Grace Is Not a Thing

Why Spiritual Renewal Begins with a Him

Few words are more precious in the Christian’s vocabulary than the word grace. And yet few words are more misunderstood and misapplied, even by those who treasure the gospel of Jesus.

Already in the New Testament, we find the two basic ways grace can be twisted. The first is the legalist delusion, on display in Paul’s warning to the Galatians: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). The second is the antinomian error, as when “certain people . . . pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 4).

Both legalists and antinomians may herald “grace alone” — but the phrase really means “grace ignored” to the one and “grace abused” to the other. Either way, as Sinclair Ferguson powerfully shows in his book The Whole Christ, grace gets disgraced.

Now, most of us are neither self-righteous legalists nor sensuality-loving antinomians. But every one of us is prone to lean toward one error or the other. And the farther we lean, the less amazing grace becomes, and the more burdensome the Christian life feels. Oh, how necessary, then, to stand firmly in “the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).

Blessed in the Beloved

For all the differences between legalists and antinomians, the two often share one surprising similarity: they treat grace as a thing that God gives, rather than as God’s gift of himself. As Michael Reeves writes,

When Christians talk of God giving us “grace” . . . we can quickly imagine that “grace” is some kind of spiritual pocket money he doles out. Even the old explanation that “grace” is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” can make it sound like stuff that God gives.

“Few words are more misunderstood and misapplied, even by those who treasure Jesus, than grace.”

Well then, what is grace? Reeves goes on: “The word grace is really just a shorthand way of speaking about the personal and loving kindness out of which, ultimately, God gives himself” (Delighting in the Trinity, 88).

In Scripture, the grace of God is never separated from the God of grace — and in particular, from the God-man of grace, Jesus Christ. The two are so entwined that Paul can call the coming of Christ the coming of grace (Titus 2:11). All grace comes to us, therefore, “through” Christ (Romans 1:4–5), “in” Christ (2 Timothy 1:9) — or, as John puts it, “from his fullness” (John 1:16). Perhaps Paul describes it most gloriously of all when he writes,

In love [the Father] predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4–6)

Grace comes to us “in the Beloved” — and nowhere else. Grace is sap from the true Vine, warmth from the true Light, affection from the true Bridegroom. In other words, when God gives us grace, he gives us Christ.

Saved by Grace Alone

What does this have to do with legalism and antinomianism? Everything, if we have eyes to see. For legalism and antinomianism thrive only when we separate the grace of Christ from Christ himself. Only when we treat grace as abstract “stuff” can we imagine that grace is sufficient for this, but not for that: for some righteousness, but not for all righteousness; for forgiveness, but not for holiness.

But if grace comes to us in the Beloved, then grace gives us a full salvation, justifying us with his righteousness, sanctifying us with his holiness, and glorifying us with his glory. Like a mighty river rolling toward us from eternity, grace catches us up into all that Christ is and all he has done, rushing us forward from salvation past to salvation future.

Justified by Grace

Many who struggle with legalism know how to speak the language of grace. Yet as Ferguson shows so powerfully, “Where the language of grace abounds, it is possible for the reality of legalism to abound all the more” (The Whole Christ, 91).

“Grace is sap from the true Vine, warmth from the true Light, affection from the true Bridegroom.”

Perhaps we can recite the five solas, renounce the idea of works-righteousness, and say with the apostle, “By grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8). Yet all the while, we may hear the low inner whisper that this grace is not enough for us. We do not say that our good works justify us alongside God’s grace, but we may feel like it. As a result, we feel justified by God only when we feel good before him: when we can look on our Bible reading, evangelism, and other obedience with at least some satisfaction.

When God gives us grace, however, we never need wonder if his grace will be enough for our justification. Such thinking treats grace as a thing, as currency toward the admission price of the kingdom. But if we have any grace at all, then we have it in union with Jesus Christ. And if we are united to Christ, then we have all that he has and all that he is. In him, we have righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30), redemption (Ephesians 1:7), adoption (Romans 8:16–17) — all that we need for God’s favor to rest on us forever.

When we believe in Jesus, we do not “get” a certain amount of grace from him and then hope it will suffice for our justification. No, by faith we “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27) such that now, even when we feel most ashamed of our sin, his righteousness covers us like a robe (Isaiah 61:10).

Sanctified by Grace

The true grace of God is the remedy for our legalistic tendencies. It is also the remedy for our antinomian leanings. For if grace unites us to Christ, then we cannot enjoy only part of him; we cannot embrace him for justification without also embracing him for sanctification. All that Christ is in his perfect humanity must become ours, including his holiness.

Few passages dismantle our one-dimensional ideas of grace like Romans 6 does. Paul, after celebrating the grace that comes to us in justification (Romans 5:15–21), anticipates the antinomian question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1–2). And why? Because when Christ died under sin’s curse, he buried us with him (Romans 6:2, 10–11), and when Christ rose up from sin’s dominion, he grasped us by the hand and led us into his freedom (Romans 6:4–5, 8).

Hence the victorious words: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). If grace is only forgiveness, Paul’s statement rings hollow. But grace is more than forgiveness. “Grace is power, not just pardon,” John Piper writes. Yes, and not just any power, but the same power that pulsed through Jesus’s veins when he walked out of the grave. Holiness runs on resurrection strength.

“In Christ, grace not only fills our past and pervades our present; it also adorns our future.”

Someone may wonder, “If we make sanctification necessary in the Christian life, don’t we veer into legalism?” No, we don’t veer into legalism; we rather collapse into grace. Sanctification, though it involves our total effort, is just as much a gift of grace as justification. We may strain and fight for holiness; we may even cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. But at every step, Christ teaches us to say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Glorified by Grace

No one is justified in Christ who is not also sanctified in Christ — and no one is sanctified in Christ who is not also glorified in Christ. From the moment God unites us to Jesus, glory slowly grows within us: first the seed, then the stem, then the bud. And “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the bud will burst into full bloom.

In Christ, grace not only fills our past (in justification) and pervades our present (in sanctification); it also adorns our future. So, Peter writes, “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).

Grace arrived at the first coming of Christ, bringing righteousness and sanctification (Titus 2:11; 3:5–7). And grace will arrive at the second coming of Christ, bringing glorification. And what will happen? Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). “We shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). In every way that we possibly can be, “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).

Yet even then, when our conformity to Christ is complete, the river of grace will keep rolling. As we walk resurrected through the new heavens and earth, our glorification will become the backdrop for God to display, through all the coming ages, “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). Every beat of our glorified hearts will echo the grace of him who joined us in the grave so that he might take us up to glory.

No Other Fountain

Grace, then, is not an abstract quality we can possess apart from Christ. There is only one kind of grace: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 13:14), the grace that flows freely “in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). If we could imagine grace as less like a spiritual substance and more like a glorious Person, our own spiritual reformation may not be far behind.

“Both legalism and antinomianism thrive only when we separate the grace of Christ from Christ himself.”

Not only would we find ourselves safer from both legalism and antinomianism; we may also find our hearts calmed and settled in the presence of our magnificent Christ. Instead of restlessly looking inward for our justification before God, we would look at his righteousness. Instead of leaning on spiritual tactics for our sanctification, we would lean on his resurrection. And instead of hoping in a vague heaven for our glorification, we would hope in his glorious coming.

As John Calvin counsels us, “Since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other” (Institutes, 2.16.9). Yes, let us drink our fill from Christ and Christ alone, for grace has no other fountain.