Part 2: Grace
By S. M. Baugh
In the first part of this series on the 3Gs—guilt, grace, and gratitude—we focused on our guilt before a holy God, and that all who are without Christ should be “cut to the quick” like the original audience of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. This, in fact, is one of the main purposes of God’s law: “[S]o that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). When faced with the reality of their guilt Peter’s audience in Acts 2 blurted out in anguished urgency: “Brothers! What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Others who face the holy God in their guilt likewise cry: “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us!” (1 Sam. 4:7-8); “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone! (Num. 17:12); “I am lost!” (Isa. 6:5); “Who will deliver me from this body of death?!” (Rom. 7:24).
As I said previously, Peter could have simply steered his audience in the direction of self-help that is so popular today. Or, more understandably since his sermon takes place in Jerusalem near the temple (Acts 2:14), he could have told them to take animals to the priests and offer sin offerings to the Lord (e.g., Exod. 29:10-14; Lev. 4:13-21). For the high priest bore their guilt on his forehead (Exod. 28:38) just as the people bore his guilt (Lev. 4:3). But these things were shadows of something, or rather, someone to come. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).
Because Peter had seen the reality of Jesus with his own eyes, he knew that things had changed with the coming of the Lord Messiah whom God had chosen (Acts 2:36) to bear all the sin and guilt of his chosen people on the cross. So Peter said this to his guilt-laden audience:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:38-39).
These people were accessories to the murder of the incarnate Son of God, yet now they are to call upon him (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:32) and be baptized in his name! And in that name alone is forgiveness (Acts 10:43), for “everyone who believes is freed from everything” (Acts 13:38) including all their piled up guilt.
This is obviously grace. “Repent and be baptized” is not the same thing as: “Do good deeds of love and generosity for the forgiveness of your sins.” As we will see in the next part under “gratitude” we will most certainly be fully occupied with good works, but no works of ours are of any value for our salvation; they are “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6; cf. Zech. 3:3). “[H]e saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy . . .” (Titus 3:5).
This brings us to the need to define the word “grace” in this context. It is common to describe it as “God’s unmerited favor,” but this falls short. “Unmerited” makes it sound like we are neutral, like bystanders to a crime. But as we saw last time, we were God’s enemies when Christ died for us. We are the criminals here; we were not just undeserving but those who merited God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9-10). So, “grace” really refers to God’s favor toward his enemies. His justification for the guilt-ridden is where grace is found. “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. . . . For the law brings wrath. . . . That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Rom. 4:5, 15-16).
But herein lies another key thing to say about saving grace. It is based upon Christ Jesus’ “substitutionary mediation.” This gets at the heart of the gospel and is useful as a shorthand phrase to understand the core of our salvation through Christ. He intervened as the one mediator between God and all his people (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15; 12:24), but this mediation was not like that of an arbiter of a dispute but rather it was as a surety (Heb. 9:22) who took upon himself the guilt of his people and bore their sins on the cursed tree as their ransom (Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; 2 Tim. 1:8-9; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; Rev. 1:5; etc.). ““For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). This is Luther and Calvin’s “Wonderful Exchange.”
To receive the merit of Christ’s death requires faith. But salvation is all of grace because even faith is a gift from God! This is what Paul says in Eph. 2:8-9. But that’s a different story, which we’ll have to look at another time. For now, here are two Reformed statements on grace that are classics in their own way. The first is from a theologian and pastor writing in 1677 on the difference between the covenant of works and covenant of grace. While covenant enters in here, the notion of grace and substitutionary mediation is what is so valuable here:
“In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required, to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed, by a mediator. And in this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants.” Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending A Complete Body of Divinity (1677; reprint Escondido, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), 1.49.
How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
The next is from the Westminster Larger Catechism from 1647. While it addresses justification directly, it is also relevant as another key statement about saving grace:
Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
We’ll conclude this three-part series on “guilt, grace, and gratitude” next time with discussion of the third element, gratitude.