Grace is love. But this specific term does not denote love bestowed upon an object worthy of such love and rightly entitled to it, as the love of husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend. Grace is love bestowed upon the unworthy. Specifically, the saving grace of God is His divine forgiving love bestowed upon poor unworthy sinners. Every Christian believes in this divine grace, for Christianity is the religion of grace, and Christian faith is trust and confidence in the saving grace of the triune God.
The Biblical doctrine of grace presupposes the sinful condition of all men by nature, of which we spoke in the previous chapter of this book. Being conceived and born in sin and utterly unable to help themselves out of this condition, all men are in need of grace. The Law way to salvation is closed to sinful mortals, as we read: “As many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse” (Gal. 3:10). The grace way to salvation is therefore the only hope for sinful mortals. Thus divine grace is absolutely necessary to every man if he is to be saved from the eternal punishment justly due to his sins. “We are worthy of none of the things for which we pray, neither have we deserved them;” but we pray “that He would grant them all to us by grace; for we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment.” We can neither by our own efforts induce God to give us a Savior nor by our own reason or strength believe in Him or accept by faith the Savior whom God has bestowed. We can certainly do nothing for our own salvation, and therefore God’s grace must do all: “By grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). Thus divine grace is absolutely necessary for our salvation. But no “necessity” of bestowing grace must be ascribed to God. The very nature of grace, as bestowed on those who have no claim upon it, implies that it must be “free,” so far as God is concerned — freely bestowed by His good pleasure. Yet God’s free grace is as universal as man’s need for it.
We may now, on the basis of Scripture testimony, define saving grace as the gracious favor or forgiving love (forgiveness of sins) which God for Christ’s sake has in His heart toward all sinful mankind, and which moved Him to do everything that was necessary in order to save us from sin and Satan, make us His children, and take us to heaven. This grace is attested in the Gospel and is to be believed by all men on the authority of the Gospel.
The grace of God, as we have said, is free grace. We have done and can do nothing to merit it. Yet God did not bestow it arbitrarily, in such a way as to violate His immutable justice. Rather did His grace move Him to provide a way to reconcile His own just anger against sinful men by the vicarious sacrifice of His own Son, so that without violating His justice He might lay His anger by and give free course to His grace. “We are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:24–26). Thus God’s grace both provides the Savior and is based upon the Savior’s work. To imagine a forgiving love of God toward men aside from “the cost,” as Luther calls it, namely, the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, is not the Christian doctrine of grace but a completely heathenish and unscriptural dream. When God in His merciful forbearance, even before Christ came in the flesh, refrained from punishing the sins of believers in the promised Messiah, He did so only on the basis of that sacrifice which was to be offered by “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), through whose death upon Calvary God’s righteousness was declared and His justice vindicated, showing that He could be and is both just and the Justifier of sinners. Saving grace is always grace for Christ’s sake.
It is surely already sufficiently evident that divine grace is not something poured into us and inherent in us, as the Papists falsely teach, but a gracious disposition in the heart of God. Therefore grace is contrasted with our works and with everything which is ours. When we say that God bestows His grace on us we mean that He exercises His forgiving love toward us. Grace agrees with faith, for it is by faith that we receive God’s grace, that is, believe that God is gracious to us: “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom. 4:16). Grace is opposed to works: “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace” (Rom. 11:6). Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law.” Galatians 2:16: “By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” So diametrically opposed to saving grace is the attempt to be justified before God by works that St. Paul, speaking by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, warns the Galatians: “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Of course this does not mean that the doctrine of grace hinders the doing of good works. On the contrary, it produces good works which flow from faith as a thank-offering for God’s grace. In fact only the believer in salvation by grace without works can ever do any good works, for only the believer in God’s free grace has escaped the dominion of sin: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the Law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
Having considered the central meaning of divine grace, as God’s way of salvation, in contrast to all humanly contrived work-righteousness, we may now proceed to enumerate the characteristics of saving grace, as they are enumerated in Holy Scripture:
A. Saving grace is grace in Christ. As grace is denied when human merit is united with it (Rom. 11: 6, quoted above), just so grace is abrogated if it is severed from Christ’s vicarious satisfaction. Saving grace is always based upon “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Of this we have also spoken at some length above.
B. Saving grace is universal grace. We have already said that God’s free grace is as universal as man’s need for it. It is most important that we hold this truth fast. For if even one human being were excluded from God’s gracious will of salvation, each one whose conscience has been aroused by God’s Law to a knowledge of sin would necessarily conclude that he himself must be that unhappy being; and thus faith in God’s grace would be impossible. Holy Scripture proves the universality of God’s saving grace in three classes of texts:
a). Texts which say that God’s grace extends to all men: Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men, hath appeared” (marginal reading of the KJV). 1 Tim. 2:4: “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son.” 1 John 2:2: “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
b). Texts which say that God’s grace extends to each and every man: 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Ezek. 33:11: “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”
c). Texts which say that God’s grace extends also to those who ultimately perish: 2 Peter 2:1: “Even denying the Lord that bought them, and bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Matt. 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.” No soul of man is ever lost because of a deficiency in God’s grace, but only because of his rejection of the grace which is meant for him too.
C. Saving grace is serious and efficacious grace. God has truly set His heart on the conversion of all men and puts His full power into the means of grace to effect His purpose. Christ has commanded His church to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15), and it is His will “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations” (Luke 24:47). And the Holy Ghost earnestly seeks to engender faith in the Gospel in all who hear the Gospel (see Matt. 23:37, quoted above) and to preserve faith where it has been enkindled (Phil. 1:6). Therefore the reason why so many hearers of the Gospel never come to faith is not due to God’s passing them by or to any lack of serious effort on the part of the Holy Spirit, but always and only to their persistent resistance to His gracious operation: “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51).
When the Christian hears or reads or thinks of the universal, serious, and
efficacious saving grace of God in Christ Jesus, his heart must break forth in
“By grace! This ground of our salvation,
As long as God is true, endures:
What saints have penned by inspiration,
What God by His own Word assures,
What all our faith must rest upon,
Is grace, free grace, through His dear Son.”
(Cf. Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 373, stanza 5)