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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Neglected Grace

December 10, 2015 •

‘Grace’ is one of the most treasured words in the vocabulary of Reformed Christianity. For many, the defining contours of this framework for understanding the Bible are called ‘the doctrines of grace’. But like so many Bible words, it is often both undervalued and underappreciated – not least by those who like to use it most.

Its most common usage in the Bible refers to God’s undeserved favour. In Paul’s words, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast’ (Eph 2.8). This particular concept bound up with ‘grace’ – charis – lies at the heart of the Bible’s teaching about salvation. In a way that sets it apart from every other world religion, it leaves us in no doubt that knowing we are right with God and being sure that our destiny lies in heaven can never depend on us and what we do for God, but only on him and what he has done for us through his Son, the Lord Jesus.

There are, however, other nuances in the way this word is used in Scripture. When the author of Hebrews speaks of ‘grace to help us in our time of need’ (He 4.16) he means ‘divine strength’ or ‘energy’ that makes Christians equal to the pressures of any ‘time of need’ they may face. God himself uses similar language in his response to Paul’s prayer for relief in severe suffering: ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2Co 12.9). Elsewhere Paul refers to giving as a ‘grace’ (2Co 8.7). So, like many words in the Bible, we need to read them in a way that is sensitive to their context in order to appreciate the particular sense in which they are being used in a given context.

There is, however, another sense with which ‘grace’ is used – one that is perhaps the most neglected. We see it in Peter’s closing exhortation in his 2nd letter: ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ’ (2Pe 3.18). Without ignoring the ‘unmerited favour’ and ‘divine enabling’ elements of this concept, Peter points to the goal of grace as it is worked out in the lives of God’s people. They are to be grace-ful. That is, as they make progress in the Christian life, their character should increasingly reflect God’s own character, which is supremely gracious.

John uses the same language as he describes the incarnate Christ in the Prologue to his gospel. Speaking of the apostolic witness to Jesus, he says, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1.14). As the ‘One and Only Son of God in human flesh’ Jesus was the very embodiment of God’s gracious character. He was and is the paradigm of what godliness [godlikeness] should look like.

Several things are interesting in Peter’s use of this language at the end of his letter. One is that he issues this exhortation to Christians who are embroiled in conflict. They were facing fierce opposition from the outside in the form of persecution and they were being thrown into confusion within the church through the influence of false teachers who were distorting or denying the apostolic message. So there was a very real temptation for them to react to those who were troubling the church with anger and bitterness. But the apostle says instead they are to grow (literally, ‘keep on growing’) in graciousness. The more they were provoked, the more they should respond with the gracious spirit of God himself. Unfolding church history has borne out the impact of such testimony in the lives of Christians who faced martyrdom – from the Coliseum in Rome through to the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS in the Middle East today.

 It is also striking that Peter uses a present continuous tense in what he says. Much and all as Christians may long for some super-charged spiritual growth hormone to accelerate their progress in the faith, growth in any dimension of life is always slow, often imperceptible, but nevertheless real. And, perhaps ironically, it stands out most clearly in the face of adversity, rather than when life seems to be running smoothly. In that sense, no matter how long a person has been in the faith, the need for progress in this aspect of grace will continue until the day it is perfected in glory.

Peter links growth in grace to ‘knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. There is probably a double edge in his making that connection. In part he is pointing to the ‘knowledge’ of intimate communion with him. Although we are joined to Christ once for all in saving union through new birth, we nevertheless need grow into the fullness of what that union entails through an ever-deepening enjoyment of all that relationship entails.

At the same time this ‘knowledge’ points quite literally to our need to get to know our Saviour better. A newly married couple may think they know each other on the day of their wedding, only to discover they are still getting to know each other right into old age. How much more, then, when it comes to our need as Christians to grow to know our spiritual Bridegroom better. The more we see, grasp and appreciate the graciousness that marks his life, the more we will quite literally learn to be like him as we are consciously conformed to his image.

 The idea of an ungracious Christian is the ultimate oxymoron. If we really are the recipients of God’s saving grace and truly have been energised by his transforming grace by the Holy Spirit, then it follows that our lives should be characterised by graciousness in every way. And that should be true especially for those who claim to love the so-called ‘doctrines of grace’. An ungracious Calvinist, Calvin would not recognise.

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