“Grace” is a popular term in the church, used frequently but perhaps infrequently described, understood, or correctly applied. No human can plumb the depths of the riches of God’s infinite grace and the more I learn of it the more I realize how much I don’t know. A blog, of course, isn’t really the best medium to examine the infinite depth of God’s grace, so there are obviously many things I will miss here. I admit that I often misunderstand, misconstrue, or take for granted the profoundness of God’s grace.
Packer asks why grace is so easily forgotten or misapplied and gives four oft-overlooked but essential truths the doctrine of grace presupposes. Unfortunately, “the spirit of our age [in and out of the church] is as directly opposed to them as it well could be.” I found these four interrelated points to be a helpful reminder.
1. The moral ill-desert of man: Man naturally inclines to a high opinion of himself and projects himself onto God. In other words, he “imagines God as a magnified image of himself, and assumes that God shares his own complacency about himself. The thought of himself as a creature fallen from God’s image, a rebel against God’s rule, guilty and unclean in God’s sight, fit only for God’s condemnation, never enters his head.”
2. The retributive justice of God: We have come to expect God to overlook our sins. But this is just another example of us projecting us on God. “In our pagan way, we take it for granted that God feels as we do. The idea that retribution might be the moral law of God’s world, and an expression of His holy character seems to [post]modern man quite fantastic.” This hearkens back to what Paul says in Romans 2 about the fallacy of presuming on the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead to repentance. As Packer writes, “God is not true to Himself unless He punishes sin.” God is not holy unless he is just.
3. The spiritual impotence of man: So many of the best-selling “religious” or “spiritual” books capitalize on the goodness of man and the resulting (though subtle) marginalizing of God. Books like The Secret and The 4:8 Principle and authors like Joel Osteen and even Oprah capitalize on the desires of people to live fulfilling lives. They encourage a turning inward to themselves while staying positive, and the result is that good things will happen! But this isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s the heresy of gnosticism repackaged as pop-psychology and self-help. It also assumes that “good” people can fix their relationship with God. But if we have the power to help ourselves, what is the point of a divine Savior?
4. The sovereign freedom of God: [Post]modern man “has at the back of his mind a feeling that God is somehow obliged to love and help us, little though we deserve it.” But we cannot demand anything of God. Apart from his mercy and grace, we can only claim justice, which means certain condemnation because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God is not obliged to pity and pardon; if He does so it is an act of His own free will. “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). Further, as Paul said to the men of Athens in Acts 17:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything…We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed.”
Repentance of sin, pardon of sin, salvation, and perseverance in this life can only be had by the sovereign grace of God through faith in Christ Jesus alone:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8)
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory or our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:8-11)
I love how Packer quotes an Isaac Watts hymn that’s my favourite new Indelible Grace hymn. “The man who can sincerely take Watts’ words on his lips will not soon tire of singing the praises of grace.”
How sad our state by nature is; our sin, how deep it stains!
And Satan binds our captive minds fast in his slavish chains.
But there’s a voice of sovereign grace, sounds from the sacred Word:
“O, ye desparing sinners, come, and trust upon the Lord.”
…To the dear fountain of Thy blood, incarnate God, I fly;
Here let me wash my spotted soul from crimes of deepest dye…
A guilty, weak, and helpless worm, on Thy kind arms I fall;
Be thou my strength and righteousness, my Jesus, and my all.