Welcome to my little Bible study on grace.
The purpose of this Bible study is to help people develop into more mature Christians.
Maturity in Christ is two things in the Bible:
The Study of Grace
Why study grace?
Grace is one the great foundational doctrines of Christianity.
Properly taught, the doctrine of grace is one of the most freeing, liberating, and joyful concepts in Christianity. Grace is the source of our joy in Christ. It is the origin of our salvation, and the key to Christian living. God's grace is the source of our praise and worship for Him. A thousand years of singing hallelelujah cannot do justice to God's grace. And yet grace is so simple that all can understand it, and with it understand the fulness of the joy that God has prepared for His children.
Grace is also the source of our peace in Christ. An improper understanding of grace can produce torment in the life of a Christian, and a proper understanding will produce peace, love, and joy.
Here is the greatest verse on grace in the Bible in my opinion, and the cornerstone of our teaching:
eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--
and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--
eph 2:9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (NIV)
That hugely important statement has been attacked by the Devil throughout Christian history. And Christians have defended the doctrine of grace just as vigorously. Therefore, in our study here, we will cover both the nature of grace and some of the common errors surrounding understanding of grace.
So what is grace exactly? I think we have all probably heard that grace is unmerited favor. You may have also heard that it is the power and ability (granted by God) to do what is right. But that is a false view, grace is unmerited favor, and grace is not merit infused into our beings (Catholicism defines grace in that manner and it is a false view).
Nevertheless, sanctification, the ability to sin less, is an act of God's grace, but we have no merit in ourselves, since we depend entirely upon Christ's merit.
Stated in theological terms, both justification and sanctification are acts of God's grace.
When someone manifests the fruits of the Spirit they are said to be filled with grace or graciousness according to Jonathan Edwards. This was the focus I was asked to have in this Bible study, a study of grace with an eye towards graciousness or the fruits of the Spirit. I just wanted to make sure we all understood what grace actually is however.
I really like the word graciousness, as it so clearly describes how we are to behave, and the character we are to seek as Christians. I could also point out that the word itself comes from grace, and therefore has its origin in the Christian thinking and heritage that our language draws from.
Notice that Edwards talked about grace in essentially the same way we do now. That description of grace from Edwards explained a lot of passages in the Bible to me. Whenever grace is directed towards a person in the Bible it means they found favor with God, and in the New Testament it generally means that favor manifests in the qualities of good character and temperament.
The Bible says that we can grow in grace and that growth in grace is tied to growth in our knowledge of sound doctrine:
pe2 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
Growth in grace (the fulness of Christ) combined with knowledge of sound doctrine, promotes unity in Christ, because without sound doctrine there can be no unity:
eph 4:13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
Next I want to pose the question: Why do we need grace? Or rather to what degree do we need grace?
The Bible casts us in a stark light, saying there is no good in us at all. In our natural state without grace we have neither the desire nor the ability to seek God or to please Him at all.
Without grace we are all hopeless and helpless, and our works mean nothing.
Under grace however the opposite is true, all our works are pleasing to Him, because of grace (and the work of the cross) and for no other reason. Our works have no merit in themselves, it is His merit that is imputed to them as part of justification. This is a meaning of the following verses:
joh 15:5 ... for without me ye can do nothing.
phi 4:13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
One of the smallest attacks on grace is the idea that we have the ability to "accept" Jesus on our own. This is known as Arminianism, and is called "decision theology" by its critics. Unfortunately, it is the dominant viewpoint today. The opposing viewpoint is called Calvinism or Augustinianism, or even Paulinism by its adherents, and is simply characterized as the doctrine of salvation by grace.
It is debatable whether Arminianism compromises the doctrine of salvation by grace enough to be called a heretical doctrine. I am of the camp that the doctrine itself is false, but not false enough that in and of itself one cannot be a Christian, as it passes the Biblical test of holding to a true cross (subsitutionary atonement), and a true picture of God. It also has a proper view of sanctification and so avoids striving by works in the life of a Christian after salvation. But it does have the pitfall that one must maintain one's own salvation, so the Arminian will be ever fearful of losing his state of grace.
The best (meaning most palatable to me) way I have ever heard the Arminian viewpoint expressed is that we cannot come to God in and of ourselves, but that we can resist the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, and thus it is our responsibility to accept or yield to such power.
So my take is that Arminians are confused on how they came to Christ, but I do not deny that they did so, all other things being equal.
In any case, Arminianism essentally denies that God is sovereign. Who gets saved falls into the hands of man. This is also known as self-determination. The Bible clearly states that who gets saved is entirely God's decision. Nevertheless (lest I cause confusion), God does not violate our so-called free-wills (which are not nearly as free as we like to think, as we are declared to be slaves of the Devil from birth). In the vernacular the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to change hearts. And a changed heart will follow Christ willingly.
Even though God makes the decision, those who are not saved are still held entirely acountable for their sins on judgement day. Any proper teaching will affirm both God's sovereignty, and the responsibility of man for his own actions. Just because we have no good in us at all, does not absolve us from this condition, rather the Bible calls the unsaved the children of wrath.
We must not go too far with this however, salvation is offered to all, and we live in the age of grace. God loves even the worst sinner. Hence common grace, and its attending retraint and blessing upon all. It is not until sinners are actually cast into hell that they lose all apparent goodness and become the objects of God's unrelenting eternal fury.
As an aside, God's wrath is rarely taught today, but neither is it the subject of today's study. If you want to read the quintessential fire and brimstone sermon of all time, which will once and for all thoroughly aquaint you with this subject, and give you a much greater appreciation for the depth and power of God's grace, I suggest Jonathan Edwards sermon "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" at www.jonathanedwards.com . This particular sermon is so unsettling it is (jokingly) recommended that the faint of heart not read it, neither should one read it alone at night. :-)
Larger attacks on grace include one started by a man called Pelagius in the early church. He taught that you not only "accepted" Christ yourself, but that you maintained your salvation by living a holy life thereafter. In this mindset you "lost" your salvation temporarily every time you sinned and regained it when you repented. This effectively denies the substitutionary atonement on the cross and its adherents openly denounce the substitutionary atonement. This clear salvation by works heresy was soundly denounced by the early church fathers and disappeared for over a millennia, to reappear almost verbatim in the teachings of Charles Finney in the 1850's.
Pelagian thinking will produce striving, self-righteousness, and torment in the life of a Christian. Few are those who knowingly and willingly follow Pelagian thinking like Finney, most are snared by it and unwittingly fall prey to the trap of the Devil. But thanks to God's grace, the truth can set us free.
To our great shame today Finney was not shouted down by history. He is in fact revered today by many as a great man of God. My personal opinion is that the Laodicean church age really began with him. Besides openly denouncing the substitutionary atonement by name, he taught subjectivity and emotionalism, that religious fervor was the true mark of spirituality, and he was the originator of the "seeker-friendly" evangelistic crusade. This is the idea that we are doing God a favor if we change the Gospel to make it more palatable to "seekers". Unfortunately, a changed "culturally relevant" Gospel if carried too far is no Gospel at all. Fortunately the Gospel is resilient, it needs no help from us to do its work (other than the preaching of it), for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.
In my mind the greatest tragedy of Arminianism and its bigger brother Pelagianism is that they will leave a believer permanently unsure of their salvation. If we are dependent upon our own strength to decide for Christ, and to maintain that decision, then fear will grip the heart of the believer like nothing else. I can personally testify to this, that for years I prayed to God to have mercy on me and to not abandon me to falling away, or to loss of salvation. Because I believed such a thing was possible it became my greatest fear.
Jonathan Edwards, considered one of the greatest theologians on the subject of revival to ever live, wrote that God often allows people to believe in their own merits, and to strive and strive, and their inevitable failures result finally in their realization of their own spiritual bankruptcy, that they can do nothing to please God, and then and only then are they ready to have a true conversion experience, and truly know Christ as Lord and Savior. Notice that Edwards took the uncompromising viewpoint that any form of salvation by works thinking was essentially fatal.
One of the things that fascinated me about Edwards writings is that his description of the journey we go through closely described my own life.
I was an expert in striving actually, a master of religious zeal motivated by works thinking. I had to strive against doubt also, since I believed that I was responsible to maintain my salvation. Things that caused me to doubt my salvation became the subjects of dark fascination, because I was on the hook to examine all things that could cause doubt so that I could reject them. Oh the horror (jokingly)!
There have been denominations and movements of the past, that failing to understand grace, have urged their people to ever greater committment to Christ, so that they rededicate their lives to Him over and over again, repeatedly redoubling their efforts to live a Christian life filled with works. A famous theologian from that time period once remarked (in levity) that he nearly wore out his "rededicator" before he finally came to an understanding of the doctrine of grace.
Once you have a proper understanding of grace the assurance of salvation can begin to develop in your life. The Bible gives us a threefold list of assurances:
Overemphasis of any of the above three points to the exclusion of others tends to produce fear rather than assurance in the heart of the believer. The Bible speaks of assurance of salvation as something to be attained, it is not immediate, nor does it necessarily come all at once, but it is available to all.
When I first heard the doctrine of grace I wondered what if I am not one of the ones God has decided to save? Will I strive in vain to try to obtain that which I cannot have? The Devil again tried to fill me with fear, but I remembered the following verse:
joh 6:37 All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.
The fact that you want salvation, and believe in Christ, since you can only come to Him in faith, is the very assurance you seek, because those things themselves are the very gifts of grace that God gives to His children. Put simply, your faith in Christ is your assurance. It is in fact the evidence of the seal of the Holy Spirit in the following verse:
eph 1:13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of
truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him
with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,
eph 1:14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-- to the praise of his glory.
Our security is entirely in Him, and His work in us. And it is an iron-clad guarantee, engraved on the very foundations of heaven. To believe in Christ, and to follow His teachings is to stand on the immovable rock of ages. Because God cannot lie, and Jesus promises to lose not a single one who comes to Him:
joh 6:39 And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.
Once I understood the wonder and joy that is the doctrine of grace I found myself marvelling about it (not to mention kicking myself a little bit for taking so long to finally bother to study theology). I wrote this soon after I began to realize how freeing the concept of grace was to me:
The doctrine of salvation by grace frees me to proclaim the gospel without fear of doing God a disservice by somehow messing it up, and to love the people around me without judging them for their lack of willingness to make the correct decision. It frees me of pride from thinking that I made the correct decision where others did not. It frees me from pride in thinking I can somehow help God save people. It frees me from self-condemnation and worry whenever I fail and am tripped up by sin. It frees me from self-righteousness. It frees me from judgementalism. It frees me from worry over loss of my salvation, or that I never had it. The list goes on and on. The truth set me free.
Paradoxically, preaching works does not create proper religious zeal, but rather it creates self-righteousness, striving, quenches the spirit, and moves one's heart far from God.
Equally paradoxically, the preaching of grace creates true zeal and desire to follow God more than anything else because grace itself produces these things, it cannot be manufactured by any device of man.
Hallelujah and God be praised.
Common vs. Special Grace.
Common grace is another name for the restraining influence God exerts in the world today, and the general blessings he pours out on mankind. It is given in some measure to all men. It is temporary, and destined to pass away in the lives of sinners as no grace is given to anyone in hell. The wicked shall become hell says the Bible (psa 9:17). Even the apparent goodness they have today will be lost to them in Hell.
Jonathan Edwards comments that the demons also believe in God, but they have no common or special grace, they are wholly wicked and evil.
Saving grace, or special grace, is theologian-speak for the grace that the saved receive, it differs from common grace in several ways. It is permanent, and it will grow in the life of the believer as gradual sanctification occurs.
All apparent goodness in people is attributable to either common (restraining) grace, or special (saving) grace, thus reaffirming that there is no inhernet "goodness" in man.
Martin Luther on Grace and Prayer
Here is a practical guide for what to do if you want to grow in grace, drawn from one of the greatest men in the history of Christianity (short of someone who wrote scripture): I found this part of his teaching wonderfully helpful to me.
Martin Luther wrote this in his commentary on the ten commandments. This extract comes from his discussion on commandment three. He believed that praying for grace (healing of ones sins and iniquities) was every bit as important as praying for physical healing. Remember that they lived in a time where what today we would consider minor injuries were life threatening. It may be noted that Martin Luther was no cessationist where healing is concerned.
"Look you, wretched man! if you have broken a leg, or the peril of death overtakes you, you call upon God, this Saint and that, and do not wait until your leg is healed, or the danger is past: you are not so foolish as to think that God hears no one whose leg is broken, or who is in bodily danger. Nay, you believe that God shall hear most of all when you are in the greatest need and fear. Why, then, are you so foolish here, where there is immeasurably greater need and eternal hurt, and do not want to ask for faith, hope, love, humility, obedience, chastity, gentleness, peace, righteousness, unless you are already free of all your unbelief, doubt, pride, disobedience, unchastity, anger, covetousness and unrighteousness. Although the more you find yourself lacking in these things, the more and more diligently you ought to pray or cry. "
"So blind are we: with our bodily sickness and need we run to God; with the soul's sickness we run from Him, and are unwilling to come back before we are well, exactly as if there could be one God who could help the body, and another God who could help the soul; or as if we would help ourselves in spiritual need, although it really is greater than the bodily need. Such plan and counsel is of the devil. "
"Not so, my good man! If you wish to be cured of sin, you must not withdraw from God, but run to Him, and pray with much more confidence than if a bodily need had overtaken you. God is not hostile to sinners, but only to unbelievers, that is, to such as do not recognize and lament their sin, nor seek help against it from God, but in their own presumption wish first to purify themselves, are unwilling to be in need of His grace, and will not suffer Him to be a God Who gives to everyone and takes nothing in return. "
I love Martin Luther, all his works read like this, they are uplifting, and clearly show God's gracious loving character, although you have to tiptoe around some of the remnants of Catholicism in his thinking. And it gets better:
"In this faith all works become equal, and one is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, few or many. For the works are acceptable not for their own sake, but because of the faith which alone is, works and lives in each and every work without distinction, however numerous and various they are, just as all the members of the body live, work and have their name from the head, and without the head no member can live, work and have a name."
"So a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God, knows all things, can do all things, undertakes all things that are to be done, and does everything cheerfully and freely; not that he may gather many merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God thereby, and he serves God purely for nothing, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or doubts, hunts and worries in what way he may do enough and with many works move God. He runs to St. James of Compostella, to Rome, to Jerusalem, hither and yon, prays St. Bridget's prayer and the rest, fasts on this day and on that, makes confession here, and makes confession there, questions this man and that, and yet finds no peace. He does all this with great effort, despair and disrelish of heart, so that the Scriptures rightly call such works in Hebrew "Avenama" , that is, labor and travail. And even then they are not good works, and are all lost. Many have been crazed thereby; their fear has brought them into all manner of misery. Of these it is written, Wisdom of Solomon: "We have wearied ourselves in the wrong way; and have gone through deserts, where there lay no way; but as for the way of the Lord, we have not known it, and the sun of righteousness rose not upon us." "
Thus by contrasting the life of grace in faith with the life of striving by works Martin Luther shows the way out of bondage, and into freedom in Christ, and shows that we can freely pray for grace and healing of the soul as we need it. He also shows us that we can rejoice in the works that we do for God, large or small, in the certain knowledge they are acceptable to Him by His grace through faith alone.
Thus the key to graciousness manifesting in one's life is humility and prayer, a simple willingness to admit one's own spiritual bankruptcy, and to seek the Lord of Glory, who gives freely without reproach, because it is His good pleasure to do so.
The goal of grace is to reproduce in us the meek gentle character of Christ. God has stated this as His purpose in our lives, so it cannot be said that a prayer for more grace will ever be refused. We cannot dictate to God the timing or method that He will answer such a prayer, but we can be assured that He will answer it because He has already stated He will and furthermore that it is His pleasure to do so.
When we see the works of the flesh in our life we are to run to God as a loving father, like a child with a splinter in their finger, and tearfully ask God to remove it from us. The removal may hurt, as character building is inevitably a long slow painful process, but we can be assured that it will be done with all the love, patience and kindness that God has.