Introduction: God’s Goodness Shown in Grace
That God is good is a statement that should need no defence. Scriptures proclaim that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ (Ps 19.1)1 and that all of God’s creation was indeed ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31). Because of sin, however, man seeks to suppress the truth of what he sees of the Creator God in his own unrighteousness (Rom 1.18). As grievous as man’s sinfulness is to God (Gen 6.6), God’s interaction with a fallen creation has created many variegated ways for God’s goodness to be shown. For example, when Berkhof discusses the goodness of God as one of his attributes,2 he describes God’s goodness as it is revealed in diverse ways to diverse fallen creatures: in his kindness he shows his goodness to all of his creation, he shows his goodness to rational creatures in his love, in his grace he shows his goodness to those who have forfeited their rights to anything they may have deserved from him, in his mercy his goodness is shown to the pitiful and helpless,3 and his longsuffering patience shows his goodness to those who are pleased to dwell in enmity with him.
It will be the aim of this paper to discuss God’s goodness as a moral attribute. On account of length restrictions, however, we will work within Berkhof’s categories, and discuss only God’s goodness as it is revealed in his grace to sinners. God’s grace will be defined, examined briefly from church history, then from selected Scripture, and lastly, application of these truths to the church at large will be drawn.
Grace: One of God’s Great Attributes
God’s Grace Defined
The words ‘most relevant to an understanding of the biblical concept of grace include the Hebrew words hnn and hsd and the Greek term charis.’4 It is a profoundly important biblical theme as the two Hebrew words (hnn and hsd) appear 445 times in the Old Testament. Grace is (together with mercy) at the very core of God’s self-revelation to Moses, and thus to Israel. When God causes his goodness to pass before Moses in Exodus 34, he declares of himself:
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’5
The Hebrew words here for merciful and gracious (raḥûm wəḥannûn) connote favour, usually by a superior to an inferior. This beneficence is ‘given freely, and thus can be requested, received and even withdrawn, but never claimed, coerced or possessed.’
6 The word translated as steadfast love (ḥesed) ‘refers to compassionate acts performed either spontaneously or in response to an appeal by one in dire straits.’ Acts of steadfast love are never ‘grounded in perceived obligation or contract, nor can they be coerced; rather they arise out of affection and goodness.’7
Remarkably, the theme of God’s grace becomes even more important in the New Testament revelation of the character of God. In the words of the Apostle John, who would speak of Jesus, God’s ultimate revelation,
the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. … And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.8
Grace, is defined as ‘a beneficent disposition toward someone’, or as an action, it is defined as ‘the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.’
9 Grudem, then, defines God’s grace as a manifestation of his goodness in this way: God’s ‘grace is his goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.’10 It is favour, when no favour or kindness is deserved. Grace, however, is such a predominant characteristic of God’s dealings with man that it is seen to be an underlying theme in all his salvific works, even when it is not explicitly mentioned. For example, in Romans 5 Paul could write about God’s grace as unmerited kindness in action without ever using the word:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life’ (vv 6, 10).
God’s Grace in Historic Orthodoxy
Space restrictions being what they are, a survey of historic Christian thought on God’s grace would be incredibly superficial. It seems more appropriate, then, to briefly examine Augustine’s theology of grace, since he stands as the pre-eminent orthodox Christian theologian from the Fathers through the Reformation.12
In order to understand Augustine’s theology of God’s sovereign saving grace, one must first understand Augustine’s view of the will. According to Augustine (and all the ‘catholic’ church after him) the will was free, but only insofar as it would choose what it desired.
13 ‘Without exception,’ he writes, ‘we all long for happiness. … All agree that they want to be happy, just as, if they were asked, they would all agree that they desired joy.’14 Augustine’s point is that although we all desire true happiness (which is found only in God), our wills alone are not strong enough to enable us to achieve it.
It is only in this context, when we understand man’s plight (he desires true happiness, but is not able to will himself to find it since it is found in God alone, in whom he cannot delight while he is in the flesh
15), that we are now prepared to truly appreciate Augustine’s understanding of God’s grace: ‘Saving grace, converting grace, in Augustine’s view, is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over all other joys and therefore sways the will.’16 Grace, then, is God’s active changing of our heart’s desires so that we can truly desire him above all else, freely choose him, and as we love him, find in him our true soul’s joy.17 Our wills are always free to choose to do those things which we delight in, but they are never free to choose what our wills will delight in.18 That is why we need God’s grace.
Since God’s grace is a free gift on which all of our heart’s desires and all of our salvation depends, God’s grace is necessary for more than just our conversion: it is necessary for true, ongoing, joyful obedience. Once converted, Augustine could pray, ‘Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! … All this makes clear, O holy God, that when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.’
19 As Piper sums up this aspect of Augustine’s theology of God’s grace he says this: ‘Grace governs life by giving a supreme joy in the supremacy of God.’20 As it is grace which converts us and causes us to obey, it is God’s sovereign grace which will keep us secure in him until the final day. Augustine’s theology of God’s grace is the understanding that would persist through the era of the early church and which would rise triumphantly again through Luther and Calvin in the Reformation. It has been passed on through the Puritans to the Evangelicals, and endures to this day as the historic orthodox Christian doctrine of God’s sovereign saving grace.
God’s Grace in the Text
Throughout the sections above the author has tried to interact with some biblical texts in order to show that the theology of God’s grace discussed is not merely linguistic or historic, but Scriptural as well. Here we will very briefly examine one text which is quite representative of God’s grace as discussed above. The text will be Ephesians 2.1-10.
Here the Apostle Paul follows the pattern we noted in Augustine’s theology as well, where before understanding the greatness of God’s grace we must understand the depths of our hopelessness and helplessness. Paul declares that humans are all ‘dead’ on account of transgressions and sins. As Lloyd-Jones notes, ‘there is not a stronger term than “death”.’
21 Paul puts things in the strongest categories he can to drive home the point that those outside of God’s gospel grace are spiritually ‘dead’, and like the physical dead, are completely incapable of raising themselves to life. Of course, since our Lord said that true life is to know God (Jn 17.3), we understand that the sinner, outside of God’s grace is incapable of bringing himself to know God. Rather, each one freely chooses that in which he delights (‘carrying out the desires of the body’), and he walks ‘following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air.’
And so humans are described in verses 1-3. In verse 4, however, we are introduced to the wonderful grace of God, which comes about not because of anything good in us, but ‘because of the great love with which he loved us.’ As the text says, God works salvation in us even ‘when we were dead in our trespasses’, thus showing his tremendous grace (his unmerited kindness to those who do not deserve it). In fact, as the text says, the display of God’s wondrous grace is the reason for our salvation: ‘so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.’ Paul then explains how our salvation displays the grace of God: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ In other words, God has chosen to work in just this way—to save for himself a people who were absolutely powerless to save themselves—so that his awesome grace would be put on display (‘to the praise of his glorious grace’, Eph 1.6)! God’s grace makes us alive (causes us to know God) so that we might love God and walk in holiness and good works (Eph 1.4; 2.10), and be preserved until the final day when our salvation is complete (Eph 1.13-14). From beginning to end, it is all God’s grace.
Conclusion: How Understanding God’s Grace Applies to the Church
For the purposes of this paper application of our understanding of God’s goodness as it is shown in his grace to sinners must be limited to two areas. The first of these is private prayer. For the Christian, prayer is never an option (Mt 6.5, 7), and one would be a fool to not pray according to his biblical knowledge of God. When we understand that we are absolutely dependent on God’s grace to do—even to desire—what will please him, it will quickly change the way we pray:
My heart is drawn out in thankfulness to thee,
for thy amazing grace and condescension to me…
No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I do,
And yet none abuses it more than I have done, and still do. …
Every time I exercise any grace renewedly I am renewedly indebted to thee,
the God of all grace, for special assistance.
I cannot boast when I think how dependent I am upon thee for the being
and every act of grace;
I never do anything else but depart from thee, and if ever I get to heaven it will be
because thou willest it, and for no reason beside.
I love, as a feeble, afflicted, despised creature, to cast myself on thy infinite grace
and goodness, hoping for no happiness but from thee;
Give me special grace to fit me for special services, and keep me calm and
It is only once we truly comprehend and apply to our hearts these truths about God’s sovereign saving grace that we will once again pray as the Puritans prayed, in desperate need of grace.
The second area where it is important for the church to apply this theology of God’s grace is in our corporate worship. Understanding that grace is something we could never earn, or ever achieve, but which enables us to find true happiness, to walk in obedience to God in a way that pleases him, and preserves us until the day of our salvation should change the way we sing and praise him. After all, as we have seen, God’s sovereign saving grace has been worked in our lives for the expressed purpose that all might be ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’!
Grace unmeasured, vast and free, that knew me from eternity
That called me out before my birth to bring You glory on this earth
Grace amazing, pure and deep, that saw me in my misery
That took my curse and owned my blame , so I could bear Your righteous name
Grace (grace, grace) paid for my sins and brought me to life
Grace (grace, grace) clothes me with power to do what is right
Grace (grace, grace) will lead me to heaven where I’ll see Your face
And never cease to thank You for Your grace
Grace abounding, strong and true, that makes me long to be like You
That turns me from my selfish pride, to love the cross on which You died
Grace unending all my days; You’ll give me strength to run this race
And surely we do make it our prayer, that both now and in the coming ages he would receive all the praise for the immeasurable riches of grace he has shown to us!
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 D.A. Carson draws a similar distinction between grace and mercy: ‘The two terms are frequently synonymous; but where there is a distinction between the two, it appears that grace is a loving response when love is undeserved, and mercy is a loving response prompted by the misery and helplessness of the one on whom the love is to be showered. Grace answers to the undeserving; mercy answers to the miserable’ (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: An Exposition of Matthew 5-10 [Grand Rapids: Global Christian Publishers, 1999], 24-25).
9 ‘CavriV’ in Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1079.
11 This is true outside of the Pauline corpus as well, as Green ably points out (‘Grace’, 526). He cites examples from James (1.5, 17-18; 2.5), John (Jn 3.16-21; 1 Jn 4.16), and Luke (Lk 4.22; Acts 6.8; 11.23; 13.43; etc.). He writes of the connectedness of God’s grace and our salvation in this way: ‘If in Paul “grace” can refer to “the redemptive act of Christ”, in Luke-Acts “grace” can be used as a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation”.’ It is by the grace of God that the gospel is proclaimed and that the gospel is believed (Acts 14.3, 26; 15.40; 18.27; 20.24, 32).
12 B.B. Warfield cites this bold declaration from Adolf Harnack’s ‘Monasticism and the Confessions of St. Augustine’ in Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1956), 306-312. Warfield evidently agrees with Harnack’s assessment: Augustine ‘entered both the Church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but … determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day’ (306). Studying Augustine’s theology of grace as representative of much of church history is particularly appropriate because, as R.C. Sproul argues, it was Augustine who ‘gave us the Reformation.’ This is so, he posits, not only because ‘Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian … [but because] the Reformation witnessed the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over the legacy of the Pelagian view of man’ (from ‘Augustine and Pelagius,’ in Tabletalk [June 1996], 11). Cf. John Piper’s discussion on the importance of Augustine in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 43-45.
13 Aurelius Augustine, Confessions (trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin; London, Eng: Penguin Books, 1961), 228-229. Augustine reasons that not all are able to willingly follow God, and there find the true happiness they seek, since ‘their will to do what they cannot do is not strong enough to enable them to do it’ (229).
17 The phraseology is intentionally chosen to be reminiscent of Augustine’s own conversion experience: ‘During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke? … How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose! … You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honour, though not in the eyes of men who see all honour in themselves…. O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation’ (Confessions, 181; emphasis my own).
18 Thus, in another place, he could write, ‘If those things delight us which serve our advancement towards God, that is due not to our own whim or industry or meritorious works, but to the inspiration of God and to the grace which he bestows.’ T. Kermit Scott, Augustine: His Thought in Context (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 203; as cited in Piper, Sovereign Joy, 59.