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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

God Works Grace

April 22, 2014 •

This article is the second part of an on-going series. The first part is called "Salvation is by Works Alone," the third is titled "God's Work in Jesus," the fourth is "Sympathy Made Perfect," and the fifth is "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

Grace is no arbitrary decision or arbitrary act. Grace is not an illusion or a pretension. God does not look at us with a nod and a wink. Real redemptive grace is ours because, as the psalmist puts it, God’s “right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him” (Psalm 98:1b). Grace works because God works grace. Or as we put it in the last column, salvation is by works alone.

In Genesis 1-2, the Almighty God stooped to make covenant with mankind in the Garden. He gave Adam and Eve explicit instructions with a promise. God set out to dwell in relationship with Adam and his progeny, but stipulated clear conditions for the fellowship. The Righteous Creator left no room for even the remotest compromise: “Do this and live!”

These expectations receive redundant refrain in the Scriptures. “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.’”  (Leviticus 18:1-5)

Acknowledging the perpetuity of divine commands, Paul reminds us of this same principle: “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” (Romans 10:5) The comprehensive Law of the Almighty delivers no list of options to anyone at any time.

This global covenantal works principle has found confessional summation: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2)

Trust and obey. There was no other way. Obedience would secure eternal life.

But… there was and is a necessary corollary: disobey and die.

How could it be any different? The holy Creator and Father of mankind demands holiness as the condition of consummate fellowship, of eternal life. As the Righteous Judge of all the earth, he issued unqualified warning: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”  (Genesis 2:17) Before the holy God, judgment for sin is inescapable. It is also final. Disobedience secures a binding curse.

Doubt and disobey. That is the damning way.

And that was the way of Adam. It is the story of history. Adam flunked, and we have flunked with him. The Old and New Testaments tell and retell our inability to obey the law of God. Even the best of humanity is guilty of breaking covenant with him: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Adam’s failure to obey spawned collective inability – man was now dead to the Law of God and to the God of the Law. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7-8)

Imprisoned and shackled in our sin, our situation is desperate. Inability cannot negate the necessity of a perfect track record of obedience. Incapacity does not eliminate responsibility before God. We are all sunk. Sinful. Justly determined guilty. Justly condemned. Dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

And here now we reintroduce the heart of grace. Grace comes to us by the righteousness, the works of Another. Another Adam. A Perfect Adam – who lived perfectly, died an accursed man, and rose from the dead vindicated (Romans 1:3-4). Grace comes by works. His works in life and death.

Grace does not loosen divine demands. To do so would be for God to become less than God. The Mighty One does not tire of his explicit and comprehensive expectation. He, after all, does not change (see Mal 3:1). The One who is holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6:3) is not passive. He is no desperate and permissive Parent. He does not ignore sin; he detests it. He does not entertain compromise; he vomits it: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). The Righteous God discounts neither sin nor its consequences.

Grace is stalwart. It is authentic. It meets our tyranny and our terror. It wages war with our sin and our death. The grace of God in Christ triumphs (Romans 5:20-21).

How? Jesus Christ had to perform. He had to do good works. He had to do what the Law explicitly and implicitly demands. He had to be the righteous and spotless One, perfectly and without fail (1 Cor 1:30; Romans 10:4; 1 John 2:1). He had to trust and obey.

He also had to die as if he were the Law’s Chief Violator. To redeem the likes of us first Adamites, the Last Adam had to bear the curse of the Law for us: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).

Because of our guilt and sin, he had to be crushed (Isaiah 53:10). For God to be both “just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:26), Jesus Christ had to propitiate (satisfy the personal and covenantal wrath of the Creator) by his own blood. Jesus had to die because of our actual sin, guilty, and perversion. His death was no mere display of sweet grace; it actually delivered forgiveness. It accomplished sweetest grace – a grace of substance, of mercy, and of justice. Yes, justice. A justice met fully in Christ’s life and death by his work.

Grace does not squelch the voice of the Law. It does not hide the Law’s relentless stipulations beneath a veneer of weak-spined generosity. Grace is not a bald declaration by God, canceling or ignoring our sin.

Gospel grace does not resort to mirrors and shadows. It does not pretend our sin does not exist or that our sin is no big deal. It does not paint a beautiful picture on the casket of our immorality. It does not apply a masking fragrance to the rot of our sin. Gospel grace is not artistry, chicanery, or magic. It is not dishonest, shallow, or dismissive. Grace is not a code word for injustice.

Grace comes authentically to us in full view of the comprehensive demands of the Law and the comprehensive demands of the Lawgiver. Jesus has met those demands in full. He has worked God’s Law and suffered God’s judgment, so that we might receive God’s grace. Indeed, God’s “right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him” (Psalm 98:1b, emphasis added).

Make no mistake of it. Grace is the gift of God to believers on the basis of the salvation worked for us by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Salvation truly is by works alone – the works of Jesus Christ.

Related Articles: "Salvation is by Works Alone," "God's Work in Jesus," "Sympathy Made Perfect," and "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

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