Saving grace is the free and unmerited operation of God’s person and presence that initiates the spiritual life of God’s people.
God’s saving grace is the unmerited favor of God that reconciles sinners through Jesus Christ. This is not the same as mercy; grace is God’s goodness toward sinners, while mercy is God’s goodness toward sufferers. This grace is sovereign; God gives new spiritual life to whomever he will. This grace is unconditional; God’s saving grace cannot be earned. God’s saving grace is the foundation for God’s gracious gifts and empowerment of the Christian life, nourishing and sustaining us. Finally, this grace is fundamentally the presence of God in covenant with his people.
That God is great almost goes without saying. We see this in his attributes of eternality, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, immutability, and aseity. But to say that God is great is not enough. Millard Erickson reminds us that a great God “might conceivably be an immoral or amoral being, exercising his power and knowledge in a capricious or even cruel fashion” (see Erickson, Christian Theology, I:283-84). The God of Scripture is consistently portrayed as not only great but also good. And when God’s goodness “is shown to those who only deserve evil,” it “bears the name grace” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation, 214).
But before we examine the meaning of this expression of God’s grace, we must determine what is meant by the word “saving” or the grace of “salvation.”
The term “salvation” is not here used with reference to self-realization or the experience of being delivered from low self-esteem. We often speak of being “saved” from perilous circumstances, political oppression and tyranny, famine, plague, or the many and varied threats posed by natural catastrophes. But the focus of Scripture is on our deliverance or salvation from the well-warranted judgment of an infinitely holy and righteous God. The greatest threat to the human soul is not economic collapse or militant fundamentalism or psychological anomie. The Scriptures consistently speak of our desperate plight apart from Christ. We are alienated from God (2 Cor. 5:18–21), subject to his righteous wrath (John 3:36; Eph. 2:1–3), and hostile to him (Rom. 3:9–18). We are, in fact, his enemies (Rom. 5:10), and under the curse imposed by divine law (Gal. 3:13–14).
Thus, when we speak of the operation of God’s grace to save, we have in mind what Paul referred to in Ephesians 2:8–9, where he spoke of our having been saved “by grace … through faith” in Jesus Christ. We turn now to the “grace” that “saves.”
Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck defined the saving grace of God as “his voluntary, unrestrained, unmerited favor toward guilty sinners, granting them justification and life instead of the penalty of death, which they deserved” (see Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, 208). Louis Berkhof defined it as “the free bestowal of kindness on one who has no claim to it” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 71). J.I. Packer put it this way: “The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity and who had no reason to expect anything but severity” (see Packer, Knowing God, 120).
Although they are similar and undeniably related, grace is not the same as mercy. Whereas grace is God’s goodness toward sinners, mercy is God’s goodness toward sufferers. As a result, mercy does not appear to be as free as grace. Says John Piper:
When we show mercy it looks as if we are responding to pain and being constrained by a painful condition outside ourselves. It is a beautiful constraint. But it does not seem to be as free as grace. Grace, however, contemplates the ugliness of sin, and, contrary to all expectation, acts beneficently. This looks more free. Pain seems to constrain mercy, but guilt does not seem to constrain grace. Grace looks more free. I don’t mean that God’s mercy is in fact less free than his grace. No one deserves God’s mercy. And God is not bound to be merciful to any of his creatures. What I do mean is that ‘freeness’ lies closer at the heart of the meaning of grace. Grace, by definition, is free and unconstrained. It even lacks the seeming constraint of naturalness that exists between suffering and mercy. If God’s grace is ‘natural’ in response to sin, it is owing entirely to something amazing in God, not in the constraining power of sin. Suffering constrains pity; but sin kindles anger. Therefore grace toward sinners is the freest of all God’s acts (Piper, Future Grace, 78).
Grace always presupposes sin and guilt (what follows is adapted from Sam Storms, The Grandeur of God: A Theological and Devotional Study of the Divine Attributes, 124–27). Grace has meaning only when men are seen as fallen, unworthy of salvation, and liable to eternal wrath. What makes Paul’s declaration that we are saved “by grace” so significant is his earlier declaration that we were “dead” in trespasses and sins, living “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,” and were “by nature children of [God’s] wrath (Eph. 2:1–3).
Or to put it in slightly different terms, grace does not contemplate sinners merely as undeserving, but as ill-deserving. It is not simply that we do not deserve grace: we do deserve hell. Fallen and unredeemed humanity is not to be conceived as merely helpless or neutral, but as openly and vehemently hostile toward God. It is one thing to be without a God-approved righteousness. It is altogether another thing to be wholly unrighteous and thus the object of divine wrath. It is, then, against the background of having been at one time the enemies of God that divine grace must be understood (Rom. 5:10).
Grace is not to be thought of as in any sense dependent upon the merit or demerit of its objects. This may be expressed in two ways. In the first place, grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to bestow it in the presence of human merit. Second, grace ceases to be grace if God is compelled to withdraw it in the presence of human demerit. Indeed, grace is seen to be infinitely glorious only when it operates, as Packer said, “in defiance of” human demerit. Therefore, grace is not treating a person less than, as, or greater than he deserves. It is treating a person without the slightest reference to desert whatsoever, but solely according to the infinite goodness and sovereign purpose of God.
Yet another feature of God’s grace is that it cannot incur a debt, which is to say that it is unrecompensed. Since grace is a gift, no work is to be performed, no offering made, with a view to repaying God for his favor. The biblical response to grace received is faith to receive yet more (see John Piper, Future Grace).
With respect to justification, grace stands opposed to works (Rom. 4:4–5; 11:6). However, in respect to sanctification, grace is the source of works. This simply means that whereas we are saved by grace and not of works, we are saved by grace unto good works. Good works are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace (see esp. Eph. 2:8–10). It thus comes as no surprise that in Scripture grace and salvation stand together as cause is related to effect. It is the grace of God which “brings” salvation (Titus 2:11). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8–9).
God’s saving grace, much like his love, is sovereign. That is to say, it is optional in its exercise and extent. Although God is gracious in his eternal being, he need not be gracious towards or shower his grace upon anyone. If grace were at any time an obligation of God, it would cease to be grace. God’s grace, therefore, is distinguishing. He graciously saves some but not all, not based on anything present in the creature either possible or actual, foreseen or foreordained, but wholly according to his sovereign good pleasure.
Whereas grace is certainly free, it isn’t always unconditional. The grace of election is unconditional (Rom. 9:11). But many of God’s acts and blessings are conditional. We see this in such texts as 2 Chronicles 30:9, Isaiah 30:19, Psalms 33:22 and 103:17–18, and Ephesians 6:24. We should take special note of James 4:6, where we read that God “gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (Jas. 4:6; cf. 1 Pet. 5:5).
But conditional grace is not earned grace. This distinction is crucial to our understanding and experience of God’s goodness. Piper explains:
When God’s grace is promised based on a condition, that condition is also a work of God’s grace…. God’s freedom is not reduced when he makes some of his graces depend on conditions that he himself freely supplies (Future Grace, 79).
In other words, Piper explains,
Conditional grace is free and unmerited because ultimately the condition of faith is a gift of grace. God graciously enables the conditions that he requires (Future Grace, 235).
Thus, he concludes by saying that,
This covenant-keeping condition of future grace does not mean we lose security or assurance, for God has pledged himself to complete the work he began in the elect (Philippians 1:6). He is at work within us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). He works in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21). He fulfills the conditions of the covenant through us (Ezekiel 36:27). Our security is as secure as God is faithful (Future Grace, 248).
Besides the general soteriological usage of the word, grace can also denote the particular acts of God whereby he grants enablement for some service or authorization for a specific duty or mission (Rom. 12:3; 15:15–18; 1 Cor. 3:10). It is not without significance that the word grace and its derivatives are used in the description of what we call “spiritual gifts.” We read in Romans 12:6: “Having gifts [charismata] that differ according to the grace [charin] given to us.”
Finally, the word grace is used in a variety of ways in the course of Paul’s discussion of Christian stewardship (2 Cor. 8–9). It is used with reference to the supernatural enablement bestowed by God, as a result of which one gives despite poverty (2 Cor. 8:1, 9). It refers to the ministry of giving (2 Cor. 8:6, 7, 19), the privilege of giving (2 Cor. 8:4), and even to the gift itself (1 Cor. 16:3).
An oft-overlooked dimension of God’s grace is the way it comes to us as power for daily living. Grace is not simply the principle by which we are saved and delivered from God’s wrath. It is also the power of God’s presence. It is more than an attitude or disposition in the divine nature. Grace is the power of God’s Spirit converting the soul. It is the activity or movement of God whereby he saves and justifies the individual through faith (see esp. Rom. 3:24; 5:15, 17). Therefore, grace is not something in which we merely believe; it is something we experience as well.
Grace, however, is not only the divine act by which God initiates our spiritual life, but also the very power by which we are sustained in, nourished, and proceed through that life. The energizing and sanctifying work of the indwelling Spirit is the grace of God. After Paul had prayed three times for God to deliver him from his thorn in the flesh, he received this answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Although Paul undoubtedly derived encouragement and strength to face his daily trials by reflecting on the magnificence of God’s unmerited favor, in this text he appears to speak rather of an experiential reality of a more dynamic nature. It is the operative power of the indwelling Spirit to which Paul refers. That is the grace of God.
That grace is the power of God’s presence explains why Paul opens his letters by saying “grace be to you” and concludes them by saying “grace be with you” (see Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:3; 13:14; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; Titus 1:4). This is an earnest and constant wish of Paul that his converts may continue to experience grace, that they may know afresh the gracious power of God moving in their lives, that they may find in that grace the spiritual resources by which to live in a way pleasing to him.
- Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love
- John Piper, Future Grace
- Jonathan Edwards, Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, 149–311
- Thomas C. Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace