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A number of decades ago at the Ligonier Valley Study Center, we sent out a Thanksgiving card with this simple statement: “The essence of theology is grace; the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude.” In all the debates about our role versus God’s role in sanctification—our growth in holiness—we’d stay on the right track if we’d remember this grace-gratitude dynamic. The more we understand how kind God has been to us and the more we are overcome by His mercy, the more we are inclined to love Him and to serve Him.
Yet we can’t get the grace-gratitude dynamic right if we aren’t clear on what grace means. What is grace? The catechisms many of us learned as children give us the answer: “Grace is the unmerited favor of God.” The first thing that we understand about grace is what it’s not—it’s not something we merit. In fact, if that is all we ever understand about grace, I’m sure God will rejoice that we know His grace is unmerited. So, here’s our working definition of grace—it is unmerit.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans sheds light on what we mean when we say that grace is unmerit. In 1:18–3:20, the Apostle explains that on the final day, for the first time in our lives, we will be judged in total perfection, in total fairness, in absolute righteousness. Thus, every mouth will be stopped when we stand before the tribunal of God. This should provoke fear in the hearts of fallen people, as condemnation is the only possible sentence for sinful men and women: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
But those who trust in Christ Jesus have hope, for if we are in Him by faith, we have been “justified freely by His grace.” Note that justification is accomplished not by obligation, but freely through grace on account of the redemption purchased by Jesus alone. There’s no room for boasting, for we are justified not by our works but by grace alone through faith alone. Paul goes on to cite Abraham as the preeminent example of one who was justified by faith alone and therefore free from God’s sentence of condemnation. If the basis for Abraham’s salvation, his justification, was something that Abraham did—some good deed, some meritorious service that he performed, some obligation that he performed—if it were on the basis of works, Paul says, he would have had something about which to boast. But Abraham had no such merit. All he had was faith, and that faith itself was a gift: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3; see Eph. 2:8–10).
Romans 4:4–8 is a key passage here:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
That’s grace. Paul couldn’t say it any other way. To him who works, it’s debt; if you merit something, it means that someone is obligated to pay you. If I hire you as an employee and promise to pay you one hundred dollars if you work eight hours, I must pay you for working the eight hours. I’m not doing you a favor or giving you grace. You’ve earned your pay. You’ve fulfilled the contract, and I’m morally obliged to give you your wages.
With respect to the Lord, we are debtors who cannot pay. That’s why the Bible speaks of redemption in economic language—we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). Only someone else—Christ—can pay our debt. That’s grace. It’s not our good works that secure our rescue but only the works of Christ. It’s His merit, not ours. We don’t merit anything. He grants us His merit by grace, and we receive it only by faith. The essence of grace is its voluntary free bestowal. As soon as it’s a requirement, it’s no longer grace.
Grace should never cease to amaze us. God has an absolute, pure, holy standard of justice. That’s why we cling with all our might to the merit of Jesus Christ. He alone has the merit to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, and He gives it freely to us. We haven’t merited it. There’s nothing in us that elicits the Lord’s favor that leads to our justification. It’s pure grace.
And the more we understand what God has done for us as sinners, the more willing we are to do whatever He requires. The great teachers of the church say the first point of genuine sanctification is an increasing awareness of our own sinfulness. With that comes, at the same time, an increasing awareness of God’s grace. And with that, again, increasing love and increasing willingness to obey Him.
When we truly understand grace—when we see that God only owes us wrath but has provided Christ’s merit to cover our demerit—then everything changes. The Christian motivation for ethics is not merely to obey some abstract law or a list of rules; rather, our response is provoked by gratitude. Jesus understood that when He said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” If I may have the liberty to paraphrase: “Keep My commandments not because you want to be just, but because you love Me.” A true understanding of grace—of God’s unmerited favor—always provokes a life of gratitude and obedience.