By Tom M. Roberts
In the prejudicial environment of the first century between Jew and Gentile, the biblical doctrine of grace was immediately explosive and controversial. Though God had testified through the prophets that Gentiles would be the objects of His grace (mercy), those who testified of God’s .grace in redemption did not find a ready and receptive audience in every place. Moses and other prophets who followed after had been told that God would have “mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Rom. 9:15) and “I will call that my people which was not my people” (v. 25; cf. Hosea 2:23); a message forgotten indeed. Consequently, even in the first century, there was a need for the restoration of the doctrine of grace by inspired preachers. Grace was not new; it had been lost in the maze of traditionalism and error that characterized first-century Judaism. Additionally, racial and sectarian hatreds made it unthinkable that the uncircumcised among the nations would find a place of equality in the redemptive plan of Jehovah. Is it any wonder that a large portion of sacred Scripture coming down to us from that era addresses and expounds upon the grace of God?
When Martin Luther raised his hammer and affixed the 95 theses to the door of the Whittenburg Cathedral fifteen hundred years later, the blows that echoed through Roman Catholicism were caused in part by that generation’s misconceptions of grace and law-righteousness.. As it developed, neither the Pope nor Luther had the truth but that did not stop the controversy, nor did it fix a solution for future generations.
Our own generation is, as you can see, heir to centuries of controversy over the grace of God. How tragic! That which has been intended by God to be a blessing has been made into a cause of religious warfare. Strewn on the battle, field of sin and death are the souls of men and women who are in desperate need of the grace of God – which grace lies hidden under the debris of sectarian error. Along with the worst Pharisee of the first century, beside the Gentiles of many nations, we of the twentieth century need a restoration of the doctrine of the grace of God. May God indeed have mercy on us as we study to find the truth of His gracious plan of redemption. It is there. It has been revealed. “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9). Let us seek, therefore, with assurance, knowing that Jesus died to make us “heirs of the grace of life” (v. 7). Let us restore, in our lifetime, the preaching of the “true grace of God” (1 Pet. 5:12).
A Gentle Reminder: God Is At Work
Lest we be too pessimistic (as though man’s case is hopeless because of the mountain of error) or too arrogant (as though salvation is totally dependent on the work of our hands), we should remember that God is at work through His word. The Scriptures have been given “by the inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), God’s word will not return unto Him void (Isa. 55:11), and “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32). Wherever the Bible goes, truth goes, independent of human agency. Life is in the seed (Luke 8:11) and, though man is used to scatter the seed, the life without the seed is not dependent on the sower. Let us therefore be assured that the “good news” of the grace of God is available to all men around the world because Bibles have been distributed in every nation. Without discounting the important work of gospel preaching, we should recognize that any truth-seeker can know of God’s grace without contact from middle-class America.
It takes but a short trip through Restoration history to be aware of this fact. During pioneer America, men arose who threw off the creeds of men and returned to the pure waters of God’s truth. Though beginning in the darkness of error, from within various denominations, seekers of truth came to know the pure gospel of Christ which tells of God’s grace. Gradually, faltering at first but with ever-increasing confidence, multitudes studied themselves out of systems of bondage and became free men and women in Christ. We today are the heirs of these courageous people and owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. Nevertheless, what they did, anyone can do. There is no patent on Bible study. Nor is the entrance to the kingdom of heaven restricted to the Western Hemisphere. let us pray for a restoration of the New Testament doctrine of the grace of God throughout the world. Think how mighty Russia would shake when its people learned of this grace; China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, from continent to continent, around the world. Let us pray and work for the harvest (Matt. 9:38).
How to Insure the Restoration in Our Day
It has been said that “those who ignore the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them.” Others, from the New Testament days until now, have lost view of God’s grace and drifted into error. How can we be sure that we profit from past mistakes, “Keeping ourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 21)? I affirm that we must follow the trail left by those Restorationists before us (including the apostles) by depending on an understanding of God’s word to lead us into truth (Jn. 17:17). We must learn what Paul taught the Pharisee and the Gentile. We must avoid the mistakes of Catholicism and Martin Luther and the Reformers. We must restore it as did Peter: ” . . . I have written unto you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God: stand ye fast therein” (1 Pet. 5:12). We know of it only as we know the Scriptures: “And now I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all them that are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). “The grace of God hath appeared bringing salvation to all men” (Tit. 2:11) but this appearance is not ethereal, mysterious and unattainable. It “instructs us” (v. 12), indicating its connection with the word. Further, we are to “speak these things and exhort and reprove with all authority” (v. 15). A restoration of grace is as sure as a restoration of gospel preaching.
A False Charge
In our time, this true grace has been an d is being preached. Of late, some have charged us with not preaching grace because we do not preach a denominational concept of grace. Among our brethren, some have fallen backward into the error from which we have previously escaped. Having accepted false definitions of Bible terms, they accuse us of not preaching grace because we don’t use their definitions: faith only, imputation of Christ’s personal righteousness, once saved, always saved, etc. We are told that we are “legalists” when we teach free will, human responsibility, faithful obedience (man’s ability to “do”), and the possibility of apostasy. But we will not be deterred by such charges. Paul faced such treatment when he taught God’s grace and so will we. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). What does God have to say about His grace?
The Doctrine of Grace
God did not have to save sinful man; we are justly condemned (Rom. 1, 2, 3). But “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the us” (Rom. 5:8). The source of grace is God. The basis for grace is the death of Christ. The appropriation of grace is man’s faith. “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand. (Rom. 5:1,2). Access by faith into grace, we are told. Salvation is “by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8,9). Grace is the- gi ft of God (unmerited favor) and it is not of works (lest we boast), but faith and faithful obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) are not included in the category of boastful works; they are essential to salvation. To understand grace, we must understand the relation that faith sustains to it. To receive this grace, we must avoid boastful works. This is the historic battleground upon which so many have fallen through misunderstanding. Let us be sure that we have the truth.
Proper Understanding of Faith
Faith is not a gift of God as the Calvinists teach. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10: 17). Faith is work (Jn. 6:29) but not a boastful work. It is a response of man (something man does, a work) from his free will and innate ability. Man is not depraved in nature, but can do either good or evil. “Man, as he is,” expounded Benjamin Franklin, one of the pioneer preachers, explaining that man does not need a “Holy Spirit experience” to believe. He is able to believe because God addressed His revelation to man’s intelligence. He is able to disbelieve, and is therefore accountable because of his ability. But faith itself is not a gift; it is a response to God’s expressed will. Abraham is the one chosen by God to illustrate faith as a response to His grace. Abraham believed (Gen. 15:6) and proved it on at least three notable occasions: leaving Ur, the birth of Isaac and the offering of Isaac, In these instances, faith is not an abstract mental assent but expressed in living action (faithfulness). Abraham trusted God in these instances (and others), not in his works. He did not fail to obey but he did not trust in obedience; he trusted in God. This difference is the essence of faith. As James described it: “Yea, a man will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith apart from thy works, and I by my works will show thee my faith” (Jas. 2:18). It is this kind of faith that gives us “access into grace” (Rom. 5:1,2) and not faith alone, as taught by Calvinists. It is upon the condition of this faithfulness that Paul says God expressed His grace to Abraham when He forgave Abraham’s sins. “For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh (trusting in his works, tr), the reward is not reckoned as of ‘grace, but as of debt. But to him that worketh not (not trusting in his works, tr), but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned -for righteousness” (Rom. 4:2-5). In Romans 4, Paul continued the discussion by showing that God put (reckoned, imputed) righteousness to Abraham’s account because his sins were forgiven (v. 7). His sins were forgiven because of Abraham’s faith and obedience (faithfulness) toward God. Abraham had access by faith into the grace of God. But why is the story of Abraham important to me?
The Gospel Was Preached To Abraham
“Know therefore that they that are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then they that are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham” (Gal. 3:7-9). Hear it! We are going to be saved by grace like Abraham was saved. Not, to be sure, by leaving our kindred or by having a son in our old age or by offering him on an altar. These were the tests of Abraham’s faith. We have different tests (repentance, confession, baptism, godly living) but the proper response is that of faith. And that faith must be in God, not faith in works (as illustrated in the following chart).
But, someone asks: “Why spend so much time talking about faith when the subject is of grace?” The obvious reason is that there is no need to exhort God about grace. God has done His part so very well that grace is available to all as a “finished work” in Christ. Nothing remains to be done, nothing is lacking, grace is a reality. But we must exhort men to respond to this grace and that response is “faith to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:36). It balances the heavenly equation of salvation “by grace through faith.” Grace makes salvation possible; faith accepts it; obedience proves my faith to God.
Bible Survey Bears This Out
Anyone familiar with Bible history should be able to understand the doctrine of grace. The fall of man introduces our need: man is lost without God’s mercy. He cannot save himself by a law of the conscience (Rom. 2:12-16) as Gentiles attempted; he cannot save himself by law-keeping (Rom. 2:1-3) as the Jews attempted. Man needs mercy, grace. Beginning with the prophecy in Genesis 3 and continuing with the promises to Abraham, the Lord offers that help. Jacob’s descendants become Exhibit “A” as God unfolds the Plan of Redemption through the Seed promise (Gal. 3:16). The constant and unremitting rebellion of the Jews do not keep God from performing His promise to bring the Messiah. The advent of Messiah was unconditional; the reception of grace by sinners is conditional – and that condition is faith. The case histories in the Bible bear this out: Noah, Moses, Joshua, the Israelites, David, the prophets, et al. Since one picture is said to be worth more than a thousand words, let me introduce a simple chart by Roy Cogdill that simply, yet profoundly, states the case before us: God and man, grace and faith.
Brethren, to preach this chart is to preach grace and faith unto salvation. When a detractor charges us with not preaching about grace in today’s pulpits, I remind him that this material pre-dates Roy Cogdill. It pre-dates America’s Restoration. In fact, it is essentially the argument of the writer of the Hebrew letter. The Hebrew writer (unknown by name) was a Restorationist preacher: he was attempting to restore dispirited Hebrew Christians to the grace of God. When we preach the same material today and emphasize baptism, we are preaching grace through faith. If a restoration of the doctrine is needed today, we can begin at no better place. Tell the story of Noah, Abraham and Israel and we are telling of God’s grace. Tell the story of Jericho, Naaman, and the sinner being baptized into Christ and we are preaching salvation by grace through faith. God’s grace has appeared and it instructs us (Tit. 2:11,12). By faith, we accept.
Not So Technical
This study has not attempted to address theological questions about grace, though we have no fear of an investigation on that level. Rather, we have looked at grace on a level where we common men and women must operate and understand. We stand at the intersection where grace and faith meet on Main Street of sinful Earth. Seeing our need and being aware of our helplessness, we reach out to God in faith. And, you know what? He is there. He is willing to save me, not condemn me. It is for this reason that I, with millions of others can sing:
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.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 11, pp. 330-332
June 5, 1986