The Return to the Gospel of Grace

October 26, 2008 / No. 3434

Dear Radio Friends,

The Christian church celebrates on October 31 the glorious Reformation of the church, the return to the gospel of grace.

Perhaps some would question whether or not the Christian church ought to be celebrating the Reformation. They would ask us: How do you justify such a celebration? For, are you not referring to the fact that there was a split, a division, out of the Roman Catholic Church in the beginning of the Protestant church? Is that not something rather to be lamented than celebrated? Perhaps someone who is a bit skeptical would say today, “Here you are. You have a program celebrating division. We are living in a world of chaos, war, divisions, economic collapse, an election year, vital issues, and here you are talking about something that happened six hundred years ago. And then you say this counts! Wasn’t it a great tragedy? Wasn’t it a rending of the church? Should we not find ways to mend what has been done, to unite the church as a force in this world? Don’t we need that now especially since it seems the world is coming to its knees economically?”

The answer that I give is the following:

First, when the youth of the church, or when the church herself, cuts herself off from her history in the past and the errors from which God has freed her, those errors will return. The book of Judges, for one (but there are other portions of Scripture), teaches that when a generation arises that knows not the mighty works of God, then that generation falls away, falls into sins that displease God and bring His just anger. There is a hymn that we sing: “Faith of our fathers, living still…we will be true to thee till death.” Only when you stand faithful to the gospel of grace, only then, do you stand as the church of Jesus Christ.

Second, the gospel of grace is the gospel of God. There is no other gospel. There is no other good word in this world. The Reformation of which I spoke, through Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other great Reformers, that great Reformation in the sixteenth century restored the gospel to the church, restored the only good word in all the world to the church. The Reformation was not a make-over. But God put the soul back into the church. God put the heart back into Christianity. The heart of Christianity is the gospel of grace. Gospel, which means in the Bible “good news,” and gospel of grace are synonymous. The gospel is the good news to undone, naked sinners because it is a message of grace and of grace alone. There is no other good word; there is no other gospel.

Listen to the holy invective of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9 when he says that if anyone else preaches any other gospel than the gospel that he had delivered, let him be accursed. The gospel that God has given is the glorious gospel of grace, grace that is the unmerited, undeserved favor of God revealed in the work of Jesus Christ unto those whom God has given to Jesus Christ, whereby He has made them right with God.

Third, this gospel of grace is the treasure given to the church. This gospel is the only hope for man. Martin Luther, in one of his ninety-five theses, stated the following: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

For this reason we burn with zeal. For this reason the gospel is worth dying for. In a moving passage, the apostle Paul tells the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20 that he is aware that there have been plots made against his life. But he says, “None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy and the ministry that I have received of the Lord Jesus to testify of the gospel of the grace of God.”

I could not conceive of dying for a gospel that told me that I could work my way to God’s favor; or that another human individual could work my way to God’s favor; or that salvation is based upon human worth and merit. For such a gospel, I would not die. But for a gospel that tells me that the way of salvation for unworthy and filthy sinners is the way of the grace of God, the powerful, sure, irresistible, saving, particular grace of God—for that gospel I would willingly die.

The gospel is the gospel of grace. Grace in the Bible is that virtue of God whereby He possesses favor or love or kindness toward the undeserving or toward ill-deserving. The gospel of grace is a gospel about God. It tells who He is. We read in I Peter 5:10, “The God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus.” There is in God an ocean of favor toward those who deserve only destruction from His hand, and this favor is not merely a good intention, not merely a warm feeling, but it is a mighty power to reach down and actually to deliver them, certainly deliver them, from destruction.Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved.” By the power of grace you are saved.

It is of grace that God chooses whom He will save out of the fallen world. We read in Romans 11:5 that there remains unto this day an election of grace. And then, in Romans 9, the apostle declares that God will be gracious to whom He will be gracious. In grace He chose eternally. And in grace He gave His Son to take their place upon a cross. The apostle Paul says in I Timothy 1:14 that the grace of God was exceedingly abundant to him. For by grace God called us to Christ. We, who are dead sinners, without merit, justly deserving eternal condemnation—by grace we have been called to Christ Jesus. This is the grace of God that chooses and saves, that also preserves and then will glorify, so that salvation is entirely, completely, all of grace.

The gospel of grace declares about you that you are a naked sinner, that of yourself you are hell-deserving, you are corrupt in nature, you have no merit, nor can you do anything to attract God’s eye. You have no power of yourself to accept or believe in God. What is the message of good news to sinners who know themselves, by the grace of God, to be sinners? The good news is grace. What is the only good news and the only good word in all the world? Grace, God’s grace. Why does anyone go to heaven? Grace. In what alone can we stand? Grace. What will be your song to all eternity? Grace. O God, it was Thy grace that did my strength supply!

The Reformation of the sixteenth century returned this gospel of grace to the church. The Reformation did that, first of all, by proclaiming that grace is the ground or reason for a sinner’s salvation. The question may be reduced to its simplest form: On what ground, for what reason, do you hope to stand in the favor of God when you must meet Him in the day of your death? There are only two possible answers to that question. You must either look in yourself, something of man, or something given to you. It must either be on the basis of some work (your own or another human being) or on the basis of grace. One of the two.

Throughout the Middle Ages the church developed an ingenious and elaborate system of answering that question: work and merit. We shall stand before God on the ground of human work and merit. That ought not be so startling to us, for that answer is nothing else than what we find in our own hearts. The default religion of mankind is works. Sin in us is pride. And sin says, “I (Is. 14) will ascend unto God.”

So, in the Middle Ages, there was the development of sacraments that, by their very operation, would confer automatically grace. And there was Mariolatry, the trust in Mary as a mediatrix, as someone who had power to deliver from sin’s torment. There was the false idea (heresy) of purgatory, the merit of saints, and the absolution of a priest. And finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back for Martin Luther, the whole idea of indulgences—that one can purchase the release of a departed soul out of the suffering of purgatory by money. And always, always, the church held before the people the proverbial carrot on the string—because the gospel of works can never really get there. The gospel of works is not a gospel. It is not good news. It always leaves the nagging question to one who takes it seriously: “Did I do enough? And did I do it well enough?”

The Reformation proclaimed the gospel of grace—that salvation is not of works. It is of grace. It is not of works, says the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2, lest any man should boast. God, out of a favor found within Himself toward miserable wretches of sin, gave His Son to proclaim a true work—the cross of Jesus Christ, the one perfect work. The payment for sin, the ground on which all of our hope rests to all eternity is that ground alone to be found in Jesus Christ—His perfect obedience.

We are justified by grace. To be justified means to be cleared in the court of heaven. It is to be pronounced not guilty for your sin. It is to be pronounced righteous because of the work of another. Justification by grace means that upon Calvary there was a transaction, there was the laying of my sin upon Christ as His, and then the reckoning of His obedience and righteousness as mine. So that now there is no condemnation for me. We read in Romans 3:24, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

What is the basis of salvation? Christ’s blood and righteousness imputed to me, reckoned to me as my own. And all of this by grace.

Secondly, the Reformation restored the gospel of grace to the church by proclaiming that grace is the means by which the sinner receives his salvation.

Follow carefully. The heresy of free will lived in the soul of Rome. Rome taught not only salvation by works, but salvation by free will. Salvation by works and free will are the same thing. The false doctrine of free will teaches that the complete salvation of Christ becomes the sinner’s only in the way of the sinner’s exercising his own natural will. There was a scholar at the time of the Reformation, at the time of Martin Luther, named Erasmus. He was a prominent scholar. He encouraged Martin Luther when Luther spoke boldly against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. But Erasmus did not join the Reformation of Martin Luther.

Erasmus has been accused of cowardice for not joining Martin Luther. Erasmus agreed that there were many abuses that needed changing, but he did not commit himself to Luther’s cause. Whether or not he acted in cowardice will be up to God to judge. But his act was not so much one of cowardice as it was of a lack of conviction. For although Erasmus applauded Luther’s cannon-blast against the abuses that were going on in the church, he nevertheless believed in free will. His unmortified pride was not that he trusted in rituals, in the works of Mary, in the works of saints for his salvation. But his unmortifiedpride was that he believed that the sinner held God at bay, and that God could not enter in to perform a work of gracious salvation until the sinner decided, gave some indication to God, that he was willing to receive this gift of salvation. In 1525 Erasmus attacked Luther for teaching that the will (this is what Luther taught) of the sinner is enslaved to sin and cannot, is unable to, choose the good. And Luther responded with his great book The Bondage of the Will.

The Reformation proclaimed that the only way the salvation of Jesus Christ is to be given unto the sinner is by grace and grace alone. This was the vital spot.

The question now is: “How am I brought to this complete salvation in Christ?” The first question was, “On what basis or reason can I expect salvation?” The answer is: Christ’s work on Calvary alone by grace. But now the question is: “How can I be brought to that salvation? How does it become mine?” And the Reformation proclaimed: Grace, grace alone, grace that enters into the heart of a dead sinner and creates within him a new will. All the glory, absolutely, belongs to God.

One can talk about God’s sovereignty, according to which He is supposed to have determined not to force man, but rather to lead man to make the decision for himself. Well, if that is the case, then salvation is not by grace. Then when you go to heaven, and one asks, “How is it that you come here?” you must say, “I—oh, Christ, yes, Christ—and myself.”

But the Reformation gave a different answer. The Reformation declared the gospel. Ephesians 2:1, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” John 6:44, “No man can come to me, except the Father…draw him.” John 1, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Your will is dead in Adam. It is corrupt. Of yourself you will not choose Jesus, you will not come to Him. The gospel, the good news, is grace—powerful, saving, living, conquering, irresistible grace! It opens the closed, softens the hardened, heart, and illumines the darkness. Salvation is by grace. This is the good news. It is the good news that levels men and glorifies God. All boasting is excluded. To God and to God alone is the glory.

The Reformers had learned this out of a deep knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, a deep knowledge of themselves, and a deep knowledge of God. The application of salvation is of grace.

But the third way in which the Reformation proclaimed the gospel of grace is that not only is grace the ground of our acceptance, not only is grace the power whereby that salvation is brought to our hearts, but grace is the sinner’s confidence in God. A message of works (that salvation is by works or by the free will of the sinner) is decisive in the issue of how one gains assurance.

In Luther’s day, there simply was no assurance. There was terror, stark naked terror before God. There was the idea that God must be appeased. There were pictures of judgment, rings of hell. Christianity had become nothing different from what we might see in the history of heathen on a deserted island who worship a fire-belching god that requires sacrifice and who is angry and terrifies people out of their wits. Luther himself, until he learned the gospel of grace, was afraid.

The Reformation proclaimed grace. And grace is the freedom from fear. Grace is liberty to captives. It is the opening of the prison to those who are bound. It is the proclamation of the acceptable year of the Lord. For the Reformers preached the unchanging grace of God. They told sinners who knew their sin and by grace trusted Christ that God, the God of grace, was a God who could not lie, that His Word when it came out of His mouth would not go back, that God would not forsake His own. And thus, in the gospel of grace, the church looked up in joy and confessed, “The Son of God loves me and gave Himself for me.”

Luther, when he came to understand that the gospel was a gospel of grace, was brought to assurance and later wrote that it was the happiest day of his life.

I will be acquitted at the judgment seat of God. I will enter into eternal glory. I have been given salvation. I will be kept and preserved even unto the end. It is mine now. It is mine forever. For I am saved by grace.

That means I am saved.

Does this gospel live in you—this mighty gospel of the saving grace of God? Does it burn in your soul as your only hope, the only truth in this world today? Then two things will be true of you. One will be a profound humility. You will say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” You will understand that you deserve nothing, that you could earn nothing. You will be humble before God and before man.

And, secondly, you will have zeal. For this gospel of grace does not reduce zeal. This gospel of grace is the only motive for Christian zeal. To the measure that you know that salvation is of grace, to that measure you shall have zeal, zeal for God, zeal for a holy life, zeal for the proclamation of His Word, zeal for missions.

You have no zeal? Then you do not understand the gospel of grace—the gospel, the glorious gospel, that will stand throughout all time and eternity. The gospel for which we will die is the gospel of grace.

Let us pray.

Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word and pray that it may be a great encouragement and blessing to us and that we may stand faithful to the truth delivered again to the saints in the great work of the Reformation. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.