Chapter 14 – The Nature of Grace in Scripture

Introduction: Interpreting Key Doctrines and Pertinent Texts

In these final chapters 14-16 I will attempt to sufficiently expound from the Scriptures three key doctrines pertinent to the Calvinist / non-Calvinist controversy.  They are grace, faith, and election.  As many non-Calvinist scholars have convincingly demonstrated, these key doctrines have been misinterpreted by Calvinists. (See my Annotated Bibliography)  Therefore, this controversy is not perpetuated due to a lack of interpretive clarity.  There are non-Calvinist interpretations that make better sense of the controversial texts and these doctrines and therefore more closely reflect the truth the author wanted to convey.  Rather, the controversy continues due to the Calvinist’s rejection of the interpretive principles of non-contradiction, coherence, and consistency, which I argued ultimately amounts to a careless indifference regarding the principle of context.  It is this faulty Calvinist hermeneutic that perpetuates this controversy.  I will seek to demonstrate that the non-Calvinist interpretations of these key doctrines are supported by the pertinent biblical texts when read coherently within their historical, social, and literary contexts. In that the non-Calvinist interpretations exhibit non-contradiction, coherence and consistency while the Calvinist interpretations do not, the non-Calvinist interpretations prove their validity.

We have already dealt thoroughly with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.  I have shown that the Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism is incoherent, inconsistent and in contradiction with the biblical witness to a contingent reality and what it teaches about human freedom and responsibility.

We have also established that divine foreknowledge is not causal, that is, simply because God knows what is to occur does not make what happens happen necessarily.  What God knows is the free will actions of his creatures.  God’s foreknowledge tracks the free choices of persons.  If a person were to have made a different choice than they did, that is what God would have foreknown.  What we freely choose to do; God foreknows.  God knows what people will do, yet they freely will to do it, and they could have done otherwise.  Therefore, this also eliminates Calvinistic determinism with respect to the free offer of salvation and who can be saved.

The doctrine of grace is also a key doctrine in this controversy.  Let’s examine the meaning of “grace” in Scripture in reference to salvation.

Let’s begin by pointing out that there are different nuances to the meaning and activity of divine grace in Scripture.  “Grace” can refer to the favorable activity of God on behalf of his people in a particular historical situation (Ezra 9:8,9), the wise or favorable speech of a king (Ps. 45:2), and it can be contrasted to life under the “law” (Jn. 1:17).  It can refer to the strength or power provided a person to accomplish a task or mission or endure a struggle (Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:3-8; Acts 4:33; 6:8; Rom. 1:5; 2 Cor. 12:9).  It can refer to the effects of the gospel in the community of believers (Acts 11:23; 13:43), the new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1,14), winsome speech (Col. 4:6), etc.  In BDAG’s Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament one definition of “grace” is the “practical application of goodwill, (a sign of) favor, gracious deed/gift, benefaction.”  As for these characteristics as applying to God and Christ, the definition goes on to note that “the context will show whether the emphasis is upon the possession of divine favor as a source of blessing for the believer, or upon a store of favor that is dispensed, or a favored status (i.e., standing in God’s favor) that is brought about, or a gracious deed wrought by God in Christ, or a gracious work that grows fr. more to more (so in contrast to the old covenant…)”[1]  What we learn is that the definition of “grace” is nuanced and dependent upon its context.  Yet, we can say that the fundamental meaning of the biblical term in the active sense has to do with the favor or beneficent disposition of God towards man.  The BDAG goes on to state, “The proclamation of salvation is the message of divine beneficence τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς χάριτος τοῦ θεοῦ [“the gospel of the grace of God”] Acts 20:24 or ὁ λόγος τῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ (= τοῦ κυρίου) [“the word of his (“of the Lord’s”) grace”]” 14:3; 20:32. Even the gospel message can be called ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ [“the grace of God”] 13:43; cp. 18:27.” [2]

For our purposes here, I want to take up on these meanings and associations of grace as they relate to salvation and the gospel.  The biblical writers make these connections of grace to salvation and the gospel as indicated above.  Other examples can be given. The apostle Peter states, “…we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus…” (Acts 15:11, CSB) Paul talks about the ministry he received from the Lord Jesus, that is, “to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24, CSB) Note how Paul defines the gospel in terms of “God’s grace.”  Paul also speaks about being “…justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom.3:24, 25, ESV)  And he writes, “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all…” (Rom 4:16, CSB)  Also, “For if by the one man’s trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift which comes through the grace of the one man Jesus Christ overflowed to the many.” (Rom 5:15, CSB)  To the churches in Galatia he writes, “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Gal.1:6,7, CSB)  Later Paul can speak of nullifying or setting aside the grace of God.  “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (Gal. 2:21, CSB)

Whether it is biblically true that God’s grace, with respect to salvation, is given only to those individuals whom God has predestined to eternal life, making this grace limited and irresistible to them as the Calvinist position claims, or, whether it is biblically true that God’s grace, with respect to salvation, is a disposition and intention God maintains towards all sinners and is an essential element in the gospel message as “good news” to them, and yet may be resisted by the sinner, as the non-Calvinist position claims, is the issue before us.

The Calvinist Understanding of “Grace”

It has been said that Calvinists and non-Calvinists speak the same language but use different dictionaries.  They use the same biblical and theological words, but with very different meanings.  This creates a large amount of confusion for those trying to discern the biblical truth in this controversy.  Therefore, it is crucial to know what each side means by their use of certain biblical terms.  I contend that due to the Calvinist’s controlling theological paradigm of theistic determinism, certain of their biblical terms and doctrines take on meanings not warranted from the scriptures.  The word “grace” serves as a prime example.

On Calvinism, God’s grace ultimately serves as a synonym for salvific determinism. It is defined as God having chosen from eternity past certain individuals out of the mass of humanity to be saved.  God has the disposition of saving “grace” only towards those specifically chosen or predetermined for salvation. Therefore, “grace” is defined accordingly as God’s decision or choice to save certain persons and not to save, or show “grace,” to any others.  God is gracious to his elect or chosen people and those people only.  Thus, the Calvinist soteriological doctrines, in toto (TULIP), are referred to as “the doctrines of grace,” and the relationship between grace and salvation is referred to as “sovereign grace.”  It is a deterministic, particularistic, and exclusive definition of “grace.”  It, of course, includes the sense of “underserved favor,” but such “grace” has the additional characteristic of the underserved predestination or unconditional election to salvation of a limited number of particularly chosen individuals.  It is “grace” given to some and not others.  It is a “grace” synonymous with the Calvinist’s deterministic definitions of predestination and election as unconditional.

In contrast to this Calvinist misconception of the nature of grace, the Bible presents “grace” in reference to salvation as unmerited favor and mercy shown by God to all of us who are underserving sinners.  God’s grace is both observed and known in him doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, that is, provide for our salvation.  God’s grace is demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross and the offer of salvation to be received by faith.  By his grace he provided salvation for each one of us.  Grace lead to salvation being accomplished in the public crucifixion of Jesus.  That God has done this is the demonstration of God’s grace, and as such, it comes to each sinner. Each sinner may receive the purpose of this grace – their salvation.  Not all will be saved although God demonstrates his grace in having accomplished salvation for all in the death of Christ.  This is no universalism.  It is only those who appropriate the salvation God accomplished for them who are saved.  They do this by putting their faith and trust in Christ.

Again, in contrast, when Calvinists use the word “grace,” they are primarily referring to a decision God made before the foundation of the world to save some individuals out of all of humanity when not one of them deserved to be saved.  This, of course, would be considered an act of grace.  But it a distortion of the biblical definition.  For the Calvinist, grace is fundamentally this sovereign divine choice to save a limited number of undeserving sinners.  It is not something in God that extends to all underserving sinners.  Again, this is supported by the Calvinist’s use of phrases such as “sovereign grace” and “the doctrines of grace.”  By these phrases they mean God’s decision, made from all eternity, as to who would be saved and who would not.  Calvinist James Montgomery Boice put it succinctly when he wrote,

“Without God’s prior election of sinners to salvation, grace is emptied of its meaning.”[3]

Yet it seems Boice presupposes the truth of his own Calvinist doctrine of “unconditional election” here and defines grace accordingly.  He presumes that his interpretation of Scripture on the doctrine of election is correct and therefore grace gets subsumed under and defined by that deterministic doctrine.  But suppose “unconditional election” is unbiblical?  That would allow for a different definition of grace that would accord with the data in Scripture.  Why couldn’t grace be shown to all sinners?

Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams reveal how their deterministic understanding of God’s sovereignty drives their understanding of grace.  They state,

“…Calvinism holds that God is sovereign in his grace – that no human being may presume upon grace or assume it as a given or available by right…Calvinism is predicated upon a divine discrimination regarding the recipients of saving grace.”[4]

So, Calvinism is predicated upon “a divine discrimination regarding the recipients of saving grace.”  I submit to you that their a priori theistic determinism distorts the biblical witness and meaning of divine grace regarding salvation.

Therefore, this Calvinist understanding of grace ought to drive us to Scripture to see if it is biblical.  Perhaps the Calvinist is wrong and God’s “grace” is of the character that it is extended to all sinners without discrimination or exclusion.  Perhaps the biblical testimony to God’s grace is that it is non-discriminating given that salvation is for sinners who are all underserving of God’s favor.  Again, I am not advocating universalism here, that is, that all people will ultimately be saved. God does discriminate as to who will be saved.  It is those who believe who will be saved. Those who remain in unbelief will not be saved.  Rather, we are inquiring into the matter of to whom is God gracious with respect to salvation.  We may ask, as far as God being gracious in providing and offering salvation to sinners, what is there to discriminate between these sinners?  (Rom. 3:21-30) Indeed, isn’t it essential to the definition of grace as divine grace that it be inclusive of all sinners since God shows no partiality? (Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9; Acts 10:28, 34-35, 43; James 2:1, 9)  That is what makes grace, grace.  On what basis would God withhold grace from one sinner and yet grant grace to another sinner when both are undeserving sinners in need of grace and salvation?  We are left with no answer to this question from the Calvinists except that on the basis of their interpretations of Ephesians 1:5 and Romans 9:22 they say God includes or excludes sinners “according to the pleasure of his own will” and “to display his wrath.”  But all relevant things being equal (i.e., we are all underserving sinners), can God merely will to be gracious to one person and will to be ungracious to another?  That is, does the Bible teach and demonstrate that grace is essential to God’s divine nature and therefore what God wills is always in accord and consistent with his divine nature?  Is God’s grace arbitrarily willed to apply to some sinners but not others, or can we assuredly know that God is graciously disposed to us as sinners, and most importantly, to each of us individually?

Calvinists are notorious for their nebulous, disingenuous theological statements.  They will say that “God loves sinners” and “Christ died for sinners.”  Well of course he did!  But by these statements they mean to say that “God loves particular sinners he has chosen to love” and “that Christ died for the particular individuals God has chosen to save,” but they will not say this in their preaching or evangelism. Some Calvinists now admit the Bible teaches that Christ died for all sinners.  But the issue here is not whether God loves sinners,” but whether God loves you?  Did Christ die for you?  Does God’s saving grace extend to you? On Calvinism, “sinners” here must mean “some sinners.”  When the Calvinist talks about what God has done for “sinners” he does not mean all sinners.  Beware of this disingenuous verbal “slight-of-hand.”

Whatever “grace” is in the internal character, relational and emotional life of God, according to the Calvinist, for whatever unknown reason, it has the character of discrimination.  On Calvinism it presents itself to us as a mere decision as to whom God will save, that is, as to whom God will be gracious.  According to Peterson and Williams “no human being may presume upon grace or assume it as a given or available by right…”  I agree that we cannot “presume upon grace” and that it is certainly not “available by right.”  But what if although “no human being may presume upon grace or assume…it as…available by right,” the Scriptures clearly teach us that God publicly and universally demonstrates his grace to us, offers it to us, and allows us access into it?  These would amount to ways of speaking about grace to be without discrimination.  We wouldn’t be presuming upon his grace, but we would certainly be assured of it.  Suppose Scripture abundantly testifies to the fact that God has decided to be gracious to all and therefore we can know that God’s grace extends to every sinner?  Granted, that revelation would not allow us to “presume upon grace or assume it as a given or available by right…,” but it would make us confident to know God’s grace has been given to us all.  We might then be able to appropriately “assume it [grace] as a given,” not because we deserve God’s grace or can persuade God to be gracious to us as if it were our right, but because God himself has revealed to us that he is and always will be gracious in his nature. It would be because God himself cannot but be gracious to us all.  The alternative, on Calvinism, is to say that there is no way by which you or I as individuals may know whether God is disposed to be gracious to us, especially with respect to our eternal destinies as either predestined for salvation or reprobation. After all, that is the nature of Calvinist determinism – each of us is predestined to one of these two destinies given the doctrine of “irresistible grace” based in the “sovereign grace” or the doctrine of “unconditional election” of Calvinism.

The Calvinist understanding of God’s grace is predictably influenced by their definition of God’s sovereignty as theistic determinism.  But this determinism forces “grace” to be defined in an unbiblical manner and in accord with the dictates of the Calvinist’s soteriological TULIP schemata.  Hence, the concept and definition of grace is shaped by prior Calvinist theological commitments rather than from the biblical texts themselves.  On Calvinism, God by an eternal decree has preordained “whatsoever comes to pass,” therefore some people are predestined to salvation and others are not.  Whatever “grace” may be therefore as underserved favor, it must support this universal divine causal determinism.  Since we are all sinners deserving of God’s wrath and condemnation, God’s choice to save anyone is what the Calvinist defines as a gracious act on his part.  We agree and understand how that would be so.  But the whole deterministic premise is biblically wrong-headed as I have demonstrated in the previous chapters on this website.  And therefore, a definition of grace that is forced into a deterministic mold is also going to be wrong-headed.  Granted, we can appreciate how that for the Calvinist grace is truly the underserved favor of God.  Yet, for the Calvinist, the locus of this “favor” to sinners is found in his eternal decision to “grace” a limited, select number of persons to salvation.  Grace, which may something in God that would direct him to be gracious to all, is subservient to and must play a role in support of their deterministic theology and soteriology.  Hence, “grace” needs to be defined accordingly, as limited. Calvinist’s must perceive and define God’s grace as essentially a pre-mundane decision of God to save only a limited number of chosen individuals out of all of humanity.  One can understand that if God were to choose to save some out of a world of sinners who could not save themselves and did not deserve salvation, God should be considered gracious towards those he had chosen.[5] But due to this limitation I submit that grace gets distorted from its biblical definition and expression. On Calvinism, grace is subject to and forced into the mold of the interdependent deterministic Calvinist doctrines of total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance and preservation of the saints. These are called the “gospel” by some Reformed Calvinists and are described as the “the gospel of grace,” “the doctrines of grace” or “sovereign grace.” 

In stark contrast to this Calvinist view, I will seek to show that Scripture gives us good reasons for believing that divine grace with respect to salvation is inclusive, abundant, and universal. God’s grace does not discriminate between sinners and extends to all who are underserving of God’s favor.  I will attempt to show that the biblical witness to God’s character and the nature of grace does not allow us to define his grace as arbitrarily excluding certain sinners from his saving grace shown in Christ.  Let us seek out what meaning “grace” has in Scripture as to the nature of God and whether the person and work of Christ provides a demonstrable, universal expression of saving grace that is applicable to every sinner.

Exodus 32 – 34: God’s Nature as Gracious

One important difference non-Calvinists have with Calvinists has to do with the nature and character of God.  This controversy ultimately involves how each side answers the question, “What is God like?”  Does he, by simple fiat, assign some people to salvation and all others to an eternity in hell?  Is it merely by God willing one or the other that determines each person’s eternal destiny? Can God act arbitrarily simply by virtue of his will, declaring to be good, for instance, what we know to be evil?  Or, rather, is what God wills according to God’s nature, and therefore what God does is always consistent with who God is, and we can count on him being consistent amidst changing circumstances?  I think the latter is true and what is meant when Scripture says, “God never changes.” (Mal. 3:6) This means that he responds according to his nature given the true nature of each circumstance. Therefore, God’s responses are not always the same, but they are always reflective of his unchanging nature. Since he is consistent in his nature and character he will evaluate and act differently as each different situation warrants, but their is no change in God.  If God is good, he can never do evil. If God is gracious, he remains so to all. In other words, he is never fickle, arbitrary or capricious.

So, what is the nature and character of God?  The scriptures unfold the answer to this question over time.  God progressively reveals himself by what he says and does throughout history.  The Bible records those words and acts of God for us.  At times we even have direct statements made by God about his own nature and character.  Two such passages are found in Exodus 33:18-19 and 34:6-7.  The former reads,

“Then Moses said, “Please, let me see your glory.”

He [God] said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name ‘the Lord’ before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”” (CSB)

“Goodness” here refers to God’s character or nature.  In the entry for the word “good” in the New Bible Dictionary, J. I. Packer writes,

“’Good’ in Scripture is not an abstract quality, nor is it a secular human ideal; ‘good’ means first and foremost what God is (‘he is good’, Ps 100:5, et al.), then what he does, creates, commands and gives, and finally what he approves in the lives of his creatures. It is not that the biblical writers assess God in terms of a prior concept of goodness, but rather that, contemplating the supreme glory of God’s perfections, they apply to him the ordinary word for acknowledging worth.  By doing so, however, they give that word a new depth of meaning. They define good in terms of God; not vice versa. Accordingly, the biblical position is that God, and God alone, is good without qualification (Mk. 10:18 and parallels: on which see B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, 1950, pp. 149ff.); and he is the arbiter and judge, as he is the norm and the standard of creaturely goodness.  Man is good, and things are good, just so far as they conform to the will of God. Woe, then, to those who invert the divine scale of values, giving the name of good to what God calls evil, and vice versa (Isa. 5:20).”[6]

Packer is correct here when he points out that God is “the norm and the standard of creaturely goodness,” but he should take care when he says “Man is good, and things are good, just so far as they conform to the will of God.”  The point is that God cannot will certain things given his nature, i.e., lie, condone murder, theft, deny himself, make square circles, etc.  The Calvinist makes God’s will the means by which he can chose one person for salvation and not another.  But if we speak about God’s will as reflective of his nature we can see that He cannot will salvation for one sinner and not another.  We can see that his grace is not doled out merely by his will, but what he wills is controlled by his essential nature.

Ex. 34:6-7 provides a fuller explanation of God’s nature.  It reads,

“The Lord passed in front of [Moses] and proclaimed:

The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” (CSB)

So, Exodus 33 and 34, along with chapter 32, deal directly with the nature of God and are therefore informative for this controversy.

These chapters amount to a break in the flow of the Exodus narrative in that they record a serious provocation of God by Israel.  In chapter 32 the people had flagrantly disobeyed the command of God against idolatry (See Ex. 20:5-6). Israel willfully spurned their covenant relationship with God in making and worshipping a golden calf.  In light of the Israelites powerful deliverance from Egypt, and the establishment of the specifics regarding the worship of God in the previous chapters, I submit that chapters 32–34 provide us with a more detailed and personal look into the nature and character of God brought about by Israel’s actions and the mediation of Moses on their behalf.

As we begin to grapple with the interpretation of these texts, it is worth noting the entry on “God” in the New Bible Dictionary.  It reads,

“Attempts have been made to classify the divine attributes, i.e. character qualities, under such headings as ‘Mental and Moral’, ‘Communicable and Incommunicable’ or “Related and Unrelated’.  Scripture would seem to give no support to any of these classifications. God’s names are to us the designation of his attributes, and it is significant that, historically, God’s names were given in the context of his people’s needs.

It would seem, therefore, more true to the biblical revelation to treat each attribute as a manifestation of God in the human situation that called it forth, compassion in the presence of misery, long-suffering in the presence of ill-desert, grace in the presence of guilt, mercy in the presence of penitence, and so forth, suggesting that the attributes of God designate a relation which he establishes with those who feel their need of him. That bears with it the undoubted truth that God, in the full plenitude of his nature, is in each of his attributes, so that there is never more of one attribute than of another, never more love than justice, or more mercy than righteousness, but that God is unchanging, undiminished and wholly involved in all that he does. If there is one attribute of God that can be recognized as all-comprehensive and all-pervading it is his holiness, which must be predicated of all his attributes, holy love, holy compassion, holy wisdom, etc.” [7]

Let us see how our understanding of God, especially as it relates to his grace, can be informed from these situations, and how it differs from the Calvinist understanding as explained in the previous section above.

Prior to the golden calf event the Israelites had witnessed the might and power of God in his contest with Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.  The God of Israel ultimately proved himself superior to Pharaoh and his gods.  The final plague – the death of the firstborn throughout the land – brought about the deliverance of the Israelites from approximately 400 years of slavery and was the occasion to teach the people that God ordained their deliverance and salvation to be accomplished by the blood of a sacrificial lamb.  The “destroyer” would pass over the homes of those who sprinkled the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. Those who did not have the blood of lamb on their doorposts, would suffer the death of their firstborn at the hand of the Lord.  This event initiated the Passover festival for Israel which finds fulfillment in Jesus. (See Jn. 1:29; Lu. 22:1-20; Mt. 26:26-28; 1 Cor. 11:23-26)

It seems that here we have an example of that comprehensiveness of God’s character at work in this human situation and relationship – compassion and judgment.  Pharaoh was given time and opportunity to recognize the one true God and obey his command to let the people of Israel go.  God had compassion on his people and “many other people” (12:38 NIV) or “a mixed multitude” (12:38 ESV) that also left Egypt with the Israelites (see 9:20), and yet God had to bring judgment upon Pharaoh and the other Egyptians (9:21) due to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let the people go (Ex. 13:15). The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart at certain times by God was a form of judgment upon him for his stubborn rebellion against the mighty signs God showed him and the Egyptians.     

But even having experienced a mighty deliverance from Egypt, their wilderness wanderings proved Israel to be a “stiff-necked people.”  In Ex. 32 we have the crafting and worship of the golden calf after which God was going to destroy the people of Israel (32:10). Moses intervenes for the people by imploring God to, “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (32:12).  Moses presents his case to God by raising “Why?” questions in light of all God had done to deliver Israel from Egypt “with great power and with a mighty hand.” (32:11, ESV) The crucial “Why?” question Moses presents to God is in affect, “Why allow the Egyptians to conclude that your intentions were evil regarding Israel?  Why allow them to conclude that you intended to kill them, indeed wipe them off the face of the earth?  Surely such a conclusion could not be further from the truth because (and here is the culminating argument Moses presents), you swore by your own self to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that you would make their offspring “as numerous as the stars of the sky” and would give their offspring “all this land that [you] have promised, and they will inherit it forever.’”  In an amazingly relational account, in which God allows Moses to present reasons to him as to why he should not do what he has a mind to do with Israel, God relents!  God’s mind and course of action is changed.  The text is clear.  “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (32:14).  Theologian Walter C. Kaiser Jr. writes,

“God’s repentance or “relenting” is an anthropomorphism (a description of God in human forms) that aims at showing us that he can and does change in his actions and emotions to men when given proper grounds for doing so, and thereby he does not change in his basic integrity or character (cf. Pss 99:6; 106:45; Jer 18:8; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10; James 5:16). The grounds for the Lord’s repenting are three: (1) intercession (cf. Amos 7:1-6); (2) repentance of the people (Jer 18:3-11; Jonah 3:9-10); (3) compassion (Deut 32:36; Judg 2:18; 2 Sam 24:16).”[8]

Kaiser makes an important point here about the character of God.  God does not act arbitrarily in disregard for those legitimate grounds upon which he may take a different course of action.  Indeed, God requires legitimate grounds for him to stay his hand when there are also good grounds for meting out justice and wrath.

God’s Relational Self-Disclosure as Gracious

So, we find God in meaningful relationship with Moses and the people. What we learn is that God is a relational being and has chosen to interact with his human creatures whom he created.  In order to understand the gracious character of God here, we need to keep in mind that God was going to completely destroy his people.  Moses’s intercession prevented their destruction.  This speaks of God’s inclination to be merciful and gracious given a proper mediator.  The relational dynamic between God and Moses cannot be overlooked.  God tells Moses, “Now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (32:10)  When God says, “Leave me alone” (CSB) or “Let me alone (ESV), it is as if Moses’s presence was keeping God from acting to destroy the people.  After all, “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (33:11, ESV)  If left alone, God would have destroyed his people.  Moses was raised up by God himself to lead the people and will soon mediate again for them.

Even though God allowed Moses to alter God’s disposition and course of action with Israel,  yet the text records that due to the golden calf incident “Moses’ anger burned hot” (32:19) and after breaking the tablets of the Law Moses said to the sons of Levi, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel…” (32:27) and had the Levites slay three thousand men of Israel with the sword (32:28).  Moses has performed an act of judgment upon Israel that is said to have been a command from God.  It appears that upon this judgment the people had repented.  The text continues to record what amounts to the third grounds for God not to destroy Israel – God’s own compassion!  Moses desires God to forgive the Israelites based upon God’s own character as gracious. Will he?  We read that,

“The following day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a grave sin. Now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I will be able to atone for your sin.”

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a grave sin; they have made a god of gold for themselves.  Now if you would only forgive their sin. But if not, please erase me from the book you have written.”

The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will erase from my book.  Now go, lead the people to the place I told you about; see, my angel will go before you. But on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin.”  And the Lord inflicted a plague on the people for what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” (Ex. 32:30-35 CSB)

What is notable here is that Moses knows something about what God is like such that he can make a plea for God to forgive the people.  Moses understands atonement for sin and pleads for God to forgive the people’s sin.  He dares to speak to God on behalf of the people for he knows God to be forgiving.  But it will be up to God who knows the situation fully and acts out of the plenitude of this attributes to respond appropriately.  Moses also realizes this because he made no promise to the people that he would be able to atone for their sin before God.  Again, we are struck by the close nature of the relationship between Moses and God.  Moses requests, even pressures God, to forgive their sin. But God’s response is stern and severe.  He inflicts Israel with a plague.  But the corollary truth of God’s patience and grace must also be stressed.  Here and elsewhere in Exodus, along with the accounts in Leviticus and Numbers, we have testimony to a people that try God’s patience, and yet what these accounts firmly establish is the great love and patience God has for his people even though judgments are imperative. 

In Exodus 33 God tells Moses to depart from Sinai with the people.  But “an angel” will go before them (33:1,2), not God himself, lest he consume them.  The incident with the golden calf was a serious matter in God’s sight.  Yet Moses found favor in God’s sight.  Again, this is a most remarkable section of Scripture because in 33:11 we read, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”  This “one-on-one” relationship with God prompts Moses to ask God to teach him his ways so Moses can know more about God and continue in God’s favor.  And Moses discourses with God about the importance of God’s continued presence with his people.  That presence is what marks out Israel as special among all other peoples.  It is what makes Israel the people of God.

“Moses said to the Lord, “Look, you have told me, ‘Lead this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor with me.’  Now if I have indeed found favor with you, please teach me your ways, and I will know you, so that I may find favor with you. Now consider that this nation is your people.”

And he replied, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

“If your presence does not go,” Moses responded to him, “don’t make us go up from here.  How will it be known that I and your people have found favor with you unless you go with us? I and your people will be distinguished by this from all the other people on the face of the earth.”

The Lord answered Moses, “I will do this very thing you have asked, for you have found favor with me, and I know you by name.”

Since God knows Moses “by name” (i.e., to be in a specially chosen relationship with God), Moses persists in wanting to know more about God.  Upon Moses pressing God to show him his glory, we have the first of God’s declarations of his own nature, and he tells us he is gracious and compassionate.

Then Moses said, “Please, let me see your glory.”

He said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name ‘the Lord’ before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (33:12-19 CSB)

Given their misinterpretation of Romans 9, Calvinists will be inclined to read these words in the context of personal salvation to mean that God wills to be gracious and compassionate to a limited number of chosen individuals and has therefore predestined them to salvation, with the corollary that all others he has not willed to show grace and compassion because he has predestined them to eternal damnation.  Therefore, that is the way they interpret Paul’s quotation of this verse in Rom. 9:15. But this is wrong-headed as I will show in the chapter on the biblical doctrine of election.  Suffice it to say here that God’s words in Ex. 33:19 are teaching Moses and his people that in circumstances where we as humans refuse to and certainly fail to be gracious and compassionate or believe no grace or compassion has been earned and therefore is not warranted, God retains the prerogative to be gracious and compassionate due to the fact that it is in his nature to do so. Again, this stands in contrast to the retribution that our fallen human nature might demand.  God is not capricious here but is working towards a just basis for the forgiveness of sin.  He will send his Son to earth as “God with us” to bear our sins on the cross.  His nature as compassionate and gracious will accomplish this for sinful humanity.  We are witnessing this revelation of the nature and saving purposes of God throughout the Old Testament.  This becomes especially applicable in the New Testament when the Jews became proud in their privileged position as the people of God and were convinced that due to their special relationship with God, they alone could lay claim to his grace and compassion while all others, that is, the Gentiles, could not.  The Gentiles were not of Israel (i.e., children of Abraham) and therefore they did not have access to this grace and compassion.  But Paul uses this verse to dismantle such thinking and show that God’s grace and compassion can extend to those outside Israel.  It is also the Gentiles “to whom I will be gracious” and “on whom I will have compassion.”  The point in Romans and elsewhere throughout the Old and New Testaments is that God choses to be gracious to all people in contrast to human prejudices and predilections.  He does this because it is his nature to do so.

So, the phrase “sovereign grace” is misunderstood and misused by the Calvinist when they use the word “sovereign” to connote God’s grace being limited to only those God predestined to salvation.  Rather, God’s grace is “sovereign” in the sense that it can transcend the boundaries placed on it by Israelite or other human expectations.  These expectations are rooted in a mistaken sense of national privilege and pride that demands exclusivity.  God is their God, and they are his people.  Period!  But God’s grace and compassion are unlimited and unbounded.  He can, due to his nature, show compassion, patience, and grace to the Gentiles when the Jews refused to think God could and would do so.  God’s nature as compassionate and gracious is not bound to Jewish conceptions of privilege or restricted by anyone’s claims to deserve or earn his grace, neither is it subject to anyone’s expectations or prejudices as to whom it should apply (see Mt. 20:1-16).

These qualities in God form the foundation of the planned universal salvation God is bringing to pass in the call of Abraham, the promised son Isaac, the establishment of a people through Jacob, their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and, as the story continues, the arrival of their Messiah, Jesus Christ, who accomplishes that salvation for all mankind.  We are reading about the beginnings, or the setting of the stage, for that salvation plan.  This is what we mean when we say that salvation is all of grace! It does not preclude the response of faith as I will demonstrate in the chapter on the biblical doctrine of faith. Our concern here is to show that God has established a people as part of this plan, and they have been a stiff-necked people who have now sinned grievously against God by disobeying his clear commands that “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” (Ex. 20:3-4 ESV)  Interestingly, verse 4 continues, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex. 20:5-6 ESV)   And although God is also just and must punish sin – a character trait already witnessed and soon to be revealed by himself of himself – he nevertheless reveals to Moses first and foremost that he is a God of grace and compassion.  This leads Moses to ask God to show him his glory (33:18). God responds,

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’  And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy…The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord.  The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 33:18,19; 34:5-7 ESV)

About this passage, especially Exodus 34:6-7, theologian Walter Brueggemann says that we have here,

 “…Yahweh’s self-disclosure, revealing to Moses God’s character and intentionality.  Nowhere before this speech has anyone been privileged to hear directly a disclosure of what is most powerful and definitional for God’s own life.”[9]

Brueggemann observes that,

 “This is an astonishing disclosure of God, which tells Moses (and us) as much about the God of the Bible as any verse can.”[10]

He adds,

“Taking it as we do as God’s self-disclosure, this formulation … provides an enduring reference point in Israel’s life with God. This characterization of God is always and everywhere about God in relation. No “attribute” of God is given here concerning God’s own character in itself – e.g., omnipotence, omniscience – because Israel characteristically is unconcerned with such categories. God is by character and definition in Israel a God who always stands in relation toward the people.”[11]

Indeed, if grace is always characteristic of God in relation, we have good grounds to conclude that he is consistently gracious to all those he tells us he wishes to be in relationship.  And if the Bible is clear about anything it is that God wants to be in relationship with his human creation, especially as sinners to redeem us from our sin (e.g., Jn. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:3-6, 4:2, et al.).  And the whole point of the seven elements of the divine character revealed to us in Ex. 34:6,7, i.e., merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, faithfulness, keeping steadfast love, and forgiving, is to assure us of God’s grace to us.  Each of these characteristics overlap in their meanings and should be seen cumulatively to teach us that God does “put up with” us and is intentionally gratuitous in forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.  God is merciful and gracious to helpless, hopeless sinners.

Of course, this is not cheap grace because God, who is completely holy and just, cannot by mere fiat declare that all sins are forgiven.  He cannot flippantly or arbitrarily forgive sin.  Rather, who God is as holy, righteous and just is required to properly ground and justify extending grace to us who are completely unholy.  He does precisely this in the death and resurrection of Christ.  In addition, this is not cheap grace because in the very next verses we are warned that God “will by no means clear the guilty.” (v. 7) That is not to contradict what was just said above, but to reinforce it.  God does not forgive sin in disregard of his other attributes of justice and holiness.  He cannot violate his character as just and holy as if simply by an act of his will he could forgive all sin – “brushing it under the rug” so to speak.  Paul reflects upon this in Romans 3:21-31.  But secondly, not only does the Exodus passage refer to the unchanging, consistent character of God’s mercy, grace, and steadfast love, but also his unchanging, consistent character as just and fair.  Contrary to Brueggemann, there is no contradiction here with verse 7.  There is no contradiction here because God does take care of our guilt, but only in terms of dealing in relation with people as they choose to be in relation with God – that is, either as believing or remaining in rebellious unbelief.  Scripture is clear about this in both the Old and New Testaments.  This takes us into a discussion of the nature of faith in the work of God in Christ to remedy the problem of our sin and guilt.  Faith is the God-established means by which the sinner enters and remains in a saving relationship with him.  God “will by no means clear the guilty” because he cannot declare a sinner “not guilty” if the sinner chooses to remain in unbelief regarding the means by which God deals with our sin in Christ.  In refusing to believe, their sin and guilt remain (see Jn. 3:36; 9:39-41).  Faith is the response God seeks from individuals throughout the Old and New Testaments.  More on this in the chapter on faith.  But with respect to those who remain in faithless rebellion, outside the remedy God has revealed to take away iniquity and guilt, God, of course, “will by no means clear the guilty.”  Again, this is to say that God cannot be fickle or arbitrary regarding our sin.  There must be a just ground, an atonement, a sacrifice upon which sin can be forgiven and God’s wrath averted.  God’s words and acts are consistent and reflective of his inner, unchanging nature.  He is consistent in his words and deeds and therefore he does not, and indeed cannot, condemn those who love him nor acquit those who despise him.  Either of these actions would not be in accord with his nature as righteous, just, and fair.  And yet, there are those who will not receive his grace and stubbornly remain in their sin.  To them too, God will do what is right, just and fair.  God will not be mocked.  His grace is not cheap.  They will reap what they sow.  The lesson here is that we should humble ourselves before God and be responsive to his undeserved grace to us in Christ Jesus.

A Word About “Free” Grace

It has been said that Calvinists and non-Calvinists employ the same vocabulary but use a different dictionary.  An example of this is found in the use of the word “free” in relation to grace.  Calvinists use the phrase “free grace” to mean “without external influence.”  Nothing has influenced God’s decision to choose to save some and not others except that he himself willed it.  Nothing outside of God himself contributes to what he decided with respect to any individual’s eternal destiny.  His decision is “free.”  So, “free grace” means that one is saved by the completely uninfluenced choice of God to save them.  If it is otherwise, even with respect to the necessity of faith, God and his decision would not be “free.”  One cannot believe in Christ unless God works faith in them, and this work of God only occurs in the elect.  If believing were an ability of the will, one would be contributing something to their salvation.  Their salvation would ultimately depend upon their ability and act of faith.  Man, as fallen and sinful, has no such ability within himself to believe, so the Calvinist claims..

In contrast, “free” in biblical context means “without cost.”  That is, the salvation provided by God’s grace (in the non-Calvinist sense) comes to one freely, without any earthly or human qualifications attached.  It is “free” in that it need not, indeed it cannot, be earned in any way.  In this sense, “free” also means it comes to all men everywhere for them to receive and that simply and only by faith which is not considered a “work,” “meritorious” or a “contribution” to one’s salvation.

Therefore, ironically, it is Calvinism that binds God’s sovereign freedom by insisting God could not decree a salvation that depends upon the genuinely free response of faith from fallen sinners to his work in Christ on their behalf and the enabling of the Spirit in the proclamation of this “good news?”

These differences are examples of the fact that interpreters come to the text with certain preunderstandings which shape their conclusions about their meaning.  What I have attempted to demonstrate is that along with sound exegesis, interpretive incoherence is an indicator of invalid interpretation.

The Scriptures teach that grace is free, but not as the Calvinist speaks of “free grace.”  For when the Calvinist says God’s grace is “free,” what they mean is that the application, granting or giving of grace is arbitrary, that is, we cannot know or discern any reasons as to whom he will grant it.  That is, God is “free” to choose whom he will save out of the mass of sinful humanity.  He is “free” to determine whom he will save and “free” to determine whom he will not save.  He is “free” to grant grace to certain individual sinners, which equates to “effectively saving certain individuals,” and he is “free” to withhold grace from other individual sinners which equates to “having decided not to save certain individuals.”  This is what the Calvinist means by “free grace.” “Free” means that God is arbitrarily selective as to who will receive his grace.  And because this grace is irresistible as necessitated by unconditional election, those to whom it is granted will be saved and those to whom it is not granted will not and cannot be saved.  This is to say that God unconditionally elects some people to salvation while passing by all others and therefore it is only to those unconditionally elected that this grace is given, which according to unconditional election must be an irresistible grace.

But it is incumbent upon us to evaluate this Calvinist definition of grace as “free” to see if it taught in Scripture.  I submit to you that it is antithetical to the biblical witness and meaning of grace.  Grace is not God’s selective favor upon some individuals for the purpose of limiting salvation to those individuals and excluding all others, rather, it is undeserved favor shown to all sinners for the purpose of a response of faith and love from sinners.  As such, the demonstration of divine grace in Scripture, even it is selective (e.g., Abraham, Isaac (not Ishmael), Jacob (not Esau), Israel, etc.), is for the purpose of the inclusion of others, not their exclusion.  That is what divine grace aims to do.  The idea that undeserved favor necessitates the inclusion of some to the exclusion of all others on the basis that God has predetermined on the basis of his own will the eternal destiny of both groups is not found in Scripture.  To point to God’s gracious selection and establishment of Israel as support for an unconditional election and irresistible grace to salvation runs counter to the very purpose of God in establishing the nation of Israel as his chosen people.  One main reason of God’s selection of Israel was for the very purpose that they would be witnesses of the only true God to all the nations (Isa. 42:6; 43:10-12; 45:22; 49:6; 52:10, 15; 53:6; 55:6-7; 56:7; Rom. 10:6-13; 11:32; 15:8-13; Gal. 3:8, 22; Eph. 3:4-12 et al.).  Although, in the wisdom of God, there was an initial limitation in the selection of Israel to be his people, God intended them to be a light to the Gentiles so that all people would be able to be called his people and he would also be their God (1 Pet. 2:9-10).  The historical nature of God’s saving work was progressive.  It required exclusion for the purpose of inclusion.  Israel was chosen to testify to God’s universal grace and love for all nations and every individual.  This they failed to do.  And the ramifications of this failure, along with God’s present activity and purposes for both Jew and Gentile, is what Paul wants both the Jew and the Gentile to understand in Romans 9-11.

In contrast, therefore, when the non-Calvinist says God’s grace is free, we mean that this divine disposition does not depend upon the sinner earning it.  No one can make claim to it on any grounds other than that God is being gracious to every sinner by offering them the salvation he worked out on their behalf which is also an expression of his grace to them.  It is not linked to our personal good works or righteous behavior, but rather rooted in God’s nature.  And as such, it is not “free” as if he could will and act arbitrarily by predetermining or assigning to whom grace will be given and to whom it will not be given, but is genuinely free in the sense that this quality in the character of God extends to all in need of it, that is, to every sinner and that without “cost” or dependent upon the sinner’s merits or national privilege (i.e., being a descendant of Abraham).  God is gracious.

When I say this, I do not mean that we can presume upon God’s grace in the negative sense, but only to highlight the point that God himself wants us to know the abundance and sufficiency of his grace and to receive it.  If we can “presume” upon anything it is that God is loving and gracious to each of us as demonstrated in the death of his Son on the cross.  It is God who decides what we can genuinely “presume” about him or not.  We “presume” upon God’s grace because he would have us do so in that he invites us to come to him with the sure knowledge that he is gracious and loving towards us all. We know this because of his revelation of himself in Jesus Christ as grace and truth (Jn. 1:14-18). God’s grace is free, that is, it can be obtained by every sinner because it is expressed and broadcast to us all in Jesus Christ.  God is emphatic about this. It is in Jesus that the grace of God has appeared.  A person may reject God’s grace expressed to them in Christ, but those who desire to be reconciled to God can count on his grace towards them because of Christ.  To reject this grace may trigger God’s prerogative to temporarily withhold grace for his larger purposes (e.g., Rom. 9-11), but we should beware of a doctrine that places in jeopardy the knowledge, assurance, and hope we need as sinners that God’s grace is sufficient for us all, encompasses us all, and serves to assure us that salvation is for us all. Paul writes,

“So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.  For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.  The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom. 5:18-21, CSB)

John writes,

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faith and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 1:8,9 ESV)

And moreover,

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn. 2:2 ESV) 

We can therefore, in a very true sense, “assume [grace] as a given” because we know grace to be integral to the nature of God himself.  The gospel as “good news” rests and depends upon this understanding of divine grace.  That is, he is gracious, and his grace is not locked up and dispensed only to special people unknown to us and for reasons unknown to us, which is the sense that Calvinist’s like Peterson and Williams need to promote to preserve their traditional doctrines of “irresistible grace” and “unconditional election.”  Again, we agree that we cannot take God’s grace for granted.  But when God himself says I have grace in abundance and have revealed my grace in Jesus Christ, our confidence then lies in God alone and we can rest in the fact that God’s disposition to each one of us is one of favor – yes, underserved favor – but favor nonetheless.  Actually, it is the Calvinist that presumes upon God’s grace.  He not only presumes that saving grace applies to him, but he presumes that God cannot be gracious to all which seems to be the meaning of the parable of The Laborers in the Vineyard in Luke 20:1-16. We need not base our confidence in our own presumption that we are among those whom God has unconditionally elected to salvation as the Calvinist must presume.  Nor do we have to live with the doubt and despair over whether God is gracious towards us given the doctrine of unconditional election.  It is impossible to access the unalterable, unilateral decision God made in eternity past as to your eternal destiny, that is, whether God predestined you to eternal salvation or whether he predestined you to eternal damnation.  Given the texts cited above and the arguments to follow, we know and are assured that God is gracious towards each of us.  My point is that once God decides to be gracious to sinners then we certainly can be assured that this undeserved favor extends to all members of the class to which it applies, that is, to every individual person because we are all sinners.

Also, adding to the complexity of the matter is the fact that Calvinists feel free to lay claim to both senses of a biblical word or concept even though their uses of them may be logically and morally mutually exclusive with their underlying deterministic theology (e.g., “voluntary,” “freely,” “human responsibility,” “persuasion,” etc.)  So, I ask the Calvinist whether this inconsistency reflects upon the validity of the interpretive conclusions that require such vacillation between dichotomous perspectives.   How is it that the Calvinist theologian feels comfortable embracing both sides of the issue when they are logically and morally incompatible and contradictory?  Is it legitimate to provide us with the reasoning that “the Bible teaches both?”

If this reasoning satisfies the Calvinist, which amounts to dismissing the spectrum of problems I have raised with respect to this position, then any discussion on these topics simply ends in frustration and confusion as both parties use terms differently and quote their respective verses and go their separate ways.  So, it is not a matter of simply using the same words and quoting verses but broadening the discussion to evaluate whether controlling paradigms of thought can be determined to be valid and legitimate.  The nuanced meaning of the words mentioned above, and the substantial differences between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriology’s raise the question of whether the reasonings that account for those differences are valid biblical, rational patterns of thought.  It is ultimately an issue in hermeneutics.

Therefore, what I have attempted to do is elucidate the biblical, logical, and moral aspects of the Calvinist and Non-Calvinist positions so as to clarify the driving forces at work and arrive at certain “givens” for thinking through and coming to biblical conclusions on what is acknowledged to be a quite troublesome theological subject.  I believe I have demonstrated that the non-Calvinist position better reflects the meaning of Scripture on the grounds that non-contradiction, coherence, consistency, and harmony are essential elements in a sound, biblical hermeneutic.

Let’s continue with a biblical examination of the nature of grace and show why it does not support the Calvinist idea of “sovereign grace” where grace is irresistibly given only to a limited number of people predestined to salvation.

The Biblical Concept of Saving Grace: Christological and Universal

So why is it that the Calvinist’s definition of grace as limited and applied irresistibly only to those unconditionally elected to salvation, leaving all others outside that saving grace, is incorrect and unbiblical?  It is incorrect and unbiblical precisely because rather than grace being hidden in a decree of God made in eternity past as to who will receive this grace, the Bible teaches us that God’s grace a) has come and appeared to us, b) that grace is found in Christ, and therefore c) it is universal, that is, we all have access into this grace.  In the public presence and universal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ and his death on a Roman cross, God’s grace has been revealed and has come to us all.  Therefore, it is no mystery as to who will receive divine grace.  Grace has nothing to do with the Calvinist’s understanding of divine favor that will only be irresistibly experienced by a limited number of chosen people.  Rather, there is no mystery as to whom this grace applies.  The Bible tells us that in the appearance in Christ, God’s grace comes to us all expressing the favor and saving love God shows towards all sinners.  We are also told that we all have access to divine grace (Rom. 5:2).  Grace is accessible to us all.  Let’s examine the scriptures on these points.

The Public Manifestation of God’s Saving Grace in Jesus of Nazareth

A biblical concept of God’s grace finds full expression in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth as the public manifestation of that grace.  In John 1:14,16-18 we read,

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…Indeed, we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness, for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.” (CSB)

Jesus Christ, or the Word that became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is described as “full of grace and truth.”  Granted, the first “we” in verse 14 refers to the experience of the disciples, yet this is the revelation that underlies the faith of all that have come after them.  It is through their experience of Jesus in the flesh (cf. 1 Jn. 1:1-4) that we, the second “we” of verse 16, received “grace upon grace.”  John also expands upon this with a point that he doesn’t want us to miss.  The word “indeed” emphasizes the fact that “we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness.” This grace comes to “all” from “his fullness.”  “We have all received grace upon grace,” which is to say at least that it is not hidden, limited or exclusive grace for some sinners and not others.  In fact, the entire Gospel of John has saving faith that is universally applicable to every person as its very purpose.  In John 20:30-31we read,

“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (CSB)

In the very fact that in the person of Jesus we have a public manifestation of God’s grace, we thereby also have a universal dissemination of abundant grace that comes from the fullness of Jesus.

In his theological commentary on John’s gospel Hermann Ridderbos writes,

“…in 1:14a as in 1:14b, “flesh” is clearly not the means by which the glory of God is concealed in the man Jesus but the means by which it is revealed before the eyes of all.  The flesh is the medium of the glory and makes it visible to all people.  By means of incarnation God has visibly appeared among humankind.  And – we may immediately add – the entire Gospel of John is proof of it: proof of that abundant glory, a glory manifested before the eyes of all.”[12]

In context, what applies here to Jesus’ “glory” also applies to Jesus’ “grace”- and both of these characteristics are applied to God.  In 1:8 John clearly states,

“No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.” (CSB)

 Jesus reveals the grace of God.  The essence of God’s grace here is “God’s favor, benevolence and mercy.”[13]  Jesus not only reveals God’s grace but also his truth.  Ridderbos adds,

“The second term here, “truth,” adds to the first…the element of trustworthiness, faithfulness, and unwaveringness and characterizes God’s graciousness as a relationship in which he binds himself to his own and to which they can unconditionally entrust themselves.”[14]

So, the fact God cannot lie (i.e., is trustworthy, faithful, and unwavering), it is true that God is gracious, benevolent and merciful to all.  Furthermore, we have the expression “grace upon grace.”  It is a difficult phrase to translate, but I agree with Ridderbos in understanding this expression “accumulatively.”[15]  Therefore, the phrase explicates “his fullness.”  Ridderbos writes,

“This translation is all the more commendable if – as will be further discussed in the comments on verse 17 – one may relate this double expression to the revelation of God’s glory on Mt. Sinai according to Exodus 34.  There “grace and truth” constitutes but one of the many designations by which Yahweh makes himself known in his glory: “Yahweh, Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Ex. 34:6, 7).”[16]

Having already examined Exodus 34 above, in connection with John’s statements we can see that divine grace is characterized by God’s kindness and compassion that exhibits itself in his favor and being merciful to us.  God’s nature is also one that is steadfast, trustworthy, and faithful.  Therefore Paul can assure us of God’s love for us in the public demonstration of Christ’s death on our behalf.

 “…God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8, CSB)

And in Eph. 2:4-8 Paul writes,

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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.” (ESV)

Grace is expressed in God’s decision to provide salvation (i.e., “God’s gift”) through Jesus Christ who is the Word become flesh for the purpose of going to the cross to die in our place so that he may justly forgive our iniquity, transgression, and sin.  Given this incarnation in which God appeared among men and given his public display of love on the cross, it is made clear that both grace and salvation are intended for every person, all of whom are sinners undeserving of that salvation but in desperate need of it.  This salvation is the gift of God, that is to say we could never have done anything to have merited or earned our way back  into favor with God.  God remedied that helplessness in sending Jesus to die in our place the death we deserved due to our sin.  He worked out a salvation by grace through faith.  That is the way a person is saved; by believing on the way of salvation God established by his grace in Christ Jesus.  This constitutes the gospel message.  This is the “good news!”

It should be noted that within Paul’s Jewish context the Jew viewed the Law as God’s gracious provision to them as what constituted them as God’s “chosen people.”  They were to keep the Law, not so much as to be “saved,” but to remain in a proper covenant relationship with God.  Obedience was to be their response to God’s grace in choosing Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which constituted them as his covenant or chosen people.  As they were obedient to that Law as a response to this grace to them, they would remain the privileged “people of God.”  They did not view the “works of the Law” so much as a means to personal salvation, but understood that God gave them the Law as his own identifier as to who is and who is not among the people of God.  It was important to be identified with the tradition of the Fathers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc. and thus following the Law.  But Paul resisted this identifier of the Law as applicable to the Gentiles for them to be considered among “the people of God” or God’s “elect.”  God’s further revelation of grace in Christ made it clear to Paul that God chose Israel for the purpose of bringing the Messiah and to exemplify lives that put their faith and trust in God.  That is why Paul resisted those Jews who insisted that the Gentiles must follow the Law (e.g., be circumcised, follow the Sabbaths and holy days, etc.), to be considered among the people of God and by virtue of that status and privilege would be among those that will be saved.  The Jew could no longer boast in being a Jew as the identifier of their being in true relationship with God.  That was now found “in Christ.”  The Jews of Paul’s day linked salvation to becoming a Jew by acknowledging, accepting, adhering to and obeying the Law of Moses.  This is what Paul could not accept given that it was now revealed that salvation was by grace through faith in Christ.  Those who put their trust in Christ as the one who came from the Father – both Jew and Gentile – would be among the chosen people of God.  They are now “the elect.”

Now of course, just because God extends his grace in Christ to all sinners does not mean that all people will be saved.  The individual sinner may resist God’s grace in the gospel and remain in unbelief.  But that grace remains established and therefore always present in the gospel message.  We see that both divine grace and the human response of faith are involved in salvation, but they both have their focus in the cross of Christ.  From God’s point of view the saving work is completed.  Divine grace for salvation is found at the cross and the decision of faith is made possible by the presence of the Spirit in the proclamation of that message which is “good news.”  When God put forth Jesus as publicly manifest in the flesh before all sinners as the way of salvation, divine grace and salvation were genuinely made available to all.  That was divine grace in action as the expression of divine love for us (Rom. 5:8).  God’s grace is demonstrated in the whole design, revelation, accomplishment, and proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, in that grace was shown to all in the death of Jesus on the cross, salvation is therefore obtainable by all sinners through faith in Christ.  God’s grace, particularly his salvific grace, precisely because it is on public display in the cross of Christ, is therefore universal.  God does for man with respect to his salvation what man did not deserve and could never do for himself.  That God accomplished our salvation in the public, visible, verifiable event of Jesus’s death on a Roman cross is his grace to us all.[17]  

The grace of God is primarily the planning, purposing, completing and proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ for sinners helpless to remedy their problem of sin, guilt, separation, and condemnation before a righteous and holy God.  God did what sinful mankind could not do.  In that this salvation is designed by God to be appropriated by sinners simply by faith and not by any other means, indicates that any sinner may therefore be saved.  All throughout Scripture faith is presented as something possible for anyone.  And this divine means of appropriation of salvation by faith makes salvation a possibility for anyone, especially as they hear the gospel message.  Faith as the way to appropriate the finished work of salvation (i.e., “the gift”, Eph. 2:8) supports the conclusion that God desires all people to be saved.  Anyone can believe.  In that God does desire the salvation of all persons, he has designed it on the basis of something anyone can do to appropriate it, that is, believeOne can readily see how God is gracious, and that the focal point of divine grace is not a static divine decision regarding the salvation of an unknown elect number of persons as in Calvinism, but rather a dynamic divine attribute centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ who, by his appearing brought abundant grace to all, and the one in whom salvation is found and offered as he is proclaimed to every sinner.  Billy Graham has put it this way.

“Only as we bow in contrition, confession, and repentance at the foot of the cross, can we find forgiveness.  There is the grace of God!”[18]

This is what the apostle John meant when he wrote that,

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… Indeed, we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness, for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn. 1:14, 16-17, CSB)

It is also akin to John the Baptist’s declaration about Jesus when he said,

 “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29, CSB)

Moreover, at the Jerusalem council Peter speaks about how both Jew and Gentile are saved and concludes that their salvation is by faith and “through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.  Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.” (Acts 15:8-11 ESV)

In Acts 20:24 Paul equates the gospel with “the grace of God.”

“But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.” (CSB)

The difference between the Calvinist view of grace and the biblical view of grace is not inconsequential.  It is the difference between a mysterious, unknown, unalterable, decision of God with respect to your eternal destiny, and the known, loving, just, gracious disposition of God towards you as a sinner and his saving work accomplished “in Christ” on your behalf. “In Christ” the salvific will of God for every sinner is made known and eternal salvation can be obtained precisely because God has both completed the work and established its appropriation on the basis of faith.  It is God’s will that you be saved and therefore he has, by his grace, brought to pass everything necessary for that salvation.  All that the sinner must do is respond to that grace in faith.  (Jn. 1:29; 3:16-18; 20:30,31; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 4:10).  Sinners simply need to believe this “good news” to be saved.

            Therefore, the biblical presentation of “grace” is God’s provision of salvation for undeserving sinners (hence, all persons) who could in no way save themselves, along with the offer of this salvation to all sinners (hence, all people) based upon the sinner’s response of faith alone.  Grace is found “in Christ” not in a decision of God to save some persons of whom no one knows who they are, not even the elect persons themselves.  Since no one is privy to that decision of God as it pertains to them, Calvinist “grace” is therefore inaccessible, and as such, irrelevant, let alone unbiblical.

In contrast, the Bible indicates that the grace of God is found in Christ and is accessible to all by faith when Christ is preached.  This is why warnings, challenges and invitations are integral to the gospel proclamation.  Again, Billy Graham states,

“This is still the age of grace.  God’s offer of forgiveness and new life still stands.  However, the door will one day be closed.  Someday it will be too late.  This is why the Bible continually warns and challenges: “Now is the accepted time” [2 Corinthians 6:2 NKJV].”[19]

And again,

“We are living in an age of grace, in which God promises that “whosoever will” may come and receive his Son.  But this period of grace will not go on indefinitely.  We are even now living on borrowed time.”[20]

This introduction to the word “grace” in the Bible bears out that the grace of God is found “in Christ.”  As such it is “grace to all” through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God’s Love and Grace

Theologian Vernon Grounds states,

“Behind, beneath, beyond and yet within the evanescent phenomena of space-time, we Christians believe, is God, the ultimate reality, the eternal, infinite, perfect, self-subsistent being, a trinity of persons all three of whom cohere in an indivisible unity of essence and purpose.  God, we believe, is the source and sustainer of whatever exists, the life in all life, the truth in all truth, the goodness in all goodness, the beauty in all beauty, the love in all love.  For in that corpus of writings which we call Holy Scripture and which we hold to be God’s medium of self-revelation, this being behind and beneath and beyond and yet within all being defines himself as love. We believe, moreover, that, because he is love, God freely chooses to expand the orbit of beatitude by creating persons like himself, centers of consciousness and choice whom he wills to share his own eternal fellowship of love according to their finite capacity.  This purpose, inexplicable except on the ground of God’s free decision, is announced by Paul at the beginning of the Ephesian letter…This purpose, explicable solely on the inexplicable ground of God’s grace and focusing in Jesus Christ, is the raison d’etre of everything in nature and history…Motivated by grace, then, freely electing to share his experience of infinite love with finite experients, God has created ex nihilo all that is.  Grace is thus the revealed explanation of the whole space-time complex.  The act of creation, like everything the triune God does…has grace as its dynamic.”[21]

Most Calvinists would agree with Vernon Ground’s description that what God has done in all of creation comes by way of his grace and reveals his grace.  Theologians on both sides call this “common grace.”  Yet, note that Grounds highlights God’s love, and because he is love, “he freely chooses to expand the orbit of beatitude by creating persons like himself, centers of consciousness and choice whom he wills to share his own eternal fellowship of love according to their finite capacity.”  He talks about that “purpose” as “God’s free decision” and “explicable solely on the inexplicable ground of God’s grace.”  Moreover, that purpose of God to share his own eternal purpose of love, has as its focus Jesus Christ. This plan and purpose of God “is the raison d’etre of everything in nature and history.”  In creating all things, God freely elected “to share his experience of infinite love with finite experients…” All this is “motivated by grace.”  All that God does “has grace as it dynamic.”

What Vernon Grounds observes is that God’s gracious purposes have Jesus Christ as their focal point.  This is an important observation.  The Bible tells us that the grace of God is found “in Christ.”  (See Eph. 1:1-14) This is the thrust of Paul’s Ephesians letter – especially mentioning in the Greek text “in Him,” “Christ Jesus,” “the Beloved One,” “in Christ,” “in whom,” “of him” – and other various forms – seventeen times in the first thirteen verses!  And in these verses Paul writes of the grace of God, beginning with “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 2)  In verse 6 he speaks of God’s “glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One” (i.e., Jesus).  Note that grace is “lavished” upon us.  He then expands on nature of this grace in verses 8 and 9 pointing out that “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding.  He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ…” (CSB)  Note that this grace is “richly poured out” and has reference to the “mystery of his [God’s] will” which is now made known to us and was “purposed in Christ.” The good news that “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” is God’s grace to us, disclosing in Christ any mystery that was involved in his plan of salvation.  Calvinists will stress and define the concepts of “elect” and “predestine” in this passage.  But they fail to take into consideration the presence and nature of faith as the required human response to appropriate God’s work of salvation.  God’s grace which is expressed through the gospel is for all to believe.  Those who do believe are described here by Paul from God’s eternal perspective.  Paul speaks about “we who had already put our hope in Christ.” (v. 12) and “since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus” (v. 15), and again “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.” (v. 19) He also makes clear in verse 13 that “In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed.” (CSB) 

A non-Calvinist soteriology acknowledges and celebrates a distinctive and meaningful Christological point of reference which is fully revelatory of the salvific grace, will and purposes of God.  Granted, as Vernon Grounds pointed out, the biblical concept of the grace of God encompasses more than the salvific sense.  God’s grace is the “explanation of the whole space-time complex.”  Every human being benefits from God’s grace every day.  His rain falls on the just and the unjust (Mt, 5:43-48).  But if that is so, then grace is also provided for all human beings in Christ.  God’s grace, with respect to his saving activity, has its focal point and revelation in Jesus Christ. Scripture speaks of a full-orbed Christological point of reference for God’s grace. This reference point for grace, having been revealed in Christ Jesus, is one aspect that gives divine grace its nature of universality.  This saving work in Jesus Christ springs from the grace of God and is uniquely God’s doing from start to finish.  All other aspects of divine grace find their center “in Christ.” “In him” is found the gracious purpose of God to save us from our sin.  Hence, God’s “grace” is the underserved favor of God, but not in the sense of God choosing upon which particular individuals he will bestow saving grace out of all who are underserving of salvation, but in the sense of him providing a perfect salvation that mankind could never provide for themselves.  And in God’s gracious plan that salvation is offered freely to all undeserving, lost sinners to be received simply by faith.

So, the very fact that Jesus came in the flesh and dwelt among us, that is, that his person and work was made public and was universally proclaimed to both Jew and Gentile without distinction or exclusion, speaks to the fact that he brought divine grace to us all.  Divine grace is made known in Jesus – and that grace upon grace!  In the public coming and life and ministry of Jesus and subsequent spread of the gospel to all people – both Jew and Gentile – as testified to in the book of Acts, we have weighty scriptural warrant to conclude that God’s grace is universal in scope and applicability.

Once we understand that God’s grace is to be found in Christ, Peterson and Williams should no longer say “no human being…may assume [grace] is a given.”  Whereas once we could not assume it as a given, we now know it is a given!  It is true that we cannot presume upon the grace of God, that is, that it comes only from him on the basis of his own character as gracious and loving, not on the basis of anything we are or do.  But once we learn that it is in the very character of God to be gracious, having revealed himself to all men as gracious in Jesus Christ, and that he has extended that grace to all of us sinners in the gospel message of Jesus Christ, we can be assured that God’s grace is therefore “a given.” Hence, God’s saving grace applies to all and is extended to all.  We humbly stand and rest in that fact.

Titus 2:11 and 3:4: The Grace of God Has Appeared

Contrary to the Calvinist view of God’s grace being limited to certain chosen individuals and something irresistible with respect to them, I have argued that in the physical appearing of Jesus we have God’s saving grace demonstrated and available to us all.  “In Christ” lies the evidence that God’s grace has universal salvific applicability.  We see this clearly in Titus 2.  Here Paul gives us interesting insight into the nature of the grace of God.  In verse 1 Paul tells Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (ESV) or “proclaim things consistent with sound teaching (CSB).”  After delineating certain roles and relationships within the church, Paul gives Titus the doctrinal rationale behind his instructions.  He states in verse 11,

“For the grace of God has appeared…” (ESV, CSB)

The word “appeared” here indicates “to be made clear, to be made manifest. The central meaning of the word is to appear suddenly upon a scene, and it is used particularly of divine interposition, especially to aid, and of the dawning of light upon darkness…”[22]  Paul views “the grace of God” as something that “has appeared” (“is now public,” MSG).  God’s “grace” is not a decision hidden in the eternal counsels of God that has limited reference to and only provides for the salvation of certain predestined individuals.  This Calvinist view is contradicted by Paul’s next phrase, “bringing salvation for all people.”  The NIV has, “that offers salvation to all people.”  The Phillips translation has, “that can save every man,” and the Message has “Salvation is available for everyone!”  In Rienecker’s Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament the Greek word here (σωτήριος) means “saving, delivering, bringing salvation.  Followed by the dative the word means “bringing deliverance to” and the phrase “to all men” belongs to the noun showing the universal scope of Christian salvation (Guthrie; s. also BAG)”[23]

The sense of the passage surely is that of God’s grace is being made known and accessible to every sinner because it has appeared in Christ.  Grace is made visible and therefore it is universally available.  That revelation of God’s grace brings salvation to everyone.  Of course, not all will be saved.  But that is not for the lack of God’s grace in salvation being offered to them.  It is for lack of believing despite the grace shown to them in salvation wrought by Jesus on their behalf.  Salvation is, of course, appropriated and applied by simple faith.  The point is that salvation can be found “in him.”  That is precisely what the appearing proclaims to those who witnessed it and all who subsequently hear about it.  It is a message offering salvation to the hearer, and since it comes from the God of truth – the God who cannot lie – it must have saving applicability and potential for the hearer.  Furthermore, in keeping with the context, verse 14 reiterates this universality when Paul adds that “he gave himself for us” (ESV) or “he gave himself for us all.” (JBP)

In Titus chapter 3 Paul states that the doctrinal remedy for a lack of submission, disobedience, and “hating one another” (v. 3) is that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared” and that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy.” (v. 5) Here we have another reference to God’s goodness and loving-kindness, that is, his grace, having “appeared.”  The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) interprets this as “But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared…” emphasizing God’s nature as loving (i.e., loving-kindness), and the fact that this love extends to all mankind.

We also have mention of salvation being “according to his mercy.”  God’s mercy is akin to his grace.  The phrase “he saved us” refers to the whole plan and purpose of salvation that God fulfilled in Jesus.  When salvation is thought of in terms of the individual’s responsibility, “he saved us” would presuppose the response of faith, but that is not the emphasis here.  Like in Ephesians 1, the stress here is what God has accomplished for us in Christ, not the response of faith needed for the appropriation of this salvation.  That is because Paul is writing to instruct those who already believe.  This is in accord with verse 7 where Paul speaks of being “having been justified by his grace.”  Justification is a core truth within the doctrine of salvation.  In accomplishing salvation for us God has been merciful and gracious to all sinners despite and apart from “works done by us in righteousness.” (v. 5)

In Romans 3:21-26 Paul presents a more complete picture of this salvation that has made its appearance in Christ.    He states,

“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.” (CSB)

Note the language here.  Paul speaks of the righteousness of God having been “revealed,” (CSB), or “manifested” (ESV), which is “apart from Law,” that is to say that which breaks the boundaries of Jewish privilege and places justification on the equal plane of the response of faith.  Now, if justification is appropriated on the basis of faith, that means that justification or salvation is possible for all sinners – both Jew and Gentile.  After all, “there is no distinction” and in Paul’s logic and theology, since all are sinners, and there is only one God who is over both Jew and Gentile, then salvation applies to all.  God has provided justification or salvation “freely” (CSB), or “as a gift” (ESV) by his grace that has come through “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  This “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” is the expression of God’s grace.  Note also that God “presented him” (CSB) or “put him forward” (ESV).   According to Paul, God’s mercy and grace were presented and extended to us when Christ Jesus appeared in the flesh. 

I will deal with the nature of faith in a separate chapter, but we should note here that faith obviously does not fall within this category of “works done in righteousness” (Titus 3:5) or “works of the law.”  Paul can continue in Romans 3:27-30 to say,

“Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law?  By one of works?  No, on the contrary, by a law of faith.  For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.  Or is God the God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles too?  Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”

Faith should never be perceived to be in the category of a “work,” or meritorious, or of the sinner “contributing” to his own salvation or the sinner “saving themselves” as the Calvinist is wont to portray it to support his doctrine of unconditional election.  The sinner’s free decision to respond in faith to the gospel message is not encompassed within the biblical concept of a “work.”  To believe in Christ freely, that is, of one’s own decision of the will, cannot be considered a “work” that is meritorious toward one’s salvation.  Neither is it presented as an impossibility due to “total inability.”  That would be inconsistent with Scripture’s “appearing” theology and make nonsense of Jesus’ interaction with people regarding their faith as recorded in the gospels, the dynamic of faith in John’s gospel and his purpose for writing (Jn. 20:30-31), Paul’s view of faith in his epistles, the biblical testimony as to the nature of faith as that which pleases God (Heb. 11:6), and the content of the proclamation of the gospel itself as a call to put one’s faith and trust in Christ Jesus for salvation.  Faith is the way to appropriate the salvation that is in Christ Jesus which is a full expression of God’s mercy and grace.  Faith is always contrasted with being “justified by the works of the law,” never included in it. (Gal. 2:15-21) More on the nature of faith in another chapter.

The point here is that “the grace of God has appeared” is directly linked to “bringing salvation for all people”. (CSB) And it is “those who have believed in God” (Titus 3:8) that have been regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit (v. 5) “whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (v. 6)

All Paul’s letters speak of God’s grace and salvation in these inclusive and revelational terms; terms that make God’s merciful and gracious salvation in Christ Jesus applicable to all sinners.  Salvation is designed and obtainable by all through faith.  Mercy and grace are “first cousins.”  Both are extended to all sinners. (Rom. 11:32) Thus, Paul begins all his epistles with “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” or a version thereof.

To summarize thus far, we see that grace does not have the definition or character of a hidden, mysterious divine predetermination of who will be saved (whom God will irresistibly “grace”) and who will not be saved (whom God will not irresistibly “grace”) – a theology grounded in an erroneous deterministic concept of God’s “sovereignty.”  According to John, “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…” and “…from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace…”  And John adds the Christological affirmation that “…grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  This concept of grace having appeared in Jesus in its fullness, and therefore having a saving purpose that is universal (yet only appropriated to the sinner upon their believing), is contrary to “sovereign grace” or as part of the “doctrines of grace” (i.e., “irresistible grace”), as understood deterministically by Calvinists.

Ephesians 1:8, 9: Grace Lavished Upon Us and the Mystery of His Will Revealed

In the very difficult first chapter of Ephesians Paul writes about the predestination of believers to certain blessings.  He also writes about “the riches of [God’s] grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ…” (Eph 1:8, 9, ESV).  Here again we have a very existential and universal display of God’s grace which is found “in Christ” in the context of the redemption or salvation provided (1:7) and made known to us.  Indeed, note the language of abundant revelation – grace is “lavished upon us.” (1;7,8) Also note the full disclosure of this grace in God “making known to us the mystery of his will.” (1:9) “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (3:6) This mystery is “set forth” (1:9) in Christ in whom is “the promise” that one partakes of “through the gospel.” (3:6) God’s grace has not been kept secret with respect to any individual.  God’s grace and salvific will for us as sinners is made known “in Christ” and that grace and salvation is universal in scope and applicability.  It is for both Jew and Gentile.  It is for all people.

Indeed, in the Greek text the phrases “in Christ,” “in Jesus Christ”, “in him,” “in whom” or “in the Beloved” occur 17 times in the first 13 verses of Ephesians! Nothing is hidden from any person regarding God’s salvific grace to them! This is in direct contrast to whether grace might be withheld or granted to a person as taught in the Calvinist doctrines of irresistible grace, unconditional election, and predestination.  According to the scriptures grace is not irresistibly applied to only certain persons predestined to salvation.  Grace is found in the historical appearing of Christ Jesus. God’s grace and salvation are therefore universally proclaimed in the gospel (3:6,7).  As such the salvation that God’s grace has wrought is attainable by faith (3:12). This is so precisely because “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…” (v. 7) and because this is “according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.” (v.8)

Grace in Galatians

It is important to note what Paul writes about “grace” in his epistle to the Galatian churches. Note the standard greeting of “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” The Late Calvinist Pastor James Montgomery Boice comments that this greeting,

“… seems particularly appropriate at the start of this letter. Normally, Paul alters the traditional Greek greeting (charein, a verb) to the important Christian word “grace” (charis, noun). This is always striking. But it is doubly striking here, inasmuch as it occurs in a letter to churches where the sufficiency of salvation by grace was being questioned and perhaps even denied.  In the same way, “peace” (eirene, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word shalom) is also especially appropriate, for it denotes that state of favor and well-being into which men are brought by Christ’s death on the cross and in which they are kept by God’s persevering grace.  To choose law, as the Galatians were doing, is to fall from grace.”[24]

Boice, who was a staunch Calvinist and believed in an “unconditional election” working through an “irresistible grace,” runs into the predictable Calvinist contradiction here in expounding this section of Galatians.  Boice’s Calvinist doctrines require that God inevitably saves whom he has chosen for salvation.  Therefore, Boice speaks of them being “kept by God’s persevering grace.”  And yet, Boice speaks of “churches where the sufficiency of salvation by grace was being questioned and perhaps even denied,” and also about human choices, which are apparently real, that may result in a “fall from grace.”  Boice writes, “To choose law, as the Galatians were doing, is to fall from grace.”  How does one “fall” from an “irresistible grace” that cannot fail to save? These are the kinds of issues Calvinist’s simply dismiss with the standard responses discussed throughout the previous chapters.

The point here is that “grace” (and “peace”) comes “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  And it is the Lord Jesus Christ “who gave himself for our sins.” (1:4) That is the grace of God in salvation which comes to all in the gospel message.

A major theme in Galatians is Paul’s need to defend his apostleship and ministry.  He does this by emphasizing having been “set apart” by God and stating that God “called me by his grace” (cf. 2:9, this is the “calling” of an individual to unique service, not salvation). Paul expresses amazement that the Galatians were “so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ… (1:6).  Note that Paul understands the Galatian’s situation as a “turning away” from God who “called” them.  Calvinists view this “call” as effectual, that is, something from which the “called” or “elect” person cannot “turn away.”  If there is the potential for “turning away,” the Calvinist must argue that this “turning away” is temporary.  But this is to beg the question, for it does not seem that with respect to their “calling” Paul has in mind an “effectual” call, let alone “irresistible grace.”  It also diminishes the integrity of Paul’s observation here and the genuineness of the warning aspect in his statement. The question for the Calvinist is, how could they be “turning away” from an effectual call and an irresistible grace? Again, Paul says they were called by “the grace of Christ” which is the gospel message or message of “good news.” 

So, what did Paul mean by “him who called you by the grace of Christ?”  This phrase, in contrast to “him who called me by his grace” which is an affirmation of God appointing Paul to his mission to the Gentiles, refers to the gospel message.  “The grace of Christ” is simply the message of salvation in Christ.  God called the Galatians to salvation by this “good news” that God’s grace for their salvation is found in Christ and is appropriated by faith.  This is made clear when Paul contrasts this “grace of Christ” with turning to “a different gospel.” (1:6) Paul is contrasting the real gospel of grace through faith with a false “gospel” of “works of the law.”  Paul quickly adds, “not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (1:7). So here the “the grace of Christ” is synonymous with “the gospel of Christ.”  And God calls people to salvation through this “grace of Christ” or “gospel of Christ.”

So, what is this “turning away” from “the grace of Christ?”  It is the setting aside or nullifying this grace by the teaching that although one is justified by faith in Christ it is also required that the Gentile believer keep “the works of the law” (e.g., circumcision, special days, etc.).  This attack on the freedom of the believer with respect to adding “the works of the law” to salvation by faith in Christ is firmly rejected by Paul.  They are incompatible with each other.  It was certainly the prerogative of the Jew, or the Gentile for that matter, to continue to observe the Mosaic laws, for “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12, ESV)  But this observance of the law was not to be associated with their salvation.  It has no place in the gospel.  It was not required in that it has no efficacy to salvation by faith in Christ.  With respect to one’s justification before God Paul reasons that the Gentiles need not live like the Jews,    

“…because we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.” (2:16. CSB)

And Paul adds,

“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (2:19-21. CSB)

Note that to add “the law” to “faith” would be to “set aside the grace of God.” (2:21, CSB) The NIV has “I do not nullify the grace of God.”  We see here that the grace that is related to salvation – “the grace of Christ” – can be “nullified” by “those who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (1:7, CSB), that is, those who want to add the practices of Judaism as a requirement for being among “the people of God” and thus in a saving relationship with God.  If the Galatians were to accept the teaching of these “false brothers” (2:4) or the “circumcision party” (2:12), they would be nullifying the saving grace of God in their lives.  This is why Paul is so adamantly opposed any distortion of the gospel message (cf. 1:8-9).  Their salvation was at stake.

So we see that this grace which is related to salvation and the gospel is not something assigned unconditionally to certain chosen persons and is not irresistible.  The gospel must be maintained in its purity as “good news.”  Grace, in reference to salvation, is God’s mercy, kindness and goodness in accomplishing salvation in Christ, “who gave himself for our sins” (1:4).  It is therefore a grace and salvation that comes to all.  It is also important to note that Paul speaks about the “Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20, CSB).  Paul, contrary to the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, knew assuredly that Christ loved him and died for him.  He has no doubt as to Christ’s love for him and that the death of Christ applies to him.  And of course, anyone who reads these scriptures can surely apply these same truths to themselves.  God and Jesus love you so much that Jesus died for your sins. (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 3:23-25, 5:8, et al.) 

Grace in 2 Corinthians Chapters 5 and 6

In 2 Corinthians chapter 5 Paul talks about his “ministry of reconciliation” (v.18), the message of which is that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (v. 19, CSB) Paul says “God is making his appeal through us” and defines that appeal.  He writes,

 “We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.”  He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (5:20-21, CSB)

And in chapter 6 Paul directs his comments more personally at the Corinthian believers.  He says,

“Working together with him [God], we also appeal to you, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.”  For he says:

At an acceptable time I listened to you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.

See, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!” (6:1-2, CSB)

Interestingly, Paul’s appeal here is not to receive the grace of God “in vain.”  This means that the Corinthians need to let God’s saving grace rule their lives and actions.  The point is that God’s grace with respect to salvation can be received “in vain” if God is not allowed to have his way, first in salvation, and secondly in a life that evidences that grace in action.

The points to note are that God was reconciling the world to himself.  God’s call to reconciliation in universal.  It applies to everyone.  Also note that God’s grace can be received “in vain,” that is, without its intended purpose being realized.  It seems obvious that Paul does not think or speak in terms of the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Calvinism is not Pauline theology.

Romans Chapter 5: Access into Grace

Romans 5 is a very important chapter with respect to the scope of God’s grace and the nature of the work of salvation.  Some observations on a few key verses will help identify Paul’s perspective about God’s saving grace.  In Romans 5:1, 2 we read,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” (ESV. Bold italics mine.)

The NIV reads,

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” (Bold italics mine.)

The CSB reads,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand…” (Bold italics mine.)

Note that God’s grace is something we have “obtained” or “gained access…into.”  Access into “this grace” is “by” or “through faith.”  C.E.B. Cranfield is the author of the International Critical Commentary on Romans.  He says the phrase, “this grace in which,” references back to our justification rather than the “peace” mentioned in verse 1.  He also notes that the phrase means a “state of being the objects of favour.” so in that we are justified “by faith;” we gain access into this grace “by faith.”  Cranfield adds that the words “gained” or “obtained access” “probably intended to provoke the thought of ‘the privilege of…being introduced into the presence of someone in high station[25]…’[26]  Here we see the expression of a presently available divine, justifying grace that is found in the person and work of Christ Jesus for all sinners, to which one “obtains” or “gains” access to “by faith.”

Some commentators stress that this “access…into grace in which we stand” refers to “the sphere of God’s continuing love” for those already justified and “not so much for God’s action on behalf of underserving sinners (N. T. Wright, NIBC, vol. 9, p. 429).  But I do not think a hard and fast distinction can be made between the grace that justifies or the grace in which we now stand, especially when Paul uses the full gospel phraseology of “through him” and “by faith” in speaking about the grace we have obtained access to.

Be that as it may, contrast this understanding of grace to that in Calvinist thought.  Again, within Calvinism, grace is primarily that decision of God made in eternity past whereby out of all sinners underserving of salvation he chose only some to salvation while passing by all others.  Only those chosen are so “graced.”  No other sinners are either given grace by God or have access to God’s grace in Christ.  Therefore, they cannot be saved.  Indeed, even these elect persons do not “gain” or “obtain access by faith into this grace.”  They cannot even believe so as to be saved.  They must first be regenerated (i.e., saved) in order to be saved, which is incoherent.  Also, these elect persons are granted a saving grace that is irresistible.  Granted, out of all who are undeserving of salvation, that God would choose and unfailingly work in any person to be saved is an act of his grace.  And Calvinists insist that any interpretation other than God having determined who will be saved and working an irresistible grace in the elect fails to account for the “total inability” that sin has caused in human beings and furthermore, any objection to God overriding the free will of the sinner amounts to the imposition of the ideals of political democracy onto the biblical text. But the non-Calvinist is not ignoring the effects of sin nor imposing foreign political concepts into his theology.  The non-Calvinist position strives to take all that the Bible says on these matters and understand them in coherent relations with each other.  This coherence is essential to the non-Calvinist’s hermeneutic. In contrast, the Calvinist’s hermeneutic does not value this coherence as meaningful when evaluating the accuracy of one’s interpretations.

We have seen that the Calvinist understanding of grace does not account for the language Paul uses when talking about the precise nature of God’s grace.[27]  The themes of the abundant grace having come with Christ’s appearing, the close association of God’s love and grace in Christ, the universal emphasis created given that salvation is “by faith,” along with persons having “obtained” or “gained access by faith into this grace,” is substantial biblical evidence to conclude that God’s saving grace is open for all and offered to all. This is very different than suggesting that God’s grace refers to his unknown and undisclosed decision which restricts salvation to a certain number out of all sinners undeserving of any action of God on their behalf.  This idea is not found in the Bible but is imposed upon it as a result of an a priori definition of God’s sovereignty as theistic determinism.

The main point is that God’s grace is expressed and made available in Christ.  If Romans 5:2 has any relation to saving grace (and I suggest it does because that access to grace comes by faith), how would one “gain access” into a grace the essence of which is an inaccessible and fixed decision God made to save a limited number of particular individuals?  Many simply cannot have access because they are not among those God has predestined to salvation.  Rather, Paul understands God’s grace as something we have “obtained access into” “through him [Christ].”[28]  That the sinner may now gain access into God’s grace by faith in Christ is something existentially present and dynamic.  Note what Paul stated in 3:25, that “God put forward” Jesus Christ “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”  The phrase “put forward” can mean “set forth publicly” or “display.” (cf. Gal. 3:1) The implication is that in being publicly set forth by God, the saving work of Christ is being proclaimed and freely offered to all.  Such a public display of the person in whom salvation is accomplished has a universal implication to it.  It applies to all.  That is what is implied in the word “public” – something made known and applicable to all.  Redemption is not accomplished merely through Jesus secretly and privately for a limited number of predestined persons.  Jesus does not merely implement God’s decision to save his elect, but rather, redemption and reconciliation are actually found “in Christ Jesus.  God put Christ Jesus “forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” (3:24, 25, ESV) We have “obtain access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” (5:2, ESV) Therefore this redemption is accessible and obtainable by all.  In contrast, Calvinist grace is both limited and static.  It refers to God’s decision in eternity past to save some and not others.  Therefore, it is mysterious (in a non-biblical sense), static in the sense that it is already determined for every individual, and christologically inadequate in that, as I have shown from various texts, saving grace is actually to be found in the person of Jesus.  On Calvinism nothing more or less “gracious” can be “obtained” to affect one’s life or eternal destiny by God “putting forward” Christ Jesus.  All is fixed.  It is hard to grasp Paul’s thought here of being able to “gain access…into this grace” if grace is God’s fixed, unconditioned, uninfluenced, predetermined decision to save some sinners over other sinners.

In contrast to this, one may “gain access” only if a way has been opened and that way is presently available.  That way is “in Christ,” which is a major recurring theme in Paul’s thought.[29]  We obtain access “into” this grace.  Note that this “access” occurs “by faith.”  This confirms the nature of faith discussed in previous chapters and will be examined in the next chapter.  Faith must mean something more than simply that God willed to “work faith” in his predestined elect.  The meaning of having obtained access “by faith into this grace in which we stand…” surely cannot be merely a descriptive reference to what happens to those chosen to be saved who, as the Calvinist insists, are “altogether passive therein.”  Rather, for Paul, the response of faith is dynamic and possible for all sinners. And since saving grace has already been given in Christ, therefore saving grace or salvation is something to be actively entered into by faith in Christ.  As such it comes to all as a gospel or “good news” call to come to Christ and be saved.  That “good news” message is the grace of God in action.

Paul discusses the nature of faith in detail in Romans 4.  Faith as described there is clearly incoherent with the idea of an unconditional election that restricts the ability to believe to a phenomenon granted by God only for the elect.  The confusion in Calvinist thought is to perceive faith as a “meritorious work.”  As I will show in the next chapter, this is not the biblical teaching.  To say that God’s grace, defined as his predestinating choice, is what causes faith to become a reality in an elect few is to turn Paul’s soteriology on its head.  Let’s continue in Romans 5 to confirm Paul’s universal view of salvation.

Romans 5:6

              “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (NIV)

Note that the death of Christ is for the “ungodly.”  Does Paul use the word “ungodly” here simply as a synonym for “the elect?”  Or should “ungodly” be qualified to be referring to the “ungodly elect?”  Is Paul really meaning to say “for the ungodly, that is, those who are the ungodly elect?”  For the Calvinist Paul must mean that, for Christ only dies for the elect.  But this Calvinist theology is incoherent with this text.  It imposes upon the text something foreign to the whole context.  The more natural interpretation here is that Christ dies for everyone because everyone fits into this category of “ungodly.” That was established in Romans 3:23.

The Calvinist confusion here is thinking of Christ’s death as being a “failure” or a “waste” if there are not particular persons for whom his death will apply.  Christ could not have died for everyone, for if  he had, everyone must then be saved lest Christ death be ineffective or to no avail in those who do not believe.  Calvinists state that Christ’s death must be effective (efficacious), it must accomplish the salvation of particular individuals.  Therefore, there must be an elect for whom his death must apply. If there are any that are not saved, and there surely are, Christ could not have died for them otherwise the work of Christ is somehow “wasted” or it “failed.”

But if this salvation is a “gift,” as Paul indicates in Rom. 5:15ff., and that gift is received by faith, and if Jesus’ death opened a way to the Father for all sinners, it does not follow to think of his death as a quantity that has a definite, limited “supply” of grace, but in terms of its quality and sufficiency in and of itself and its efficacy only in the context of a response of faith.  If people remain in unbelief, it is through their own stubborn willfulness that they do so, and their sins also remain theirs and judgment must follow (Jn. 3:14-18).  As we will see in Rom. 5:8, Christ’s death is the demonstration of God’s love.  Love risks rejection, but this is no less love, and there is no love lost.  What “task” did Christ perform on the cross?  Did he die to provide the way of salvation for all, or did he die to save only a chosen, limited number?  From what Paul writes I can only conclude the former.  The concern over the “success” of Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice, that he may have died for nothing, or his work is somehow wasted on unbelievers, is foreign to the text.  These ideas and concerns arise only because the Calvinist theological scheme amounts to a universal divine causal determinism. (See “Chapter 4: Why the Calvinist Views of Sovereignty and Salvation are Certainly False”)

Romans 5:8 and Issues of Assurance and “Manifest Evidences”

              “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (NIV)

This is an extremely significant verse.  It is essential to observe here that the demonstration of God’s love for us is found in the death of Christ.  In light of the doctrine of unconditional election, a major problem within Calvinism is how I can assuredly know what God’s salvific disposition is towards me?  Is he kindly disposed towards me and elected me to eternal salvation or is he malevolently predisposed towards me and predetermined me for eternal torment?  This verse clearly states that for one to know that God loves them they do not have to pry into the eternal counsel of God in eternity past to see if they are unconditionally elected to salvation, which of course they cannot do.  Neither do they base their assurance of God’s love for them upon practical “manifest evidences” from which one can only surmise that they might be among the elect.  Regarding Christian evidences and persevering in the faith, how does that help me to know that I am presently and assuredly loved by God?  How could I be assured that I am among the elect?  Is it based in each person’s subjective experience?  Is assurance of salvation based in whether or not I will continue to experience those “manifest evidences?”  But our future’s are also beyond our knowing.  And for all the exhortations from Calvinists to leave the question of your unconditional election to rest, it persists as essential to our knowledge of what God is like and what is the nature of his saving relationship to us. These issues are far too weighty to dismiss or leave in abeyance.

The fact that no one knows – either the Calvinist preacher or the one hearing about Calvinism – whether God has chosen them to salvation or not raises other interesting problems for the Calvinist.

First, on what logical or moral basis does the Calvinist’s ignorance of a person’s elect or non-elect status give them license to speak as if they knew the truth of a person’s elect or non-elect status?  To give the impression that you know what is true about a person’s eternal destiny when you do not know what is true about a person’s eternal destiny, is to tell a lie.

Second, how does the Calvinist know they themselves are among the elect?  If they say no one should concern themselves with the issue of their election, then it seems that this biblical doctrine (as the Calvinist defines it) is irrelevant.  It really has no meaningful application to salvation or practical living.  This is a strong indication that the Calvinist’s interpretation of this doctrine is simply wrong.  In fact, I argue that the Calvinist’s doctrine of election as unconditional and directly related to salvation cannot be put into the service of the gospel as “good news” and is indeed antithetical to the gospel message.  This too, in and of itself, is a strong indicator that it is biblically incorrect.  I find it hard to detect positive meaning, purpose or rational coherence in knowing that God has done something with respect to my eternal destiny that I cannot know. Just knowing that God has chosen some people to be eternally saved and others eternally damned is at best a nebulous kind of knowledge with respect to anyone’s thinking or living, at worst, it is a despairing thought.

Therefore, thirdly, if the Calvinist responds, “Only our doctrine of election can provide the assurance that we will live out a life pleasing to God with confidence because it is all up to God and not us,” the non-Calvinist responds, “One’s claim and confidence that they have been unconditionally elected by God amounts to a presumption one makes about themselves.  Rather, what we non-Calvinists find assurance in is the work of Christ on our behalf precisely because it applies to all sinners, and we rest in the promise and power of God to keep us, not a presumption that we are among a limited number God predestined to salvation.”  Since the Calvinist is not privy to the decision of God as to who is elect, the Calvinist must presuppose his own election.  Their elect status is a presupposition they make about themselves.  Without any knowledge of who is elect, Calvinists simply deem themselves to be favored by God in this way.

Fourthly, if they say they know they are elect by the witness of the Spirit or “manifest evidences” that accompany salvation, then it seems to me they are basing their salvation in their own subjective experience.  Even if these experiences are genuine, what is there to assure the Calvinist that they will be lasting indications of their election?  In fact, they will not last if they are not among the elect.  Indeed, Calvin himself places this uncertainty upon the Calvinist when he writes,

“There is a general call by which God invites all equally to himself through the outward preaching of the word – even those to whom he holds it out as a savor of death [cf. 2 Cor. 2:16], and as the occasion of severer condemnation.  The other kind of call is special, which he deigns for the most part to give to the believer alone…Yet sometimes he also causes those whom he illumines only for a time to partake of it; then he justly forsakes them on account of their ungratefulness and strikes them with an even greater blindness.”[30]

Therefore, personal experience or “manifest evidences” are a frail reed when it comes to the assurance of one’s unconditional election.  Although you think you are saved because you experience something you equate to an evidence of your election, you may actually not be among the elect.  Calvin admits this,

“God certainly bestows His Spirit of regeneration only on the elect…But I do not see that this is any reason why he should not touch the reprobate with a taste of His grace, or illumine their minds with some glimmerings of His light, or affect them with some sense of his goodness, or to some extent engrave His Word in their hearts.  Otherwise where would be that passing faith which Mark mentions (4:17)?  Therefore, there is some knowledge in the reprobate, which later vanishes away.”[31]

And in the Westminster Confession of Faith article 10, “Of Effectual Calling,” in section 4 we read,

“Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved.” (Italics mine.)

Fifthly, the question must be raised as to what was the precise content of the “gospel” message Calvinists heard so that God could effect their predestined salvation in them?  I can almost guarantee that the Calvinist soteriological doctrines were not what they heard at first.  This is confirmed by the Calvinist’s evangelistic admonition that these doctrines be kept a secret until one becomes a “believer.”  This is a tacit admission that the doctrines do not support evangelism and therefore can only be embraced by those who may be inclined to deem themselves elect after they are told “God loves you” and “Jesus died for you” and are “invited” and/or “commanded” to believe the true biblical “good news” so that you may be “born from above” and have eternal life.  Calvinists become saved by hearing a different message than their own soteriology teaches.  They must have been assured that God loves them “in Christ” and that atonement was made for them personally and individually and that they can and should believe this “good news” that surely applies to them.  They must have heard a message of biblical hope, not “I hope so.”  To have heard the message of Calvinism would have left them without any hope or assurance that they are among the elect unless they are encouraged to presume so.  Therefore, the Calvinist, only subsequently, for various reasons as they understand them, embraces Calvinism as their theological system.

The point is that one must be able to know what is the sure foundation for one’s spiritual life and eternal destiny.  But the Calvinist can never know, either objectively on the basis of their interpretation of Scripture, or subjectively on the basis of their experience.

But Paul has not left us in doubt here.  For one to know if God’s love is extended to them, that God is kindly disposed towards them, that they have the assurance of God’s Spirit never leaving or forsaking them, that nothing can separate them from the love of God and that He will always provide the needed strength and support until life is over, one can look to Christ and the cross!  This stands in complete contradiction to a settled decree regarding one’s eternal destiny which one can never know with respect to themselves or others.  It stands in complete contradiction to the idea of presuming one’s own election and looking for evidences to confirm that election.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones is quoted as saying, “What matters is not what I feel is true about myself at any moment, but what I know is true about God at every moment.”[32]  In Christ I know God loves me.  In Calvinism God’s love for me is unknowable, for upon what basis does the Calvinist assure himself or others of God’s love?  The issue is critical in the proclamation of the “good news” to sinners.  Even those who are indifferent to hearing the gospel or listen without visible response, need to hear and know that Christ died for them and God loves them.

            Now Calvinists will again object that they look to the cross to know the love of God.  But it is precisely my point that these words not only ring hollow in light of their prior determinism, but are incoherent with that determinism.  Amidst the claims, exhortations, pleadings, invitations to look to Christ on the cross for your salvation and to know the love of God, above and behind them, over-shadowing them and over-riding them is the Calvinist’s absolute decree which has fixed all things in dark mystery.  For the Calvinist, the most that Christ could offer personally to any individual is the implementation of God’s eternal decree.  But then we are still left without insight or hope due to the all-encompassing decree.  How will I know I am among the elect?  Has Christ died for me?  Does God love me?

            In contrast, the Bible presents Christ for sinners, that is all of us, and because of simple faith in the living, present, personal Christ we are assured of God’s love.  The Calvinist might respond, “Well Paul is talking about God’s love for the elect.”  They may say that Paul is writing to Christians, so “us” refers to believers, and that means they must be elect because no one can believe unless they are elect.  But this would be to read the text through the Reformed Calvinist presuppositions.  This does not come from the text itself and indeed again, the text itself, even as Calvinists might interpret it as knowing the love of God in Christ’s death would be a claim incoherent with their “sovereign grace.”  Can we really limit the “us” to mean “the elect” given the context and the natural implications and flow of thought of Paul’s argument right from the beginning of Romans?  Upon what exegetical or interpretive basis could it be argued that Paul is restricting this love of God to Roman Christians whom Paul perceives are “the elect” predestined to salvation?  Since no one knows who the elect are in this sense, then Paul doesn’t know either.  He presumes too much when he says that God demonstrates his own love “for us” if he is referring only to the predestined elect gathered in Rome.  Rather, God’s love is demonstrated for all to see in Christ’s death.  The scope here is universal; the “powerless,” the “ungodly” and “sinners.”  Calvinists will point out that love is often “particular” or “exclusive,” as in a marriage, therefore God’s love is of this type – exclusive. But using that logic God should only love one other person.  But they say he loves only certain ones – the elect – and no others.  But why this arbitrariness in God’s love?  In contrast, biblically speaking, any exclusivity of the love of God centers on his Church which is constituted of those who respond in faith to the demonstration of his love for all sinners “in Christ.”  Yes, God’s love is discriminating.  It discriminates on the basis of whether or not one responds in faith to the love God demonstrates to all sinners “in Christ.”  Christ is the focal point for an assured, restored relationship to God.  Regarding our reconciliation Paul writes,   

“For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  And not only that, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.” (Rom. 5:10-11, CSB)

God’s love is unlimited in its scope and sufficiency for it is demonstrated to us “while we were yet sinners.” (5:9) Indeed, he died “for us.”  This also cannot be understood as limited.  Jesus said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all[33] men unto me.” (John 12:32) This expresses the unified desire of the Father and Jesus that in the death of Christ all men will have put before them the way of salvation.

The central crisis point of all history has arrived.  Each man has to do with what God has accomplished and his love for them “demonstrated” in Christ.  No one can escape the decisive implications of Jesus’ death on the cross.  If Jesus be exalted as the one and only savior of the world, then through faith in him all may obtain salvation.  Yet, in rejecting him one remains in sin with judgment to follow.  Thus, we have the Bible everywhere testifying to a soteriology of conditionality, which is incoherent with a soteriology of unconditionality and determinism.

Backing up to verse 6 we find a similar phrase and thought – “while we were still helpless” (CSB) or “while we were still weak” (ESV).  Who are the “we?”  All men as sinners.  Christ’s death is “for us” even while we were still sinners.  It is sufficient for all and makes salvation a possibility for all.  Paul juxtaposes our spiritual condition and the “time” element of Christ’s death to point out that if he did what he did when we were “still sinners” and “powerless,” then how much more will he do for us in the future, that is, be saved from his wrath and be saved by his life (vss. 9, 10).  Not only did we not have to improve ourselves for us to be saved, we didn’t even have to improve ourselves for God to demonstrate his love for us in Christ’s death on our behalf.  Christ is the central focus for all spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3ff.).  The Calvinist perspective obscures these blessings by a secret decree of God to predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation for reasons unknown.  Christ then would simply implement God’s eternal decision to save some.  In contrast the biblical presentation is that Jesus’ death is the demonstration of God’s love to each one of us individually and personally.  God, in Christ, comes to each life, offering the salvation he has wrought as a present, accessible reality for all who will believe.  Now, some Calvinists might say they agree with this sentiment to avoid the mischaracterization of Reformed grace as an impersonal force acting upon people.  Yet they retain the irresistibility of Reformed grace rooted in a theistic determinism.  Grace is still the eternal decision of God to save some.  As a decision to save a predestined, limited number of elect persons, grace does not extend to all and Christ’s work merely implements the eternal decision of God to save the elect.  In contrast, saving grace comes to all.  Paul emphasizes this grace in Romans 5:15ff.

Romans 5:17

            In Romans 5:12-14 Paul writes about Adam’s sin which spread to all men.  In verses 15 to 17 he relates it to the “free gift” and the “abundance” or “overflow of grace.”  In Romans 5:17 we read,

“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (ESV)

“If by the one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive the overflow of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (CSB)

Here we have another important verse that confirms the universal provision of God’s grace in Christ.  Paul is stating clearly that all persons have set before them an abundant “provision of grace.” (NIV) This is because, as we have seen, grace has been provided in Christ (John 1:14-17).  Grace is not God’s choice of some to be saved out of all undeserving sinners, but that as undeserving sinners we are objects of God’s saving work in Christ.  Surely, as the whole context up to this point supports, “those who receive” refers to the potential for all men to either appropriate God’s provision of grace or reject it.  John puts it this way,

“But to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (Jn. 1:12, ESV)

When Paul writes “those who receive the abundance of grace,” it is hard to think that he is only describing the experience of a limited, predestined elect.  By the phrase, “those who receive,” the Calvinist would intend us to understand “those who are predestined to salvation evidenced by their reception of God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness.”  But on what interpretive contextual grounds can it be shown that the passage is merely descriptive of the spiritual experience of an elect, as if to limit or transform the meaning of “those” to “the elect?”  Rather, taken in a straightforward sense, the passage is speaking about God’s “abundant provision of grace” and the “gift of righteousness” that can be had by anyone who will receive it by faith.  The metaphor of a “gift” as applied to righteousness is clear.  Gifts are freely given and require reception on the part of those to whom the gift is offered.  Gifts must be received.  “Those who receive” can only be taken in an unrestricted sense in this context.  It refers to all and any sinner.  For to whomever the gift is offered in the gospel, it may be received or rejected.

Thus, the Calvinist equates God’s “grace” with his eternal predestinating decision to save some out of all sinners, none of which deserve to be saved.  But this is incoherent with Paul’s thought here in Romans 5.  In contrast, biblically speaking, God’s grace is the divine undeserved favor expressed in an action of God who purposed and planned the way of salvation for all undeserving sinners “in Christ.”  This purpose and plan of God also included the means by which salvation is appropriated by the sinner, that is, by faith.  The fact that this salvation is “good news” to those who hear, and not based in any merit, status, or work of the sinner to earn God’s favor, makes faith the only appropriate response of the sinner to God’s saving grace found in Christ.  Precisely because God has linked this saving grace to the response of faith, it is therefore available to all.  Faith is the God ordained means by which that saving grace is appropriated by the sinner to themselves.  God’s grace is therefore found “in Christ.”  It is grace that is received in believing.  Christ is the revelation of God’s love and provision of God’s grace to us.  It is not an “irresistible grace” necessitated by an eternal decision of God to save only particular individuals and not to save all others.  It is not an “effectual call” in this sense.  Hence, Vernon C. Grounds describes the nature of grace as God acting in Christ to bring about our salvation,

“… grace is God redemptively in action through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.  Personal through and through, grace, let it be repeated, is God acting.  John 1:14 stresses the Christocentric personalism of grace: ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”[34]

The gospel would then lack the nature of a proclamation of “good news” in the sense of a universal invitation to sinners to be saved.  Biblically speaking, certainly God decided something.  But in contrast to Calvinist “grace” as a deterministic exclusivism, what God decided was to be gracious to all “in Christ” through whom he accomplished the way of salvation for all undeserving, helpless sinners.  Furthermore, the Bible is clear that what God also decided to do as part of this gracious salvation is design it so that it is offered to us on the basis of faith alone.  Faith is perfectly suited as a response of the sinner, as a sinner, to appropriate God’s salvation.  It is the only response that allows for the free decision of the sinner to be involved in receiving salvation yet without involving anything on the part of the sinner that would result in having to merit that salvation or lead to boasting.  The response of faith is void of all such self-recognition, self-exaltation, or self-salvation, yet it makes salvation available to all.  Faith dismisses anything and everything about a person that from our human point of view might foster a claim to an advantage with God or over another person in the eyes of God.  All may exercise simple trust and believe “in Christ.”  Salvation is not granted upon any human device, economic or social status, religious devotion or works, or even being of the heritage of the people of God, that is, a Jew – those God himself chose, established, and called his own!  One’s saving relationship to God always was and still is based upon the sinner’s response of faith in the God of our salvation (see Gen 15:6; Rom. 4).  In fact, salvation is by faith so that now even the Gentiles (all the other people in the world who are not among the chosen people of God (i.e., the Jews), can be reckoned among the people of God!  It is by faith so that salvation may be had by all! (Rom. 11:32) Now that’s a gospel that can be proclaimed as truly “good news!”  What a wonderful salvation!  (Rom. 11:33-36) Furthermore, this understanding engenders no incoherence with the biblical texts and best accounts for the full scope of the biblical witness. That’s a good hermeneutic!

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[1] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. “χάρις”, pp. 1080.

[2] Ibid. 1079 – 1081.

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 122.

[4] Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 17.

[5] What made God choose one person over another is a subsequent complex and troubling question for Calvinists.  It cannot be cavalierly dismissed.  I suggest that the reasons given by Calvinists, “the good pleasure of his will” or “to show his wrath,” etc., are insufficient and an improper application to this problem of these phrases found in Ephesians and Romans.  These difficulties of divine morality and justice inherent within Calvinism are indeed grave, and I believe are insurmountable.  I highly recommend the essay by Jerry L. Walls, “Divine Commands, Predestination and Moral Intuition” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).  He does an excellent job assessing and communicating the importance of the moral issue raised here.  See also David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).  Chapter 4 “A Reformed Tradition Not Quite Right” assesses the problem of the premature dismissal of “philosophy” (clear thinking) inherent in Reformed hermeneutics.

[6] J. I. Packer, “God,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd. ed., (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1996), 424.

[7] R. A. Finlayson and P. F. Jensen, “God,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd. ed., (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1996), 418-419.

[8] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Exodus,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 479.

[9] Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol.1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 484.

[10] Ibid. 485.

[11] Ibid. 485.

[12] Herman N. Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 49.

[13] Ibid., 54.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 56

[16] Ibid.

[17] I do believe that the Calvinist would also claim this understanding of grace when they speak about how salvation was wrought for the elect in Christ.  But “grace” in Calvinist theology is primarily used with reference to the decision of God to save some.  Only within that framework do they additionally reference the person and work of Christ as “God’s grace.”

[18] Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 160.  From Billy Graham, Unto the Hills, (Waco TX: Word, 1986), 289.

[19] Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 159.  From Billy Graham, World Aflame, (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 263.

[20] Franklin Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 160.  From Billy Graham, Day by Day (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide, 1965), March 23.

[21] Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock, (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 21, 22.

[22] Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, ed. Cleon Rogers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 654-655.

[23] Ibid., 655

[24] James Montgomery Boice, “Galatians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 426.

[25] Bruce, p. 123.  Cf. Eph. 2:18; 3:12; I Pet 3:18; Xenophon, Cyr. 1.3.8; 7.5.4.

[26] C. E. B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary: Romans, vol. 1. (London: T&T Clark, 1979), 259.

[27] As discussed previously another example of the Calvinist’s redefinition of terms is the use of the word “free” in the phrase “free grace.”  In Calvinist thought “free” means “without external influence.”  Nothing has influenced God’s decision to choose to save some and not others except that he himself willed it.  Nothing outside of God himself contributes to what he decided with respect to any individual’s eternal destiny.  So “free grace” means that one is saved by the uninfluenced choice of God to save them.  If it is otherwise, even with respect to the necessity of faith, God and his decision would not be “free.”  One cannot believe unless God works faith in them and this work of God only occurs in the elect.  For the Calvinist, if believing were an ability the sinner retains via the exercise of the will, then they would be contributing something to their salvation.  Their salvation would ultimately depend upon their ability and would be considered by the Calvinist to be a contributing “work” to their salvation.  Man, as fallen and sinful, has no such ability within himself to believe.

In contrast, “free” in non-Calvinist contexts means “without cost.”  That is, the salvation provided by God’s grace (in the non-Calvinist sense) comes to one freely, without any earthly, human merit or qualifications attached.  It does not select or exclude any persons.  It is of the nature of God and all things being equal with sinners as sinners his grace extends to all.   It is “free” in that it need not, indeed it cannot, be earned in any way.  In this sense also it comes to all men everywhere for them to receive and that simply and only by faith which is not considered a “work,” “meritorious” or a “contribution” to one’s salvation.

Therefore, ironically, it is Calvinism that binds God’s sovereign freedom by insisting God could not decree a salvation that depends upon the genuine response of faith from fallen sinners to his grace demonstrated in the work in Christ on their behalf.

[28] Again, certain commentator’s see this verse as applying only to “standing” of the believer.  They emphasize, for instance, that the imagery from the OT tabernacle and temple may be in Paul’s thinking here. 

[29] “In Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “in the Beloved,” “through Jesus Christ,” or “in him” is stated 12 times in the first 14 verses of Ephesians 1.  This is highly significant for understanding Paul’s primary emphasis in speaking about being “chosen” and “predestined.”  Calvinists surely point out that their theology is certainly Christ-centered.  But what they can only mean by this is that Christ implements the salvation of the elect.  “In Christ” cannot refer to the personal dynamic that in the gospel message Jesus is a present reality being assuredly and genuinely offered to all sinners as the way of salvation for them individually and personally.  I highly recommend reading the section “Is The Offer Of Salvation To All Persons Genuine” in Jerry L. Walls & Joseph R. Dongell, Why I am Not A Calvinist, (IVP: Downers Grove, 2004), 169-173.

[30] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.8

[31] I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God, 3rd. ed. (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), 143.

[32] From Josh Moody, No Other Gospel: 31 Reasons from Galatians Why Justification by Faith Alone Is the Only Gospel, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 189.

[33] Even if interpreted as “types of men,” all individuals are still included in some “type” or another.

[34] Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), 24.

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