Patrick H. Morison
Early in my Christian life, when I was attending a Wesleyan Methodist college, I was informed that, as a Presbyterian, I was a Calvinist. I stood accused of believing in such ideas as total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.
My Arminian friends charged that such ideas contradicted the love of God and were deduced by the "cold logic" of John Calvin. They challenged me to go back to the Bible to discover the God of love. So I did. But the more I read, the more I found the Bible saying what Calvin and his fellow Reformers claimed. The revelation of God's infinite love is clear, but it is qualified by his infinite sovereignty and holiness. "The Lord has compassion on those who fear him" (Ps. 103:13). Scripture reveals that no one naturally seeks after God; sinful people are naturally rebels who hate him (Rom. 1:18-32; 3:9-20). And God himself has determined which of these rebels will receive his mercy and which ones he will harden, all to make the riches of his glory known to those who receive mercy (Rom. 9:14-18, 23).
While I was puzzled that my friends could not see God's sovereignty in salvation, I also struggled with the question of whether I was one of those chosen to receive his mercy. As I listened more to God's Word and wrestled with my own sins, I realized that I would never find assurance within myself. My faith and discipleship were too inconsistentlaced with unbelief, indifference, and disobediencefor me ever to please God in myself. Although the sovereignty of God's grace was undeniably taught by Scripture, his love still seemed remote to me personally. I needed a new way of seeing things if I were ever to gain assurance that Christ had saved me completely and forever.
As the Holy Spirit shone his gospel into the darkness of my soul, I realized that I had no claim on God's love. But had he awakened me to the gospel just to taunt me? Not at all! His gospel told me that I had no worthiness or attractiveness to claim his consideration. But it also told me that I needed none! He had set his affection on me without looking for any worthiness or value in me as a son of Adam. I did not need to be saintly in order to be saved, because divine salvation confers sainthood on the sinner whom God has appointed to receive saving love before he was born and had done anything good or bad.
Here is perhaps where my Arminian friends missed a key issue: the doctrines of grace are not just the logical implications of God's infinite sovereignty. They are also the unshakable conviction of Jesus. "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.... No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:37, 44). The grace reflected in these doctrines is grace that is lavished on us in Jesus Christand only in him.
How can God be holy and just, and yet choose one, whose sin and shame he has so justly exposed, to be one of his saints? The answer lies in the astounding affirmation of Scripture that God takes infinite delight in lavishing his grace on sinners (Eph. 1:6-8) and gave up his Son to obtain salvation for us. Jesus willingly served as his Father's sacrifice of atonement (propitiation) (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), suffering divine wrath for the sinfulness and the particular sins of us ungodly and ungrateful wretches whom he had chosen to be his saints. God "justifies the wicked.... While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 4:5; 5:8).
Christ having borne our condemnation and released us from judgment, God further bestows on us his guilt-free standing (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus perfectly fulfilled all the righteous demands of God's covenant law. He met Satan's temptation like Adam, though in the wilderness rather than the garden, and faithfully fulfilled God's will (Matt. 4:1-11). His behavior was unimpeachable; not even his enemies could convict him of sin without false witnesses (John 8:46; Matt. 26:60). As our covenant head, he trusted and loved the will of his Father. We sing, "O how love I thy law," but only Jesus could sing that with perfectly holy intent and passion.
And if that were not grace enough, God adopts us into his own family, eternally uniting us to his Son. As sons with Christ, God gives us the immeasurable privilege of sharing in the Son's inheritance of the eternal kingdom (Rom. 8:17; Heb. 9:15). I have a new identity in Christ! Yes, I am still sinful, but God has made me his son, a saint. I have a share in all the promises and privileges of grace that God has been revealing to his children from the beginning!
Faith lays hold of the reality of God's grace revealed through his promises, and it creates a radical shift in the way we understand everything. Knowing God's grace in this way defines reality for us, especially matters of righteousness, goodness, and salvation. God has already begun manifesting his grace when he confirms to us the horrible, shameful reality of our sinfulness and frees us to acknowledge it. We come to understand sin, not simply as failing to live up to the expectations of family, church, or society, but as our personal affront to the infinitely holy God. Faith in the gospel stirs up our hearts to cry for mercy, and he will not ignore that cry. God's law, seen through faith in his promises of grace, leads us "to repent of [our] particular sins, particularly" (Confession of Faith, 15.5). The Holy Spirit of grace awakens within us a new desire to know God and to be loved by him whom we previously hated.
To the world (and, sadly, to many professing Christians), this whole story of sovereign grace seems incredible. Why should we believe that this is not just another ancient religious myth or the heartless logic of theologians? Why would an intelligent person live his life on the basis of this story? One might respond with lots of psychological, philosophical, and theological reasons, but one compelling reason is that the biblical message accounts for human character, culture, and history more satisfactorily than any other paradigm, religious or secular.
Moreover, the biblical record and interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and especially his death and resurrection, have what J. B. Phillips called "the ring of truth." However, all the compelling arguments from creation, human nature, theology, and history cannot persuade people whose hearts are as hardened against God as stones; they will not respond to his message with faith and wonder. What can generate love and gratitude in the hearts of people who already live in the realm of their Creator's eternal power and glory, but who are committed to self-conceived myths in preference to worshiping their glorious Creator?
The answer lies in the irresistible, creative power of God's Holy Spirit. If a heart of stone cannot respond, it also cannot resist its Creator. God re-creates the hearts of those on whom he has chosen to lavish his grace. With the same power that raised Christ from the dead, he imparts new life to us and the will to believe his message of grace and promise (Eph. 2:4-9). He stirs up within us a new love for him who first loved us. That love drives out the sinner's hatred, replacing it with thanksgiving and praise. That power works "through the living and enduring word of God.... And this is the word that was preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:23, 25).
Contrary to the expectations of the perfectionists among us, God does not in this life transform us sinners-become-saints into perfect people. Instead, the Spirit magnifies the power and glory of his grace by drawing us into a lifelong pursuit of holiness. In that process, he is reshaping us into the likeness of Christ, to whom we have been joined. Our faith and love are tested, confirmed, and matured in the harsh realities of a fallen world. He guides and strengthens us in crucifying our own sinfulness, and he enables us to endure faithfully the pressures of a hostile world.
That sanctifying process displays the glory of his grace by confirming and nurturing us as children of God. To a cynical world, the matchless worth of God is proclaimed in the joyful faithfulness of his saints. To the saints, Christ grows more attractive and satisfying as the pleasures of sin become increasingly shabby and repulsive. Since we are God's children, "we are heirsheirs of God and coheirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Rom. 8:17).
Have you discovered this powerful, life-changing grace of God? I am not merely asking if you are persuaded that the doctrinal tradition is biblical, or if you can defend it logically. Has it become a confidence-building, joy-inspiring reality in your heart? Has it opened your heart to the glory of God in all of life? Has it led you toward that joy inexpressible which is the promised privilege of the saints of God, a joy that proclaims to all the world that God is worth infinitely more than all the praise and thanks we can give?
The author is a teacher at Faith Covenant OPC in Kalispell, Mont. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2001.