvation, grace must always be perceived as unearned. Here, "grace" is used as a kind of shorthand for the entire ministry of Jesus Christ through which we are given salvation.
Notice that Paul exclaims, "Grace has appeared," just as the manna, cloud, and fire appeared to illustrate God's faithful presence to the Israelites through the entirety of their pilgrimage. Thus God is shown freely providing them with guidance, daily sustenance, and security. Recall that in John 14:18 that Jesus says in relation to giving the Spirit of truth, "I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you." Paul is implying in Titus 2 that Jesus is following the pattern that He established with Israel for the church's benefit.
Paul also describes Jesus Christ as the personification of grace, salvation, redemption, teaching, hope, and the instruction and inspiration to live godly lives of overcoming and good works. All of these are shown as aspects of one huge gift that is continuously flowing in our lives.
Even as Paul describes Jesus as the personification of grace, he also uses Him as a synonym for grace and all of its powers and benefits, as though Christ exemplified all aspects of grace rolled up in one package. In this way, we can more easily identify and understand it and its meaning to us. Notice further what Jesus—grace—is doing: It is teaching us. Teaching represents the empowerment of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, inspiration, and discernment regarding our responsibilities. It also helps us to identify the subtleties of Satan's devious, anti-God systems.
We should not make the mistake of thinking of grace as an entity; it is not a "thing" God dispenses. "Grace" is a term that represents the freeness of God's personal, patient, and concerned generosity—His blessings and saving acts that are continuously flowing on our behalf to assist us along the way.
God's saving work in us is not merely an extending of life to everlasting life. It is a creative labor on His part, forming us into the image of Jesus Christ, that requires our freely given cooperation for it to succeed. One of our major problems in fulfilling this responsibility by faith is to think about Him consistently, seeking for and acknowledging His benefits, and then returning thanks and praise to Him for His forgiving, patient generosity.
You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Jesus says this to help us grasp the marvelous, obliging, and almost overwhelming generosity and magnanimity of God's approach toward His creation. He acts this way despite all that we have thoughtlessly and self-centeredly done against Him personally and His creation, which certainly includes other people both converted and unconverted. Regardless, He still gives and gives some more. Why? Because this is the way that He is by nature, setting us an example of what He wants us to become in our natures too.
Do not be misled, though. He is not a thoughtless, wealthy, spendthrift sap. He does all this giving with purposeful wisdom, and especially so with His children that He is now preparing for His Family Kingdom.
When dealing with His children, His giving nature does not change. It is, however, more directed and focused on their preparation for their future in His Kingdom. Yes, He directly tests us, but because we are the apple of His eye, He provides us with the comfort and encouragement of I Corinthians 10:13:
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
Thus, we are given assurance that even in the midst of the difficulties necessary for our preparation to inherit the Kingdom as co-heirs with Christ, He will generously supply our needs.
Grace and Justification
God's justification of sinners is probably the best known, and at the same time, perhaps the least understood of the Bible's major doctrines directly involving salvation. God's grace plays the major role toward making possible this most important step toward our salvation. Notice Romans 5:8-10:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
Notice two things in these verses, the second one first. In verse 10, Paul states, "We shall be saved by His life." As wonderful a gift as God's merciful forgiveness is, merely being forgiven through Christ's blood is not sufficient for salvation. Justification must be seen for what it truly is: It is essential, but it is only the beginning of the salvation process. Throughout the process, we are saved by the continuous flow of grace upon grace from our High Priest.
The other important point is that perhaps nothing regarding God's spiritual creation demonstrates God's gracious and generous freeness—His total lack of obligation toward us—as does His justifying of sinners rather than morally meritorious saints.
The Christian doctrine of God justifying by faith rather than by works truly set the religious Jews of the apostle's day on an angry edge. To them, it made no logical sense. They perceived it as simply another invitation to sin because it seems so easy, or perhaps they also saw it as God ignoring their sincere efforts to please Him.
This charge is true—if one perceives justification carnally, isolating it so that it appears to occur completely apart from God's entire purpose for salvation rather than seeing it for what it truly is. Justification by grace through faith is a necessary part of the whole of being created in Christ's image. Why is it necessary that our justification be by grace through faith? It must be this way because, if we earn justification through our works, it opens the door for human pride, not just to enter our relationship with God, but perhaps even to drive the relationship. If one is justified by works, a person could then honestly claim that God chose him, and his works, because he was good.
This is not good because pride is such a strong influence against God. Remember, Satan's pride rising in him initiated this entire earthly mess. Consider carefully what his pride did to his relationship with God. Justification given because of works alters the positions within the relationship, making God obligated to us as if we had earned a relationship with Him. Pride attempts to put a person on an equal footing with God or even in charge of the relationship, and this ultimately results in us creating ourselves.
It is dangerous to unleash pride in thinking more of ourselves than what is truly good for our character development. We are not the creator but the creation, subject to the designs and purposes of the Master Creator. For our good, then, justification must be received as a freely given, unearned gift.
Romans 3:19-23 helps us to understand our position before God:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
This passage shows us the foundation of understanding justification by faith and thus where we stand in the relationship. Paul explains that, regardless of who one is and what he has done that might be considered as righteousness, God owes Him nothing but death because "all have sinned." Sinners are those under the law, and the law condemns them, making them subject to its power to take the sinner's life. Each person's own transgressions against the law and God place him in that position.
Sin is something each sinner is responsible for, and once the individual has sinned and earned the death penalty, the sin cannot be forgiven simply because he does good to make up for it. God did not make him sin. A clear example is Adam and Eve: God obviously did not make them sin; each of them chose to sin. Romans 3:20 clearly states that no sinner can justify himself through law-keeping. The law's purpose is to make known what sin is.
Once a person sins, everything is seemingly stacked against him. The sinner can in no way make up for what he has done. Therefore, since justification cannot be claimed as a right due to his keeping the law, if a person desires to be forgiven, the only alternative is that justification must be received as a gift.
Romans 4:3-5 carries this process another step forward:
For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
The purpose of justification is to be judged righteous before God. Abraham is Paul's primary example to us. He draws his example from Genesis 15:4-6:
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir." Then He brought him outside and said, "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.
Abraham was declared righteous because he believed what God promised.
Paul then moves on to address the next important question: Does this wonderful gift apply only to those who are physical descendants of Abraham?
Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. (Romans 4:9-10)
Genesis 17:24 clearly shows that circumcision, representing works, came long after Abraham had been declared righteous before God by faith. Therefore, his circumcision and his family bloodline, his ethnicity, had nothing at all to do with his justification. God's justification of him was thus purely an act of God's grace through Abraham's faith, his trust in what God said.
Grace, Justification, and Law
And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.
The Jews of the apostles' day complained that justification by faith was an invitation to sin. Today's complaint says that the law is "done away," thus keeping the law is not required. Abraham is Paul's prime example of justification by faith. Did God's gracious gift of father Abraham's justification lead him to break God's laws? Absolutely not! The Jew's complaint is totally unjustified, and today's false doctrine is nothing but a sheer lie!
In Galatians 2:15-21, Paul defends justification by faith using true, spiritual logic to explain why it will not lead him to return to a life of sin:
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.
Verse 15 declares that being born an Israelite indicates a privileged birth. The privilege results from being part of the Old Covenant nation, thus having direct contact with God's Word, which contains His promises and instructions. This provides the possibility of faith because faith comes from hearing God's Word (Romans 10:17).
However, even having that privilege is of itself no benefit regarding justification. Why? Because a person is justified only through faith in Jesus Christ. Through this means and this means only, a person is declared righteous or innocent of sin. Thus, if one does not take advantage of its availability, the availability itself is of no value. Faith in Jesus Christ and His message is what is important about this way of life.
Paul makes a definitive statement regarding obedience following justification by faith in verses 17-18. The thing that he destroyed through faith and repentance was his former way of life with its mountain of sin accumulated during his unconverted life before justification. Paul was determined not to return to that sinful way. To do this, he had to live to God (verse 19), that is, to obey God's laws so that he would not sin and therefore bring to naught his justification through Christ's sacrifice. He is clearly stating that keeping God's laws is required, even though keeping them does not earn salvation.
We need to make sure that we understand this important reality: Being justified is a major step toward salvation, but this does not mean that the person's character is now fully changed. It means only that the charges for sin against him are removed, and he is legally declared innocent on the basis of Christ's divine righteousness.
Justification is a judicial action by a judge—God. The term indicates an aligning of a forgiven person with a standard. In this case, the standard is the laws of God. Justification does not happen automatically to all but solely to those whom God calls, forgives, and unites with Christ because they believe in the efficacy of His death as the divinely given Substitute to pay the death penalty for their sins. They have humbled themselves before Him and fervently desire to glorify God through a vastly changed life.
Character is a group of qualities that cannot be transferred by fiat. It is created throughout life, either by experiences in this world or by experiences within a relationship with God. We desire to be in the character image of God. In His purpose, the creating of godly character takes place during the sanctification process.
The New International Version renders Romans 10:17 as, "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." Paul uses "faith," one's belief, in the sense of trust. At the point of justification in a person's spiritual life, faith is not producing works; it is merely the mental activity of believing. The works come later as the sanctification process begins and continues. This faith, this trust, has its foundation in knowledge that God has supplied by enabling the called person to reach the right conclusion, a conclusion based in fact. His trust is therefore not blind; it is based, not on speculation, but truth.
In Galatians 2:18, Paul shows that being justified by faith does not lead to a life of sin. Being justified by faith indicates a commitment in the mind of the justified to go forward, building on the relationship by being established with Christ. Verse 19 begins with the word "for," indicating the reason why the justified person will not return to the old way of life. By faith, Paul understands the reason: As far as the law is concerned, he is dead. His debt to it has been satisfied.
Verse 20 continues the thought. Like Christ died, the "old man," the carnal Paul, also died and was symbolically buried in the waters of baptism. Also like Christ, he has been raised from the dead—symbolically—from the waters of baptism. This is done for the sole reason that, by means of the very faith of Christ that he has been given, he would live life as Christ lived. The life Christ lived was sinless. He did not break God's laws, and that is the objective of the new creation and salvation.
Romans 5:1-2 says further of justification and grace, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God." Paul says we are "in" grace; we stand within it. As used here, stand indicates "to assume or to have a definite opinion, position, or attitude; to be situated, have position or location." He means this spiritually, of course.
Now that we stand "in grace," it is in contrast to where we stood before: "in sin," in death, in the world, and under Satan. Paul was not the only apostle to say this, as Peter writes similarly in I Peter 5:12, ". . . I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God in which you stand." These verses assure us that because of God's mercy, we are in a different spiritual location than before He granted us grace.
In Acts 20:24, Luke records Paul's strong determination to do all that he could to remain in that beneficial location: "But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I receive from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God." That we, too, are in a different spiritual location is no small thing.
Grace is the single greatest gift ever given to us because it has opened eternity to us. It came to us entirely unbidden and when we were unknowingly at war against God. Grace represents, not just forgiveness, but a multitude of empowerments totally unearned and continuously bestowed so that we might share the future with the One who gave it. We must allow these truths to humble us, knowing full well that we do not deserve it.