The Relationship of Grace to Law and Works
There has been regrettable misunderstanding as to our teaching on grace, law, and works, and their inter-relationships. According to Seventh-day Adventist belief, there is, and can be, no salvation through the law, or by human works of the law, but only through the saving grace of God. This principle, to us, is basic. This transcendent provision of the grace of God is emphasized both in the Old and the New Testament, although the truth of God’s wondrous grace reaches its fullest unfolding, and most complete manifestation, in the New Testament times and record.
I. Grace Pre-eminent in the New Testament
The word “grace” (Greek, charis), occurs some 150 times in the New Testament. Paul made more use of this significant term than did any other New Testament
writer, there being some 100 occurrences in his epistles. His close associate, Luke, used the word about 25 times in Luke and Acts, these two men thereby accounting for about five sixths of all the New Testament occurrences. “Grace” was by no means a new word invented by the apostles; the term was widely used in a variety of associated meanings in the LXX and in classical and later Greek literature. However, the New Testament often seems to attach a special significance to “grace” that is not found fully expressed elsewhere.
In the New Testament, grace is set forth as a distinctively divine quality. New Testament writers speak of “the grace of our God” (Jude 4); “the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6); and “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:18). Expressions like these constitute the opening and closing salutations in the letters of the apostles. They are found at the beginning of Peter’s two letters, as well as in the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul. They also appear at the close of these letters of spiritual counsel and encouragement.
This divine grace is further described by a remarkably wide range of adjectives and adverbs. It is called the “true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12); abounding, or “abundant,” grace (2 Cor. 4:15); the “manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:19); the “sufficient” grace of God (2 Cor. 12:9); the “exceeding grace of God” (2 Cor. 9:14). There is also the expression “grace for grace” (John 1:16); and reference to Christ Jesus our Lord as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; compare verse 17). It is also the “free gift” of God (Rom. 5:15, 18).
II. Bible Definition or Description of Grace
The distinctive meaning attached to the term “grace” in the New Testament, and especially in the writings of Paul, is that of the abundant, saving love of God toward sinners as revealed in Jesus Christ. Obviously, since all men have sinned and are destitute of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), such favor and loving-kindness on God’s part are wholly undeserved and unmerited by sinful man. Men have lived in hatred and rebellion against God (Rom. 1:21, 31, 32), have perverted His truth (verses 18, 25), have preferred to worship beasts and reptiles (verse 23), have defiled His image in their own bodies (verses 24-27), have blasphemed His name (Rom. 2:24), and have even despised God for His patience and forbearance (verse 4). Finally, they murdered His Son, sent to save them (Acts 7:52). Yet God has continued to regard man with love and kindness, that the revelation of His goodness may lead men to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
This is the grace of God in its peculiar New Testament sense. It is God’s unlimited, all-inclusive, transforming love toward sinful men and women; and the good news of this grace, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). It is not merely God’s mercy and willingness to forgive, but it is an active, energizing, transforming power to save. Thus it may fill a person (John 1:14), it may be given (Rom. 12:3, 6), it is all-sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9; compare Rom. 5:20), it reigns (Rom. 5:21), it teaches (Titus 2:11, 12), it establishes the heart (Heb. 13:9). In some instances “grace” seems almost to be equivalent
to “gospel” (Col. 1:6) and to the working of God generally (Acts 11:23; 1 Peter 5:12). Ellen G. White wrote:
The “grace of God” has been fittingly called the “love of God”; that is, love, not so much in a general sense as in a specific sense; not so much love merely as love, but love directionally. Grace is the love of God flowing—flowing not upward or outward, but downward. It is that wonderful divine mercy and undeserved favor that flows from the great loving heart of God. And specifically, it is His love that flows downward from heaven to undeserving sinners here on earth. While deserving nothing but the wrath of God, we become, through this marvelous grace, the recipients of this love, this grace, which we do not in the least merit.
III. Ellen G. White on the Sovereignty of Grace
As to the apparently misunderstood teachings of Ellen G. White on the relationship of grace, law, and works, please note the following expression, written in 1905. Her writings are in pronounced harmony with Scripture, as well as sound historical theology.
More than that, the same writer adds that everything we enjoy, in the matchless blessings of salvation comes to us through the grace of God. Thus:
Recognized theological classics have stated these same truths in this way. Charles Hodge, formerly professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, declares:
With this, Adventists are in complete agreement.
IV. The Fruitage of This Divine Grace
Many and varied are the manifestations of the grace of God. Our heavenly Father is called “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). We may do “despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). “We have redemption . . . according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
We are to preach “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the word of his grace” (Acts 14:3). We are also “chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5, R.S.V.).
Everything we enjoy in Christian experience comes to us because of this matchless grace of God. We were “called . . . by his grace” (Gal. 1:15). We have “believed” through His grace (Acts 18:27). We were “justified by his grace” (Titus 3:7). Paul could say, “I am what I am” because of “the grace of God” (1 Cor. 15:10). We too are saved by His grace (Eph. 2:5, 8).
The grace of God gives us a unique and secure standing before God. We are to “continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43) and to “grow in the grace . . . of our Lord” (2 Peter 3:18, R.S.V.). As we do this, we shall “stand” in the grace of God (Rom. 5:2).
So it is the grace of Christ alone that can save the soul; this alone can lift the fallen from the depths of degradation and sin. Ellen G. White’s witness on this point is both clear and unvarying:
Further, she writes that it is also the grace of God that keeps us from falling, and enables us to remain steadfast and true to the divine calling.
Again, it is the grace of God, manifested in the lives of the children of God, that is the greatest argument as to the truth and power of the Christian faith.
And when at last the redeemed surround the throne of God, it will be by the wonderful grace of God.
V. The Relationship of Grace and Works
Salvation is not now, and never has been, by law or works; salvation is only by the grace of Christ. Moreover, there never was a time in the plan of God when salvation was by human works or effort. Nothing men can do, or have done, can in any way merit salvation.
While works are not a means of salvation, good works are the inevitable result of salvation. However, these good works are possible only for the child of God whose life is inwrought by the Spirit of God. It is to such believers that John writes when he bids them keep the commandments of God (1 John 3:22-24; 5:2, 3). This relationship and sequence is imperative, but is often misunderstood or reversed.
Even in the days of old, men were not justified by works; they were justified by faith. Thus the prophet Habakkuk wrote: “The just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4; compare Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:8, 11; Phil. 3:9; Heb. 10:38). God calls upon man to be righteous; but
man is naturally unrighteous. If he is to be prepared for the kingdom of God, he must be made righteous. This is something man cannot do in and of himself. He is unclean and unrighteous. The more he works, and the greater his effort, the more he reveals the unrighteousness of his own heart. Therefore if man is ever to become righteous, it must be by a power entirely outside himself—it must be by the power of God.
There is really no actual valid conflict between grace and the law—the Ten Commandments; each serves its special purpose in the plan of God. Grace, as such, is not opposed to the law, which is God’s standard of righteousness; neither is the law opposed to grace. Each has its specific functions, and neither trespasses on the function of the other.
One thing is certain, man cannot be saved by any effort of his own. We profoundly believe that no works of the law, no deeds of the law, no effort however commendable, and no good works—whether they be many or few, sacrificial or not—can in any way justify the sinner (Titus 3:5; Rom. 3:20). Salvation is wholly of grace; it is the gift of God (Rom. 4:4, 5; Eph. 2:8).
Man in the beginning was made upright (Eccl. 7: 29). There was no taint of sin in him when he came forth from the hand of his Creator. He was made in the image of God, and his character was in harmony with the principles of God’s holy law. But man sinned. Now, in and through the gospel, it is the purpose of God to restore in man that lost image of God. He was originally sinless; now he is sinful. But when the gospel of the grace of God does its work in his heart, he will be clothed with the robe of the righteousness of
Christ. That righteousness is imputed to him in justification. It is imparted to him in sanctification. And through Christ, and Christ alone, it will be his, and his forever, in glorification.
But there are two dangers against which the children of God need to guard. This too has been forcefully stated by Ellen G. White:
Ray C. Stedman has impressively set forth the relation of grace and law, and some common misconceptions, in the September, 1953, Our Hope, as follows:
This statement of Adventist position may well close with the admonition from Ellen G. White to our church:
A Christian poet has well said: