Thursday, May 3, 2012

All by Grace

Justification by grace through faith is a doctrine that is most basic among evangelical Christians. It is based on the Bible's teaching that all men are sinners and are under the just condemnation of God (Psa. 130:3, 143:2; Eph. 2:3); that nobody can earn his/her way to heaven by doing good works (Mat. 5:48; Rom. 3:10, 23; Rev. 21:27); and that it is out of God's great love and mercy that anyone is justified "by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith"  (Rom. 3:24-25a; cf. Jn. 3:16-18, 5:24; Rom 4:4-6; Gal. 4:4-5). This fundamental tenet of our Christian faith, according to Martin Luther, is where the Church stands or falls. 

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is
your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works
so that no 
one may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9) 
Now what do we exactly mean when we say we are saved by grace? We simply mean that we never deserved to be saved (because we are sinners), yet God saved us free of charge (Rom. 4:4-6). We are saved not according to worth. The word "grace" basically means undeserved favor. Hence, it is NOT given because of anything we do or anything in us. And since grace is wholly undeserved, it logically follows that it should be freely given without us needing to fulfill any requirement. For if there's a requirement imposed, the fulfillment of that requirement will be the determining factor of worth. And if something's received according to worth, then obviously it cannot be properly considered grace (Rom. 4:4, 11:6).

However, the Bible is also clear that faith is the proper means (or requirement) through which sinners obtain the grace of justification. (Rom. 5:1-2).  All who receive Christ are given eternal life, and without faith, nobody gets saved (Jn. 3:18; Heb. 11:6). So here's a good question: Why is it that salvation is referred to in the Bible as given according to grace, when in fact no one receives it without performing a certain act, that is, faith? Is salvation really by grace, then?

Who makes thee to differ?

According to popular opinion among the evangelicals, God has sent His Son to die on the cross and offer free salvation to all, but it is up to our own autonomous freewill to receive it or not. In this framework, Salvation is "by grace" only in the sense that it was God who initiated the attempt to save sinners (and graciously did most of the work), but it is our own choice which seals the deal at the end of the day. Thus, Salvation is only "by grace as offered", but not "by grace entirely and ultimately" since there's still something required from us that lies entirely on our own power, namely faith. In the final analysis, the sinner's positive response to the Gospel then turns into some kind of work that made him worthy for Salvation, which in turn creates room for boasting on the part of the redeemed and defeats the very meaning of "salvation by grace."

Let's try to put it this way. If asked, "What makes you to differ from unbelievers?", how would you respond? Perhaps you'd say: "Well, obviously, it is my faith which makes me to differ." Nice answer. But how did you come to finally believe in Christ? You might say: "Because I willed to believe" or "I made a decision." Good for you. But may I ask, what made you willing to believe? Or what caused you to make that decision to trust in Christ? Look around you. Some of your unbelieving friends or relatives may have also heard the Gospel at one point in their lives, but they remain unwilling to embrace Christ as you did. What then is that particular quality that you have, which is lacking in those who do not believe, that caused you to come to Christ? Is it because your intelligence is more superior than theirs? Then salvation would be based on human intelligence, which cannot be (Mat. 11:25; 1 Cor. 1:27). Is it because you're more kind than them? Then salvation would be based on human kindness, which also cannot be (Rom. 4:5; 1 Tim. 1:15-16). Or perhaps it is because you're more receptive than them or that your heart is more sensitive than theirs? Tell me, then, what is it that made your heart more receptive or more sensitive than those who remain unwilling to receive Christ (Eze. 36:26; Ac. 16:14)? Is it because of some innate goodness in your nature? But the Bible says we are all equally by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3; cf. Mat. 12:33; Jer. 13:23), dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-2), and have a depraved heart that is desperately wicked and beyond cure (Jer. 17:9). How come, then, that you ended up believing in Christ alone for Salvation? What made you to differ?

These series of questions could go endlessly, and in responding to these, an average professing Christianconvinced with the humanistic philosophy that asserts that we are the author of our own destinieswill always search for something in and of himself as the distinguishing factor between him and unbelievers. Yet again, it should be kept in mind that if the final arbiter of salvation lies upon anything coming from us, then our salvation would ultimately be based on worth; and therefore, not by grace.

So how do we solve this problem? St. Paul provides the answer:  
"For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4:7, NIV)  
Paul rebukes the prideful hearts of the Corinthian believers who set divisions among themselves (1 Cor. 1:11-13, 4:6), asking them these questions: "For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?" Apparently, Paul's main purpose in asking these questions isn't really to solicit answers. He wants to make something obvious. He is implying that whatever good thing it is that we possess which makes us [or makes us think we are] better than those whom we look down, does not really have its origin from ourselves but from God (Jas. 1:17). It is God's grace which makes us to differ, so we've no right to boast! Observe Paul's last question: "And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" The same principle applies to our coming to Christ for Salvation. Say, "My faith makes me to differ; I had the willingness; I chose Christ; I surrendered my life to Him; I responded to the Gospel; I made a decision." Well that's true, but what do you have that you did not receive? If faith doesn't come from God as a gift, then it isn't God's grace which makes the redeemed to differ from those who perish but the merit of their own faith; and thus, grace is no longer grace (Rom. 11:5). Such cannot be the case.

Faith is God's work

The truth is, left in our own sinful nature, none of us will ever turn to God for salvation because "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Rom. 8:7); and again, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4-5). Our rebellion was so deep and so complete that the Bible describes us as having been dead in our Sins and transgressions (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13), and that we wouldn't have seen the beauty of Christ and finally trusted in Him alone for Salvation had not God spiritually quickened us by His mercy (Eze. 37:14; Jn. 1:13, 3:5-6; Eph. 2:4-5; 1 Pe. 1:3; Jas. 1:18).

Faith is a gift from God. When the Lord confronted the Jews concerning their unbelief, He told them: "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father" (Jn. 6:65). It is the Father who grants conversion or one's coming to (faith in) Christ. When Peter confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, the Lord responded to him saying: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mat. 16:17). When Jesus Christ was asked by His disciples about His usage of parables (which makes His teachings indiscernible to most of His hearers), He answered them: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given" (Mat. 13:11). When the apostles Paul and Silas were on an evangelical mission in Philippi, the Bible records the conversion of a certain woman named Lydia, who came to believe the Gospel because "The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul" (Ac. 16:14, cf. Eze. 36:26-27). In Philippians 1:29 St. Paul wrote: "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake." These and many other passages testify that faith itself must be a gift from God.

Where then is boasting? 

Now we already know the solution to the question why the Bible considers justification as grace, even though it still requires something from sinners (i.e., faith). It is because faith itself is a gift of God's grace! It is not our work. It is God's work! "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (Jn. 6:29). Where then is boasting? It is excluded! For "if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4:7, NIV; 1 Cor. 15:10). It is by God's power that "[we] are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'." (1 Cor. 1:26-30).

With these being said, it is NOT, therefore, true that God works everything which pertains to our salvation except our coming to Christ. Listen to Christ's words: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (Jn. 6:44). Therefore we should glory not in ourselves, but in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:30-31), acknowledging every tiny detail of our Salvation, from first to last, including our conversion and perseverance in the faith, as coming from the gracious sovereign hand God, "who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (2 Tim. 1:9; cf. Psa. 29:2; Jon. 2:9; Jn. 15:16; Rom. 8:29-9:21; Eph. 1:3-5, 11; Php. 1:6).

Salvation is by grace, and grace alone.

"If any man doth ascribe aught of salvation, even the very 
least, to the free-will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, 
and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright."
~Martin Luther, the Reformer

To God alone be the glory!

- Jeph

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