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THE TRUTH ABOUT grace
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 John MacArthur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrace Defined
WHAT IS GRACE?
Defining grace succinctly is notoriously difficult. Some of the most detailed theology textbooks do not offer any concise definition of the term. Someone has proposed an acronym: GRACE is God's Riches At ITLITLhrist's Expense. That's not a bad way to characterize grace, but it is not a sufficient theological definition. One of the best-known definitions of grace is only three words: God's unmerited favor. A. W. Tozer expanded on that: "Grace is the good pleasure of God that inclines him to bestow benefits on the undeserving." Louis Berkhof is more to the point: grace is "the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, effected through the agency of the Holy Spirit."
At the heart of the term grace is the idea of divine favor. The Hebrew word for grace is cheµn, used, for example, in Genesis 6:8: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (NASB). Closely related is the verb chaµnan, meaning "to show favor." In the New Testament, grace is a rendering of the Greek charis, meaning "gracefulness," "graciousness," "favor," or "gratitude." Intrinsic to its meaning are the ideas of favor, goodness, and goodwill.
Grace is all that and more. Grace is not merely unmerited favor; it is favor bestowed on sinners who deserve wrath. Showing kindness to a stranger is "unmerited favor"; doing good to one's enemies is more the spirit of grace (Luke 6:27–36). Grace is not a dormant or abstract quality, but a dynamic, active, working principle: "The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation ... and instructing us" (Titus 2:11–12 NASB). It is not some kind of ethereal blessing that lies idle until we appropriate it. Grace is God's sovereign initiative to sinners (Ephesians 1:5–6). Grace is not a one-time event in the Christian experience. We stand in grace (Romans 5:2). The entire Christian life is driven and empowered by grace: "It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods" (Hebrews 13:9 NASB). Peter said we should "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).
Thus we could properly define grace as "the free and benevolent influence of a holy God operating sovereignly in the lives of undeserving sinners."
Graciousness is an attribute of God. It is His nature to bestow grace. "He is gracious and compassionate and righteous" (Psalm 112:4 NASB). "He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness, and relenting of evil" (Joel 2:13 NASB). He is "the God of all grace" (1 Peter 5:10); His Son is "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14); His Spirit is "the Spirit of grace" (Hebrews 10:29). Berkhof observed, "While we sometimes speak of grace as an inherent quality, it is in reality the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit, out of the fullness of Him who is 'full of grace and truth.'"
Charis is found in the Greek text 155 times, 100 times in the Pauline epistles alone. Interestingly, the term itself is never used in reference to divine grace in any of the recorded words of Jesus. But grace permeated all His ministry and teaching ("The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" [Matthew 11:5 NASB]; "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" [Matthew 11:28 NASB]). Grace is a gift. God "gives more grace.... [He] gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). "Of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace" (John 1:16). Christians are said to be "stewards of the manifold grace of God" (1 Peter 4:10). But that does not mean that God's grace is placed at our disposal. We do not possess God's grace or control its operation. We are subject to grace, never vice versa.
Paul frequently contrasted grace with law (Romans 4:16; 5:20; 6:14–15; Galatians 2:21; 5:4). He was careful to state, however, that grace does not nullify the moral demands of God's law. Rather, it fulfills the righteousness of the law (Romans 6:14–15). In a sense, grace is to law what miracles are to nature. It rises above and accomplishes what law cannot (Romans 8:3). Yet it does not annul the righteous demands of the law; it confirms and validates them (Romans 3:31). Grace has its own law, a higher, liberating law: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2; James 1:25). Note that this new law emancipates us from sin as well as death. Paul was explicit about this: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:1–2 NASB). Grace reigns through righteousness (Romans 5:21).
TWO KINDS OF GRACE
Theologians speak of common grace and special grace.
Common grace is a term theologians use to describe the goodness of God to all mankind universally. Common grace restrains sin and the effects of sin on the human race. Common grace is what keeps humanity from descending into the morass of evil that we would see if the full expression of our fallen nature were allowed to have free reign.
Scripture teaches that we are totally depraved—tainted with sin in every aspect of our being (Romans 3:10–18). People who doubt this doctrine often ask, "How can people who are supposedly totally depraved enjoy beauty, have a sense of right and wrong, know the pangs of a wounded conscience, or produce great works of art and literature? Aren't these accomplishments of humanity proof that the human race is essentially good? Don't these things testify to the basic goodness of human nature?"
And the answer is no. Human nature is utterly corrupt. "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Romans 3:10). "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick" (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Unregenerate men and women are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). All people are by nature "foolish ... disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending [their lives] in malice" (Titus 3:3 NASB). This is true of all alike, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
Common grace is all that restrains the full expression of human sinfulness. God has graciously given us a conscience, which enables us to know the difference between right and wrong, and to some degree places moral constraints on evil behavior (Romans 2:15). He sovereignly maintains order in human society through government (Romans 13:1–5). He enables us to admire beauty and goodness (Psalm 50:2). He imparts numerous advantages, blessings, and tokens of His kindness indiscriminately on both the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). All of those things are the result of common grace, God's goodness to mankind in general.
Common grace ought to be enough to move sinners to repentance. The apostle Paul rebukes the unbeliever: "Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4 NASB). Yet because of the depth of depravity in the human heart, all sinners spurn the goodness of God.
Common grace does not pardon sin or redeem sinners, but it is nevertheless a sincere token of God's goodwill to mankind in general. As the apostle Paul said, "In Him we live and move and have our being ... for we also are His offspring" (Acts 17:28). That takes in everyone on earth, not just those whom God adopts as sons. God deals with us all as His offspring, people made in His image. "The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works" (Psalm 145:9).
If you question the love and goodness of God to all, look again at the world in which we live. Someone might say, "There's a lot of sorrow in this world." The only reason the sorrow and tragedy stand out is because there is also much joy and gladness. The only reason we recognize the ugliness is that God has given us so much beauty. The only reason we feel the disappointment is that there is so much that satisfies.
When we understand that all of humanity is fallen and rebellious and unworthy of any blessing from God's hand, it helps give a better perspective. "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail" (Lamentations 3:22 NIV). And the only reason God ever gives us anything to laugh at, smile at, or enjoy is because He is a good and loving God. If He were not, we would be immediately consumed by His wrath.
Acts 14 contains a helpful description of common grace. Here Paul and Barnabas were ministering at Lystra, when Paul healed a lame man. The crowds saw it and someone began saying that Paul was Zeus and Barnabas was Hermes. The priest at the local temple of Zeus wanted to organize a sacrifice to Zeus. But when Paul and Barnabas heard about it, they said,
Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. (vv. 15–17 NASB, emphasis added)
That is a fine description of common grace. While allowing sinners to "go their own ways," God nevertheless bestows on them temporal tokens of His goodness and lovingkindness. It is not saving grace. It has no redemptive effect. Nevertheless, it is a genuine and unfeigned manifestation of divine lovingkindness to all people.
Special grace, better called saving grace, is the irresistible work of God that frees men and women from the penalty and power of sin, renewing the inner person and sanctifying the sinner through the operation of the Holy Spirit. Normally when the New Testament uses the term grace, the reference is to saving grace. Throughout this book when I speak of grace, I mean saving grace unless I specify otherwise. Saving grace "reign[s] through righteousness to eternal life" (Romans 5:21).
Grace saves, sanctifies, and brings the soul to glory (Romans 8:29–30). Every stage of the process of salvation is governed by sovereign grace. In fact, the term grace in the New Testament is often used as a synonym for the whole of the saving process, particularly in the Pauline epistles (1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Galatians 2:21). Paul saw redemption as so utterly a work of God's grace that he often used the word grace as a blanket term to refer to the totality of salvation. Grace oversees all of salvation, beginning to end. It never stalls before concluding its work, nor does it ever botch the job.
What we're really saying is that grace is efficacious. In other words, grace is certain to produce the intended results. God's grace is always efficacious. That truth is rooted in Scripture. It was a major theme of Augustine's teaching. The doctrine of efficacious grace is the bedrock of Reformed soteriology (teaching about salvation). Charles Hodge defined efficacious grace as "the almighty power of God."
"No-lordship theology" (denying that salvation and lordship are linked) is fundamentally a denial of efficacious grace. The "grace" described in no-lordship teaching is not certain to accomplish its purposes—and most often, it seems, it does not. Under no-lordship grace, key parts of the process—including repentance, commitment, surrender, and even holiness—are optional aspects of the Christian experience, left up to the believer himself. The believer's faith might even grind to a screeching halt. Yet no-lordship grace tells us we are not supposed to conclude that "he or she was never a believer in the first place." Well then, what are we to conclude? That saving grace is not efficacious? It is the only reasonable conclusion we can draw from no-lordship theology: "God's miracle of salvation in our lives, accomplished by grace through faith without works, makes ample provision for the lifetime of good works for which he has designed us. But it does not guarantee this."
One could legitimately characterize the whole lordship controversy as a dispute over efficacious grace. All points in the discussion ultimately come back to this: Does God's saving grace inevitably obtain its desired effects? If all sides could come to consensus on that one question, the debate would be settled.
It is clear from all this that the sovereignty of God in salvation is at the heart of the lordship debate. The irony is that the so-called Grace Movement denies the whole point of grace: that it is God who effects the complete saving work in sinners. Redemption is all His work. God is wholly sovereign in the exercise of His grace; He is not subject to the human will. "For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (Romans 9:15–16 NASB).
Don't misunderstand; we are not idle in the process. Nor does saving grace force people to believe against their will. That is not what irresistible grace means. Grace is not coercion. But by transforming the heart, grace makes the believer wholly willing to trust and obey.
Scripture makes clear that every aspect of grace is God's sovereign work. He foreknows and foreordains the elect (Romans 8:29), calls the sinner to Himself (Romans 8:30), draws the soul to Christ (John 6:44), accomplishes the new birth (John 1:13; James 1:18), grants repentance (Acts 11:18) and faith (Romans 12:3; Acts 18:27), justifies the believer (Romans 3:24; 8:30), makes the redeemed holy (Ephesians 2:10), and finally glorifies him (Romans 8:30).
In no stage of the process is grace thwarted by human failure, dependent on human merit, or subjugated to human effort. "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:30–32). That's grace.
Many people struggle with the concept of sovereign grace, but if God is not sovereign in the exercise of His grace, then it is not grace at all. If God's purposes were dependent on some self-generated response of faith or on human merit, then God Himself would not be sovereign, and salvation would not be wholly His work. If that were the case, the redeemed would have something to boast about, and grace wouldn't be grace (Romans 3:27; Ephesians 2:9).
Furthermore, because of human depravity, there is nothing in a fallen, reprobate sinner that desires God or is capable of responding in faith. Paul wrote, "There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips" (Romans 3:11–13 NASB). Note the metaphors involving death. That is the state of everyone in sin. As we shall see shortly, Scripture teaches that sinful humanity is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), "separate[d] from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (v. 12 NASB). There is no escape from such a desperate predicament, except for the sovereign intervention of God's saving grace.
Chapter TwoGrace Received
GRACE FROM THE KING
Every believer receives the grace of God as a result of responding to the good news. And the good news is that salvation is by grace.
The apostle Paul said, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8–9). The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It is offered totally apart from anything we could ever do to receive God's favor. It is the unmerited favor of God, who in His mercy and lovingkindness grants us salvation as a gift. All we have to do is simply respond by believing in His Son.
Excerpted from THE TRUTH ABOUT grace by John MacArthur Copyright © 2012 by John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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