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The Meaning of Grace
John T. Mueller*

The Grace of God Toward fallen Mankind.

1. The Necessity of Divine Grace.

According to the express teaching of Holy Scripture no man after the Fall can be justified and saved by the deeds of the Law, or through good works. Rom. 3,20: "By the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight." All who endeavor to acquire salvation by the works of the Law shall not be justified, but damned. Gal. 3,10: "As many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse." The reason for this is that no man after the Fall can fulfil the divine Law or satisfy the claims of divine justice. Rom. 3,10: "There is none righteous, no, not one"; 3,23: "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." Hence, so far as the divine Law is concerned, all men after the Fall are forever lost and condemned, Matt. 19,26; Rom. 8,3.4.

Yet, as Scripture clearly teaches, it is the gracious will of God that not a single sinner in the world be lost, 2 Pet. 3,9; 1 Tim. 2,4. For this reason God has most mercifully provided a way of salvation by which every sinner can be saved, John 3,16; Matt. 18,11, namely, the way of grace, through faith in Christ, without the works of the Law. Rom. 3,24: "Being justified freely by His grace, dorean te autou chariti, through the redemption, dia tes apolutroseos, the ransom, that is in Christ Jesus"; Eph. 2, 8.9; "By grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast." This gracious way of salvation is revealed in the Gospel, for which reason this is called "the Gospel of the grace of God," Acts 20,24. The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is both the basic and the distinctive article of Christianity, by which it is distinguished from all man-made religions as the only true and divine religion, Mark 16,15.16; Acts 4,12; for whereas all man-made religions teach salvation by works, Christianity proclaims as its central and fundamental message the gracious remission of sin through faith in Christ Jesus, Acts 10,43; 26,18.

Since sinful man is saved alone by grace, the Scriptural statements that sinners are saved by the Gospel, Rom. 1,16, or by Baptism, 1 Pet. 3,21, or by faith, Luke 7,50, must all be understood in relation to saving grace. In particular, they are descriptive of the means by which saving grace is conferred and appropriated without any merit, or work, on the part of the sinner. To be saved by the Gospel, by Baptism, by faith, etc., means to be saved by grace, without the deeds of the Law, through the divinely appointed means, by which alone the merits of Christ can be received.

From the viewpoint of fallen man we speak of the necessity of divine grace, since without grace it is impossible for the sinner to be saved. However, from the viewpoint of God divine grace must be viewed, not as necessary, but as free, because God was not moved by any necessity inherent in His essence to save guilty mankind, but alone by His mercy and compassion, John 3,16; Luke 1,78. Deus est causa libera beatitudinis nosfrae. The view that the redemption of the world was a necessary unfolding of the divine essence must be rejected as a pantheistic delusion.

2. Definition of Divine Grace.

Saving grace (gratia salvifica, charis soterios), by which God is moved to forgive sin and to bestow salvation upon fallen mankind, is His gracious disposition (gratuitus Dei favor), or benevolent inclination, mediated through Christ's vicarious atonement, revealed in the Gospel, and witnessed to the world in order that it may be believed by all men, Rom. 3,24.25; John 20,31. Luther: "God's love or favor, which He cherishes toward us in Himself"; "Gottes Huld oder Gunst, die er zu uns traegt bei sich selbst." Gratia Del aliquid in Deo, sc. affectus Del benevolus, est non qualitas animi in horninibus. Synonyms of grace, in this sense, are love (John 3,16), mercy (Titus 3,5), kindness (Titus 3,4), etc., all of which describe more fully God's benevolent disposition by which He is moved not to condemn, but to save, fallen mankind by faith in His beloved Son.

Although the term grace properly denotes God's unmerited favor in Christ Jesus, Scripture uses it also to describe the spiritual gifts or excellences which God, as the gracious Lord, works in all believers and by virtue of which they begin to fulfil the Law (willing and faithful service, 1 Pet. 4,10; patience in suffering, 1 Pet. 2,19; conscientious administration of the office of the ministry, Rom. 15,15.16; etc.). In this case the effect, by way of metonymy, is named after the cause, or the gifts of grace are named after their divine Source. Nomen gratiae per metonymiam [effectus pro causal] pro donis ex benevolentia Dei in nos collatis sumitur.

Grace in this sense must be definitely excluded as a cause of forgiveness of sin and salvation, since Scripture teaches expressly that the sinner is justified and saved without the deeds of the Law, Rom. 3,28; Eph. 2,8.9. The believer owes his salvation not to inherent or infused grace, or the grace which is in him, but alone to the benevolent disposition in God, or the gratuitus Del favor. In other words, when we say that we are saved by grace, we do not refer to divine grace as it exerts itself in us, but as it is found outside of us, in God. So also faith does not justify and save either as a good quality (nova qualitas), or as a good work (opus per se dignurn), or as a gift of God (donum Spiritus Sancti), or as a source of good works in us, but alone as the receiving means (organon leptikon), by which man, who in himself is ungodly, appropriates to himself the grace of God and the merits of Christ through implicit trust in the promises of the Gospel.

In short, faith justifies solely by virtue of its object, which is Jesus Christ, the Crucified, Gal. 2,16; 1 Cor. 2,2. Luther: Non per se aut virtute aliqua intrinseca fides iustificat, sed simpliciter quatenus habet se correlative ad Christum. This truth Scripture teaches clearly by placing faith in opposition to works whenever it describes the way in which the sinner is justified. Rom. 4,5: "To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness"; Eph. 2,8.9: "By grace are ye saved, through faith, . . . not of works."

This sharp distinction between grace as God's unmerited favor and grace as a gift of God (donurn gratiae) in the article of justification is of the greatest importance; for all who teach that grace in the sense of infused grace (gratia infusa) is either the sole or a concomitant cause of justification inculcate salvation by works and have fallen from grace, Gal. 5,4. In reality, while retaining the Christian terminology, they are teaching the paganistic doctrine of work-righteousness.

This pernicious mingling of grace and the gifts of grace is the basic error of the Roman Catholic Church, which in the Decisions of the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, Can. XI) has anathematized the definition of justifying grace as gratuitus Del favor, from which infused grace must be rigidly excluded. But also the Reformed are obliged to rely on infused grace for justification since they deny that God's grace (gratia universalis) is seriously offered to all sinners in the Gospel and the Sacraments. They are therefore compelled to rely for the personal assurance of their justification on something within themselves or upon their renewal, or their good works, in short, upon infused grace. The same is true of all enthusiasts who assume a revealing and sanctifying operation of the Holy Ghost outside the divinely appointed means of grace (the Word and the Sacraments), no matter by what names they may be known. Zwingli, in Fidel Ratio: "Dux autem vel vehiculurn Spiritui non est necessariurn." Since in this case the believer cannot rely for justification and salvation on the objective promises of God, he must rely on the feeling of grace (sensus gratiae) within his heart, or upon divine grace as it exerts itself in him.

It is true, wherever the grace of God in Christ Jesus is accepted in true faith, there good works must needs follow, and at times there will also be the comforting feeling of divine grace. But if the believer puts his trust in his spiritual renewal or in the presence of grace in his heart, Christ's perfect work of redemption, or the objective reconciliation effected by Him, 2 Cor. 5,19, is denied. But then also the essence of justifying faith, which is trust in the objective divine promises of grace, Rom. 4,18.25, is denied. In the final analysis, then, also the certainty of salvation must be denied; for if salvation is based upon good works, such a person's hope of heaven is absolutely futile.

By reaffirming the true definition of justifying grace as gratuitus Del favor and excluding from it the false conception of infused grace, correcting in this respect even St. Augustine, the Church of the Reformation returned to the apostolic purity of the Christian faith. The confessional Lutheran Church of America follows in the footsteps of the great Reformer and in the article of justification sharply distinguishes between grace and the gifts of grace, or between God's unmerited favor and its benefactions in the believer's heart. For this reason it constantly bears witness not only against Catholicism, Zwinglianism, and enthusiasm, but also against synergism (Arminianism), which denies the sola gratia and places the cause of man's justification to some extent in him (aliquid in homine), thus inducing him to trust for salvation both in divine grace and in human goodness.

While the synergists include man's moral conduct, or his self-decision, or his right attitude toward grace, in justifying faith, the Arminians insist that justifying faith embraces also the good works of believers. According to their teaching the believer, seeking assurance of his salvation, must trust in the divine grace within himself (gratia infusa), or in his sanctification.

From the above it is obvious how important it is for the Christian theologian to maintain the Scriptural definition of justifying grace; for without it he can neither teach the true doctrine of justification as revealed in the Gospel nor exclude from justification the doctrine of salvation by good works, nor can he rightly comfort any sinner who seeks assurance of salvation. Hence, wherever the Scriptural doctrine of justifying grace is perverted, the entire Christian doctrine becomes corrupted and paganized. It is for this reason that Luther and all orthodox Lutheran theologians so earnestly insisted upon having this Bible doctrine taught in the Church, that justifying grace is God's unmerited favor in Christ Jesus. The Apology declares: "It is necessary that in the Church of Christ the Gospel be retained, i.e., the promise that for Christ's sake sins are freely remitted. Those who teach nothing of this faith . . . altogether abolish the Gospel." (Art. IV (II), 120. Triglotta, p.155.) Chemnitz says: "Gratia in articulo justificationis intelligenda est de sola gratuita misericordia Dei." With this definition of justifying grace the Christian Church stands or falls (articuius stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).

3. Attributes of Justifying Grace.

The attributes, or adjuncts, of justifying grace are as follows:

a. Justifying grace is grace in Christ. Justifying grace is not absolute grace, or grace bestowed upon the sinner by a fiat of the divine sovereign will, but grace mediated through Christ, or grace in or for the sake of Christ. In other words, according to Scripture, God is gracious to sinful and condemned mankind only in view of the fact that the incarnate Son of God through His vicarious atonement (satisfactio vicaria) has ransomed all sinners from the curse and condemnation of the Law. Rom. 3,24: "Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." The price which Christ paid for the redemption of guilty mankind was that He of His own free will placed Himself both under the obligation (Gal. 4,4.5, obedientia activa) and the curse and punishment (Gal. 3,13, obedientia passiva) of the divine Law which man had violated.

Divine grace therefore does not exclude divine justice (iustitia Del vindicativa), but rather presupposes or implies the satisfaction of its demands through Christ's vicarious death, Rom. 8,3.4. For this reason the Gospel, which offers divine grace to all men, Titus 2,11, is not a message of grace apart from Christ's death (Modernists, rationalists, Harnack: "The Son of God does not belong into the Gospel"), but "the Word of Reconciliation," logos tes katallages, 2 Cor. 5,19, that is, the unique message that God "hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ," or that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself."

Scripture thus leaves no room for grace without the payment of the penalty of man's sin. God neither forgives sin by ignoring His justice, nor does He accept the worthless ransom-price (good works), which men offer Him to satisfy the eternal claims of His justice. Divine grace for sinners could be secured only through the unspeakable sacrifice of Christ's vicarious obedience, Heb. 7,26.27; Eph. 2,13-16; Col. 1,20-22. Hence the axiom: "Divine grace and human merit exclude each other; but divine grace includes the divine merits of Christ."

Luther very aptly writes on this subject: "I have often said before that faith in God alone is not sufficient, for also the costs must be paid. The Turks and the Jews also believe in God, but without the means and the costs. And what is the cost? That the Gospel shows. . . Christ here teaches that we are not lost, but have eternal life, that is, that God so loved us that He was willing to pay the cost, the putting of His only, beloved Child into our misery, into hell and death, which He made Him drink to the dregs." (St. L., XI, 1085ff.) Again: "Though grace is given to us for nothing, so that it does not cost us anything, yet it cost some one else on our behalf very much; for it has been secured through an uncountable, infinite treasure, namely, through God's Son Himself." (Ibid.)

Such questions as, "Could not God be gracious to men because of His sovereign power as supreme Judge, without Christ's atonement?" or, "Is it not a thought unworthy of God that His grace toward sinners had first to be purchased by the perfect obedience of His Son?" are both useless and foolish; for the fact that God is gracious to sinners only for Christ's sake is emphatically stated in His Word and must be believed by all men if they desire to obtain divine grace and eternal life, 2 Cor. 5,18-20. All who teach that God is gracious to sinners without the death of Christ (Unitarians, Modernists, Ritschl, Harnack, etc.) reject the Christian faith, champion pagan doctrine, and are outside the pale of the Christian Church; for the Christian Church is the communion of believers who trust in the gracious remission of their sins through the blood of Christ, Gal. 3,26; Eph. 1,7. So Chemnitz writes: Extra Christum nulla gratia et misericordia Del erga peccatores nec debet nec potest recte cogitan. (Harm. Ev., c. 28, p.152.) Hence those who deny Christ's vicarious atonement likewise deny the grace of God.

However, divine grace is denied also by those who claim that Christ's atonement was in itself not adequate as a ransom, but was declared and accepted as such for the acquittal of the sinner by God's own mere volition (the theory of acceptilation; Scotists, Arminians). This theory, in the final analysis, ascribes the forgiveness of sins to God's sovereign will and thus reduces the value of Christ's vicarious suffering and death. But Scripture bases divine grace not merely in part, but wholly on Christ's atoning work, so that there is no grace for sinners but that which is in Christ Jesus, Rom. 3,24; Acts 4,12. According to Scripture the expression "the Gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20,24) and "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2,2) are synonymous, so that he who preaches the one must preach also the other.

The Augsburg Confession emphasizes this truth when it says: "Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who by His death has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight, Rom. 3 and 4." (Art. IV. Cp. also Luther, St. L., XII, 261ff.)

b. Justifying grace is universal (gratia universalis). The unmerited favor and love of God in Christ Jesus extends not merely to some (the elect), but to all men without exception. Gratia Del salvifica erga homines lapsos non particularis, sed universalis est. This paramount truth Scripture teaches in all passages in which it declares (a) that Christ is the Savior of the whole world, of all men, John 3,16; 1,29; 1 John 2,2; 1 Tim. 2,4; Titus 2,11; (b) that God earnestly desires that each individual person be saved, 2 Pet. 3,9; Ezek. 33,11; 18,23.32; (c) that salvation has been secured even for those who reject the grace of God and are thus lost on account of their unbelief, Matt. 23,37; Acts 7,51; 1 Cor. 8,11; 2 Pet. 2,1. The universality of divine grace is denied by all who limit the purpose and efficacy of divine grace to the elect (particularism, gratia particularis).

These errorists may be divided into three groups: (a) Supralapsarians: God decreed to create some to damnation; (b) Infralapsarians: God decreed to leave some in the state of damnation into which they had fallen through their own fault (praeteritio); (c) Amyraldists: God indeed offers grace to all, but bestows faith only upon the elect.

Every form of particularism is anti-Scriptural, being based upon the fallacy that, since not all men are actually saved, God does not desire the salvation of all. Misled by their error, all particularists claim that the term world (John 3,16; 1,29) signifies "the elect," and they substitute for God's universal counsel of grace (1 Tim. 2,4) a voluntas signi, in opposition to which stands His voluntas beneplaciti. That is to say, God indeed wishes to save all men according to that will which He has revealed in Scripture (voluntas signi, the revealed will); but by His secret will (voluntas beneplaciti, the will of His purpose), which is not revealed in Scripture, He wishes to save only the elect.

According to Calvinistic doctrine, God, in the final analysis, is the cause why some are not saved, while Scripture expressly teaches that those who are not saved perish through their unbelief, or rejection of divine grace, Luke 7,30; Acts 13,46; 7,51; Matt. 23,37. Charles Hodge writes: "It cannot be supposed that God intends what is never accomplished; that He purposes what He does not intend to effect. . . . If all men are not saved, God never purposed their salvation and never devised, and put into operation, means designed to accomplish that end. We must assume that the result is the interpretation of the purposes of God." (Systematic Theol., II, 323.)

In order to support the doctrine of particularism, the Synod of Dort (1618-19) declared that God can never be resisted whenever He earnestly offers His grace to men (irresistible grace). But also this doctrine is anti-Scriptural; for Scripture affirms that the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel can be resisted, Acts 7,51; Matt. 23,37, though the operation is itself one of divine power, Eph. 1,19.20. As in the realm of grace God can be resisted when He works through means, so also in the realm of nature; for life, which is originated and sustained alone by divine omnipotence, Acts 17,28, can nevertheless be destroyed by feeble man. God indeed cannot be resisted when He deals with man in His sovereign majesty (Luther: in nuda malestate, Matt. 25,3lff.); but when He approaches man through means, resistance on his part is always possible.

If the objection is raised that God becomes the cause of a sinner's damnation at least in cases where He hardens his heart (cf. the divine judgment of obduration), we reply that according to Scripture God very earnestly offers His grace even to those who harden their hearts, Rom. 10,21; Ex. 5,1 ff. The divine judgment of obduration is never absolute or arbitrary; God hardens only those who first have hardened themselves by resisting His Word and will, Rom. 11,7.20.

c. Justifying grace is serious and efficacious (gratia seria et efticax). In spite of the fact that divine grace can be resisted (gratia resistibills), we must not regard it as a "fruitless wish" or an "indifferent complacency by which God does not desire to effect or obtain the things which please Him" (otiosa complacentia, nuda velleitas), but as both serious and efficacious. That is to say, God seriously purposes, by sufficient and efficacious means, to effect the salvation of all men, Rom. 2,4:1,16.

This truth is proved from (a) the divine command to preach the Gospel to every creature, Mark 16,15.16, and make disciples of alI nations, Matt. 28,19.20, which certainly must not be construed as mockery on the part of God; (b) His divine promise to grant His Holy Spirit to all who hear His Word in order that He may work in them saving faith, Zech. 12,10; Acts 2,17.18; Ezek. 11,19.20; 36,26.27; Acts 2,38; 7,51; (c) His comforting assurance that He will not only begin, but also perform, finish, the good work in all believers, Phil. 1,6; and (d) His most serious endeavor to work faith in those who resist the Holy Spirit, Matt. 23,37; Acts 7,51, so that, if the wicked perish, they do so solely through their unbelief, 2 Cor. 4,3.4.

In opposition to Scripture the efficaciousness of divine grace is denied (a) by all particularists (Calvinists), who limit God's efficacious desire to effect salvation in men to the elect; (b) by all synergists, who teach that God works in man only the ability to believe, not faith itself, since the latter, they say, depends on man's own decision or good conduct or his omission of malicious opposition. However, according to Scripture, God bestows not only the power to believe, but also faith itself, Phil. 1,29. In opposition to Pelagianism and synergism, Scripture teaches that all who believe in Christ believe solely by virtue of divine grace and not through their own power or effort (sola gratia), while over against Calvinism it affirms that those who remain in unbelief do so not because divine grace is inefficacious in their case, but because they maliciously resist the Holy Spirit.

It is true, when we maintain universal and serious grace (gratia universalis, gratia seria et efticax), on the one hand, and the sola gratia, on the other, the question arises: "Why, then, are some saved and others not (cur alii, alii non?), though all men by nature are in the same guilt and corruption (in eadem culpa)?" The particularists (Calvinists) answer the question by denying the gratia universalis; the synergists, by denying the sola gratia. Both solutions are alike unscriptural, since Holy Writ most emphatically teaches both, gratia universalis and sola gratia. The true Lutheran Church does not attempt any solution of the question at all, but regards it as an unsolvable mystery, which human reason should not try to explore. The two truths regarding man's salvation which Holy Scripture clearly reveals are:(a) Those who are saved are saved by grace alone, without any merit on their part; (b) those who are lost are lost through their own fault. Beyond these two revealed facts no Christian theologian dare go. (Cp. Formula of Concord, XI, 54-59.)

Also with respect to the heathen we must maintain the gratia universalis because Holy Scripture includes all men in the gracious counsel of salvation. To deny the clear Scripture-teaching of universal grace because many heathen have never received the Gospel of salvation is an offense against the very divine grace which has enriched the world with the saving truth, Mark 16,15.16; Matt. 28,19. On the basis of Scripture we therefore believe that God's gracious will extends to the heathen also, though actually thousands of them perish without the Gospel. Nor are we to assume that the heathen are saved without the divinely appointed means of grace, Eph. 2,12, since Holy Scripture teaches that the means of grace (the Word and the Sacraments) are appointed for the salvation of all sinners, Mark 16,15.16; Matt. 28,19.20. The opinion that the heathen may be converted after death is anti-Scriptural, Heb. 9,27. The passage 1 Pet. 3,l8ff. does not treat of salvation possible after death, but of the condemnation of those who during their life on earth refused to accept the saving Word of God.

*From Christian Dogmatics by John T. Mueller, (c) 1939 by Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission.