by Jeffrey Hoffman*
For 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.” — Ephesians 2: 8-9, Authorized Version of 1611 (King James Version)
Grace, that wonderful, profound, free gift from God through His Son Jesus Christ, has the power to transform our lives. The Protestant Reformers, particularly Luther, were adamant that grace alone serves to justify sinners who believe in Christ. Christians everywhere, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike, understand and agree that we are saved by grace through faith, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, quoted above. Grace is abundant, overwhelming and free: “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one man be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5: 15-17). There are no exclusions to grace. It is available freely to all who turn from their sins and believe in Jesus. That includes you and me, my LGBT+ family.
Q: Does God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery ?
A: God does not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivers his elect out of it, and brings them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant,commonly called the covenant of grace.
Q: With whom was the covenant of grace made?
A: The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.
Q: How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
A: The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provides and offers to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promises and gives his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he has appointed them to salvation.
Q: Was the covenant of grace always administered after one and the same manner?
A: The covenant of grace was not always administered after the same manner, but the administrations of it under the Old Testament were different from those under the New.
Q: How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?
A: The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all foresignify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.
Q: How is the covenant of grace administered under the New Testament?
A: Under the New Testament, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the same covenant of grace was and still is to be administered in the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; in which grace and salvation are held forth in more fulness, evidence, and efficacy, to all nations.
Q: Who is the Mediator of the covenant of grace?
A: The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever.
– from the Westminster Larger Catechism 1
“And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” — II Corinthians 5: 18-21
Saint Augustine tells us in his treatise On the Spirit and the Letter “They, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself, can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it; and when they begin to be hard pressed about their presumption in asserting that this result can be reached without the divine assistance, they check themselves, and do not venture to utter such an opinion, because they see how impious and insufferable it is. But they allege that such attainments are not made without God’s help on this account, namely, because God both created man with the free choice of his will, and, by giving him commandments, teaches him, Himself, how man ought to live; and indeed assists him, in that He takes away his ignorance by instructing him in the knowledge of what he ought to avoid and to desire in his actions: and thus, by means of the free-will naturally implanted within him, he enters on the way which is pointed out to him, and by persevering in a just and pious course of life, deserves to attain to the blessedness of eternal life.”
Today, fundamentalists seem more and more to be telling us “how to get more grace” (thanks to Dr. Camille K. Lewis for calling my attention to this) and inevitably that involves doing something or being something; not just accepting grace as it is freely given, but attempting to use some means to control its administration and application. It is a practical theology of earned grace. That’s not what grace is about. Grace is unearned, undeserved, and unencumbered. It is a fountain flowing from a never-ending supply. Its source is God and God alone. As an Anglican, I believe the sacraments of the Church are a means of that grace being made present in my life, but it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” (Titus 3: 5) There is nothing I can do to get more of God’s grace in my life. It is His gift, freely given, to all who humbly repent and seek His face.
Perhaps some confusion arises through a famous sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, called Costly Grace. In this sermon, Bonhoeffer decries a church that offers “cheap grace,” by preaching “forgiveness without repentance… Communion without confession…” He contrasts this phenomenon with “costly grace”: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart… it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow Him; it is grace because Jesus says : ‘My yoke is easy and My burden light.’” I don’t think Bonhoeffer meant for us to disbelieve in grace freely given, I think we can discern in the last paragraphs of this sermon that he meant for us to cling to the orthodox teaching that grace is God’s gift to penitent sinners. Grace was costly to God. It required the ultimate sacrifice, the perfect offering of His Son, Jesus, to cleanse us from our sins.
In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer‘s Rite One eucharistic liturgy, the priest calls the people to repentance with these words: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in His holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.” After the people have confessed their sins together, the priest says “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of His great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto Him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Martin Luther said “Either sin is with you, lying on your shoulders, or it is lying on Christ, the Lamb of God. Now if it is lying on your back, you are lost; but if it is resting on Christ, you are free, and you will be saved. Now choose what you want.”
Augustine said “We, however, on our side affirm that the human will is so divinely aided in the pursuit of righteousness, that (in addition to man’s being created with a free-will, and in addition to the teaching by which he is instructed how he ought to live) he receives the Holy Ghost, by whom there is formed in his mind a delight in, and a love of, that supreme and unchangeable good which is God, even now while he is still ‘walking by faith’ and not yet ‘by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7) in order that by this gift to him of the earnest, as it were, of the free gift, he may conceive an ardent desire to cleave to his Maker, and may burn to enter upon the participation in that true light, that it may go well with him from Him to whom he owes his existence. A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also take delight in and feel a love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly. Now, in order that such a course may engage our affections, God’s ‘love is shed abroad in our hearts,’ not through the free-will which arises from ourselves, but ‘through the Holy Ghost, which is given to us.’ (Romans 5:5)” (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 5) In other words, you and I cannot earn grace. Period.
Did you know that this idea that grace (kripa) can be earned appears in the Dvaita branch of Hindu philosphy, as taught by Madhvacharya? It is not a Christian concept. Augustine also accused Pelagius of saying that human beings could curry favor with the divine by doing works of righteousness of their own accord, though the jury remains out as to whether that is exactly what Pelagius was saying. Whether we are talking about the Law of the Old Testament or about the gods of the heathens who need to be appeased, the Christian concept of grace stands in sharp contrast to this vicious cycle of divine quid pro quo blessing or dreadful retribution for sin. Grace abounds where sin once abounded and the law condemned: “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” — Romans 5: 18-21
“God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven. So, then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us. Christ desires to have our hearts so free and divested (of our own righteousness and wisdom) that for our sins we fear no denial of grace and for our virtues we seek no glory and vain satisfaction. We even should not boast before men of the righteousness which is ours from Christ; nor should we allow ourselves to be cast down by the sufferings and afflictions which are sent to us by Him. A true Christian should so renounce all things — (all righteousness and wisdom) — that whatever honor comes to him belongs to Christ, whose righteousness and gifts of grace shine forth from Him, and that whatever reproach he endures is inflicted on Christ, (who is in him). — Martin Luther in his Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller, Grand Rapids Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House, 1954 (reprinted 1976 by Kregel Publications, under special arrangement, p. 28)
In Romans 6, Paul asks “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.” Here is where Bonhoeffer is pointing us. Sin, all sin, is what keeps us apart from God. It is that from which we must turn. And when we have fallen back into it, we must turn again. God’s grace is sufficient. His power is made perfect in our weakness. (II Corinthians 12:9).
The Gospel calls us to repentance and grace calls us to an amended life. When we live in grace, we are made better people by the work of the Holy Spirit in us. When we live in grace, we “love our neighbors,” we “visit the fatherless and widows,” (James 1:27) and we “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”(Micah 6:8) St. Paul elsewhere tells us what the fruits of the Spirit’s work in our lives are “love, joy peace, longsuffering, goodness, meekness, faith, temperance…” (Galations 5: 22-23) These things are the evidence of grace’s work in our lives; not its source, but its result. You aren’t going to “get more grace” by trying hard to make those fruits happen in your life. All our strivings are failings. All our good deeds are like dirty rags. When we walk in grace, those fruits of the Holy Spirit show up in our lives despite ourselves. God changes us from the inside out. Grace, then, is not something you can fake; not something you can make happen. It is God’s work in God’s time in God’s way in your life.
“To reach such perfection, we require not only much spiritual grace, but also much experience. Because of our natural and spiritual gifts, men may regard us as such, especially not if we so esteem ourselves. We therefore must remain so humble, as if we as yet had nothing, (neither righteousness nor wisdom in Christ), but were still waiting for the tender mercies of God, who for Christ’s sake regards us as wise and righteous. There are many who indeed for God’s sake, regard temporal blessings as nothing and gladly renounce them… But there are very few who regard also their spiritual gifts and good works as nothing, seeking to obtain only the righteousness of Christ…. though without this no one can be saved. They invariably desire and hope that their own (righteousness) will be esteemed and rewarded by God. But His verdict forever stands: ‘So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy’ (Rom. 9:16).” — Martin Luther in his Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller, Grand Rapids Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House, 1954 (reprinted 1976 by Kregel Publications, under special arrangement, p. 29)
Grace prompts humility. It led John Henry Newton, the former slave trader turned Anglican priest to write “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.” To those who would hurt us, who misunderstand us, or who condemn us, grace in our hearts manifests as graciousness in our replies. Have you ever been surprised by your own gentle response to someone who hurt you? That is God’s grace working in you and showing through you.
Grace seeks to understand and to be an agent of healing in our world. Have you ever found a strange sense of calm has overtaken you during a time of conflict? That is another way that God’s grace works in and through us when we are walking in Him. As we live in grace, LGBT+ Christians have a responsibility to be God’s grace to those who are not gracious to us. We must love others as we would have them love us. (Mark 12:31) We must sometimes turn the other cheek. (Matthew 5: 39) We must pray for those who would abuse us. (Matthew 5:44) Most of all, we must never forget, never believe anyone who would tell us otherwise, that God’s grace, freely given, is our inheritance through Jesus Christ Our Lord (Romans 8: 17). Through Christ, God sees us as being “righteous and wise” and He makes us so. (I Thessalonians 5:24)
As we all grow in grace and in the knowledge of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, my dear brothers and sisters, cling to this wonderful word from St. Paul: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8: 38-39
You are His creation. He loves you. He died for you. He bought you. You are redeemed by His grace. You are His delight.
“For it is God’s will that we have true liking with Him in our salvation. And therein He will be mightily comforted and strengthened, and thus will He merrily with His grace that our soul be occupied. For we are His bliss. For in us He joys without end. And so shall we in Him with His grace. And all that He has done for us and does and ever shall was never cost nor charge to Him nor might be, but only in that He died in our manhood… of which deed He joys endlessly as it is before said.” – Julian of Norwich, from Showing of Love, chapter 23; translated by Julia Bolton Holloway (Liturgical Press, 2003)
*The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s alone.
1 You might ask yourself, “why does this self-professed orthodox Anglo-catholic Episcopalian keep using the Westminster Catechism to prove his points?” It’s a fair question. I use this catechism because the catechism of the Bob Jones University Press on which I was brought up is similar and is familiar to many in my core readership. I am obviously aware that there are a number of theological differences between the Reformed tradition and the theology of the Independent Fundamental Baptist/Bible movement which is the virtual denomination influenced and controlled by Bob Jones University. I don’t find myself to be squarely in the Reformed tradition, either. Like most Anglicans, I view the Church as being catholic (universal) with Christ as its head. For this reason, I am far more interested in a theology of orthodoxy than I am in the petty orthodoxies of various denominations over and against one another. The Westminster Catechism lays forth basic Christian theology while emphasizing certain key Calvinist views. Insofar as its central tenets are in conformity with the historic creeds of the Church, all Christians can agree its theology. Where it departs into speculative theology — many Christians believe that prophecy is not just for the generations that preceded Christ, but is still a mission of the Church; that the sacraments are more than just types or signs, but actual manifestations of Christ’s presence in our lives and vehicles for His grace to work in us; that human beings created in the image of God are not “totally depraved” though all our good works cannot make us holy apart from Him; and that election or predestination does not exclude people from the Kingdom of God — that otherwise divides good Christians from each other, I take my leave from it.