The Grace of God
Introduction: As I have sought to document throughout this series we are presently witnessing from within the ranks of professing Evangelicals a massive attempt to re-define the doctrine of God.[i] The classical or traditional understanding of God as absolutely sovereign over the affairs of this world is now considered not only passé but psychologically disturbing. According to these self-professed “postmodern” evangelicals (they also go by the name “open-view theists”) God is powerful but not all-powerful. He can still deal with new situations as they arise—but He doesn’t know when they will occur. The new and improved deity of postmodern evangelicals does not know the future. The future for God is open and not completely certain. In other words, God is often as surprised as you and I are when unexpected things happen. The deity of the new and improved postmodern evangelicalism has voluntarily forfeited control over earthly affairs. According to these new theological guides, love is the most important quality we attribute to God and love, as they define it, is more than care and commitment, it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.[ii] The old concept of a holy and awesome almighty God has become something of an embarrassment in this enlightened age in which we live. Since we must rub shoulders with people who do not share our evangelical heritage we desperately need (so we are told) to rearrange God’s image for public display if we expect postmoderns to pay us the least bit of attention.
It seems to me, at least, that large numbers of Evangelicals, who on the surface would be aghast at such proposals, end up basically advocating the same kind of thing. In the mad rush to be relevant and practical, the distinctive features of God’s character are often blurred in the message Evangelicals display before a watching world. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” has become the essence of the gospel in the hearts and minds of most evangelicals.[iii] Jesus, the sweet and lovely Jesus, is portrayed in Boy Scout fashion as gentle and kind, so much that it is a wonder He ever got crucified. One of the reasons we have lost the Biblical portrait of God is traceable to an equally defective view of sin.
“The biblical doctrine of sin,” observes J.I. Packer, “has been secularized in modern times. People today still talk of sin, but no longer think of it theologically. The word has ceased to convey the thought of an offense against God. Though sin is committed by man, and often against society, it cannot be properly defined in terms of either man or society. We shall never know what sin really is till we learn to think of it in terms of our relationship with God.”[iv] There is, perhaps, no single doctrine in the fabric of the Christian faith more despised and mocked than that of original sin. Regrettably, large numbers of professing Evangelicals have grown increasingly silent about the subject as well.[v] PECCATUM ORIGINALIS, the famous theological Latin expression, refers to the hereditary guilt which is imputed to all mankind because of the sin and guilt of Adam, and to hereditary corruption which, because of the guilt and corruption of Adam (and Eve), is transmitted to all their descendents by generation. “Original sin,” wrote Bavinck, “includes original pollution. All men are conceived in sin and born in unrighteousness (Psalm 51:7) and are evil from youth on up (Genesis 6:5 and Psalm 25:7), for no one can bring a clean thing from an unclean one (Job 14:4 and John 3:6). This taint or pollution not only spreads itself out over all men but it also saturates the whole of the individual being. It attacks the heart, which is deceitful above all things, sick unto death, and never to be fathomed in its guile (Jeremiah 17:9), and which as the source of the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23) is the source also of all unrighteousness (Mark 7:21-22). Proceeding from the heart as center, this pollution darkens the understanding (Romans 1:21), inclines the will to evil and makes it powerless to do the truly good (John 8:34 and Romans 8:7), taints or defiles the conscience (Titus 1:15), and makes of the body with all of its members, its eyes and ears, its hands and feet, its mouth and tongue, a weapon of unrighteousness (Romans 3:13-17 and 6:13). This sin is such that everybody, not by his own `sins of commission’ first of all, but from the time of his conception is subject to death and corruption (Romans 5:14). All men have already died in Adam (1Corinthians 15:22).[vi] The Apostle Paul saw his task as “testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24) but the grace of God can never be understood in a theological vacuum.
Terms like God, spirituality, gospel, grace, love, sin and even Jesus are empty apart from biblical content. Take for example, Judy Collins’s explanation of John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace. Collins informs us, “Amazing Grace is a song about letting go, bottoming out, seeing the light, turning it over, trusting the universe, breathing in, breathing out, going with the flow; timing is everything, trust your instincts, don’t push the river, ease on down the road, get on your knees, let your guard down, drop your defenses, lighten up…”[vii] Oh really? I always thought Newton was writing about the nature of salvation. And what is salvation? All are agreed that there is something wrong with human beings. While many can point to a variety of secondary causes, it is the Bible alone, which gets to the root of the matter. Humanity is fallen and the death sentence hangs over us all (Romans 3:23; 6:23a). Sin is rebellion against God (cf. Psalm 51:4). It is acting contrary to God’s law (1 John 3:4). We are all rebels. Every human being is a sinner by nature and practice. Already polluted by sin and associated with the guilt of Adam, every person is also guilty of breaking God’s law (1 Kings 8:45; Romans 3:10-19; 5:12). In this condition we sinners are already in the condemned cell and deserve and can expect nothing but God’s wrath to be fully poured out on the day of judgment in final rejection and unending punishment (Mark 3:29; 9:43ff.; John 3:18-19, 36; Ephesians 2:3; Hebrews 10:27-39; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:7). Such is the plight of humanity in sin. It is also a dilemma, one that leaves every person with this question, “How can I be acceptable to such a holy God?” R. C. Sproul describes it this way. “When we are summoned to appear before the bar of God’s judgment, we face a judgment based on perfect justice. The presiding Judge is himself perfectly just. He is also omniscient, fully aware of our every deed, thought, inclination, and word. Measured by the standard of his canon of righteousness, we face the psalmist’s rhetorical question that hints at despair: “If you, Lord, should mark iniquities…who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3 NKJV). The obvious answer to this query is supplied by the Apostle Paul: “There is none righteous, no, not one…” (Rom. 3:10). God commands us to be holy. Our moral obligation coram Deo (before the face of God) is to live perfect lives. One sin mars that obligation and leaves us naked, exposed before divine justice. Once a person sins at all, a perfect record is impossible. Even if we could live perfectly after that one sin, we would still fail to achieve perfection.’[viii]
I. How does Christ’s life and death on the cross relate to me?
A. The problem is how to resolve the conflict between a just, holy God and a fallen, unjust people.
1. The degree of our sinfulness is such that when judged by the standard of God’s perfection and holiness, we are totally corrupt.
2. Total depravity means that the extent of the power, influence, and inclination of sin affects the whole man (Romans 3:9-20).
B. Biblically, a good deed not only externally keeps the law of God but proceeds from a heart that wants to honor and love Him.
II. How can an unjust person be justified or made just?
A. God would have to sacrifice His justice to overlook our injustice.
B. Jesus is the Lamb of God, without sin or blemish.
1. Jesus had to live a just and obedient life for His death to mean anything.
2. Forensic justification means that we are formally declared to be just when the Supreme Judge of heaven and earth says we are just.
C. Biblically, the way an unjust person is justified is through imputation. (Rom. 5:12-21)
D. There is transference of our sins, whereby Christ takes upon Himself our unrighteousness and lack of justice.
1. Transference of our sin can make us innocent, but it cannot make us just or righteous.
2. It is righteousness (merited reward), not innocence that gets us into the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20).
E. Not only is our sin imputed to Christ, but the righteousness of Christ is transferred to our accounts, so that in God’s sight we are now clean.
1. Through our union with Christ, He is our Savior because He is the source of our righteousness.
2. There is a real union with Christ that takes place through imputation.
3. We must have this double transfer for God to declare us just.
F. The good news is that in Christ we are at the same time just and sinner – simul justus et peccator.
G. The only way we can ever receive the merit and righteousness of Christ is by faith and trust in His work of obedience.
H. Justification by faith alone really means justification by Christ alone. (Rom. 3:24-26)
‘It is God who justifies’ (Rom. 8:33); here is the uncompromising declaration of the Bible. It is impossible for us to justify ourselves; in fact, our sins condemn us. David, the writer of Psalm 143, wrestled with this problem and prayed about it. ‘Do not bring your servant into judgment,’ he asked God, ‘for no one living is righteous [that is, will be justified] before you’ (v. 2). Like others, David knew he could never attain to God’s standard of obedience. There was no alternative for him but to seek mercy: ‘O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy’ (v. 1) was his request. Only God could relieve him but he desperately needed a quick answer (v. 7); he was hopeful only because of the Lord’s ‘unfailing love’ (v. 8)
To enforce his plea for mercy, David expressed himself in the language of a court case (v. 2, quoted above). The point he made is a telling one. David did not want to enter into a court case against God; the evidence was all against David and he had no prospect whatever of obtaining a favorable verdict. And this is true with regard to everyone else. The reason is obvious: because we are all sinners, it is impossible for any of us to justify ourselves in the sight of God. How does God justify sinners then? He does it by grace. Here is the secret. ‘Grace’ means ‘completely underserved’; it is free, wholly from God and without any human contribution. We are ‘justified freely by his grace…by Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 3:24). The apostle knew this was true from his own experience: ‘I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man…The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly’ (1 Tim. 1:13-14). It was the same grace that showed mercy to a swearing, rough drunkard like John Newton. Later, Newton expressed his wonderment in his now-famous hymn: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!’ Yes, only God justifies sinners and he does it in grace.[ix]
Conclusion: A few years ago there was a popular automobile commercial that had this jingle: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Certain Church growth advocates have taken a cue from this by advancing a similar line of reasoning when it comes to the church—simply put, their message is, “The Church of the 21st century cannot mirror the Church of the 20th century” (much less the Church centuries past!).[x] If the Church is going to grow, they argue, then it has to develop a market-driven perspective. The Biblical writers, however, did not share this mind set. As Douglas Webster has written: “One could hardly confuse the prophets’ penetrating judgment of culture with a marketing report. Instead of looking to the marketplace to understand what appeals to the human heart, the prophets used the Word of God to penetrate prevailing cultural norms and expectations. They resisted the religious powers’ accommodating efforts to reassure people that their greedy consumption, entertaining worship and striving for success met with God’s approval.”[xi]
The Church growth crowd includes those who think that preaching (if any preaching is allowed) must be short, simple, uplifting and personally inspiring. Sermon topics are carefully and (very deliberately) selected to stress the personal and relational over the doctrinal. “A good sermon,” according to one Church-growth pastor, “should make us laugh and cry.”[xii] Notice that he did not say that it should make us think and act. In other words, the sermon should be designed to entertain, and by all means, it must be relevant. And what is considered irrelevant?…doctrinal themes that appear to the average person in the pew to be abstract and not very practical in the hands-on sense of the word.
Like it or not we live in a culture that has elevated pride to the status of a virtue. Personal dignity (defined positively as a proper self-image or esteem) is considered essential to being a well-balanced person. But at the same time people refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Victimization has been used to blame someone or something for individual failure and lapses. In this context the biblical teaching about sin, guilt, repentance, and accountability are quickly jettisoned. But disavowing our own personal culpability never frees us from the reality of our sin and guilt. The popular message that masquerades as the Gospel is that Jesus is a Savior from despair, disappointment or a lack of purpose. In this scheme the idea of sin in the biblical sense is totally missing. Accepting Christ becomes another way of personal fulfillment or as a solution to our emotional needs. But this is not the message of the cross. “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners! Jesus specifically said that He had not come to save those who want to exonerate themselves (Mk 2:17). Where there is no regeneration of sin and guilt, when the conscience has been abused into silence, there can be no salvation, no sanctification, and therefore no real emancipation from sin’s ruthless power.”[xiii]
[i] The book that serves as the definitive work from this new perspective is The Openness of God, ed. by Clark Pinnock (IVP, 1994).
[ii] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. in his trenchant critique of this mind-set writes: “Whereas classical Christianity stresses the transcendence of God and His immutability, omnipotence, and omniscience, the new model stresses the immanence of God, who is dynamic, capable of change, and in partnership with His creation. Classical Christianity teaches that our problem is our condemnation, that we all stand under the wrath of God. The new model teaches that our problem is essentially ignorance – we do not know how much God loves us.” Postmodern Times (Crossway, 1994), p.214.
[iii] Commenting on this, Douglas Webster writes: “For years thousands of American Christians have felt that the simplest evangelistic line they could use was, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ Given the fact that most people do not know who Jesus is, do not understand the meaning of God’s love and have no idea of the significance of the phrase ‘a wonderful plan for your life,’ this line, which appears so understandable, can be totally misunderstood.” Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church (IVP, 1992), p. 107.
Michael Horton picks up this same point when he writes: “Making a decision causes the intimacy of a personal relationship with God to commence. The new birth, especially if one judges by the testimonies of converts, is not so much the result of hearing with human ears, in human words, a declaration of things that happened in human history. It is not so much the preaching of the cross, but the preaching of ‘my personal relationship with Jesus,’ the day when ‘Jesus came into my heart.’ The story we love to tell is really a story about ourselves, how we found the Lord, and how we are different people since the day we asked Jesus into our hearts.” In the Face of God (Word, 1996), p.33.
[iv] J.I. Packer, God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes (IVP, 1981), p.72.
[v] “The church, more often influenced by cultural trends than theological commitments, has eagerly reclined upon the psychotherapist’s couch…in recent years, evangelicals have out-distanced liberals, exchanging the language of Scripture for the language of Psychology Today. Now sin is low self-esteem; justification refers to experiencing God’s affirmation; sanctification means accepting self-worth. Pastors and theologians were once the most revered authorities in the church; today Christian psychologists walk down the isle of the Christian Booksellers Association convention and you will quickly discover what’s hot and what’s not: what’s hot is the counsel of psychologists about anxiety and addiction, depression and dependency, self-esteem and sexuality, parenting and personal disorders.” D.W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Navpress, 1995), p.40.
[vi] Herman, Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine (Baker, 1956), p.243.
[vii] As cited in James Adams, A Call to Discernment: Distinguishing Truth From error in Today’s Church (Harvest House, 1987), p.17
[viii] R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker, 1995), p.96.
[ix] Eryl Davies, The Ultimate Rescue: Christ’s Saving Work on the Cross (Evangelical Press, 1995), p.226.
[x] Leith Anderson, one of the seeker-sensitive market driven advocates, made this analogy. He wrote, “Not that there’s anything wrong with a 1954 Olds. It’s just not a car for the 1990’s. It had not seat belts, no air conditioning, no cassette desk, no radial tires, no pollution control equipment, and no cruise control. What was the state of the art in automotive technology forty years ago is now barely acceptable for basic transportation.” Dying for Change (Bethany House, 1990), p. 13. Anderson’s illustration is purely arbitrary and his reasoning seriously flawed. If pushed to its logical end, Anderson would be forced to admit that moral standards and ethical absolutes are also subject to change with the times as well.
[xi] D. Webster, p. 70.
[xii] Ibid, p. 85.
[xiii] John F. MacArthur, Jr. The Vanishing Conscience (Word, 1994), p.34
Sola Scriptura , the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, is essential to genuine Christianity, for it declares that the Bible is the inspired word of God, the churchs only rule of faith and practice. Yet this doctrine is under assault today as never before, both from outside and and inside the church.
In this book, several leading Reformed pastors and scholars, including Joel Beeke, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Ray Lanning, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Derek W. H. Thomas, and James White, unpack the meaning of the doctrine of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). They also explain where the attacks on the Bible are coming from and show how those who accept the Bible as Gods inspired Word should respond. Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible is a treasure trove of information and a comfort to those who grieve to see the twenty-first-century church wandering away from the safe harbor of the Bible.