In the material I received about the aims of this conference, one sentence seemed tremendously important to me: “Our goal [in this conference] is to examine the nature of God as evidenced through his bountiful grace.” What was so characteristically Ligonier about that — and I believe biblical — was the order of things: “examine the nature of God as evidenced through his grace.” The goal is God through grace. Not grace through God.
I wonder if that difference sounds significant to you. I think it’s immensely significant, because one of the great divides in American religious life today, as I see it, is whether God is made a means to grace, or grace is made a means to God.
Does the quest of our lives, the longing of our hearts, and the labor of our minds terminate on God, in whom we live, move, and have our being, so that grace is indescribably precious because it carries us safely to him? Or is God brought in alongside our planning, our techniques, methods, political strategies, therapies, and treatments as a means to the experience of various forms of grace?
I want to press this because I believe it makes a tremendous difference whether our ultimate treasure is the grace of God or whether our ultimate treasure is the God of grace. It seems to me that the most fundamental question standing before American evangelicalism today is whether we put God or ourselves at the center of grace. And my passion today is to plead for the God-centeredness of saving grace, that we cherish saving grace because it brings us to God, rather than cherishing God because he brings us grace.
Ten Biblical Illustrations of God-Centered Saving Grace
So, what I would like to do is press home the God-centeredness of saving grace by looking at ten biblical illustrations of it.
1. The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in its origin.
There is a profound inability that comes with being an infinite, all-glorious God. There are things that God cannot be in himself as God. He cannot be deficient or defective or needy. Therefore, he cannot respond to us out of need for our value, our works, or our distinctives. God can only relate to us out of fullness and self-sufficiency, and therefore, out of freedom. And that fullness is the origin of saving grace. That’s the point of Romans 11:33–36:
Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, [so as to become] his counselor? Or who has first given a gift to him that it he should be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
God can never be negotiated with because there is no value, no currency, no asset outside of God that hasn’t come from God and that does not already belong to God. And this reality of God’s absolute self-sufficiency is the origin of grace.
Let me pose a question for you to ponder: If the repayment of our debt to God’s grace is impossible (Romans 11:35), since the repayment of that debt would nullify grace and turn it into a business transaction, should we describe our moral life in the terms of duty understood as repaying what we owe to grace?
Second question: Doesn’t a gratitude ethic run the risk of minimizing grace by leaving it mainly in the past and neglecting the moral significance of its ongoing, inexhaustible, future provisions? Is the duty of the next hour’s obedience to be lived in the power of our gratitude for past grace or in the confidence of future grace? Would God get more glory if Moses left Egypt out of gratitude for past grace in his being rescued from the bulrushes? Or would God get more glory if Moses left those fleeting pleasures because he counted abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth of grace than the treasures of Egypt, since he looked to the reward of even more future grace (Hebrews 11:24–26)?
In a word: Is the origin of grace in the infinite self-sufficiency of God glorified best by a past-oriented ethic of debt and duty or a future-oriented ethic of hope and joy? As much as I would love to linger here and make my case, it is my duty to move on — and since I hope in God’s ongoing grace to multiply the loaves and fishes of those few words, I leave that with joy.
So, the first illustration of my point is that the God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in its origin — the self-sufficiency of God.
2. The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in the ultimate gift that grace brings, namely, God.
In the explosive, radiant, overflowing fountain of God’s self-sufficiency there is an impulse to be known, loved, admired, and enjoyed. That impulse is the grace of God. The gift that this impulse moves God to share with his creation is himself. Grace is the impulse of the fountain to overflow, but the water that overflows is God. What could be more God-centered than a God who thinks that the best gift he can give his people is himself?
As a heart longs for the flowing streams, So longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, My soul thirsts for thee, my flesh faints for thee as in a dry and weary land where no water is. (Psalm 63:1–2)
Whom have I in heaven but thee? And on earth there is none that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart may fail, but thou art the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:24f.)
I will go to the altar of God, to God, my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:4)
What is overflowing in saving grace is God himself. The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in the fact that the best gift grace can give is God.
3. The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in the basic response God demands to the gift of himself, namely, joyful trust.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy,” as though faith and joy were almost interchangeable. He wrote to the Philippians that God’s purpose was for Paul to remain with them for “the advancement and joy of [their] faith” (Philippians 1:25). He commanded believers to “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:6) just like the psalmist commanded, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). In other words, the fundamental command of grace is to be satisfied with God.
The reason for this is that no other command could be more gracious and more God-centered than this. Yesterday, I attended the speaker’s luncheon, and R.C. Sproul presented Russell and Lisa Johnson with a beautiful gift and tribute for helping make this conference happen — a sort of “well done, good and faithful servants.” Their sacrifices on our behalf, in these last 15 months, were mentioned. After the applause died down, Dr. Sproul asked for a speech from them. He got one. Four words: “It was our pleasure.” Why did Lisa Johnson say that? Why didn’t she say, “It was our duty. Thank you for recognizing our sacrifices. It was our duty to endure them?” The answer is very simple and very profound. R.C. Sproul would not have felt honored by that speech. But he was greatly honored by the statement that serving his vision was their pleasure.
So it is with our serving God. The response of delight gives God more honor than the response of mere duty. “Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8). One of the most breathtaking discoveries that I have ever made is that the centrality of God’s glory and the satisfaction of my soul are not at odds. God’s zeal to be glorified and my passion to be satisfied do not have conflict. They come to simultaneous fulfillment in the act of God-exalting, soul-satisfying worship.
The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in the basic response that God demands for the gift of himself, namely, joyful trust. Of course no one responds to God in this way on his own. Sin and evil hold sway in every human heart apart from saving grace.
4. The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in the biblical description of what that grace rescues us from.
Here’s the way God describes us in our sin, according to Jeremiah 2:12–13:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
So, the essence of evil is to turn from God as the fountain of living water and to try desperately, with every toy, relationship, job, entertainment, recreation, project and enterprise — even religious ones — to find life and satisfaction for our souls. That’s what saving grace must rescue us from — the suicidal love affair that we have with everything but God. Even the definition of sin highlights the God-centeredness of saving grace.
When God decides, sovereignly and graciously, to overcome that suicidal slavery to sin in our hearts, the way he does it is intentionally designed to preserve and exalt his own supremacy and centrality in the process of salvation. The biblical pictures of our rescue put God unmistakably at the center and give him all the glory.
5. The God-centeredness of saving grace is seen in God’s raising us from spiritual death.
In Ephesians 2:5–6, Paul says, “We who were dead in trespasses, God made alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him.”
Paul pushes the phrase, “by grace you have been saved,” into this sentence and breaks the flow: “God made us alive — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up.” Why does he do that? Because being raised from the dead, spiritually, cannot be our doing. It isn’t something we perform in order to be acceptable to God. If it is going to happen, another must do it to us and for us, freely, absolutely freely. That means: by grace. Paul pushes this phrase obtrusively into the sentence because grace pushed itself obtrusively into our dead lives and made us alive.
If you have one whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart, it is the work of God and the triumph of grace. We did not barter or deal or work or hope or believe. Nothing in us merited or constrained the life-giving work of God. It was entirely grace — absolutely free and unconditional. It was not based on our prior choice. It created our choice.
6. The same centrality of God in saving grace is seen in the effectual calling of God.
Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:9 that this calling “was not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” (See also John 11:43; Ephesians 5:14; Romans 8:30; 1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
7. The centrality of God in saving grace is seen in the sovereign act of new creation.
A new creation happens when God says to a soul blinded by the god of this world, “Let there be light . . . and [creates in the darkened soul] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
8. The centrality of God in saving grace is seen in God’s sovereign act of begetting his own children.
We did not choose to be begotten any more than we chose to be raised from the dead or called or created. We were born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).
9. And the centrality of God in saving grace could be seen in the cross of Christ.
We see the centrality of grace in the cross. Paul says that when God gave his Son to be a propitiation by his blood, he did it to demonstrate his own righteousness in order that he might be both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24–25).
Everything God has done to rescue us from our suicidal love affair with everything but God, is an act of God-centered grace.
10. Instead of lingering over any of these, let’s close by focusing our attention on the first and primal act of saving grace — the centrality of God in the grace of election.
If God exalts his own sovereign rights to raise some sinners from spiritual death, call them, create them, beget them, and atone for their sins, then he must be making choices according to some principle or some purpose. Ephesians 1:4 says that God made these choices before the foundation of the world. Romans 9:11 makes clear that the choices are made without reference to us doing anything good or evil. So, the saving grace of election is not based on anything we will do or be.
What does God base his choices on? What’s guiding him as he elects? Romans 9:11 says that the reason God set his favor on Jacob and not Esau, before they were born and had done nothing good or evil, was this: “that God’s purpose [prothesis] which accords with election, might remain.”
What purpose? What purpose is God jealous to preserve in unconditional election? The answer is given 11 verses later in Romans 9:22–23:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience, the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory?
In other words, the “purpose” behind unconditional election is that God might make known the incomparable riches of his glory for the enjoyment of the vessels of mercy. The riches of that glory, which God means to lavish upon the vessels of mercy forever and ever, are the whole panorama of God’s perfections, including his wrath and power. The glory of God’s mercy will shine brighter against the backdrop of judgment. The intensity of our joy will be greater because we behold the full range of God’s perfections in the history of redemption.
Because of God-centered grace, the two great passions in the universe do not collide: God’s passion to be glorified and our passion to be satisfied. In the end, God will be perfectly glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.