A Gracious Response to Concerns About Grace

I am happy to provide a response to some of the concerns made by Rick Phillips. He agrees with me on merit, which was what my two posts were really about. So I am glad for our agreement on that. But he saw some statements on grace in the Garden that made him uncomfortable.

Richard Muller has made the point that "Virtually all of the Reformed theologians of the era recognized, albeit in varying degrees, that there could be no relationship between God and the finite, mutable creature apart from grace." I stand in that venerable tradition.

However, Rev. Phillips shows how important that word "Virtually" is to the above-mentioned statement. Some do depart from generally accepted views in their tradition. Rev. Phillips confidently denies that we can use the word "grace" to describe what God gave to Adam in the Garden. I can appreciate his concern, even if I don't quite agree.

According to Rev. Phillips, to use "grace" to describe God's goodness to Adam is to "sow confusion into our doctrine of salvation by grace alone." But he acknowledges that Adam's "positive blessings" were a result of the "gift of God." So here he agrees substantially with what I'm saying, but he does not want to make "gift" synonymous in any way with "grace," which I am happy to do. 

He also says that grace clearly refers to "God's unmerited provision for the salvation of sinners." He adds: "Biblically and confessionally, 'grace' refers to God's unmerited favor in a post-lapsarian situation." First, "refers" and "refers only" are two different claims. In context, Rev. Phillips means "refers only." But these appear to be assertions that were not in fact proved by him.

The Biblical Issue

If grace "clearly refers" to unmerited favor it is hard to understand why "virtually all of the Reformed theologians" in the Early Modern era did not see this point as clearly as Rev. Phillips does.

Rev. Phillips does not find my points about God's grace towards Christ persuasive enough to concede my point. This is odd. When the Bible actually uses the word "grace" (i.e., charis), how can Rev. Phillips say that "Biblically and confessionally, 'grace' refers to God's unmerited favor"? Perhaps Confessionally - though I will dispute that point below - but biblically grace simply does not refer to demerited favor. Luke 2:40, 52 proves that much.

Quite apart from Luke 2:40, 52, we have the example of Philippians 2:9. Paul uses the Greek word, "echarisato." The same Greek word appears earlier in Philippians 1:29, where believers are "freely/graciously given" the privilege of both believing in and suffering for Christ. Was Paul sowing confusion into the minds of the Philippians by using the same word in different senses? Of course not. Context is crucial.

According to Geerhardus Vos, who comments on Philippians 2:9, "Echarisato means that God bestowed it as a gracious gift, not, of course, in the specific sense of the word 'grace,' implying that there was any unworthiness in Christ which God had to overlook, but in the more general sense implying that this was an act in which the graciousness, the kindness of God manifested itself." I agree with Vos here.

I would like to think that Rev. Phillips should be able to accept, even if he doesn't fully agree, that grace may be used in a specific sense and a general sense. If Jesus is "filled with the grace of God" (Lk. 2:40, as well as WCF 8.3 - "full of grace and truth"), can we not say that Adam possessed the "grace of God"?

It seems to me that the idea a word can have more than one sense is just common English. God's love has manifold meanings. Rev. Phillips is welcome to refrain from using grace in a broader sense, but since scripture uses "grace" in a broader sense, I am quite within my rights - as were the Reformed - to be clear in helping people distinguish between the different meanings of grace (and "love"). Or is Rev. Phillips saying that he rejects the distinction between common grace and saving grace?

The learned Puritan, Francis Roberts, author of the largest work on covenant theology in the English language, contends that grace in Scripture "hath manifold acceptations." Primarily, grace refers to God's free favor to his creatures and the blessings he gives to them. In the covenant of works, Adam received the grace of benevolence; in the covenant of grace, he received the grace of mercy. That is a crucial distinction - one that I have highlighted in the past.

Personally, I do not think we should be so comfortable using vocabulary in theology that is (significantly) different from biblical uses of the vocabulary. Of course there is a unique nature to theological discourse, but I think we should have a spirit of humility that says "let the Scriptures govern too my understanding of what charis may mean."

The Confessional Issue

The Westminster Confession is a historical document that needs to be understood in its immediate context. What did the divines mean by certain terms that are used in the Confession? This is a hugely significant point that we should be careful not to miss.

The Westminster Confession, however, speaks of "voluntary condescension" (7.1) and not "grace" to characterize the covenants God makes with man.

Two things should be noted. First, for most of the divines a covenant is by definition gracious. To speak of a "covenant" of works is to speak of a gracious covenant.

Second, the phrase "voluntary condescension" clearly has in view God's grace. I think the divines understood "voluntary condescension" and "grace" as roughly overlapping (sometimes synonymous) terms. The Westminster divine, William Bridge, brings the two concepts together. In comparing the new covenant with the covenant made with Adam, Bridge remarks that "out of free love and grace, [God] was pleased to condescend to enter into Covenant with man." Similarly, in describing the covenant of works, Thomas Blake speaks of God's "gracious condescension." Francis Roberts posits that all of God's covenants with His creatures "are his gratuitous condescensions to his Creatures. The Covenant of Works even in innocency was merely Gratuitous." By condescending to make a covenant with Adam, God dealt graciously with him, so much so that Patrick Gillespie could say, as noted, that the covenant of works was also a covenant of grace. So, historically speaking, I am convinced that the divines were well aware of what "voluntary condescension" meant, not just what is says.

What is a fundamental assumption of the Reformed is now dangerous, according to Rev. Phillips.

I am prepared to say, based on my reading of the Puritans and the Westminster divines, that they clearly had in mind the grace of God when they inserted the words "voluntary condescension."

Robert Letham (and Andrew Woolsey) seems to agree with me:

"In Protestant scholasticism, long entrenched by the time of Westminster, condescensio was used for God's accommodation of himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself. This was closely related to gratia Dei (the grace of God), the goodness and undeserved favor of God toward man, and to gratia communis (common grace), his nonsaving, universal grace, by which, in his goodness, he lavishes favor on all creation in the blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good. These are the clearest senses of the terms for the Assembly..." (The Westminster Assembly, 225-26).

In fact, Letham adds: "The Westminster documents clearly affirm that grace was present before the fall" (p. 232).


My hope is that we can advance the conversation by interacting with the primary sources. That is to say, I hope Rev. Phillips will show how I have misunderstood Luke's and Paul's use of charis and how my reading of the Confession does not reflect the original intent of the esteemed Assembly.

As far as I am concerned, I have written nothing in these posts that would look out of place in the seventeenth century context from which our confessional documents emerged.

In the eighteenth century, Thomas Boston spoke of grace in the Garden: "It was an act of grace, worthy of the gracious God whose favourite he was; for there was grace and free favour in the first covenant, though the exceeding riches of grace, as the apostle calls it, Eph. 2:7, were reserved for the second" (Works, 8:18-19). He was, as you all likely know, a vigorous opponent of the neonomian tendencies that were entrenched in the Church of Scotland. It is possible, historically speaking, to affirm what I have and still defend orthodoxy. 

In fact, was not my 2 of 2 on merit precisely that: an attempt to provide a better way of defending the imputation of the active obedience of Christ? That, alone, should give people reason to pause before they invoke the name Norman Shepherd and carelessly apply it to me.