The Elements of the Gospel: Grace

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

(This post is a continuation of the Pastoral Soteriology Series)

Grace:  The Overriding Condition of Salvation

Understanding the nature of the atonement expressed thus far – that Christ fulfilled the substitutionary blood atonement system of the Old Testament – leads one to next evaluate the elements of the gospel which bring one along the path into fellowship with Christ.  The mere knowledge of such glorious principles alone does not transform one automatically into conversion (James 2:19).  Rather, a transformational process which far supersedes intellect takes place to usher one into regeneration.  The next several posts will examine the “elements” which come into play during one’s conversion process.  These elements are each taught by scripture to be a part of the conversion experience.

When one bakes a cake, it is imperative that the proper ingredients be assimilated according to a recipe.  If one should forget the flour or sugar, it becomes not a cake that one bakes, but something else altogether.  While the compilation of the proper ingredient list is essential, there are also further instructions which must be performed in a certain order.  You cannot, for example, “mix on high for 30 seconds” before the final ingredients are added.  Nor can you “bake at 350 degrees” prior to mixing. 

Many who delve into studies on soteriology focus much detailed attention on the order by which ingredients are to be added to the mixture which results in one’s salvation.  Some contend that repentance is a necessary step prior to actual regeneration.  Others insist that repentance is the response of one’s actual regeneration, and that it happens after the fact.  While these debates are wholesome and iron-sharpening (at least when conducted with a healthy humility and lots of scriptural reflection), they go beyond the scope of this “pastoral” study on soteriology.  At the end of the day, my pursuit is to illuminate the essentials of the gospel through this series.  To that end, I’ll save the more meticulous and debatable aspects of this process for the theological forums of healthy debate, which I will gladly engage.

However, even in this assessment of the bare fundamentals of salvation it is absolutely imperative that one understand what goes into this recipe we refer to as “the gospel.”    If one’s cake comes out of the oven un-risen, he can know that he did not get the recipe correct.  He does not have cake, but a chocolate door mat.  Likewise, if one presumes to have been converted, yet he is unrepentant, fails to love Christ and has no desire to serve Him as Lord, he too has missed an important ingredient (or more) along the way.  He is not a true disciple of Christ any more than the un-risen hard-baked batter-platter is cake.

To compile the vital ingredient list of the gospel, one must necessarily begin with the element which overshadows all others, for without it no one can be saved.  That pre-conditional attribute is grace.

The Nature of Grace

Grace is translated in the New Testament from the Greek term charis (khar’is), which is defined as “a manner or act imparting acceptability or favor on another.”  Inherent in this definition is the “imparted” nature of grace.  Grace is something which is given by a capable party to one who is utterly incapable of attaining it on his own.  Thus, it is “imparted,” but cannot be earned.  A common and good theological description of grace is that it is “God’s unmerited favor toward man.”

Another way of understanding the nature of grace is to fully comprehend what grace is not.  Grace is not tantamount to recompense or reward.  It is quite the opposite.  Illuminating this distinction clearly, Paul notes that

Romans 6:23 (NIV)
23 … the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul beautifully prepared a contrast between works and grace in this sentence.  On the “works” side of his equation, he notes that the “wages of sin” is death.  Wages are what one earns for one’s works.  In this case, one’s works are sin and the wage earned is death, which is the opposite of salvation.  On the other side of the equation is the utter antithesis of such works and wages as Paul notes, “but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”  A gift is categorically contrary to a wage.  Gifts are not earned, but are given unmeritoriously.  Otherwise, it would not be a gift at all, but a wage.  This text, while not utilizing the term specifically, teaches clearly the underlying principle which provides the basis of salvation.  Salvation is unconditionally granted by grace.  Thus it is not, and cannot be achieved by works.

Ephesians 2:8 will be examined momentarily, but at this point let us observe its core principle as the foundation by which one is capable of being saved.  Paul states in this text that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves.”  If one is saved “by grace,” then one has no proper cause to think that salvation can be obtained by any part of one’s own human works.  Grace is completely opposed to the idea of one “accomplishing” one’s salvation.  Any and all supposed doctrines which teach that one can “achieve” salvation through right living, proper ingestion of sacramental activities, self flagellation or any other humanly-powered practice is utterly in contempt of scripture.

Contrarily, the biblical doctrine of grace proclaims that men are incapable of redemption outside of Christ.  Scripture reveals that

Romans 5:6 (NIV)
6 … at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

One who is powerless is by definition one that can provide nothing for his estate.  It is in response to man’s inability that Christ worked on his behalf, offering himself as a substitutionary atonement.  Likewise, Ephesians concurs,

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

In case one should misunderstand, Paul explains articulately that salvation is “not by works, so that no one can boast.”  He affirms that salvation – being by grace – is “not from yourselves.”  As grace, it “is the gift of God” to those who are unworthy, incapable and unwilling.  Thus, not only is grace something entirely separate from man’s works, it is in fact something provided in spite of them.  Christ’s provision of atonement was given to those who were powerless, as a gift, by him dying for the ungodly.

Sadly, the prominent message on the streets today is that one may indeed find favor with God if he only “does enough” or “lives rightly” enough that his good deeds will outweigh his bad.  This false hope is based on the presumption that sin can be undone by good works.  Yet, as revealed earlier in this series, sin demands punishment in God’s sight, not restitution via community service.  Contrarily,

Titus 3:4-7 (NIV)
4 … when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Galatians 5:4 (NIV)
4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Dear friends, there is absolutely nothing you can do to atone for your sins.  Even one who repents of his sin and lives utterly right before God for every remaining moment of his life – if that were possible – would still have to give account for the sins of his past.  That accounting would sentence him to death.  Only grace – God’s unmerited favor – can rescue us from our very dire predicament.

The Application of Grace

Simply knowing that grace is required still leaves open questions concerning how exactly such grace has been provided.  Clearly the provision has been made first of all by the very atonement itself.  Had God not sent Christ to die for the sins of man, all other arguments concerning salvation would be null and void.  From the beginning, the whole of scripture pointed toward a Messiah who would redeem man from the penalty of his sin.  While the law was a foreshadowing of substitutionary atonement, it did not remove sins.  Only Christ could do that by vicariously offering his own righteous blood in our stead.

1 John 4:9 (NIV)
9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

Beyond the provision of atonement lies another act of grace by which men must be saved.  That act of Grace is imparted by God’s call to the sinner.  While the payment for sin has been secured, men remain incapable of receiving it outside of God’s grace upon them as he enables them by the Holy Spirit to do so.  Jesus noted,

John 6:44 (NIV)
44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.

As such, one does not simply wake up on some particular day and make the intellectual decision to acquire salvation.  While men may make a purely academic choice to pursue religion, the draw to true redemption is only granted personally by the Lord.  This, too, is an act of grace.  If no one is able to come unless the Father draws him, then the very grasping at the redemption provided is a further exercise of God’s grace.  Indeed, conviction of sins- which is necessary for salvation- is itself an act of the Holy Spirit.  Guilt can be manufactured by men, of course, but true repentance is the result of supernatural conviction of the Holy Spirit.  These additional elements of the gospel will be examined in future posts, but at this time it must be underscored completely that salvation is unconditionally an act of God’s grace.  Every other call of scripture concerning faith, repentance and the trust in the Lordship of Christ hinges on the impartation of God’s grace, without which Christ would not have been offered nor would one be so inclined to be purchased out of his sin.

Romans 5:20-21 (NIV)
20 …Where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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