Grace for All Seasons

Eric Landry
Friday, June 29th 2007
Jul/Aug 2007

Frank was pathetic, with all the uncomfortable connotations of that overused word. He was twice our age, with ten times our worldly experience, legally blind, formerly a member of an L.A. street gang, without any formal education, and crying as if no one else was in the room. The teacher had just explained how to gain victory over sin, and this man-who had never known personal victory in any arena of life-couldn't stomach it anymore: "It's not working! What am I supposed to do?" We all sat there in stunned silence, scandalized by his question, even more so than by his honesty. No one had the nerve to say out loud what we were all thinking: "You've obviously not tried hard enough" or "Well, Frank, considering your background, what do you expect?" It's easy for twenty-something suburban religious white kids to sit in judgment of a man who looks like a sinner.

Fifteen years later, after having come face to face with the reality of remaining sin in my life, and knowing that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get Christianity to work for me, I wish I knew where Frank was so that I could share with him the message that saved me from religious suicide: the same grace that justifies you in God's sight will sanctify you in this life so that you can stand glorified before his throne on the last day. God's grace does not just pay the entrance fee into the Kingdom of God; it is the sustaining and transforming power that considers us citizens, empowers us in our duties for the king, and transforms us into joint heirs with the Crown Prince.

How does grace work? U2's Bono sings that "grace is the name of a girl and a thought that changed the world … Grace finds goodness in everything." Thankfully, Bono's music is better than his theologizing; grace does not find goodness in everything. Grace is not a "searching" function of God, but a "telling" function of God: it is how God relates to those who are not good in and of themselves, nor have any power to work up goodness from their own meager resources. To these-the "down-and-outers" according to the Law-grace becomes God's voice of favor and goodwill (Exod. 33:12, Luke 1:30). And what it proclaims it creates in the lives of those who hear God's voice (1 Cor. 15:10).

This is the beauty of justifying grace. God speaks into the void of human sin, the emptiness and chaos of human rebellion, and actively communicates his blessing through the working of the Holy Spirit in the sinner's life (Rom. 5:1-5). (1) The result is that the sinner is no longer known by God as "sinner." He is known by God as "son" (Rev. 21:7), "joint heir with Christ" (Rom. 8:17), and "friend" (John 15:15). The sinner stands united with Christ and clothed with Christ's righteousness-sharing in his incarnation of God's gracious character (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 4:24). As a recipient of God's grace, the believing sinner has the same relationship to the Father as Jesus has-as if he had accomplished all that Jesus had to accomplish under the Law; and the Father loves this sinner as he loves his only Son (John 16:27).

Many Christians give due credence to the activity of grace in our justification but are apt to turn from grace when the first lap of their Christian life is completed. They view the Christian life as a sort of transaction: God has provided the down payment, now I must make up the balance of the layaway plan. And that's a problem. Part of the problem, certainly, is our own natural inclination to "do" for others. The Law is hardwired into our hearts. Since we are born under the covenant of works, we naturally relate to God out of servile fear. And that history-as long as human history itself-of relating to God as unfaithful servants is difficult to overcome when the reality of grace comes home. But perhaps part of the problem has been how Christians talk of grace subsequent to justification: the wonder of free grace is traded in for the more practical news of "helpful" grace. Having been justified, many Protestant Christians think and act contrary to Scripture by believing that the rest of one's pilgrim life is lived by cooperating with God's grace so that they can experience sanctification.

Speaking of sanctifying grace with the same sort of monergistic language that we use when speaking of justification is considered entirely too passive in some especially eager branches of the Church Militant. After all, didn't Paul say that we were to work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12)? And didn't Peter remind us that we were in a war against our flesh (1 Pet. 2:11)? Nor can we ever forget Paul's "spiritual workout," which consisted of his disciplining his own body so he wouldn't be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). Sanctification, some would argue, is a work in which we participate. But does the Bible support such thinking?

Although very few American (even Reformational) Christians think this way, sanctification, just like justification, is also by grace alone. In our eagerness to redress this misunderstanding of the relationship of grace to sanctification, however, we must be careful not to so conflate justification and sanctification that they come to mean the same thing (to which some forms of antinomianism lead) or that their relationship is reversed so that justification becomes dependent on sanctification (a common complaint against the Federal Visionists). Justification and sanctification are different, but the way God relates to the sinner in both respects is the same: it is all by grace (1 Cor. 1:3, 1 Thess. 5:23).

The framers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism made a careful distinction between sanctification as a "work" and justification as an "act" of God. All the Reformed confessions and catechisms go to great lengths to emphasize that God alone must do the work of sanctification:

Belgic Confession (1561), Article 24: Justifying faith, "wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin."

Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Question and Answer 43: "What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross? That by virtue thereof our old man is crucified, dead, and buried with Him; that so the corrupt inclinations of the flesh may no more reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving."

Canons of Dordt (1619), Head I, Article 13: "The sense and certainty of this election afford unto the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great a love towards them."

Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), Chapter 13, Of Sanctification: "They who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them…."

Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), Question and Answer 35: "What is sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness."

Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), Question and Answer 75: "What is sanctification? Sanctification is a work of God's grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of His Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their who man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life and all other saving graces put into their hearts and those grace so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin and rise unto newness of life."

In every case, sanctification is God's work (2 Thess. 2:13). The effects of sanctification are felt in real time and in real ways as we live out of the work that God has done. It is only after God does his sanctifying work that we are enabled to do good works, to die to self, and return to God worship and service born of gratitude and love.

Remember, grace is a telling function of God: it tells the sinner that he is righteous by God's act of justification whereby he imputes the righteousness of Christ to us (Rom. 5:17-19); it tells the sinner that he is righteous by God's work of sanctification whereby he infuses grace in us (Rom. 6:5-14); and it tells the sinner that he is confirmed in righteousness by God's work of glorification whereby their souls are made perfect in holiness (Heb. 12:23) and await the day when their bodies will be raised bearing the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:49).

It is to that third aspect of working grace that we now turn. In all the talk about justification and sanctification, it is sometimes easy to miss the reality of glorifying grace. Grace is the active agent in our glorification as well. Contrary to some contemporary Wesleyan proposals that are reintroducing a form of purgatory into Protestantism, glorification does not hinge on our ability to purify ourselves. That work belongs to God alone: the dead will be raised by the same power that raised Jesus from the grave and the perishable will put on imperishable; the mortal will put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53). Without a robust view of God's grace in every season of our lives, however, it is easy to see why we might think that a little more time spent "doing" will finish what God has begun. But such logic cannot withstand real life, real failure, and the real need for God to do a work that we cannot even begin to accomplish. Heaven is not a reward for our efforts; it is the inheritance graciously given to all who are perfect in Christ.

Why is this important? The Christian who short-circuits God's work of grace by applying it to only one or two aspects of his salvation will invariably find himself where Frank was: at the end of a very short rope, no longer able to make sense of the failure and frustration of his "new life" in Christ. Recognizing that God glorifies us by grace offers a longer view, or eternal perspective, of temporal failures and frustrations. But even those who do not have the same sort of tender conscience as Frank did can find comfort in the primacy of grace.

First, we can find some stability in our understanding of God and our relationship to God if we keep grace in view. God does not relate to us in different ways depending on the season of our life. He is not only gracious to us in justification, then turning and acting as a sort of quality control specialist when it comes to our sanctification and glorification. Because God is always gracious toward us in Christ, the Christian is freed to serve God out of the righteousness that has been given to him from Christ, never fearing that he must somehow work up a righteousness to commend himself in God's sight.

Many Christians judge themselves and their walk with Christ based on their own effort at spiritual "activism." Such activism, of course, is a degeneration of the biblical warfare to which all Christians are called. But the degeneration is based on the fact that the Christian has lost sight of the once for all victory of Christ. (2) Losing sight of this victory necessarily propels the conscientious Christian into a frantic effort at moral self-improvement which invariably fails, driving the Christian to despair-not just despair of making any progress in his Christian walk but despair even of his right standing before God. So, the second comfort that the primacy of grace can give such Christians is that though sanctification is ever incomplete in this life, God's work of sanctification is just as certain as his work of justification and glorification: it is all by grace alone and it flows from Christ's victory over sin and death.

The third comfort that is derived from the primacy of grace usually comes in the winter season of every Christian's pilgrim life, when at the end of life's journey their mood is reflective. In what will we glory at the end of our lives? Will it be in our obedience, in our success, in our abilities? Or will we glory in the Redeemer whose work will soon be completed in the transformation of our body and soul into immortality and perfection? The comfort that we can give our elder brothers and sisters in the Lord is that God has been faithful to keep and sustain us by grace through our lives, and in the final act of grace, God will transform us so that what he has said was true of us in Christ will be true of us in our persons, as well.

The last thing I heard of Frank was that he found his way to prison, and though you and I might find that a sad conclusion to a sad story, it probably made sense to him: losers finish last. The wonder of the gospel, however, is that losers finish first, not because they are empowered to cross the finish line on bionic legs, but because they are carried across. Every step in the race is attributed to someone else. The work which God began by grace is not passed on to us like some baton in a relay race, with the crowd watching in hushed silence to see if we'll drop the handoff. The finish is just as certain as the starting: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

Grace doesn't make sense; it is not reasonable; it begs all sorts of questions about fairness and causality and consequences. But it was a reasonable question ("has God said") and a path that made sense ("good for food, a delight to the eye, desired to make one wise") that brought about the need for grace in the first place. Would that we all were confounded by grace so that our hope might be in God alone in every season of our pilgrim life.

1 [ Back ] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 427.
2 [ Back ] G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), p. 63.
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Eric Landry
Eric Landry is the chief content officer of Sola Media and former executive editor of Modern Reformation. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.
Friday, June 29th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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