DIGGING DEEPER: Thoughts on the Operation and Nature of Divine Grace

Taken and adapted from, The Protestant Pulpit,
Written by Timothy Williams

amazing-graceThe active favor of God, by which a sinful man is made a participant in the redemption of Christ, is called grace.

By its very nature as free favor and gratuitous blessing of God, grace excludes all merit of man in salvation. The natural will and powers of man are in no sense or degree a cause of salvation. The Greek word for grace is one of that class of words which, as Trench says, “taken up into Christian use are glorified and transformed.” Its general meaning is favor. Specifically it is used of God’s favor with respect to sin. Herman Bavinck said, “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.” “[Grace is] free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving” (B. B. Warfield). Contrasting it with mercy, Bengel tersely and instructively says: “Grace removes guilt, mercy misery.” Writing at the PreceptAustin.Org blog, an unknown author wrote,

Distinguish grace from mercy: Grace-God’s solution to man’s sin. Mercy-God’s solution to man’s misery. Grace-Covers the sin. Mercy-Removes the pain. Grace-Gives us what we do not deserve. Mercy-Does not give us what we do deserve Grace-Unearned favor which saves us. Mercy-Undeserved favor which forgives us. Grace-Deals with the cause of sin. Mercy-Deals with the symptoms of sin. Grace-Offers pardon for the crime. Mercy-Offers relief from the punishment. Grace-Cures or heals the “disease.” Mercy-Eliminates the pain of the “disease.” Grace-Regarding salvation it says, “Heaven.” Mercy-Regarding salvation it says, “No Hell.” Grace-Says, “I pardon you.” Mercy-Says, “I pity you”

The grace of God is an active principle. “It is used of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting His holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.” Cf. Thayer’s Lexicon of the N. T.

In the New Testament the word belongs especially to the Pauline vocabulary. From meaning God’s disposition of favor the word passes over to the idea of His effective working in Christ, and then to the blessings received by the individual from this working. Therefore saving grace is the active favor of God in Christ, by which the blessings of salvation are appropriated to sinful man.

In Augustine the word grace took on the idea of infused or communicated power, which is a deflection of its biblical meaning. Among the scholastics of the Middle Ages this conception of communicated power was construed as a quality infused into the soul, a notion which opened the door for the doctrine of human merit in salvation. Grace is not something infused, a transforming quality put into the nature of man. Grace does not act upon man as a substance receives impressions. It acts upon him as a personality. It is an active principle, the manifestation of divine energy exerted by the Holy Spirit; but its action is not physical, but spiritual and moral. Its primary effect is not moral transformation, but forgiveness of sins, that is, a new relation to God, out of which arises a new moral life.

To define the relation of divine grace to the human will has always been a difficult problem in the Church.  From having to face dualism on the one side and  moralism on the other, the church has had to stress free will and yet underscore its bondage and necessity of grace. Yet, regardless, the church is hinged to this central theme of God’s Word. Her health is determined by her attachment and adherence to it. Speaking on this, J. Gresham Machen said,

The very center and core of the whole Bible is the doctrine of the grace of God — the grace of God which depends not one whit upon anything that is in man, but is absolutely undeserved, resistless and sovereign. The theologians of the Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they have grasped that one great central doctrine, that doctrine that gives consistency to all the rest; and Christian experience also depends for its depth and for its power upon the way in which that blessed doctrine is cherished in the depths of the heart. The center of the Bible, and the center of Christianity, is found in the grace of God; and the necessary corollary of the grace of God is salvation through faith alone.

The early Church, especially the Greek writers, emphasized the freedom of the will notwithstanding the effects of sin. Hence they conceived conversion as a cooperation of grace and the human will. In the great controversy between Augustine and Pelagius the extremes came into a decisive conflict. Pelagius, a stern moralist, magnified human freedom to the utmost. For him grace was hardly more than instruction. Augustine, with an overwhelming sense of the bondage of the will in sin and with a realistic conception of grace, pressed the doctrine of the monergism of the divine will to the extreme of determinism and the irresistibility of grace. A middle view, which was really the more ancient view, was advocated by John Cassian, the cooperation of grace and the human will in salvation. This is called Semi-Pelagianism. Augustine’s doctrine, somewhat tempered, became the official teaching of the Church; but Semi-Pelagianism crept in more and more, especially in the centuries before the Reformation.

The Reformers both in Germany and Switzerland returned to Augustinianism, but in the Lutheran Church the inference of irresistible grace was rejected. By a change of view on the part of Melanchthon, who taught a faculty of applying or adapting oneself to grace, a slight element of cooperation of man with grace was introduced into the doctrine of conversion, which the bitter synergistic controversies in the Lutheran Church raged over and which the Formula of Concord finally rejected.

The solution of the problem human will to God’s grace must be found within certain fixed limits. On the one hand, both the corruption of man’s nature by sin, with the consequent bondage of the will, and salvation by grace alone exclude any cooperation of man’s will in conversion.

On the other hand, grace is not compulsion. A. A. Hodge is very right when he says, “It is to be lamented that the term irresistible grace has ever been used, since it suggests the idea of a mechanical and coercive influence upon an unwilling subject, while, in truth, it is the transcendent act of the infinite Creator, making the creature spontaneously willing.” It acts upon man as an intelligent moral personality. The connecting link must be found in the creative operation of grace. The Holy Spirit creates faith in the heart. This implies that He restores in some degree the freedom of the will in the act of conversion. Even as Jonathan Edwards noted, “In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, we act all. For that is what produces, viz. our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects, wholly passive and wholly active.” The will contributes nothing to the salvation of man. It must first be renewed before the first motions to regenerate life can arise. And this is what makes man not wishing to resist God. “The drawing is not like that of the executioner, who draws the thief up the ladder to the gallows; but is a gracious allurement, such as that of the man whom everybody loves, and to whom everybody willing goes” (Luther), Spurgeon concurs:

A man is not saved against his will, but he is made willing by the operation of the Holy Ghost. A mighty grace which he does not wish to resist enters into the man, disarms him, makes a new creature of him, and he is saved.

Under the operation of divine grace man passes through successive spiritual experiences. Accordingly theologians make a formal distinction between grace prevenient to conversion, operating in conversion, cooperating after conversion, and persevering to the end. As Dale Ralph Davis put it, “It is not only by grace alone that we become God’s people but by grace alone we remain His people.”