If we could imagine grace as less like a spiritual substance and more like a glorious Person, our own spiritual reformation may not be far behind.
Few words are more precious in the Christian’s vocabulary than the word grace. And yet few words are more misunderstood and misapplied, even by those who treasure the gospel of Jesus.
Already in the New Testament, we find the two basic ways grace can be twisted. The first is the legalist delusion, on display in Paul’s warning to the Galatians: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). The second is the antinomian error, as when “certain people . . . pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 4).
Both legalists and antinomians may herald “grace alone” — but the phrase really means “grace ignored” to the one and “grace abused” to the other. Either way, as Sinclair Ferguson powerfully shows in his book The Whole Christ, grace gets disgraced.
Now, most of us are neither self-righteous legalists nor sensuality-loving antinomians. But every one of us is prone to lean toward one error or the other. And the farther we lean, the less amazing grace becomes, and the more burdensome the Christian life feels. Oh, how necessary, then, to stand firmly in “the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).
Blessed in the Beloved
For all the differences between legalists and antinomians, the two often share one surprising similarity: they treat grace as a thing that God gives, rather than as God’s gift of himself. As Michael Reeves writes,
When Christians talk of God giving us “grace”…we can quickly imagine that “grace” is some kind of spiritual pocket money he doles out. Even the old explanation that “grace” is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” can make it sound like stuff that God gives.
Well then, what is grace? Reeves goes on: “The word grace is really just a shorthand way of speaking about the personal and loving kindness out of which, ultimately, God gives himself” (Delighting in the Trinity, 88).
In Scripture, the grace of God is never separated from the God of grace — and in particular, from the God-man of grace, Jesus Christ. The two are so entwined that Paul can call the coming of Christ the coming of grace (Titus 2:11). All grace comes to us, therefore, “through” Christ (Romans 1:4–5), “in” Christ (2 Timothy 1:9) — or, as John puts it, “from his fullness” (John 1:16). Perhaps Paul describes it most gloriously of all when he writes,
In love [the Father] predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4–6)
Grace comes to us “in the Beloved” — and nowhere else. Grace is sap from the true Vine, warmth from the true Light, affection from the true Bridegroom. In other words, when God gives us grace, he gives us Christ.
Saved by Grace Alone
What does this have to do with legalism and antinomianism? Everything, if we have eyes to see. For legalism and antinomianism thrive only when we separate the grace of Christ from Christ himself. Only when we treat grace as abstract “stuff” can we imagine that grace is sufficient for this, but not for that: for some righteousness, but not for all righteousness; for forgiveness, but not for holiness.
But if grace comes to us in the Beloved, then grace gives us a full salvation, justifying us with his righteousness, sanctifying us with his holiness, and glorifying us with his glory. Like a mighty river rolling toward us from eternity, grace catches us up into all that Christ is and all he has done, rushing us forward from salvation past to salvation future.
Justified by Grace
Many who struggle with legalism know how to speak the language of grace. Yet as Ferguson shows so powerfully, “Where the language of grace abounds, it is possible for the reality of legalism to abound all the more” (The Whole Christ, 91).