IT MUST have been with great sadness that the Apostle Paul said to the elders of Ephesus in that very remarkable speech recorded in Acts 20: “I know that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you.”What must have added to his sadness is the recollection that Moses had said exactly the same thing to Israel fteen hundred years before: “I know that after my death, ye will utterly corrupt yourselves” (Deut 31:29).

Paul, of course, had the testimony of the law and prophets to witness how true that prophecy had been, and he would know that it would also be true in his own case. However, let us look first at the terms Paul uses for the gospel he preached. He begins by saying that he had been testifying to both Jews and Greeks “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Then he goes on to mention “the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (verse 24). He also says he preached the Kingdom of God (verse 25), and, finally, when he comes to the end of his talk says, “And now I commend you to God and the word of his grace” (verse 32).

Vague and Confusing Talk

There is a great deal of confusion in the religious world about the subject of grace, and there may also be some confusion among us. The prevalent idea is that grace is some kind of spirit gift that comes down from heaven and alters a person entirely. In the mediæval Catholic church, grace was received through the sacraments. If you observed these—infant baptism, confession, penance, and particularly the eucharist (i.e. the mass)—then automatically you received the grace of God. This was a method of receiving grace by purely mechanical means. It had no effect on the character at all.

Now in modern times there has been a resurgence of this doctrine of grace, particularly in some of the emotional religions around us. The expression “prevenient grace” has been used. The term may seem difficult, but it comes from just two words: “pre-”, meaning ‘before’, and “venient”, meaning ‘coming’—‘a grace which comes before’. What this doctrine teaches is that unless this grace comes to us before anything else, we cannot make any progress in the gospel; we cannot understand it, and we cannot even repent. That is the doctrine pushed to its conclusion. So there is a great deal of vagueness and confusing talk about grace in these days, but of course the truth is only to be found in the Scriptures, and it is there that we must go to try and understand it.

Free, Rich and Abounding

Now the basic sense of the word “grace” is ‘undeserved favour’. It is not very common in the Old Testament. It is sometimes translated “find favour” as when Moses says to God: “If I have found favour in thy sight, show me thy glory.” In the Psalms the word itself is almost non-existent, but the idea is abundantly there in terms like “mercy” and “loving-kindness”. It is perhaps even more surprising to learn that the word is never used by Jesus. John very rarely uses it; he prefers words like “truth” and “love”. In the Apostle Paul’s writings it is very frequent, appearing over thirty times in his epistles alone. We must try and discover what he means by it.

In Ephesians 1, Paul says about this grace, that it is “freely bestowed on us in the beloved”. Now the word “freely”means ‘without a cause’—we have not earned it. This grace is freely bestowed on us “in the beloved”, that is, in Christ, “in whom we have received the redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of trespasses”. The essence of grace is that God forgives sin. Furthermore, Paul writes of “the riches of his grace”, for it is not dealt out parsimoniously. He goes on to say that God has made it to abound to us. So the grace of God is rich and abounding, and it takes the form of the forgiveness of sins.

In Romans 3 we have another use in the same sense. Paul is discussing the justification which the believer has from God. As the RV footnote explains, justifying is not making us righteous. God will not make us what we are not; but He will count us as righteous if our attitude is right, so that it is an imputed, not an earned, righteousness. Now, “all have sinned,and fall short of the glory of God”(verse 23). Here Paul means the moral glory of God: His holiness, His righteousness, His truth and His mercy. It is in respect of those standards that man falls short, and everybody does it, says Paul. So our justification, or our means of being counted righteous is free, by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God, by His gracious attitude, will count us righteous if our attitude is right.

First of all, grace comes from God to man, but then man has to react to this grace. In Hebrews 12, we find the word “grace” used in this other sense, of man’s response to God’s gift. The apostle is dealing with the contrast between the religion of the Law, and that of Christ:“Wherefore”, he says, “receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved, let us have grace.” The RV margin says “gratitude”; “let us be grateful” (RSV); “let us be thankful” (NIV ). Thus, grace not only means the undeserved gift of God, but it also expresses the reaction of the man who appreciates it, and his reaction is thankfulness towards God.

My dear brethren and sisters—are we really thankful in the Truth? are we glad we are in the Truth? Or is it for us a form of bondage; do we wish it was not there? Do we wish it would go away, and then we should be free to do what we wanted to do? Are we really thankful? Because we are manifesting the grace of God if we are. Now grace does not stop there either, for once a man has received the grace of God, and is thankful, then he must show it to others. Grace first comes down from God to man, then is reflected back to God in the form of thankfulness, and also outward to others in his attitude towards them because of the grace he himself has received. This is why the Scriptures tell us to “abound” in grace; the abounding is in the outward expansion.

Recognition of Redemption

Of course, this principle is a very old one; it was emphasised to Israel in Deuteronomy 24, where God tells Israel to be kind to the poor, the fatherless and the widow: “Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and I redeemed you from thence; therefore I command thee to do this thing.” So the kindness of the Israelite towards his fellows was not just to his fellow Israelite; it was not just humanism; it was not even simple compassion: it was a recognition of his own redemption. There is the secret of understanding grace. Unless a man or woman understands that he has been redeemed he is not in a fit condition to manifest grace.

Yet we still have not finished, because as grace is manifested outward to others, the one manifesting it shows certain qualities; and they are called in the Scriptures “gifts of grace”: charismata. These are shown in the kind of life which the believer leads, and which is manifested towards others.

The Gifts of Grace

Let us look at an example or two. In 1 Corinthians 1:4 Paul writes: “I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus” (not “by”, as in the AV). This is important. “In Christ Jesus” means sharing his mind, partaking of his attitude. This is not a gift just given to us by God: it depends on sharing the mind of Christ. The grace, then, is in Christ Jesus. Then he goes on: “That in everything ye were enriched in (RV) him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed to you, so that ye come behind in no gift (charisma) of grace”. The grace we have received from God in the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins and our obligation towards others enriches us, says Paul; and being enriched, the believer shows certain characteristics, and they are the gifts of grace.

We find this again in Romans 12, where the apostle lists some of these gifts of grace (verses 6–8): “prophecy” (this is not foretelling the future, but expounding the Word of God); “ministry”, or being willing to serve. Then the apostle commends “he that teacheth, to his teaching; he that exhorteth, to his exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness” (RV ). Paul ends the list in verse 9 with “love”: that is the crown of the whole thing, and is the result of grace.

Peter deals with the same subject in 1 Peter 4:9, referring to “hospitality one to another without murmuring according as each man hath received a gift (a charisma, a gift of grace), ministering it among yourselves as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” That is to say, that it manifests itself in various ways in the life of believers, and they show certain attitudes which are the result of their understanding of the grace they have received.

When James contrasts the wisdom from beneath, the wisdom of the human mind, with the wisdom which is from above, he is again doing the same thing: he is drawing our attention to the fact that grace comes from God and results in a certain wisdom or understanding. It does not come miraculously; it comes because we set our hearts and minds to understand and because we accept what we understand, then try to put it into practice in our lives. The whole purpose of this is to change the mind of man.

Opening the Heart

But some say there are passages in Scripture that seem to imply that God interferes directly in the human heart. For instance, did He not harden Pharaoh’s heart? Yes, He did—eight times. But Pharaoh hardened his own heart eleven times! So the way God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was to let him do just what he wanted; He did not stop him; He put no obstacle in his way. What about Lydia, “whose heart the Lord opened”? How did He open her heart? First of all, she was a devout woman; she was almost certainly a proselyte, she had been attending a synagogue; she had heard about Paul, she had heard about the Gospel, and her heart was opened because she gave herself to understanding. It is the same term as is used of Jesus as he walked with the two disciples to Emmaus and opened their understanding. But Jesus did not do it by giving them some gift: he did it by explaining what Scripture means, and undoubtedly that is how Lydia’s heart was opened.

God does not work by mechanically altering our hearts. He will not make us what we do not want to be. If we are resistant to the Truth He will not stop us. We have to make up our own minds to give ourselves to the Word of God—to accept it, to understand it, and to obey it. “Thanks be to God, that whereas ye were servants (i.e. slaves) of sin, ye became obedient from the heart”—notice that the change occurred by being obedient, and the sincerity of it by being from the heart—“to that form (or pattern) of teaching to which you were delivered” (Rom 6:17, RV ).

Out of all this there emerges the absolutely vital importance of appreciating the fact of sin. Now unhappily, though doctrinally we agree with this, we subconsciously exempt ourselves. We feel that we are quite good people really. But that is not the teaching of Scripture, which is that our nature has, inherent in it, a pressure to resist the will of God. This is why the Apostle says that the mind of the flesh is enmity against God and cannot be subjected to His will. Unless we realise that this applies to us, we shall not realise the grace which God grants to us in the forgiveness of sins, and the restoration to fellowship with Himself. This grace, then, will change us insofar as we understand it and yield ourselves to it.

We are blessed in that we understand these things; we have had them expounded to us, and we have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the atonement for sin. Now we partake of the bread and wine in thanksgiving for the atonement which God achieved through His Son in his death as a sacrifice for sin, and as the means of obtaining the forgiveness of sins, which is a matter of faith.

The important point is our attitude towards His redemption; that in this memorial there is declared the abundant grace of God towards us, and that it is a reminder to us of the great work of salvation He has accomplished on our behalf.

Fred Pearce1

Reference:

  1. (2001). The Christadelphian, 131 (electronic ed.), 241–243. Birmingham: Christadelphian Magazine & Publishing Association.