Grace: What the Bible Teaches about Sin, Grace, and Salvation
The Christian concept of grace, though precious to hundreds of millions of Christians, is misunderstood by many people today both inside and outside Christianity, and it is even despised by many non-Christians as an idea that offends their sensibilities of fairness. In a way, grace is “unfair”—it has to do with God giving people something good that they do not deserve. If we to understand grace accurately, however, we need to see it in the larger context of the gospel as it is presented in the Bible.
Sin: The Need for Grace
Grace cannot be understood except as God’s response to a problem—namely, the problem of sin. Human beings need grace because they are under the judgment, the condemnation, of sin.
Scripture repeatedly warns us that God will judge us according to what we have done in this life (Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Matt.16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor.5:10; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:24-25; Rev. 2:23; 22:12). This is bad news because, as the Bible also states repeatedly, we are all sinners (Gen. 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 14:1-3; 51:5; 58:3; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10-18, 23; 1 John 1:8, 10). God is perfectly holy, good, and loving, and as creatures made in his image we are to be holy, good, and loving as well (Gen. 1:26-27; Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Any sin—any lack of goodness, holiness, or love in us—deserves punishment by death (Gen. 2:17-18; Lev. 22:9; Num. 18:32; Deut. 24:16; 2 Sam. 12:13; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4, 20-24; Ezek. 18:4; John 8:24; Rom. 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:56; James 1:15). When we sin, we deserve to be separated from God, cut off forever from his holy and loving presence (Lev. 22:3; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 59:2; Ezek. 14:7; 2 Thess. 1:8-9).
The Bible describes sin and its consequences in dire terms:
- Our status in relation to God because of our sinful condition and actions is that we are his enemies (Deut. 32:41; Ps. 37:20; 83:2; Rom. 5:10; 8:7; Eph. 2:15-16; James 4:4; 1 John 2:11; Rev. 3:17).
- Because we disobey God, we are considered rebels against God’s righteous rule as the King of all creation (e.g., Deut. 9:23-24; 1 Sam. 15:23; Neh. 9:26; Ps. 5:10; Isa. 1:2, 5; Isa. 63:10; 65:2; Ezek. 2:3-8; Dan. 9:5, 9).
- As enemies of God’s kingdom, we are, whether we realize it or not, part of “the domain of darkness” in which Satan the devil (for now) holds sway (John 12:31; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; Col. 1:13; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 5:19).
- Sin is a kind of spiritual sickness (Isa. 1:5; Matt. 9:2-7, 11-13), a debilitating weakness or absence of strength (Ps. 6:2; Rom. 5:6).
- Sin is a condition that enslaves us in spiritual bondage (Isa. 42:7; 61:1; John 8:33-34; Rom. 6:16-22; Heb. 2:15; 2 Peter 2:19).
- Sin causes us to be blind and deaf to the light of truth (Isa. 6:10; 9:2; 42:7, 16-19; 43:8; Matt. 4:16; 13:13-15; John 9:39-41; 12:40; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 3:14; 4:4; Eph. 4:18).
- Because of our own spiritual blindness and deafness, we are “lost” (Jer. 50:6; Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Luke 15:4, 6, 9), the result of our own willful rebellion against God, like the prodigal son who ran away from home (Luke 15:24, 32).
- Paul even describes the lost as already being spiritually “dead” (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13).
The overall picture here is rather bleak. The sick cannot make themselves well; slaves cannot free themselves; the deaf and blind cannot make themselves hear and see; and the dead obviously cannot raise themselves! If it were true that “God helps those who help themselves” (a statement found nowhere in the Bible, by the way), then God would not help any of us, because we are in and of ourselves spiritually helpless.
Admittedly, the idea that we are a race of spiritually sick, deaf, and blind creatures, in bondage to sin, dead to God, is offensive to many people. No one likes to think of himself in this way. But if we are honest with ourselves, the shoe fits. We try to be good but keep doing bad, hurtful things. We think of ourselves as nice people but we lose our tempers and say mean things to one another. As for God, even if we believe he exists, we rarely behave as if he were the most important person in our world—which of course, as its Creator, Sustainer, and King, he is! Too often people imagine that if they are decent, law-abiding citizens, polite to other people, going about their business, then that ought to be “good enough” for God. If the greatest commandment is to love God with our whole being, as Jesus said (Matt. 22:36-38; Mark 12:28-31), then we are all in trouble.
If God were to treat us fairly—as we deserve—then we would all simply remain lost, condemned justly because of our incorrigible sinfulness. The problem cannot be fixed by trying hard not to sin; that would be like a blind man squinting in hopes of seeing. This means that the problem cannot be solved by making an effort to obey the Ten Commandments, as good as those commandments are. God gave the Law—his set of standards in the Old Testament that included the Ten Commandments—to show his people what real goodness looked like and what we should want to become, but not as a prescription to overcome our sin. Rather, as Paul says, God gave us the Law “so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ [Ps. 143:2] by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20 NRSV). In other words, God gave us the Law so we would know what sin is—so we would know how bad our spiritual condition really is and that we cannot make ourselves right with God by our own efforts. In short, the Law shows us our need for grace.
Grace: The Solution to Sin
God’s solution to the problem of sin is grace. In biblical teaching, grace does not mean that God simply overlooks or ignores evil, since this is something his absolutely holy nature would never allow him to do (Gen. 18:25; Hab. 1:13). God will not simply leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Nahum 1:3). Nor is grace a “second chance” to prove ourselves worthy of God’s acceptance, because the reality is that if we lived any length of time after getting that chance we would sin again (1 John 1:8-10). For the same reason, grace is also not a power to stop sinning so that we may deserve God’s acceptance. All of these ideas misunderstand or distort some truth. Grace does mean that God spares us from the judgment our sin deserves, but not by simply overlooking it. It does mean that God gives us a fresh start in life, but not for us to make ourselves worthy of his acceptance. It does mean that God intends that we will eventually become sinless, but again not in order to be right with God.
Someone has defined GRACE as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” That is a biblically appropriate way of looking at grace. The foundation of grace is the work of Jesus Christ in dying on the cross and rising from the dead. Christ’s death and resurrection are the heart of the gospel (Rom. 1:1-4; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; 2 Tim. 2:8), the climactic events to which all four of the Gospels in the New Testament lead. The cross of Christ is the means by which God’s grace solves the problem of sin:
- Our enslavement to sin is overcome by Christ’s death as a ransom or redemption—terms used to refer to paying a price to free people from slavery (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Rom. 3:24; 8:23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:7, 14; 4:30; Col. 1:14; 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14; Heb. 9:12, 15; 1 Peter 1:18; Rev. 5:9).
- Christ’s death is the means by which the enmity between rebellious human beings and God is ended and they are brought into a relationship of peace and friendship—what Paul calls reconciliation (Rom. 5:1, 8-11; 2 Cor. 5:18-20; Eph. 2:13-19; Col. 1:20-23).
- This reconciliation takes place as God accepts Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sins (like the Old Testament sacrifice of the lamb), satisfying God’s righteous anger against our sin (Gen. 22:7-8; Isa. 53:5-7; John 1:29, 36; Rom. 3:25; 1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:12-14, 25-28; 10:10-20; 13:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:2, 19; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Because God laid the punishment due us on Christ (Isa. 53:4-6, 10-11), he is righteous when he “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10; Rom. 3:21-26; 1 John 1:7, 9). In other words, he spares us the eternal consequences of sin without merely overlooking or ignoring it, through Christ’s substitutionary death on our behalf.
- Instead of estrangement and alienation from God, through Christ’s death we enter into a covenant, a relationship between God and his people, binding them together with Jesus as mediator (Ex. 24:6-8; Jer. 31:33-34; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:14; Luke 22:20; Rom. 11:26-27; 1 Cor. 11:25; 1 Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-22; 10:15-17, 29; 12:24; 13:20).
- Christ’s death is the basis of justification—God’s gift in which he declares the ungodly or the sinner righteous if they humbly, trustfully accept that gift (Is. 53:11; Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:21-26; 4:4-8; 5:6-9, 16-19; 8:32-34; Gal. 2:16-21).
- Christ’s death is the basis for the forgiveness of sins—God’s gift, to those who accept it in faith, of remitting any and all of our sins, those committed before and after becoming a Christian, removing them from us, canceling our punishment for them (Acts 13:38; Rom. 4:7; Eph. 1:7; 4:32; Col. 1:14; 2:13-14; 1 John 1:9; 2:12).
- Christ’s death provides salvation, meaning that he saves or delivers his people, securing for them salvation from the devil’s domain (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8; 4:4) and salvation from eternal condemnation and death (John 3:17-18; Rom. 8:1; 2 Tim. 1:10).
- Christ’s death, by conquering death for us, gives us spiritual life from God. We are born again, or given new life that is the start of the life of the age to come, which the Bible calls everlasting or eternal life (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8, 16; 6:33; 51-54; 10:10-11, 28; Rom. 5:17-21; 6:23; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 3:9-10; 4:7-8; 5:1).
These are all things that we simply cannot do for ourselves—things that we cannot even help to make happen for ourselves. We cannot help redeem ourselves, pay for our sins, make ourselves right with God, save ourselves from the devil, or give ourselves eternal life. According to the Bible, these are all things that God gives us by his grace as part of his free gift of salvation. All we can do is humbly, gratefully, trustfully accept the gift.
Notice that grace is much more than forgiving sins—though that is an extremely important and wonderful part of the blessings of grace. Grace does change us. By grace, God changes our relationship with him (and with the devil), our spiritual condition, and our eternal future. As Christian theologians have long pointed out, the grace of salvation has three “tenses”:
- Past: By grace God has forgiven us of all of the sins we ever committed and has ended our enmity with him and rebellion against him. This is salvation from the penalty of sin (justification).
- Present: By grace God brings us into a new, right, blessed relationship with him, gives us spiritual life, and is restoring us to spiritual health. This is salvation from the power of sin (sanctification).
- Future: By grace God will raise us from the dead to immortality and eternal life, to spiritual and moral, sinless perfection. This is salvation from the presence of sin (glorification).
This is why it is a terrible misunderstanding when people suppose that grace means that God allows Christians to do whatever they want, to sin with reckless abandon, and yet forgives them, while unfairly condemning nicer people who don’t happen to be Christians. When God saves someone, he doesn’t just give him a “pass.” He brings that person to a place of humble admission of his sin, of turning to God for his mercy, and sets him on a path of learning to live in a way that reflects the new life God has given him. The believer becomes someone who genuinely loves God and wants to please him, someone who loves other people and wants them to know God’s forgiveness and love. But he is never saved because of the kind of person he is becoming. Rather, he is becoming that new kind of person because God has saved him. Love, holiness, and good works are the fruit of salvation, the results of God’s grace, never the root or the conditions of receiving that grace.
The gospel message is not that God saves us by grace plus our good works or through our good works, because that would not be grace at all (Rom. 11:6); a gift is not a gift if you must do good works to get it. Rather, God saves us by grace alone, resulting in good works (Eph. 2:8-10). That is the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24); let us make sure we are not deceived by any other gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).
For Further Study
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. Part 5 of this standard textbook discusses grace, regeneration, conversion, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification, and other aspects of salvation.