Installment 9 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
Grace distinguishes Christian faith from other religions. We cannot speak of a saving faith without speaking of grace. Grace is the core issue in human
salvation and becoming righteous (justification). The Bible teaches that a person is saved by grace through faith, and that this is a gift from God,
merited without one’s own works because God has given Christ to believers (Eph. 2:8,9). The reformer Martin Luther emphasized that we are saved by
faith alone, through grace alone and for Christ’s sake alone.
The doctrine of grace includes the separation of the law and the gospel. The law demands works of a person, but faith owns the grace of God offered in the gospel. It would not be possible to own grace were it not for the atonement work of Christ.
What is Grace?
According to Christian Doctrine [of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland], grace is defined as God’s incomprehensible love which becomes ours without our own merit (Christian Doctrine, item 36). Grace is the opposite of merit (cf. Rom. 4:4). God’s grace is general grace in the sense that it targets all people (Rom. 5:15).
All people are corrupted by original sin and are therefore meritless before God. Grace does not require human merit. If one tries to earn salvation or even a part of it, his or her faith is based on works, not grace. A person cannot do anything for his or her salvation.
Grace is God’s favor (favor Dei) for a person. Because people are sinful and due to their sinfulness subject to the wrath and judgment of God, they need to be forgiven of their sins. In His grace, God has made this possible through the atonement and redemption work of His Son, Jesus Christ.
God’s law awakens one’s knowledge of his or her sins and drives him or her to seek forgiveness, prepared by Christ, which is offered in the gospel of God’s kingdom. A penitent sinner becomes a partaker of God’s forgiveness when he or she accepts in faith the gospel of the remission of sin. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).
For the sake of Christ’s merit, God gives us faith that justifies us. This faith owns, as a gift from God (donum Dei), Christ and the righteousness He earned. Christ dwells in the heart of a child of God by faith (Eph. 3:17). According to Luther, faith is internal good that is an opposite to sin, which it cleanses. Grace, meanwhile, is external good, God’s favor, the opposite of His wrath (Refutation of Latomus).
Grace is the grace earned by Christ and God’s continuously present favor. A child of God can every moment believe his or her sins forgiven. This does not pertain only to those situations in which one hears the proclamation of absolution. Grace also teaches us to live partaking in the gospel and keeping a good conscience.
Humans Cannot Influence Their Salvation
In the history of Christian churches, there has been and continues to be a wrong doctrine in which the concept of grace is distorted. Over time it has taken different forms, but the fundamental question has always been the relationship between human nature and God’s grace: can humans themselves influence their salvation? Is salvation a joint effort between God and humans or is it God’s work alone?
One form of this false doctrine is the notion that a person has free will whereby he or she could fulfill the ten commandments and thus earn salvation. According to this notion, God cannot demand of a person anything that he or she cannot fulfill. Grace is thought to contribute to and facilitate that which a person’s own will is capable of. This concept that emphasizes a person’s own merits can be summarized as follows: when a person makes his or her best effort to be saved, God will reward the efforts by pouring His grace on the person. So the road to salvation would be a process in which human efforts are combined with the effects of grace. Justification is seen as a joint effort between God and humans.
On the other hand, grace can be misunderstood to mean internal grace found within a person, which heals the person’s corrupt nature and initiates goodwill. According to this understanding, grace changes human nature such that a person does good works and thus fulfills God’s law.
The concept of grace is also distorted in the thought that faith alone does not justify, but rather justification is accomplished by the gift of grace, i.e. love, that is poured into a person’s heart. According to this notion, one can increase love by keeping God’s commandments. Righteousness is regarded as a human attribute that certainly has divine origin, but which gradually evolves in a person toward ever greater perfection.
The aforementioned wrong understandings can overlap each other. They have in common the notion that a person can in some way and to some extent influence his or her salvation. This is one of the most prevalent false doctrines in Christian faith.
Grace is Christ’s Merit
The Bible repeatedly teaches that a person’s justification is based on the grace of God and Christ’s merit. The God of all grace has in Christ called Christians into His eternal glory (1 Pet. 5:10). Christ has opened access for us to God’s grace (Rom. 5:2). Grace rules a Christian and leads him or her to eternal life because Christ has given righteousness to His own (Rom. 5:21). God’s grace cannot be owned without Christ and His redemption work (John 14:6). He offers the grace He earned to all to be accepted through the gospel.
Grace is not even partly outside Christ. Synergism, according to which people could with their own works contribute to their own salvation in cooperation with God, is not based on God’s Word. Justification is not the joint effort of a person and God, but rather solely the work of God. Life flows from the Christ vine to which Christians are attached as branches. The branch cannot bring forth fruit without a connection to the trunk (John 15:1–5).
Jesus taught, “for without me ye can do nothing,” and “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:5,16). God influences both will and actions (Phil. 2:13). Although the Bible in many places exhorts one to repentance and to choose blessing (e.g. Deut. 30:19; Matt. 3:2), an unbelieving person himself or herself is unable to choose grace and faith. Luther rejected the notion that a person has free will and decision-making power in spiritual matters. In temporal matters, a person is able to make decisions and choices, but in matters of salvation, his or her decision-making power is bound (Bondage of the Will). Luther summarized this in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith” (Small Catechism).
Although God takes initiative in the birth of faith, it does not mean that He has predestined some people to heaven and others to perdition. In the history of the Christian church, there has been a so-called doctrine of double predestination. This is not based on the revelation of the Bible. Predestination, election and foreknowledge are different things. The all-knowing God certainly knows in advance the fate of each person in eternity.
Predestination and election are Christ-centered issues in the Bible. God’s grace election takes place only through Christ and in Christ: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:4,5). If a person believes, he or she is saved and is God’s elect. If a person is God’s elect, he or she is saved when he or she believes (Formula of Concord).
Atonement and Redemption Prepared by Christ
The basis of all salvation, righteousness and grace is the atonement and redemption work of Christ. There is no other foundation than the Word of God, which is Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). Because the fall into sin had broken the connection between God and humans, it had to be repaired. God expressed His will for humans in the law of the Ten Commandments. God’s will requires unconditional fulfillment. Since sin-fallen humankind could not fulfill the law due to sinfulness, God in His love sent His Son into the world to fulfill His will. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
Christ atoned the sins of all humankind on the cross. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). He was the mediator between God and humankind. As an innocent surrogate victim He suffered punishment for us and on our behalf; He reconciled God’s wrath that we have earned with our sins. Through His death on the cross and His resurrection, He also redeemed us from the curse of the law. Christ has reconciled our guilt before God and redeemed us from the power of sin and death.
The fall into sin made humankind subject to death. The power of death had to be defeated in order to save humankind from death to life, back into fellowship with God. When Christ rose on the third day from the grave, He overcame the ruinous power of death. The resurrection of Christ also meant victory over the power of sin and the enemy of souls. God allowed Jesus Christ to die for our transgressions and raised Him again for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Due to Jesus’ resurrection, at the end of time every person will rise by the power of God to the last judgment (1 Cor. 15:20–23).
Overcoming the power of destruction, sin, death and the devil meant humankind was free from bondage. Luther explained the Second Article of the Creed in his Large Catechism: “He [Christ] has delivered us poor lost ones from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father. -- Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same.”
The significance of Jesus’ atonement and redemption work is often questioned in our time. Preaching of the cross was foolishness even to the contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles (1 Cor. 1:18,23). The message of atonement and redemption, relayed through the authority of the Holy Spirit, can only be owned through faith. Mere knowledge of Jesus’ death on the cross is not sufficient if faith of the heart is lacking.
Faith of a Child
The grace that comes through Christ’s atonement and redemption is also required for children’s salvation. Every child is created by God, redeemed by Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit; in other words every child is a child of God. God has created every person (Ps. 139:13–16), and He does not create children of His adversary, the devil. That would be contradictory to His righteous nature.
The basis of a child’s salvation is Christ’s redemption work, which has been done for the whole world and all people. The acceptability of a child before God is not based on innocence or the lack of actual sins but rather on fellowship with Christ. “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).
Christ’s atonement and redemption work signified the return of humankind into unity with God (recapitulatio). For this reason each child is righteous and has faith as a grace gift of God. Paul described this in his letter to the Romans when he spoke of Adam and Christ: “For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification…Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Rom. 5:15–18).
Christ’s redemption work does not, however, eliminate original sin. A child is also a partaker of original sin and is thus simultaneously righteous and sinful. The child has the gift of justifying faith with which he or she owns Christ. For this reason God does not impute original sin to him or her. God’s immeasurable grace in Jesus Christ has overturned God’s wrath due to original sin. In union with Christ, the child’s faith is the faith of the Son of God. Of this Paul stated, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20). This is how profound a union exists between a child – and all believers – and Christ.
Grace as a Teacher of Christians
Under grace and partaking of grace a Christian is free from the demands, judgments and curses of God’s law because in faith he or she owns Christ (Rom. 6: 14–18). Christ has fulfilled the demands of the law on behalf of a Christian and bore the judgment and curse of the law when He suffered death on the cross. Christ has delivered all who believe in Him into the freedom of a grace child (Gal. 5:1).
The Christian’s life in faith is life in grace and truth, obedience to Christ, the ruler of the heart and as a result, it is battle against sin. The purpose of this battle is to preserve the gift of faith in the heart and remain in the fellowship of free grace (Rom. 6:18–23). The battle is not easy because a Christian, though righteous, is still sinful. The corrupted “old Adam” – flesh and blood – have not repented nor will they inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). The Christian continuously experiences within himself or herself that the flesh battles against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).
In the Christian’s life there are often situations in which one does not immediately know what the proper solution is
(1 Thess. 5:21,22). Especially in complex issues it is necessary to consider the issue from many angles and discuss it with other believers in order to find a solution that agrees with the will of God. This is because as a partaker of Christ’s love, the Christian desires to seek that which is true and correct (Rom. 12:1,2; Heb. 10:24,25).
The Christian’s teacher is by the Holy Spirit. A child of God puts to death (mortifies) the misdeeds of flesh and sin through the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). God’s grace guides the person to live and to endeavor in faith according to God’s will – and also grants the person strength to do so: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Tit. 2:11,12). Grace is a better teacher than the law that demands but does not give strength to live up to the demands. According to Luther, God’s grace and gift protect the person so that he or she does not want to give in to sin (Refutation of Latomus).
The opposite of free life is bondage or slavery. It can be slavery of sin, the “freedom of the flesh” as in worldly lifestyles or the bondage of the law in self-righteousness. If grace is subject to conditions and demands, it becomes righteousness of the law.
In our time, God’s grace is often understood to mean tolerance. This interpretation emphasizes God’s love toward all people. The teachings of God’s Word may be regarded as belonging to the Biblical times; in modern times they are not deemed very significant.
Nevertheless, grace is always God’s grace, not human’s. God’s love shows sin as sin and grace as grace. God’s will is expressed in His Word, which is unchanging. Grace and truth have come by Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever (John 1:17, Heb. 13:8).
- Christian Doctrine Briefly Presented. Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 1948.
- Luther Martin
Bondage of the Will. Original work ”De servo arbitrio” 1525.
Book of Concord.
Refutation of Latomus. Original work “Rationis Latomianae confutatio” 1521.