‘It is to [God] and his grace alone that we owe what we are as Christians.’
That’s not a Reformation-era saying from Martin Luther or John Calvin. In fact, it was spoken by Pope Benedict XVI, in St Peter’s Square in November 2006.
It underlines that the Reformation was much more an argument about ‘faith alone’, ‘Christ alone’ and ‘Scripture alone’, than it was about ‘grace alone’.
A Welshman, a North African, and the grace of God
In fact, the place of God’s grace in our salvation was mostly settled 1,000 years before the Reformation. During the fifth century, a theological argument was stirred between a Welshman and a North African. The Welshman was Pelagius, the North African, Augustine.
I regret to say that on this occasion it was the Welshman with the dangerous theology (although one of my history books was at pains to point out that Pelagius only developed this theology after he left Wales!).
Augustine argued that we can only do what God commands when God, by his grace, grants us that ability. Without God’s grace, we could not repent or believe. But Pelagius insisted that God wouldn’t command something we couldn’t do, so he argued that we could repent and believe purely by our own efforts. God’s grace had little to do with it. The church sided with Augustine, and Pelagius’ doctrines were condemned at various church councils and upheld even to the present day. Even during its worst excesses, the Roman Catholic church has maintained that without God’s grace there would be no salvation.
Receiving God’s grace
In fact, the major difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic teaching was not whether God’s grace was necessary for salvation, but how God’s grace was received for salvation. The Catholic teaching was that the seven sacraments of the church are the actual means of grace, and they confer grace of themselves. The reformers not only denied five of the sacraments but argued that the sacraments couldn’t confer any benefit without the recipient having faith in Christ. (They rejected confirmation, penance, extreme unction, holy orders and marriage, leaving only baptism and the Lord’s supper.) They also argued that God would also give his grace through means other than the sacraments, such as the preaching of the Gospel. More recently, other evangelicals have rightly emphasised additional means of grace, such as prayer (Charles Hodge), fellowship (John Frame), or even church discipline and giving (Wayne Grudem).
So in the evangelical theology that grew out of the Reformation, grace is given within the church. In Roman Catholic theology, grace is dispensed by the church. This may seem a minor difference, but one significant effect of Roman Catholic teaching is often to de-personalise grace. Even today, it’s not unusual to hear Roman Catholics speak of grace as though it’s some kind of mystical substance dispensed by the church, that believers need to receive repeatedly to ensure that their store of grace remains topped up. In practice, receiving grace in Roman Catholicism can be little different from a hospital patient regularly receiving an injection to keep a disease at bay. The connection to God’s kindness and mercy gets somehow lost.
Amazed by grace?
But it would be wrong for evangelicals to point the finger at Roman Catholicism without also examining our own understanding of grace. Sinclair Ferguson says that ‘we sing about “amazing grace” and speak of “amazing grace,” but far too often it has ceased to amaze us’. He suggests that it might be more honest to sing of ‘accustomed grace’ (By Grace Alone, pg xiv). He’s right, of course. It’s easy to fall into the trap of taking God’s grace for granted.
God’s grace means he doesn’t deal with us based on any worthiness or merit we may have. Instead, because of his kindness and generosity, he deals with us according to our need. We see God’s grace throughout the Bible — not just in the New Testament. Six times in the Old Testament God is described as ‘compassionate and gracious…, slow to anger, abounding in love’ (Exodus 34:6, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, 103:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2).
In the New Testament the classic passage is Ephesians 2:4–5, ‘But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.’
But for many of us, our wonder at God’s grace diminishes over time. Perhaps when we’re first converted, we ‘wonder how he could love us, a sinner, condemned, unclean’. But after five or twenty years as a Christian, we can both forget what we were (dead in our trespasses and sins), and what we are (sinners saved by grace).
That’s perhaps one of the reasons why New Testament writers often remind their readers of what they once were:
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. (Titus 3:3)
For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. (1 Peter 4:3)
If we forget where we’ve come from, it’s no wonder that we will lose our amazement at God’s grace. That’s perhaps also a reason why we can sometimes lose confidence that God can save people like us. We unconsciously think the ‘sinners’ in our community are beyond the reach of the gospel because we’ve forgotten that we too were wretches saved by the grace of God.
But this emphasis on what we were, shouldn’t give the impression that we needed God’s grace in the past, but don’t need it now. We were sinners, but also we are sinners, and we will remain sinners until we go to be with Jesus. We are no less in need of God’s grace now than we were.
That’s not to say that there’s no change in our lives. By God’s grace, we’ve been able to shake off some of the sins which once afflicted us. Nonetheless, there are other, more besetting sins, that still trouble us. We are not the people we ought to be, but we are also not the people that we used to be. That’s the Christian experience. Saved, yes. Forgiven, yes. Justified, yes. But perfect? Not yet.
That’s why, in 1 Timothy 1, Paul says that he is the chief of sinners. He doesn’t say that he was the chief of sinners, but that he is. It’s the present tense. And yet two verses earlier, he says, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man…”. Paul is saying, ‘I was a sinner, and I am still a sinner, even though I am not what I was’.
Grace, therefore, remains vital to every Christian. It is grace that has ‘brought us safe thus far, and grace [that] will lead us home’.