All of Grace

Alan D. Strange

As Calvinists, we commonly affirm that salvation—from first to last—is all of grace. We not only enter the Christian life by grace, but also go on living as Christians by that same grace of God. We do not need God's grace merely to get us started. We need God's grace for our sanctification as much as we need it for our justification. And we need God's grace for our glorification. Thus, we may rightly say that salvation is all of grace.

Salvation Is All of Grace

We may rightly say that salvation, in all its aspects, is all of grace, because God, in giving us salvation, is showing favor to the undeserving. That's what saving grace is—favor shown to the unworthy. Perhaps it is even better to say that grace is favor shown to the ill-deserving.

Think of it this way: I may give food to someone who is unworthy or undeserving. That might demonstrate mercy or grace on my part. But if I give food to an undeserving person who the previous week robbed me and left me for dead, that is something altogether different. And this is exactly the kind of grace that God shows to the ungodly, to sinners, to those who are his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). When his grace comes to renew us and make us his own, it comes to us as those who have spat upon and despised the Lord Jesus Christ, who in the flesh are and have lived as God's foes. Grace is not merely God's blessing poured out upon those who do not deserve it. Grace is God's blessing poured out upon those who deserve his cursing.

We are never, in and of ourselves, worthy of salvation. Rather, we are always worthy of damnation. Only by virtue of our union with Christ do we receive that incomparable gift—the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in justification, and the grace of God infused in us in sanctification.

Some might object that while perhaps we were unworthy in our initial coming to Christ, we are now worthy recipients of grace as children of God, and that we can come to God as such. But this is not so. We do not come saying, "Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me," only when we first come to Christ. We say it every time we come to him, just as we say, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace." This is always our posture. In fact, the more we grow in grace and the closer we draw to the Lord, the more true we see this to be.

So salvation is rightly said to be all of grace in our personal experience of it. We have experienced God's grace in the past, both to keep us and to bring us to him. We experience grace now, by which alone we have access to God, and by which we are enabled to die to sin and to live to righteousness. And we can be confident that the amazing grace that has led us safely thus far will surely lead us home (Phil. 1:6). When such knowledge really grips our hearts, it will not create spiritual lethargy, but gratitude, which produces spiritual vitality.

But when we lose sight of the grace of God in Christ, we fall into either legalism or antinomianism. Both of these errors are failures to receive the grace of God in Christ. They are not opposite poles for which we need to find the balance, for both legalism and antinomianism are fleshly reactions of hearts that do not see the goodness and therefore the grace of our faithful, covenant God.

The Holy Conspiracy of Grace

Even as we may speak of our salvation as having past, present, and future aspects, so we may speak of our salvation as having aspects that pertain particularly to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We see this clearly expressed in Ephesians 1:3-14, which sets forth the work of the three persons of the Trinity, further demonstrating that our salvation by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is wholly gracious.

In verses 3-6, the accent falls upon the Father choosing us in Christ, "before the foundation of the world." In verses 7-13a, the accent falls upon the Son and the salvation that we enjoy by virtue of our union with him and in him. And, finally, verses 13b-14 emphasize the Holy Spirit as the one who seals to us all the blessings of the Father who appoints our salvation and of the Son who accomplishes our salvation.

Thus, we might say that we were saved before time by the predestining decree of the Father. And we might say that we were saved in time past by the person and work of Christ. And lastly we might say that in our own lifetime we are saved by the work of the Holy Spirit. These verses in the first chapter of Ephesians beautifully demonstrate the holy conspiracy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to save God's elect. We sinners are saved only by the grace of God the Father in choosing us for salvation, of God the Son in accomplishing our salvation, and of God the Spirit in applying our salvation in our life.

Theologians sometimes refer to the eternal aspect of our salvation, in which the Father has, as it were, the leading role, together with the Son and the Spirit, as the pactum salutis—that pact, or covenant, of salvation in which there is a pretemporal, intra-Trinitarian foreordination of the salvation of God's people, as a part of God's decreeing all that comes to pass. Some theologians see the pactum salutis as identical with "the covenant of redemption" (that agreement of the Son with the Father to ratify the covenant of grace through the work of the incarnate Son), while others see the covenant of redemption as part of the pactum salutis. In either case, the point is that what we call the pactum salutis has reference to our salvation as it is secured by the inviolable, eternal decrees of God. In that respect, we may rightly say that there was never a time in which God did not love and choose us in Christ.

We also speak of the accomplishment of that decreed salvation by the person and work of Christ under the rubric of historia salutis, or the history of salvation. While historia salutis may refer more broadly to the whole history of God bringing his people to salvation, it always finds its center and focal point in the redemptive work of Christ. As the last Adam, Christ kept the whole law for us (which the first Adam failed to do). As the Son of God, he paid the penalty for our sins (both Adam's first sin, in which he represented us, and the actual sins of the elect). Even as we may speak of our salvation as eternally secured by the decree of God, we may also say that our salvation was secured in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord, insofar as divine justice was fully satisfied and the basis for our justification was established.

The first part of this article focused on what we might call the third aspect of the salvation that is all of grace: the Holy Spirit's application to us of the salvation decreed by the Father and accomplished by the Son. This aspect of our salvation is often referred to as ordo salutis, or the order of salvation, having in view the order in which the Spirit applies salvation to us. Reformed theologians have generally agreed that the Holy Spirit applies the blessings and benefits of Christ in this order: effectual calling and regeneration, faith and repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Even as we can speak of salvation in our own experience as past, present, and future, we can also speak of it as pactum salutis, historia salutis, and ordo salutis.

The Importance of the Full-orbed Reformed Faith

It is crucial that we maintain each of these aspects of our salvation. Our sin is such that we can easily tend to stress one of them at the expense of the others, and in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles, we have sometimes done so.

We can, for example, so stress pactum salutis that the decrees of God seem to swallow up history, including the work of Christ (historia salutis) and the work of the Spirit (ordo salutis). This overstressing of pactum salutis can have the effect of minimizing Christ's work for us and downplaying the need for vital, heart religion by the work of the Spirit.

Similarly, we can so stress the work of the Spirit in our lives (ordo salutis) that it detracts from the finished work of Christ (and our lives that are hidden with Christ in God) as well as the joy of the eternal decrees.

Finally, it is possible to focus almost exclusively on historia salutis, so as to minimize or eclipse not only the Father's electing love, but more particularly the present applicatory work of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, this has been done far too frequently.

We must never imagine that the persons of the Holy Trinity are pitted against each other in their work. Rather, we must—with the Reformed faith—fully embrace the work of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. From the Father electing to the Son redeeming to the Spirit applying, our salvation, in every respect, is all of grace.

The author is the associate pastor of New Covenant Community OPC in New Lenox, Ill., and a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Ind. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2001.