During a conference on comparative religions, religious experts were debating what doctrine, if any, was unique to Christianity. Upon entering the room, C S Lewis learned of the debate and responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” After some further discussion, all were agreed: Christianity is unique because in it salvation is by grace alone.
According to the Bible, it is the “grace of God that brings salvation” (Tit 2.11) so, to understand what the Bible teaches about salvation we must know what is meant by ‘grace’.
What Grace is
Grace is unmerited favour; it is kindness shown to the undeserving. The gospel is the good news that God shows kindness to people who do not deserve it.
What do we deserve from God?
People who believe in heaven often assume that they will one day be there. When asked why they suppose this to be the case, the most common response is: “Because I’m a good person”. If pressed about how good they would need to be to earn a place in heaven, they often reply, “As long as I do the best I can, I’ll get in”. The implication is that it would be unfair of God to turn them away - no-one can do better than their best.
A major problem, however, is that no-one has ever done their best. To have done ‘the best I can’ means that I could never have been better than I have been. What a standard! It means that I have always been as kind, caring, compassionate, honest, upright, faithful, and pure as it was possible for me to be. I, for one, could not say that this accurately depicts my life. What about you? Have you done the best you can?
If God used this standard as the means of determining who gets into heaven none of us would make it. Judged by our own standards, we would all fail miserably. However, the standard by which God judges is far higher. One religious leader summarised God’s requirements in a conversation with Jesus.
He said: “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND,’ and ‘'YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’” (Lk 10.27). The Lord’s response was to say, “do this and you will live.” (10.28).
Here is God’s standard for earning eternal life: love God with all of your being all of the time, and never prioritise yourself over others. None of us have reached this standard - its far too high. In fact, there has never been one second of our lives in which we have loved God with all of our being - never mind doing so every moment of every day. This is why the Bible sums up the status of human beings: “there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.22-23).
“But,” you might say, “while I may not be good enough for heaven, that doesn’t mean I’m bad enough for hell.” However, God’s standard is His law - a revelation of His own character. If a law is broken, a crime has been committed; and if a crime has been committed, a punishment is deserved. A good judge ensures that a criminal is punished, and God is a good judge. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18.25).
Each of us has been examined by God, and the evidence has led Him to give His verdict - we are all guilty before Him. As the righteous Judge, He cannot turn a blind eye to our crimes or pretend that they have not happened. Each sin has a punishment it deserves, and in the eyes of an infinitely holy and inflexibly righteous God, every sin is a hell-deserving sin.
A lady once said to me that if God would just look at her works, and examine the life she had lived, she would be all right - she’d make it into heaven. She had never learned that her life is not the answer - its the problem. The Bible predicts a day of judgment in which people who have not received God’s grace will stand before God, and be judged according to their works (Rev 20.12). The result of this judgment is certain - these people will be “cast into the lake of fire” which is the “second death” (Rev 20.14-15).
So, if we get what we deserve we will not be in heaven but in hell - forever.
What are we offered by God?
It is at this point that the “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20.24) appears attractive. God’s grace is kindness shown, not merely to the undeserving, but to the hell-deserving. In God’s eyes we are not merely devoid of merit, we have demerit. What we deserve is hell; what God offers is heaven. What we are is guilty; what we can be is righteous. We can be “justified freely, by [God’s] grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3.24).
To be justified “freely” is to be declared righteous by God through no merit of our own. God has already assessed us as being guilty, so there is no reason in us for Him to declare us righteous. The cause for our justification is not in us, but in Himself; it is “by His grace”. In spite of no merit in us, God bestows upon us His favour, removing our guilt and giving us a status of righteousness before Him.
How can God do such a thing? How could a righteous judge acquit a guilty person? The only answer is: “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. Every crime against God deserves punishment. If God wants to righteously remove this punishment from us, the answer must be a willing substitute - someone who is able to make the payment that justice demands for our freedom.
A young man (Johnny) wondered what I meant by this, and I used the following analogy:
Suppose you were in court for committing a crime. The evidence is against you, and the verdict is reached - you are guilty. The time comes for sentencing and the judge sentences you to pay a large fine - so large that you know you’ll never be able to pay it. If the fine is not paid, you will go to prison.
You come out of the court, and sit on a bench with your head in your hands. What can you do? You can’t undo the crime you’ve committed and you can’t pay the fine. Before you prison is looming. Just then someone sits down beside you and, looking up, you are surprised to recognise the face of the judge. He says “You did commit the crime, didn’t you?”. “Yes.” “So you do deserve the punishment?” “Of course,” you say, “but I can never pay that fine!” He looks at you, “In the court I had to uphold the law, I had to find you guilty, and I had to sentence you correctly”. Then he says, “However, I’m sorry for you”. At this, he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out an envelope stuffed with money. He says, “I can settle the fine”.
At this point I asked Johnny “Would you be thankful?”. “Of course,” he said, “but who would do something like that?” “God would!” I said, and took some time to show how this story loosely illustrates the gospel of the grace of God.
God is the judge, and we are guilty. He knows what we deserve, and has sentenced us to a judgment we can never exhaust, a penalty we can never pay - eternity in hell. This prison looms before us all. Yet, the Judge loves us and has come to where we are “to save sinners” (1 Tim 1.15). He has gone to the cross and willingly paid the price for sin, satisfying the demands of justice by suffering for sins, “the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3.18).
Johnny was truly impressed by this. That God would do such a thing had never occurred to him. He understood for the first time what the cross was about. Perhaps you have wondered why the Son of God hung upon a cross and suffered. The answer is simple: so that God could bless you. Christ died so that you could have heaven, even though you deserve hell. He suffered, so that you may be declared righteous, even though your own actions have made you guilty.
What Grace does
Grace is amazing, not only because of what it is - but because of what it does.
Grace offers a Gift
If grace offers salvation to the undeserving, how do we obtain it? To help us, the Bible presents salvation as a gift to be received. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2.8-9). Salvation has been provided by God; He has borne the cost of its purchase. However, it is offered to us as a free gift; we must simply receive it as such.
One reason many people do not get saved is because they do not want to accept ‘charity’. Being too proud to admit that they cannot earn salvation, they keep insisting that they must do so. Once, as I used the analogy of the judge who could settle the fine, I asked a man, “Would you be thankful?”. His response was “No! I wouldn’t accept it.” When I asked why not, he replied “I pay my own bills”.
While we can admire someone who is not out to milk the system and who insists on working for his wages, this man had to learn that humbly accepting his own inability to pay the fine was the road to freedom. When it comes to our eternal salvation, settling the debt for sin by ourselves is simply not an option. Eternity in hell can only be avoided by humbling ourselves to accept the free gift offered to us. The only Person who could satisfy infinite justice in respect of sin did so by His sacrificial death at the cross, and God confirmed His acceptance of this work by raising His Son from the dead. The work has been done, the cost has been borne, and our responsibility is to accept the gift “by faith”.
Salvation is provided by grace, and it is received by faith. The faith of which the Bible speaks involves a ‘trust-transfer’. People normally place confidence in themselves and in their own works to obtain a place in heaven, but God requires a trust-transfer. Receiving salvation by faith means placing our confidence only and entirely in another Person, and in the work He has done. As Paul and Silas put it, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16.31).
Grace provides a Guarantee
Because salvation is by grace, God is not looking to us to do works either to obtain salvation, or to maintain it. When God promises that those whom He has declared righteous “shall be saved from wrath” (Rom 5.9), He means what he says. Once a person has trusted Christ as Saviour, there is no doubt that he will be “saved from wrath”. Every promise God has made concerning the eternal security of those who trust His Son is an unconditional promise, the fulfilment of which depends only and entirely on the unmerited favour of God.
If my salvation depended at all on my holiness or my righteousness or my obedience, I would have lost it long ago. Thankfully, God’s grace makes His promises certain of fulfilment, altogether apart from my good works or obedience (cf. Rom 4.16). Throughout the ages to come, God will “show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2.7).
Grace produces Goodness
Having said that our salvation does not depend on our good works, it is no surprise that one of the most common objections to the gospel of grace is often expressed in this way: “If a person’s sins are all forgiven, and if they are already sure that they will be in heaven for eternity, then they can, and will, sin freely”. Apparently, without the fear of eternal punishment, the Christian will live a licentious and immoral life, comforting himself in his sin by the knowledge that he will never be in hell.
If this thought has popped into your mind while reading this article I am glad. This means that you have grasped, at least to some degree, what ‘grace’ means. It has been said that “Grace must raise the temptation to think we can sin as we please; if it does not, we have not understood the true extent of grace.” (Derek Thomas). Certainly, the Bible anticipates this very objection as the natural challenge which follows a proper, but limited, understanding of the Gospel1. The only message which would raise such a challenge is a message which guarantees eternal security to a person, altogether apart from their good works.
But what is the answer to this challenge? To put it very briefly, the grace that saves a person also changes them. There are at least two wrong assumptions people make when they say that a person saved by grace alone will live an immoral life:
That the only motivation to live a holy life is fear of punishment. However, while fear can be a tremendous motivating force in anyone’s life, so can love. I have children, and it is my joy to please them - not because I fear them but because I love them. The Christian has many reasons to love his Lord, and this produces a desire to please Him by living according to His word.
That the person who is saved by grace alone has experienced no change apart from a change of destiny. This is a very common error. I visit a lady regularly who is deeply interested in being saved but she believes that she must be able to live as a Christian before she becomes one, and she’s finding that impossible. This lady is making a mistake because she thinks that Christians live in obedience to God’s word in their own strength. The fact is that salvation is not about people turning over a new leaf and striving to live differently. Salvation is about people receiving a new life from God, and being empowered to live differently. Grace not only changes our status before the Judge, making us right with God; it also grants to us new birth into God’s family, and new life. Salvation brings release, not only from the damnation our sins deserve, but also from the dominion our sins have exercised over us.
So, the Christian has received (as a free gift) settlement for the past, strength for the present, and security for the future and all of this glorious freedom is “according to the riches of [God’s] grace” (Eph 1.7).
Grace makes Glad
Christianity is something to sing about, and the theme of grace has been the subject of many of the most famous and well-loved hymns. In fact, God’s great program of salvation will ultimately prove to be for the “praise of His glorious grace” (Eph 1.6 ESV). John Newton, once a debauched slave trader, yet wonderfully saved and subsequently instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade, penned the most well known ode to grace:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Truly God’s grace is amazing; it is beyond our ability to communicate fully. Because God is gracious, we can tell you, whoever you may be, that there is hope for you. No good works you have performed remove the necessity of God’s grace; no sins you have committed remove the possibility of God’s grace. Jesus Christ can save you, change you, and secure you eternally. Why not acknowledge that you have nothing to offer, and bow at His feet just now and receive by faith the salvation He freely offers to you, for “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6.23).