01 March, 2017

FAQ – What is grace?

Q. 1. “What is grace?”

Grace signifies three things in Scripture. If we understand what grace is, we will see that God’s grace could not possibly be bestowed on the reprobate, that is, it could not be common. Let us turn to what the Scriptures teach.

First, God’s grace is an attribute of God, one of His glorious perfections. I Peter 5:10 calls Him “the God of all grace.” Similarly, we read that there are treasured up in the Triune God “exceeding riches of his grace” (Eph. 2:7). About Jesus, we read that, as the only begotten of the Father, He is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This means that the source of all grace is God Himself and that all grace mediated to the creature comes through Christ alone. Is “common grace,” then, also mediated through Christ? How could that be, since the reprobate are not “in Christ”? Grace has the root idea of beauty, charm or pleasantness. When we speak of God’s grace, therefore, we mean that He is—utterly independent of the creature, to whom He may or may not show grace according to His good pleasure—the sum of all perfections, the God of beauty, charm and pleasantness. The believer delights in this, desiring to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [his] life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). God’s beauty is His grace.

Second, grace is favour. Although it comes to us as undeserved favour, grace itself is simply favour. We know this because God favoured Jesus Christ, about whom we cannot say that He received God’s undeserved favour. “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Moreover, we must not confuse the word “favour” with the word “favourite,” as if God could only favour some, because having “favourites” supposedly means that He must exclude others from His favour. A teacher might favour everyone in the class, without showing favouritism or having favourites. The teacher’s favour on some or all of the students is his attitude toward them. God’s favour is free. Therefore, He may favour all, many, some, few or even none, according to His good pleasure. If God had favour on none, but cast all sinners into hell, He would still be the gracious God of all grace. However, in that case, He would not have made His grace known. That grace of God has “appeared” (Titus 2:11). God’s grace or favour, then, is the beautiful, pleasant attitude of favour that God has for His people who are creatures and sinners. When the Psalmist prays, “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17), he has God’s grace in mind. Let God’s favour rest upon us! Does God’s favour rest on the reprobate? Certainly not, for the Bible teaches that God’s wrath abides on them (John 3:36).

Third, grace is a power by which God works in His people to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ. This third aspect is not the focus in the “common grace” debate, so we can be more brief. Grace is the power by which we live as Christians. Paul writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (I Cor. 15:10). God’s grace laboured in Paul—it was a power active in him. That same grace works in us, enabling us to live as Christians, to fulfil the calling God has given to us and to endure the trials that He has placed upon us. Elsewhere, Paul writes that God’s grace teaches us and enables us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, that we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world (Titus 2:12). Does common grace do that? Do the reprobate live in a godly manner by the power of God’s (common) grace? Only a fool would suggest it! Without God’s grace we can do nothing. That is why we pray for grace, for “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 116). When God assures Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (II Cor. 12:9), He does not mean, “It is enough for thee that I am the sum of all perfections or it is enough for thee that I am favourable to thee” but “the power of My grace, which works in thee, is sufficient for thee to serve Me, even if I do not remove the thorn from thy flesh.”

God’s grace is particular, that is, not all men are recipients of it. Common grace, which [some say] is “extended to everyone,” does not exist.

In addition, God’s grace is one … [and it is] rooted in election and the cross, the source of grace according to sacred Scripture.

The first time the word “grace” is used in Scripture is Genesis 6:8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” While God’s wrath was directed against the whole of mankind and while He determined to destroy them, God favoured Noah and his family. There is in Genesis 6 no hint of common grace. The “but” of verse 8 contrasts sharply God’s attitude toward Noah with His attitude toward the wicked antediluvians. When God caused His sun to rise upon the antediluvian world and when those wicked people “were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matt. 24:38), they did so without God’s favour upon them. God’s elect eat, drink and enjoy His sunshine and rain with His blessing upon them; but the reprobate wicked eat, drink and use God’s creation under His wrath and with His curse upon them. Proverbs 3:33 teaches, “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.” God does not curse those upon whom He is gracious; and God does not bless those whom He curses. Blessing and cursing are mutually exclusive: “For such as be blessed of him shall inherit the earth; and they that be cursed of him shall be cut off” (Ps. 37:22). On the Last Day, Christ will declare that His elect sheep are blessed (both in time and into eternity), while the reprobate goats are cursed (both in time and into eternity) (Matt. 25:34, 41, 46).

Something that all advocates of common grace miss is that God’s grace is not in things but in His disposition behind the things that He gives (Ecc. 9:1-2). God’s providence is universal, not particular. God upholds and governs even the wicked by His hand. God supplies even the wicked with the good gifts of this creation. Often, the reprobate wicked enjoy more of God’s creation and for a longer time than do His often beleaguered children. But those good things are not in themselves grace. God can give rain, sunshine, food and clothing graciously or in His wrath (Num. 11:33). If God has a benevolent disposition of good will toward a creature, in which He desires to bless that creature, we call that good will “grace.” But God might also have a disposition of wrath against a creature, in which He desires to curse that creature. Never can we call such a disposition “grace.”

(Rev. Martyn McGeown, “An Answer to Phil Johnson’s ‘Primer on Hyper-Calvinism’”)

For more on Scriptures’ definition of ‘grace,’ see the following:

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