Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.
THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF words and phrases we toss around during our lives. Grace is one of those words. Those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation were never meant to live defeated, despairing, boxed-in, unhappy lives; rather to live in victory through grace. In Romans 5, Paul writes of the “abundance of grace” we receive everyday, along with the gift of righteousness, which helps us to reign in life through Jesus. He says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2, ESV). God’s grace is bestowed on us without merit. Further, it sets in stone the infrastructure on which we are to live our lives. It is erroneous to imagine that this sacrament—or any other means of grace—operates automatically, as though mere reception were a guarantee (1).
A Proper State of Mind
Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (see Phil. 2:2-4). What is comparison if not the means by which we decide we are better or worse than others? Paul said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). He also said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom.10:3). Comparing ourselves to others limits our potential. When we compare our performance and actions to others we allow them to set our standard of achievement. Paul reminds us that “everything is possible” for the person who believes (see Rom. 9:23). Nowhere in Scripture does it say one’s success is dictated by his or her stature in the community. Moreover, we are not to compare ourselves to ourselves, or we run the risk of stunting further growth by looking back and saying, “I’ve come a long way. I am nothing like I was before.” This is a recipe for complacency. Rather, we are to compare ourselves to Jesus Christ, aiming every day to emulate Him in all that we do. Grace should propel us to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ.
Our path in life can be likened to a tightrope. Consider how tightrope walkers never look back after they take their first step. Seldom do they look up or they would become concerned about how much of their walk remains, making it seem as though they have made little progress. But they do look down, watching their feet, making sure to take measured and accurate steps. Each step, at the moment it is taken, is what is present. It represents what the tightrope walker must do “at that moment.” As Christians, we are not to regret the past, nor should we worry about the future, for in doing so we squander today. Isaiah wrote, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
God’s Continuing Grace
God’s grace continues to bless us and keep us after conversion. Jesus is the true human being (wholly man and wholly God) in whom we are to be able to participate by grace. Grace propels believers to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ. Peter tells us, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3:18). Johnson believes God’s grace comes to us more like a power, bonding us to Christ so that we may live with Him in accord with our status as God’s beloved children (2). He believes prevenient grace comes to sinners before salvation to convict them of their unrighteousness, call them to repentance, and enable them to freely cooperate with God’s grace by ceasing to resist its work. Other theologians argue that God’s irresistible grace enlightens the minds of sinners, changes their hearts, and draws them to salvation. They’re being led to the living water. Although the condition of beginning the covenant of grace is by faith alone (per fidem), the condition of continuing in grace rests in obedience to God’s commands (3). James said, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
It is critical for us to admit how undeserving we are of God’s grace and mercy. When faced with the consequences of bad or illegal behavior, justice is rendered when people “receive their due” according to violation of the law. In fact, justice is “what the accused deserves,” whereas mercy applies kindness and forgiveness to our lives without merit. We receive God’s grace and mercy through Christ, receiving the free and unmerited gift of His righteousness, then begins the practice of recognizing and receiving God’s ongoing grace. There is a often grave misunderstanding that Jesus had one sole mission: to suffer and die for our sins. To be the scapegoat for mankind. The crucifixion of Christ redeems us, but it also must serve to sanctify us as we step out in faith to live as Christ would have us live. Christ is all things to us. He has been made to be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All glory belongs to the Lord. Our part is to receive Christ as LORD and Savior. He is grace, mercy, forgiveness, direction, righteousness, sanctification, redemption. We cannot complete ourselves any more than we can save ourselves because He is both our redemption and our sanctification. He is all and in all. There is nothing left for us to do or earn. A missionary friend of mine puts it this way: justice is getting what we have coming to us (our just punishment) and mercy is receiving what we do not deserve.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt (Matthew 18:21-35).
In this parable we learn that God forgives on request without restitution being required. We also learn something important about unforgiveness. The man’s refusal to forward the grace he received resulted in a series of divine consequences. If we remain unforgiving of the unforgiveness of others, we turn back toward legalism. We are being as exacting and demanding as the law; like we are keeping a precise balance sheet on debts owed to us. We selfishly hold everyone to payment in full. This, of course, is an example of justice rather than grace. Unforgiveness is grounded in “debtors-mentality,” a merciless mindset that refuses to release others until they pay all that is due, rather than a “grace-receiving” mentality. When God forgives, He frees the forgiven from all obligation to repay. We have been forgiven and set free as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Despite this divine explanation of God’s grace, too often we demand forgiveness from those we have wronged as if we can change their heart. Nothing could be more contradictory to the example of Jesus. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). He didn’t come to browbeat sinners, but to set the captives free. The whole of Christianity is about forgiveness, not about holding a “balance sheet” on others.
A Prime Example
A prime example of grace-receiving mentality can be found in John 4. Jesus and the disciples were headed for Galilee. Jesus decided to take a shorter route, which involved going through Samaria despite Jews and Samaritans being sworn enemies. While Jesus rested at Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman approached to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her for a drink. She responded, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (see John 4:9). Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus continued: “Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). The woman asked for a drink of this everlasting water. The Hebrew word hallomai (to “well up”) occurs only here in John’s gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The water that Jesus gives is vibrant and cleansing, and produces the abundant life Jesus was promising to the woman.
Jesus told her to go home and bring her husband, to which she announced that she had no husband. Jesus replied, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the [man] you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” She immediately decided this man must be a prophet. In the Greek and Roman world, for Jesus to possess such knowledge of the woman’s marital history would certify him as a miracle worker, but in the religious world of Israel it would be recognized as the distinguishing mark of a prophet. When she expressed the longing she had for the coming Messiah, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). It is at this point the woman grasps the magnitude of what Jesus has said to her. It’s as if the very atmosphere changed. Nevertheless, she asked Jesus to “explain everything.” What is this living water? Who is this man, Jesus, that he dares to use the “I AM” remark? Is this man Yeshua? I have no doubt that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria because He knew of the Samaritan woman he would encounter at the well. As she sped off down the hill, spreading the good news through the streets of her village, Jesus told the disciples it was time to go forth and preach the gospel (see Luke 9:1-6).
How to Get It
God’s grace is seen throughout all of creation; in our daily living as well as our salvation. Some believe grace and mercy are synonymous. However, grace is defined as unmerited divine favor or assistance given to us for regeneration or sanctification. Mercy is compassion or forbearance shown, especially to an offender or to one subject to the power of another; leniency or compassionate treatment. It is through grace that God presented His Son Jesus for sacrifice; there is literally nothing we could ever do to earn God’s grace, or to obey the letter of the Law, in order to be saved from eternal damnation. Martin Luther struggled with this concept, becoming increasingly anxious over how he could be clothed in righteousness. Luther initially failed to grasp the meaning behind Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (ESV). This conflict drove Luther to extremes, such as self-flagellation, remaining outdoors in the winter without a coat or shoes, solitary meditation for days, asking incessantly for God’s forgiveness. He feared he would die in his sleep without having confessed everything. His understanding regarding God’s grace had roots in Roman Catholic teaching: man is justified by God’s grace plus some merit of our own. This, of course, is against Christian doctrine.
Grudem writes, “Justification comes to us entirely by God’s grace, not on account of any merit in ourselves” (4). God’s grace forms believers into the image of Christ in anticipation of their eternal life as God’s beloved children (see Rom. 8:29-30). Because we cannot hope to earn sanctification by obedience to the Law (i.e., through our works), it was necessary for God to provide a means by which we can be redeemed from our sin. God established a covenant with man, setting only one condition: faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). God’s grace means His goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s mercy means His goodness toward those who are in misery or distress; God’s patience is manifest in His willingness to withhold punishment toward those who have sinned (5). Because of God’s grace, mercy, and patience cannot be earned, it is reasonable that we provide our bodies (as a living sacrifice), living a life of worship and faith. Regardless of our circumstances, we can have a quiet heart, but this requires total confidence in God. Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (6).
Specific to Luther’s trouble with righteousness, he said Romans 1:16 presents the gospel as a power which saves all who believe it. Luther came to believe that Romans 1:17 speaks of God’s righteousness. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are clothed in righteousness. When the Father looks upon us, He sees the righteousness of Christ. He separates us from our sins as far as the east is from the west. Luther said, “The righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation… it is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works” (7). The phrase “from faith to faith” is meant to establish that the righteousness of God comes through, but without ignoring the “works” of our faith as an outward sign to others that we have become a new creation. It is the adage, “We are not saved by good works; we are saved unto good works.” Luther added, “The words ‘from faith to faith’ therefore signify that the believer grows in faith more and more, so that he who is justified becomes more and more righteous” (8). Augustine defined from faith to faith as, “From the faith of those who confess it with the mouth to the faith of those who actually obey it” (9).
In order to receive God’s grace we need first to admit that there is nothing in us that can merit it. We need to honestly admit, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Jesus didn’t come to justify the godly, but the ungodly. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about eating with sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Unfortunately, many Christians forget the importance of God’s grace in their daily walk. The heart of this deception is the belief that after being redeemed by the sole merit of Christ’s finished work, we must then sanctify ourselves. Though seemingly responsible, this denies the grace of Christ. Not only was our redemption purchased by Christ, but also our sanctification. When God places us in Christ, He makes Christ to be all things to us.
According to Peter, grace and peace are multiplied in us through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, and that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness to the end that we may become partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-3). Peter went on to exhort us to add to our faith moral excellence and to moral excellence, knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love. Many of these things are listed in Galatians 5 as fruits of the Spirit. Paul was who he was by the grace of God. He labored abundantly, but not by his own might or capabilities. He said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). This is what is meant by having a “grace-receiving” mentality.
(1) K.L. Johnson, “Means of Grace” in the Evangelical Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 358.
(2) K.L. Johnson, Ibid., 358.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: 1994), 519.
(4) Ibid., 729.
(5) Ibid., 200.
(6) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(7) Ibid., 40-41.