Dr. Sam Storms
Enjoying God Ministries
What is at stake in the debate
between Calvinism and Arminianism is far more than a disagreement over
terminology. At the heart of all this is the grace of God and how we
understand it. I am not suggesting that Arminian Christians are deliberately
impugning the grace of God in salvation. Nevertheless, by making election
conditional upon something that man does, even if what he does is simply to
repent and believe the gospel, God’s grace is seriously compromised. To say
that something is done by grace is simply to say it is done by God. If
salvation is from beginning to end a manifestation of God’s grace then it is
from beginning to end a work of God. To inject any human effort or
contribution whatsoever is to reject divine grace. Either election is
unconditional and altogether of God and his grace or it is conditional and
therefore a cooperative venture in which God and man both contribute. Let us
consider this in more detail, first by defining what I mean by “grace”.
We happily speak of God as triune,
eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and immutable. The God of whom
these things are true is indeed a great and majestic Being. Who is like unto
the Lord and with whom may we compare Him? Is there another whose knowledge
and power are without limit, whose life is everlasting, whose will and ways do
not change, and for whom the boundaries of the universe offer no barrier?
Indeed, this God is a great God!
But to say of God that He is great
is not enough. For as Millard Erickson has reminded us, God, though great,
"might conceivably be an immoral or amoral being, exercising his power and
knowledge in a capricious or even cruel fashion” (I:283-84). We must proceed
further in our description of God; we must proceed from His greatness to
His goodness. This God whose power and presence are illimitable, whose
wisdom and will are incomparable, is a God no less abounding in love and
longsuffering, mercy and grace. Therefore, although simple, yet profound is
the child's dinner prayer: "God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for
this food. Amen."
When we refer to the "goodness" of
God we mean very simply that He is benevolent. God's goodness is but the
inclination and resolve of His nature to promote the welfare and happiness of
His creatures. This more general attribute of goodness may be manifested in
the delay of penal judgment, in which case we speak of God's longsuffering.
God's goodness as manifested in the restoration of the wretched is what the
Bible calls mercy. Likewise, God's goodness as manifested toward the
guilty and undeserving is referred to in Scripture as grace. It is this
latter display of the goodness of God, in which His love for the
hell-deserving sinner is most keenly evident, that concerns us in this lesson.
Grace has traditionally been
defined as God's goodness toward sinners and mercy as God's goodness toward
sufferers. As a result, mercy does not appear to be as free as grace. John
"when we show mercy, it looks as if
we are responding to pain and being constrained by a painful condition outside
ourselves. It is a beautiful constraint. But it does not seem to be as free as
grace. Grace, however, contemplates the ugliness of sin, and, contrary to all
expectation, acts beneficently. This looks more free. Pain seems to constrain
mercy, but guilt does not seem to constrain grace. Grace looks more free. I
don't mean that God's mercy is in fact less free than his grace. No one
deserves God's mercy. And God is not bound to be merciful to any of his
creatures. What I do mean is that 'freeness' lies closer at the heart of the
meaning of grace. Grace, by definition, is free and unconstrained. It even
lacks the seeming constraint of naturalness that exists between
suffering and mercy. If God's grace is 'natural' in response to sin, it is
owing entirely to something amazing in God, not in the constraining power of
sin. Suffering constrains pity; but sin kindles anger. Therefore grace toward
sinners is the freest of all God's acts” (Future Grace, 78).
The elect of God are recipients not
only of all the benefits of common grace, but also of special grace. In fact,
it is precisely the bestowal of special grace which constitutes them as the
"elect" as over against those from whom it is withheld, namely, the
"non-elect." Special grace is, of course, saving grace, and thus contrary to
common grace does have as its design and effect the bestowal of eternal life
through faith in Jesus Christ. Herman Bavinck defined the special or saving
grace of God in this way:
"Ascribed to God, grace is his
voluntary, unrestrained, unmerited favor toward guilty sinners, granting them
justification and life instead of the penalty of death, which they deserved”
Berkhof defined it simply as "the
free bestowal of kindness on one who has no claim to it” (71). Packer
expressed it this way:
"The grace of God is love freely
shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance
of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only
severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity” (Knowing God,
The doctrine of God's grace is a
vast and multifaceted subject. Because of this, I have chosen to focus in on
ten principles or characteristics relating to the special grace of God,
especially as it is found in the Pauline literature.
The first and possibly most
fundamental characteristic of divine grace is that it presupposes sin and
guilt. Grace has meaning only when men are seen as fallen, unworthy of
salvation, and liable to eternal wrath. It is precisely because people today
have lost sight of the depths of human depravity that they think so little of
divine grace. What makes Paul's declaration that we are saved "by grace" so
significant is his earlier declaration that we were "dead" in trespasses and
sins, "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature," "following its desires
and thoughts," and were by nature the children of divine wrath (Eph. 2:1-10).
Second, grace does not contemplate
sinners merely as undeserving, but as ill-deserving. So often we are
inclined to think of ourselves prior to our salvation as in some sense
"neutral" in the sight of God. We are willing to admit that we .have done
nothing to deserve His favor. Our works, regardless of their character, are
unacceptable in His glorious presence. But this is entirely insufficient as a
background to the understanding of divine grace. It is not simply that we
do not deserve grace: we do deserve hell! Fallen and unredeemed humanity
is not to be conceived as merely helpless, but as openly and vehemently
hostile toward God. It is one thing to be without a God-approved
righteousness. It is altogether another thing to be wholly unrighteous and
thus the object of divine wrath. It is, then, against the background of having
been at one time the enemies of God that divine grace is to be portrayed (Rom.
Third, grace is not to be thought
of as in any sense dependent upon the merit or demerit of its objects. This
may be expressed in two ways. In the first place, grace ceases to be grace
if God is compelled to bestow it in the presence of human merit. According
to Lewis Chafer:
"If God should discover the least
degree of merit in the sinner, this, in strict righteousness, He must
recognize and duly acknowledge. By such a recognition of human merit, He would
be discharging an obligation toward the sinner and the discharge of that
obligation toward the sinner would be the payment, or recognition, of a debt”
Furthermore, grace ceases to be
grace if God is compelled to withdraw it in the presence of human demerit.
Indeed, grace is seen to be infinitely glorious only when it operates, as
Packer says, "in defiance of" human demerit.
Therefore, grace is not
treating a person less than, as, or greater than he deserves. It is treating a
person without the slightest reference to desert whatsoever, but solely
according to the infinite goodness and sovereign purpose of God.
Fourth, grace cannot incur a debt,
which is to say that it is unrecompensed. Since grace is a gift, no work is to
be performed, no offering made, with a view to repaying God for His favor. The
biblical response to grace received is faith to receive yet more.
Fifth, in respect to justification,
grace stands opposed to works (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). However, in respect to
sanctification, grace is the source of works. This simply means that whereas
we are saved by grace and not of works, we are saved by grace unto good works.
Good works are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace (see esp. Eph.
2:8 -10). It thus comes as no surprise that in Scripture grace and salvation
stand together as cause is related to effect. It is the grace of God which
"brings" salvation (Titus 2:11). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph.
The sixth principle is that this
grace that saves is eternal but is manifested in the historical appearance of
Christ. Paul speaks of the power of God by which we have been saved and called
to holiness, "not because of anything we have done but because of his own
purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the
beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our
Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and
immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:9-10).
Seventh, this grace is free! Just
think of it - free grace! But, of course, if grace were not free it would not
be grace. True indeed, but what a glorious tautology it is: “justified freely
by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus[!]" (Rom. 3:24).
Eighth, and something we will dwell
on in more detail later, grace is sovereign. That is to say, it is
optional in its exercise and extent. Although God is gracious in His eternal
being, He need not be gracious or shower His grace upon anyone. If grace were
at any time an obligation of God, it would cease to be grace. God's grace,
therefore, is distinguishing. He graciously saves some but not all, not based
on anything present in the creature either possible or actual, foreseen or
foreordained, but wholly according to His sovereign good pleasure.
The ninth thing to note is that
grace is described in Scripture as the foundation or the means of among other
things, our election (Rom. 11:5), our regeneration (Eph. 2:5; Titus 3:5-7),
our redemption (2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 1:7), our justification (Rom. 3:24; Titus
3:5-7), indeed, the whole of our salvation (Eph. 2:8).
Finally, grace is certainly free,
but it isn't always unconditional. The grace of election is unconditional
(Rom. 9:11). But many of God's acts and blessings are conditional. For
"Grace be with all those who love
our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible" (Eph. 6:24).
"[God] gives a greater grace . . .
God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (Js. 4:6; cf. 1
"The Lord your God is gracious and
compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him"
(2 Chron. 30:9).
"He will surely be gracious to you
at the sound of your cry; when He hears it, He will answer you" (Isa. 30:19).
"Let Thy lovingkindness [i.e.,
grace], O Lord, be upon us, according as we have hoped in Thee" (Ps. 33:22).
"The lovingkindness [i.e., grace]
of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting . . . to those who keep His
covenant" (Ps. 103:17-18).
But conditional grace is not
earned grace. Why? Because "when God's grace is promised based on a
condition, that condition is also a work of God's grace. . . . God's freedom
is not reduced when he makes some of his graces depend on conditions that he
himself freely supplies” (Piper, Future Grace, 79). Or again,
"conditional grace is free and unmerited because ultimately the condition of
faith is a gift of grace. God graciously enables the conditions that he
requires” (235). Or again, "this covenant-keeping condition of future grace
does not mean we lose security or assurance, for God has pledged himself to
complete the work he began in the elect (Philippians 1:6). He is at work
within us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). He works
in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21). He fulfills the
conditions of the covenant through us (Ezekiel 36:27). Our security is as
secure as God is faithful” (248).