Thursday, October 21, 2021

Grace Alone: Why grace is so amazing


    In what is arguably the most familiar hymn of all time, "Amazing Grace", there is a line which I heard a former pastor friend of mine object to in a sermon he preached. That line goes as follows: "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch, like me". As he began his message, he labored over how no one could possibly be a wretch, since deep down, everyone is a good person. When I heard him go on from there, I was shocked - to say the least. I mourned, since his departure from Gospel truth would soon unwravel from that day.

     The pivot point of the hymn "Amazing Grace" is the observation that none of us deserve God's kindness and unmerited favor. Apart from Christ, we are all "wretches". In today's post, I want to explore another important truth recovered from the Protestant Reformation for Biblical Christianity - "sola gratia" or what is simply known as "grace alone". 

What is God’s grace? 

    The most common way of defining God's grace is the simple two word phrase: "unmerited favor". Authors throughout the centuries have attempted to capture the essence of this well-known and yet profound word. Jonathan Edwards, the greatest of the 17th century theologians and arguably the greatest thinker born on American soil summarized grace as follows: "grace is but glory begun; glory is but grace completed."  

    A twentieth century theologian by the name of Lewis Sperry Chafer made this observation about God's grace (which by the way incorporates the Reformation summary "grace alone"): 

"The supreme purpose of God is to be realized through the salvation of men by grace alone. So fully does that supreme purpose now dominate the divine undertakings in the universe that everything in heaven and in earth is contributing soely to the one end." 

    In my comparitively small way of attempting to define grace, I utilize the following acronym: God Reaching Across Comforting Enemies. 

A brief, wider Biblical survey of "grace alone"

    A quick survey of the Bible reveals how much "grace alone" or "sola gratia" is mentioned. Some may wonder why the Reformers attached the word "alone" to grace. To say "grace alone" is to say that Christian salvation and all that undergirds the Christian life in sanctification are ultimately attributable to God alone. 

    The human will is never excluded in the act of receiving salvation and cooperating with the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Nevertheless, what "Grace Alone" asserts is that the human will contributes nothing in making salvation occur nor can the Christian's cooperating will in sanctification be credited with any good that comes forth in the Christian life. To put it another way, no one coming to Christ nor anyone who grows in Christ can give themselves an "atta-boy" and boast of what they did. Paul states it perfectly in 1 Corinthians 15:10 "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me."

    God's grace is operative from the beginning of creation. God had given Adam an original command in Genesis 2:17 to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam was supposed to had conveyed this to his wife. Upon their temptation in Eden, Adam stood by as the serpent beguiled Eve, with he himself partaking of the fruit with her. God's warning to Adam was that in the day he ate of the fruit, he would surely die. Adam and Eve should had died the day they rebelled, yet we read in Genesis 3:7-15 and 3:21 that God chose to deal graciously with them. Theologians sometimes refer to what God did for Adam and Eve as the issuing forth of "The Covenant of Grace". 

    Another example of how we see God providing grace is in the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." People may not realize that grace was revealed to show the ancient Jews that they needed God's grace to live lawfully. The 5th century theologian Augustine of Hippo expresses it this way in His "Confessions": "Command what you will; and will what you command".  

    The law of God was never meant to convey salvation. The Law could only demand the need for grace. The prophet Isaiah records in Isaiah 45:17 “Israel has been saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation.” Jonah states God as the sole source of grace in Jonah 2:10 “salvation is of the Lord”. The N.T. affirms this truth of "grace alone" as well, Paul writes in Titus 2:11 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men”. The Apostle John notes in Revelation 7:10 “Salvation to our God which sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”  

    As you can see, the above is but a sampling of the wider Biblical witness of God's amazing grace. In what follows, I will offer a Biblical explanation of "grace alone" by specifically considering Jesus'exorcism of demons from the Gadarene demoniac. 

       A Biblical explanation of “grace alone”.

*God’s grace alone can reach you.  Mark 5:1-5

First note that when we say "sola gratia" or "grace alone", we mean that God's grace alone can reach the sinner in the depths of their lost condition. Note this demoniac in Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-40. He was unreachable, by human standards. Only a Sovereign, intentional act of God could reach this man. I would argue that the demoniac is a picture of how all of us could be if God did not manifest either His common grace (which I'll explain later), let alone His saving grace (which Jesus extends to this man in the deliverance of his soul). Note this man’s condition.

-Matt 8:28, without cleansing. “country of the Gadarenes”. A cross reference of Genesis 10:16 reveals that the demoniac delivered from Jesus was likely of pagan descent (one of the sub-groups of the Canaanites were the "Gergashites"). This would had rendered this man ceremonially and spiritually unclean, meaning that he was viewed outside the reach of any Jew. 

    The above map depicts "Geresa" on the Eastern shore of Galilee and "Gadara" some 5 or so miles SE of the Sea of Galilee. Both towns had regions which overlapped one another, thus possibly explaining why both appear in our best manuscript witnesses of Matthew, Mark and Luke's versions of this account. Some may wonder why Matthew (in most English translations) describes the people in question as from the "Gadarenes", with two demoniacs; while Mark and Luke feature only one demoniac and the region being "the Gerasenes" in many English translations. It is plausible, as some commentators note, that Matthew mentions two men because one is Jewish and the other is Gentile, with the Gentile demoniac the focus of the Markan and Lukan accounts.

    The explanation of the interesting textual history behind the Greek and Latin manuscripts of the underlying text would risk distracting us, so I won't give it here. Suffice it to say, Adam Clarke comments that Matthew lists the region from whence one of these men hailed, “Gadara”, whereas Mark and Matthew list the region of the Gerasenes, the place where Jesus and his disciples landed their boat on the Eastern shore of Galilee. My point is that readers need not worry over the differences of regions, since explanations like the ones above satisfactorily handle the evidence at hand. The takeaway here is that the demoniac was viewed as an "untouchable" by his society.  

-Mt 8:28 without peace. “extremely violent that no one could pass by”

-Mark 5:3 without friends. “And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain”, also Mark 5:4b “and no one was strong enough to subdue him.”

-Mk 5:5 without health. “he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.”

-Lk 8:27b without a home. “and who had not put on any clothing for a long time, and was not living in a house, but in the tombs.”

-Lk 8:29 without rest. “For it had seized him many times; and he was bound with chains and shackles and kept under guard.”

-Lk 8:29 without hope. “and be driven by the demon into the desert.” Two things to remind ourselves of if we are to appreciate grace alone.

How much do we believe ourselves to be "wretches" apart from the grace of God alone?

    Some readers may object to being compared to the above individual. My question to all of us is this: do we picture ourselves as "wretches". Two passages capture the essence of how the demoniac pictures unbelieving man without the grace of God. Romans 5:6 "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly."  Ephesians 2:12 “remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

    As I heard one preacher remark: "we can never appreciate grace until we grasp the sinfulness of our sin." Scripture describes in vivid detail how much in need we are of God's grace. Solomon states in 1 Kings 8:46 ..”for there is no man who does not sin…”. David writes in Ps 58:3 "The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth." Paul notes in Romans 3:12 “All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” This man was arguably the most severe case Jesus handled in the realm of His exorcisms. Commentator Adam Clarke observes of this demoniac: 

“in this person’s case we see a specimen of what Satan could do in all the wicked if God should permit him; but even the devil himself has his chain and he who often bounds others binds himself."

It was not ritual that delivered this man, but God's grace alone through the Person of Christ.

It may be important at this point to note that the Jews had beliefs about exorcisms. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, records an alleged tradition that he claims derived from King Solomon himself in his ""Antiquities of the Jews", Book 8, chapter 2, section 5, (written around the sametime as the Gospel of Mark):

He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils. 

    Acts 19:13-20 records the failed attempt of the sons of Sceva, trying out Jesus’ name as another ritual.  Several other Jewish sources could be cited. All of them claim the ability to cast out demons. In my reading at least, there was never any proof that Jewish rituals worked. Jesus was different. He knew that for this man, it was not a change of behavior, nor a change of location, nor human tradition or ritual that could reach him. God alone, in the Person of the incarnate Son, was able to reach Him, which is what grace is all about (see Ephesians 2:8-9). So we have seen that God alone, in His grace, can reach sinners. But what else can we say of "grace alone" in its meaning?

*God’s grace through Christ alone seeks you. Mark 5:6-9

    So we have witnessed how God's grace alone can save anyone. We now observe this second thought of how this grace is through Christ alone in seeking sinners for salvation. The Reformers recaptured the Biblical emphasis of "Christ Alone" being the source of salvation (readers may refer to my last post, wherein I explored "solus Christus", Christ Alone, here: ). The relationship of "Christ Alone" to "grace alone" is that of a "fountain" to water. Christ alone is the channel through whom God's grace is dispensed. He is the source of grace (note: not Mary, not the saints, not even the church). As we shall see later, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, conveys His grace through the "Scriptures Alone", another emphasis recaptured by the Reformation. Before I explain how God's grace through Christ alone seeks you, two distinctions need made about grace.

Common grace

    When we speak of God's grace in the Gospel, to distinctions are important to note: "common grace" and "saving grace". All sinners receive what is called “common grace”. When I say "common grace", I refer to that good will and intent God shows to all people without exception, whether they recognize it or not. Hence Matthew 5:45b “He causes it to rain on the just and the unjust”. Paul states too about "common grace" in Acts 14:17b “in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Furthermore, we understand the reason why God ordains people to live where they live in Acts 17:27 "that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” None can claim to never have not experienced God’s grace in this sense. 

    Sadly, unbelievers resist this and still ignore or reject God. The Gerasenes here in Mark had the same access to all that Christ did for this man. Yet they cared more about the plight of the pigs than the Person of Christ. Notice Mark 5:16, as to how they were concerned “all about the swine.” The people’s choice of the pigs over Christ explains why they chased Him away. It is like what we read of in Acts 13:46 “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life”. Christ alone can save. Christ alone can cleanse.

Saving grace

    A second important distinction exists when we talk of God's grace in salvation - "saving grace". All human beings experience common grace. Sinners that trust in Jesus are recipients of this “saving grace”. So why "saving grace"? The natural human will opposes God in His common grace, and regards the Gospel as foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:14). All human beings resist God's common grace. Therefore, God’s saving grace is needed to convince the sinner to cease running from God, and to freely choose Christ. The saving grace of God is received by some, with the idea that God alone is credited for why anyone receives the Gospel. Daniel Whittle in his marvelous hymn, "I know whom I have believed", captures this saving grace in his third stanza: 

I know not how the Spirit moves, Convincing men of sin, Revealing Jesus through the Word, Creating faith in Him.

    Scripture abounds with samples of what saving faith looks like once the human will surrenders in its persistant opposition against God. Luke writes of "saving grace" in Acts 16:14b “and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Author Carl Trueman notes how unbelievers are like blocks of marble, that is, they need someone outside of themselves to transform them into a marvelous work. 

    To take Trueman's word picture one more step, God the Holy Spirit breaths into the unbeliever's heart, a spiritually lifeless block of stone, to render him or her a life-filled lover of the Lord Jesus. The prophet Ezekiel captures perfectly what saving grace does in this regard in Ezekiel 36:26 - "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."

It is important to remember God's freedom in having mercy upon whom He will have mercy as foundational to embracing the significance of "grace alone"

As we continue on explaining God's seeking of us in Christ alone, we must consider a question. Whenever we read the end of Mark 4, why did Jesus have his disciples go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee? He did so to save one man. The demoniac, as we already observed, was spiritually dead. Christ did what He did for this man, whom He chose to save. Before anyone loves Christ, God first loved them (1 John 4:19). All sinners never seek God apart by grace, as Paul states Romans 3:11 “There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God.” 

    Why does any sinner trust in Christ? God's grace alone. The seeking, intentional mercy of God is captured in the following hymn: "He sought me, and He bought me, with His redeeming blood". Those sinners who trust in Christ do so because God sought them. God, by nature, is the Reconciler, making His plea to all sinners, in His grace to their physical ears to “be reconciled” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Salvation is His idea, not ours. It is His saving grace, which brings Christ’s voice by the Scriptures to the ears of the heart. Paul writes for example in 2 Corinthians 4:6, "For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

    God's Sovereign freedom in showing grace to whomever He so desires is captured in the aftermath of the golden calf incident of Exodus 32-33. Israel committed flagrant idolatry at the foot of Mount Sinai. The only thing God owed them was their utter destruction, since they broke covenant with Him. He would not had been any less good if He had chosen to express justice. Yet, God chose to reveal the goodness of His grace, rather than justice, before Moses in Exodus 33:19. What God says in Exodus 33:19 is repeated by Paul writing about God's Sovereign work in salvation in Romans 9:15-16 

“For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy."" 

    Paul's point is that just as God chose to show mercy to those individual Israelites that day, the motive for His saving grace to any believing sinner is sourced within Himself, not the sinner. Anyone who chooses Christ can only credit God’s grace as to why they do so, since they did not merit anything to earn such favor. We read in John 1:12-13 "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God". Peter echoes too this freedom of God in showing mercy upon whom He will show mercy in 1 Peter 1:3a “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again…”. 

    By understanding the sinfulness of our sin and God's freedom in bestowing grace, we come to appreciate how amazing grace truly is. The cross is where the awfulness of the sinfulness of sin and the decisive act of God's mercy meet in the Person of Christ, the Mediator of God's saving grace. 

*God’s grace by Scripture alone changes and sustains you. Mk 5:10-21

So we have observed a building up of thoughts in understanding this truth of "grace alone". First we noticed that God's grace alone can reach and that God's grace alone through Christ is what seeks sinners. We now add a third and final point: God’s grace by Scripture alone changes and sustains you. 

    Notice what happened in Mark 5:15 --> the man was sitting down, clothed, and in his right mind. He was cleansed. Why didn’t the people experience spiritual cleansing for themselves? Human beings make their choices on what their minds hold as the greatest desire. This act of the mind (i.e. “the will”) is rooted within the nature of each person. Unbelievers make choices that will please themselves, the world, and their flesh. Grace alone explains why the demoniac experienced change.

    Throughout this account we find Jesus exorcising these demons by the words of His lips (Mark 5:8-9). No ritual. No Jewish traditions. Instead, Jesus conquered the powers of darkness by His words - alone. The Bible is God’s Word. The Bible alone is how God conveys saving grace to unbelievers and feeds the souls of believers. James 1:21 “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” Ephesians 5:26 “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.”

    Jesus is able to convey God's grace (He being God and man, mind you) by simply speaking words to these demons to leave this man and addressing the man himself. The Reformation recaptured this priority of God's Word as being the sole means of saving grace. It came to contrast the Biblical "grace-based" description of salvation versus the Roman Catholic Church's "merit-based system", which claims participation in the mass and sacraments is how anyone accesses the grace of God.

The day a storm came: contrasting a merit-based view of salvation to that of a "grace-based" view of salvation

    To illustrate, I can recall living in Florida at a time when our home area was struck by three hurricanes. Needless to say, the devastation was widespread. My wife and I had to put in an insurance claim, since our car was totalled in all three storms. Our insurance company set up a tent near our home for anyone making similar insurance claims on their home or auto. We could "lay claim" because we had paid our insurance premium every month. The insurance company included storm damage in its coverage, which meant they had an obligation to cover our car, since we had paid our due. 

    In merit-based systems of salvation, the coverage of salvation is accessed by participating in things like the mass and sacraments. Roman Catholicism teaches that Christ has achieved the merit, however, to obtain what He has done, as well as the merits done by Mary and the saints, their must be something I do in addition to believing in Christ. Even then, the coverage is questionable, since Roman Catholicism teaches the addition of purgatory after death to cleanse away remaining sin before the believer arrives in Heaven. This view makes it appear that people have a claim on God, since merit has been paid in by way of participation.

    Now to return to my illustration, there was a man going around my neighborhood with a gas tank on the back of his truck. The storms had knocked out the gas stations, and people needed a way to run their generators. The man in question was under no obligation to put gas in anyone's generator. Some he would give gas, and others he would not. None could say the man was "being unfair", since no one had any claim on him. What the man did was out of the sheer kindness of his heart. 

    This highlights a grace-based system of salvation. The Bible tells us that yes, Christ has achieved merit on behalf of sinners. The difference here between "grace alone" and merit-based systems is that God uses Christ's merit and Person by Himself as the source of grace, with the words of Scripture conveying saving grace by the Holy Spirit, having mercy upon whom He will have mercy. Merit-based systems add man's participation, effort, to God's grace. 

    No one can ever say they did what they did in salvation. No one can claim because of merit, family upbringing, or any other human effort that they became recipients of saving grace. 

    When Jesus delivered this man, He did so through His words. The man was not only delivered, and cleansed, but was given a commission to tell others of this marvelous work God had done in His life. Mark 5:18-20 

"As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. 19 And He did not let him, but He *said to him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed."

Closing thought:

    Today we considered the wonderful Biblical truth and emphasis of the 16th century Protestant Reformation: "Sola Gratia" or "Grace Alone". First, we noticed that God's grace alone can reach you. Secondly, God's grace alone through Christ is what seeks sinners. Thirdly, God’s grace by Scripture alone changes and sustains you. I want to close out this post by noting the wonderful hymn of David Whittle, from 1883, that I alluded to earlier in the post, which I think captures marvelously this truth of "Grace Alone".

"1 I know not why God’s wondrous grace 

to me is daily shown,

nor why, with mercy, Christ in love

redeemed me for his own.

2 I know not how this saving faith

to me he did impart,

nor how believing in his word

wrought peace within my heart. [Refrain]

3 I know not how the Spirit moves,

convincing us of sin,

revealing Jesus through the Word,

creating faith in him. [Refrain]

4 I know not when my Lord may come,

at night or noon-day fair,

nor if I’ll walk the vale with him,

or meet him in the air. [Refrain]


But “I know whom I have believed,

and am persuaded that he is able

to keep that which I’ve committed

unto him against that day.”"

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