Communicable Attributes: Grace: Its Scope and Effectiveness

Among professing Christians in America, there is perhaps no word, and the reality to which it refers, more used and abused than grace. Space only allows us to glance at the subject, but understand this: There is an application of God’s grace that actually saves the people whom he chooses to save. If he didn’t make the choice to save some, we would all get his justice and be damned. Only God by his mercy and grace saves, and no person has a claim upon God, otherwise there would be neither mercy nor grace. Let us focus upon God’s grace. 

In the history of Christian theology, the debate regarding what Scripture teaches about God’s grace was brought to an initial climactic point in the 5th century and revolved around two men: Augustine (354-430) and Pelagius (354-418). While the Church officially declared Pelagius’ views contrary to Scripture, the Church did not fully settle on Augustine’s view. Instead, a variety of compromising views that were various blends of Augustinianism and Pelagianism were embraced.

The Protestant Reformation brought greater clarity to the doctrine of God’s grace as Martin Luther, John Calvin and many others declared the power of God’s saving grace to actually triumph over human sin, as it was specifically and particularly applied to those God chose to apply it. Meanwhile, Jacob Arminius and others didn’t get the point. They insisted, like all the Pelagian infested compromising views of God’s grace, that in order for God’s grace to be effective God needed a little help from his creatures. Hmm . . . God dependent on his creatures. Doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.

Calvinism and Arminianism became the terms associated with the two basic positions on God’s grace extending from the Protestant Reformation. The terms are not identical to Augustinianism and Pelagianism but we could say they are aligned with them. Calvinism and Arminianism both teach that there is a universal and particular application of God’s grace. They differ on the details. Calvinism affirms that God’s grace has a universal application since the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity has rescued, is rescuing and will rescue his creation from the bondage of sin (Romans 8:19-21). As a result, even now, if you live in God’s creation (!), you cannot help but be affected by God’s grace. Calvinism uses the term common grace for this universal aspect of God’s grace. It’s united to God’s saving grace but they are not identical. Calvinism doesn’t teach universalism—that every person will be saved from sin. It teaches that every person is experiences some of the effects of God’s grace, whether they are saved from their sin or not. Arminianism teaches that the universal aspect of God’s grace is seen in that God has given every person enough of his grace enabling them to have the ability to respond to the offer of salvation in Jesus. This universal aspect of God’s grace in Arminianism is called prevenient grace.

Of course, it follows that if the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace is true, we are left with the question: What causes some people to trust Jesus for salvation, while others do not? Arminianism does not, indeed cannot, identify God as the cause. That would be to concede that Calvinism is correct. After all, within Arminianism God has already done his part in Jesus; Jesus has made salvation possible for all. Jesus, according to at least most forms of Arminianism, died for the sins of everyone. But if Jesus died for everyone’s sins, why will there still be people who die in their sin and perish for eternity because of their sin? This leaves us with a God who requires two deaths for one sinner’s sin, because Jesus didn’t have sin, and therefore didn’t die for it. This is why some Arminian theologians actually deny that Jesus died for anyone’s sin on the cross. They feel the weight of a system that affirms an unjust God. Repeatedly, throughout Arminianism one is left with answers to the questions of salvation that contradict Scripture.

In the end, only Calvinism actually affirms what Scripture teaches about God’s grace in both its universal and particular applications. Regarding its particular application, God actually applies a grace that actually saves from sin. Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus (2:8-10): “For by grace you have been saved; and this is not from you, it is the gift of God; not from works, in order that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared in advance, in order that we might walk in them.” He was called Jesus, because he would save his people from their sin (Mt. 1:21). There is a grace from God that actually saves sinners from their sin. We receive it by turning to and trusting Jesus through confession of and repentance from sin.  

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.