What do Presbyterians believe about grace?
Grace to You
By Ethan Raath
Reprinted from the May 1996 issue of Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today)
One day a young mother wanted to talk about her reawakening faith. In the course of the conversation, I suggested that God's Spirit was at work in her life, trying to get her attention, trying to "woo" her.
Reflecting on this image later, she said, "I was really tickled by the idea of God courting me. I have this image of God sitting patiently on the swing bench on the porch, while I'm upstairs trying to fix my hair and finish my makeup. I guess it's time I came downstairs and invited God in."
Grace is God's goodwill and favor reaching out to redeem us.
God's grace is like that — God "woos" us, calls us into a relationship of love. God's grace draws us to God, justifies us by faith in Jesus Christ, and sanctifies and empowers us by the Holy Spirit.
Grace is defined as favor, blessing, or goodwill offered by one who does not need to do so. It is unearned and undeserved favor. In our sinful condition as humans, undeserving as we are of God's love, it is God's goodwill and favor reaching out to redeem us.
Covenant grace — God's pursuing love
Covenant grace is God's love pursuing us and calling us into a relationship of love. The early Reformers spoke of predestination as God's grace selecting those who would be saved. But predestination in this sense does not take into account our free will, our freedom to accept or reject God's offer of a relationship, or the fact that grace is freely offered to all. Scripture must be interpreted in the overall light of God's love, and we affirm that "the Lord is not slow about his promise, ... but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
The Westminster Confession of Faith also affirms this:
Concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God's eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine of [God's] love for all [humankind], [God's] gift of [God's] Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and [God's] readiness to bestow [God's] saving grace on all who seek it; that concerning those who perish, the doctrine of God's eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all, adapted to all, and freely offered in the gospel to all; that men [and women] are fully responsible for their treatment of God's gracious offer; that [God's] decree hinders no [one] from accepting that offer; and that no [one] is condemned except on the ground of his [or her] sin.
With this understanding of grace, we are all predestined to be saved if we repent of our sins and accept by faith the relationship of love that God offers to us.
A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties. In the covenant God established with the people of Israel, we see God calling, rescuing and pursuing the Israelites in order to establish a covenant relationship with them. The basis of this covenant is spelled out in Exodus 19:4-6: "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples ... You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation."
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s "Brief Statement of Faith" affirms this promise:
In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God's image,
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.
But we rebel against God;
we hide from our Creator. . . .
Yet God acts with justice and mercy
to redeem creation.
In everlasting love,
the God of Abraham and Sarah
chose a covenant people
to bless all families of the earth.
There are a number of illustrations of covenant grace in the Bible: Noah (Genesis 9:8-13), Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), Moses (Exodus 19:3-6), David (2 Samuel 23:5). To the prophet Jeremiah, God declared that the day would come when a new covenant would be established, and the purposes of God would be imprinted on the hearts and minds of people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Jesus fulfilled this covenant promise, declaring that his death would be the fulfillment of the new covenant, by which all people can freely enter into a relationship with God, a covenant built on faith rather than law.
I remember seeing, as a young boy, a familiar picture of Christ knocking at a door in a garden wall. On the door was the symbol of a heart. It wasn't until many years later that I realized that the door did not have a handle. It had to be opened from the inside. Covenant grace is God's persistent knocking at our heart's door until we open it to receive God.
Covenant grace is God's action and presence in our lives from the earliest moments of our life, pursuing us in love until the moment that the covenant relationship is confirmed at our spiritual rebirth.
Justifying grace — God's saving love
The God who pursues us is also the God who saves us. Covenant grace is the work of God calling us into a relationship prior to the moment of salvation. Justifying grace is the work of God at the moment of salvation.
To justify means to put right, to vindicate. When we feel we have been wrongfully accused, we may try to "justify our actions." We want to set the record straight, to put things right.
We experience justifying grace when we are restored to a right relationship with God. This does not happen by our own effort, but through God's favor revealed in Jesus Christ, in the death of Christ on the cross. Scripture reminds us of the total inability of humankind to prove acceptable to God. In the Old Testament we read about repeated rituals of atonement for sin and attempts to keep the Law of God by following religious custom and teachings. But human effort was never enough.
The prophet Isaiah declared: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (53:6). And the Apostle Paul says the Law simply made people more aware of sin and of the powerlessness of human effort to remain sinless (Romans 7:7-13).
We are justified, or brought into a right relationship with God, through the grace of a loving God. Because of God's love for us, Jesus Christ took sin upon himself--became the full and final sacrifice for the sins of the world. We are saved by God's justifying grace.
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.
--A Brief Statement of Faith
This saving grace is powerfully expressed in the simple, familiar statement of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
A friend of mine, a very committed Christian, lives his faith every day. He is faithful to the church through good times and bad. He goes to the church every morning to have his devotions alone before he goes to work, and each Wednesday morning he stops work in his small manufacturing plant to share a time of worship with his workers. They are like a family, bringing their needs and concerns before the group to be prayed for and to be supported in practical ways.
But for all the evidence of my friend's faith, he still struggles with the question of his own worthiness before God. His worship and service is as much an attempt to keep earning God's favor as it is a genuine expression of love for his Lord and Savior. "Stop trying to earn God's favor by your own efforts," I tell him. "God loves you. Just rest in the grace of the Lord."
It is God in Christ who does the transforming work of salvation. We cannot do it. "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In faith and trust we respond to the relationship of love that God offers to us. But even that faith is not ours, it is the gift of God, Paul said, so that no one can boast of having earned God's favor. God does it all. That is why we call it "amazing grace."
It was the reality of justifying grace that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation, the foundation of so much that we believe as Presbyterians. The Reformers recognized that no religious practices could earn salvation for anyone. God offers a covenant relationship of love in Jesus Christ, which we receive by God's gift of faith.
But aren't we supposed to please God by the way we live our lives and practice our faith? Yes, but not in order to earn God's favor. We are the products of God's handiwork, "created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Ephesians 2:10). The life of faith and the good we do are a loving response to God's love for us. This response is the product of sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace — God's empowering love
Sanctifying grace is the work of the Spirit in our lives after we have committed our lives to God, enabling us to grow in holiness and to be strengthened for service.
We might think of God's grace in terms similar to marriage. Covenant grace is the period of courtship prior to the commitment to marriage. Justifying grace is the marriage ceremony — the moment when the commitment is made and the relationship is sealed. Sanctifying grace is life after the marriage — the way we live out the covenant relationship.
To sanctify means to make holy and to set apart for holy use. After our salvation, we continue to experience God's grace in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit.
We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
— A Brief Statement of Faith
Just as we are unable to earn God's favor by our own effort, we are unable to do the good work God has called us to in our own strength. We need the sanctifying and purifying work of the Holy Spirit to sustain and empower us.
Using again the image of marriage: Falling in love is a heady experience. The marriage is a magnificent celebration. But what then? Learning to live together is an awesome challenge. Each partner brings a set of expectations from their own experiences of family life that do not necessarily match. Making adjustments can often stretch love to the limit. And there will always have to be adjustments and compromises, which enable the relationship to grow richer and stronger.
So it is with the experience of sanctifying grace. Although our salvation through Christ grants us forgiveness of sin, there is an ongoing process in which freedom from sin is lived out in our lives. We can say with the Apostle Paul: "When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. . . . Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:21-25).
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.
— A Brief Statement of Faith
At his baptism Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit to empower his ministry. At Pentecost the disciples were also anointed and empowered by the Spirit for service. We too stand in need of the Spirit's anointing power if we are to be effective disciples of Christ. As individuals and as the Church we need to be energized by the Spirit in our ministry of love and service.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of people long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
— A Brief Statement of Faith
The young woman who came to inquire about her awakening faith wrote some time later: "For me that day was a new beginning as I opened myself to God. . . . My life will never be the same." Over the years I have watched this person grow in sanctifying grace as she has dealt with some painful childhood memories. She has been sustained as a member of a small group of women who gather regularly for prayer, study and sharing. And in the strength of the Spirit she has shared her gifts in ministry to youth and in mission activities in South America. She exemplifies God's sanctifying grace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God's new heaven and new earth,
praying, "Come, Lord Jesus!"
— A Brief Statement of Faith