We Are Not Saved by Grace
Article bySeptember 2010
John Bunyan believed that Christians are saved by grace. Of course. It was what everyone seemed to say. The thought left him pretty miserable, though. In fact, when he really thought about it, it left him profoundly depressed. God is gracious, he knew: but how gracious, exactly? And that made him wonder: 'my peace would be in and out, sometimes twenty times a day; comfort now, and trouble presently'.
'But one day, as I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God's right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before Him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever (Heb. 13.8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations had fled away; so that, from that time, those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me now; now went I also home rejoicing, for the grace and love of God.'
It wasn't that we are saved by grace; what sent Bunyan home rejoicing was that we are saved by grace alone. And therein lies a world of difference.
Now one might have thought that merely adding that word 'alone' would have set Bunyan free. But no. And to really skip with Bunyan, we must follow the White Rabbit into a very topsy-turvy world.
Down the Rabbit Hole...
Above ground, life is simple and obvious. Common sense rules. And breathing in this sensible air, I wonder 'who am I?' Well I am me, of course. My own man. And whatever that silly old codger John Donne said, it is obvious that each man is, in fact, an island. So what is grace? Some sort of stuff given to me, a sort of force God gives to help me.
But then down the hole we go, passing such weird sights as Romans 5: 'sin came into the world through one man' and 'many died through one man's trespass'. What madness is this? I die, not because I've done wrong, but because of Adam? Indeed, and more: 'as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous' (vv18-19). So I don't die because of my own sin, and I don't live because of my own righteousness. My actions really do not determine my destiny. It is because of the sin of Adam than anyone sins and dies. It is because of the righteousness of Christ that anyone comes to life and righteousness.
Now undoubtedly this is strange; but is it unfair? Quite the opposite, said Augustine as he took on 'each man is an island' Pelagius at the beginning of the fifth century. For if each person suffers only for their own sin, what of the child born handicapped? Her problem can only be her own fault.
Well, OK, perhaps this isn't unfair. But how can this be that Adam sins and I die, that Christ obeys and I am given life? Further down the hole we go, to 1 Corinthians 15: 'Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep... For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.' What can he mean? The answer lies at the very bottom of the tunnel, with the very first fruits of all, in Genesis 1. There, on the third day, we see the firstfruits of creation. And something that the repetition of the text makes striking is that these fruits are 'seed-bearing'. The plants bear fruit 'in which is their seed'. The next generation is contained within them. Thus what happens to the fruit will happen to the seed.
So it is with Adam and Christ. They are the firstfruits of two very different crops: Adam is the fruit of death, and all his seed 'in him' die with him; Christ is the fruit of life, and all his seed 'in him' live with him. Mankind, then, is not, in fact, a vast throng of separate individuals, but is instead made up of just two persons: Adam and Christ. Each one of us is merely a seed in one of those fruits, dependent for our fate, not on ourselves, but on the one we are in.
One sees much the same thing in Hebrews 7, with the story of Abraham giving a tithe to Melchizedek. According to Hebrews, Abraham's great grandson, Levi, could also be said to have paid that tithe 'through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.' Yet to be born, Levi was considered to be still 'in Abraham'. He was, after all, Abraham's descendant, his 'seed'. He was still in the old fruit. What Abraham did, he did.
... and Up into the Sunshine
In this strange new world of the Bible, then, salvation is not so much about each individual being given some thing called grace; it is about being snipped out of one plant, Adam, and grafted into another, Christ. But with that comes the liberation and the joy. Christ bore the death penalty of sin for us: in him, we bore it too. Christ was then raised from the death he did not deserve and was declared righteous: in him we were given new life and declared righteous. Like fruit in a seed, like Levi in Abraham, Christians are hidden in Christ, and all his is theirs.
For all that we speak of grace, and however strongly we speak of it, we will remain prisoners of spiritual insecurity for as long as we imagine that we are independent islands. And rightly so: all spiritual blessings are to be found in Christ alone. Just read Ephesians 1 for an avalanche of verses to prove that. There is no hint of salvation to be found anywhere else. God only ever blesses through Christ. He is the vine of God's blessing. And the only way to be blessed is to be grafted into him.
But to know that we are now hidden in Christ and clothed with him is what will really ring the joy-bells. It was just so that John Calvin summed up his teaching on justification in his Institutes:
'as Jacob did not of himself deserve the right of the first-born, concealed in his brother's clothing and wearing his brother's coat, which gave out an agreeable odor, he ingratiated himself with his father, so that to his own benefit he received the blessing while impersonating another. And we in like manner hide under the precious purity of our first-born brother, Christ, so that we may be attested righteous in God's sight... And this is indeed the truth, for in order that we may appear before God's face unto salvation we must smell sweetly with his odor, and our vices must be covered and buried by his perfection.'
How Pilgrims Progress
It was just this that Bunyan grasped when that sentence fell upon his soul, 'Thy righteousness is in heaven'. And when he saw that, how could he fear any more that all was not right? Now all his hope and all his confidence was to be found outside himself, independent of how he was feeling and doing - in Christ. He says he therefore went home rejoicing. That was true in the moment, but it might be more accurate to say he went out rejoicing, for that message turned Bunyan into perhaps the most winning evangelist of his generation. Thousands were turned to the happy message of a God who does not merely help us by 'grace' but who totally accepts sinners in Christ.
If we simply speak of salvation by grace, people will imagine grace to be that force God gives to help us where we are at. And thus they will lack the joy-giving confidence and appeal of Bunyan's gospel of grace alone, of actually being found secure in Christ. The other thing, of course, is that grace can be thought of quite impersonally, as if being a believer is merely about believing promises and getting blessings. And if that is it, what's to stop the Christian living in mere servile obedience to God? But Bunyan's discovery was that we are united to Christ, to know and love him personally from the heart, to know and love the Father as our Father, to be known and loved as children of God. It's not quite that we get 'grace': we get Christ.
Saved by grace? No, we have a better gospel than that.
Dr. Michael Reeves is the Theological Advisor for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), a charity supporting evangelism in higher education throughout the United Kingdom. He is the author of books such as The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Broadman & Holman, 2010)