THE free grace experience is the most glorious, deepest or most profound, the richest, most fruitful and enduring experience of all.
It is the most glorious experience because like nothing else in the universe it redounds to the glory of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the deepest or most profound because we can only wonder at, but never understand why we who are so unworthy should have free favour heaped upon us.
It is the richest experience because it promotes in us worship, adoration, praise and gratitude. It is the most fruitful as it leads to and encourages sustained devoted service. It explains why Paul laboured more than any other.
Free grace is the most enduring experience. It is never-ending. Our admiration of free grace will abound for ever and ever.
All God’s attributes are glorious and all excite our admiration. His justice and holiness shine and adorn all his other attributes. His power and wisdom are marvellous. His love is astonishing. But were it not for grace or free favour we would receive nothing. An understanding and experience of undeserved free favour impresses the heart with indelible impressions. It casts light upon and gives perspective to the whole of salvation which it explains from beginning to end. The truth of free grace ensures that from start to finish all honour and glory is ascribed to the Triune God.
Grace all the work shall crown,
This verse by Doddridge and Toplady reminds us of Zechariah’s prophecy. Zerubbabel would complete all his work in Jerusalem and when the topmost stone of the Temple was laid the people would shout, ‘Grace, Grace to it’ (Zech. 4:7).
Every aspect of the restoration of the Commonwealth of Israel at that time came through grace.
So it is with our personal salvation. From the first stirrings of conscience to our coming to Christ and our being kept right through to that great day of triumph, the resurrection, all is of grace. Then in the ages to come we will go on receiving generous expressions of God’s loving-kindness. No sentence could sum it up better than that of Paul. Allis to the praise of the glory of his grace (Eph. 1:6).
I have used superlative expressions to describe free grace. What does it mean?
The meaning of free grace
The Hebrew word grace (chen) in the Old Testament denotes the favour of God exercised toward the unworthy. This favour is voluntary and under no constraint or obligation. For instance out of mankind determined as a whole to follow the path of destruction, Noah was chosen to receive favour (grace) from God which saved both him and his family. The exercise of such favour or goodwill excites wonder and admiration. It is a thing of beauty.
To be gracious (charizomai) in the New Testament signifies the giving of favour, to show kindness or to pardon. The noun (charis) means favour or goodwill. The word was often used to describe the quality or virtue of the one bestowing such favour and implied beauty in that person. In Greek mythology Charis was the name given to the exceedingly beautiful wife of Hephaestos. One infinitely beautiful in a unique sense is the person of God’s Son who is full of grace and truth. The word grace signifies sheer beauty.
The New Testament which employs the noun 150 times leaves us without any doubt about the meaning of grace. Grace is an attribute of God, the exercise of which lays hold of sinners and secures their salvation in Christ. Grace is the exercise of God’s free favour. ‘By grace ye are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; Not of works lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them’ (Eph. 2:8-10).
This statement taken within its context shows God’s grace to be the sole reason for our having been raised up out of spiritual death. We were spiritually dead. A resurrection was essential. The life given in the first instance and the good works we are now able to perform are all the result of God’s favour. In the ages to come, that is, in all future time, the ‘exceeding riches of his grace’ will be displayed, appreciated and admired (Eph. 2:7).
Imagine two very rich men. When requested to donate toward a very worthy cause both give of their riches. The first one donates one hundred pounds, but the other gives a million pounds. The first gives of his riches, the second according to his riches. But how are we to measure God’s grace? Who can measure it? Ours was not a worthy cause. We did not have merit but demerit. The grace God bestows upon the unworthy is described as superabundant, excelling or surpassing. It is shown in his kindness toward us through Christ. It is by and through him who is our righteousness that grace reigns even to eternal life. Sin is pictured as an absolute monarch exercising complete sovereignty (Rom. 5:21). Grace also reigns. As Abraham Booth expressed it in his classic The Reign of Grace, grace reigns in our election, calling, forgiveness, justification, adoption, sanctification and perseverance.
When grace is spoken of as free — ‘being justified freely by his grace’ (Rom. 3:24) — it means that it is an act of God’s will which is free of any constraints, pressures or obligations. He is not obliged to do anything at all. No deservings or merits whatsoever come under consideration. This is illustrated by the parable of two debtors of whom our Lord said, ‘and when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both’ (Luke 7:42). They could make no claim but only appeal for mercy. Nor should the appeal for mercy in itself be viewed as a human merit because all our Godward desires owe their origin to his drawings. Thus when God describes his dealings with Jews he says that the goodness he showed to them was not for anything in them, ‘Not for your sakes do I this, saith The Lord God, be it known unto you, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name’s sake’ (Ezek. 36:22,32).
Grace is ascribed to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Paul begins all his epistles by commending the readers to the grace of the Father which is seen in the fact that he has blessed us with all spiritual blessings. It is because of the Father’s love that he has chosen a people and given them to his Son. This love is a love surpassing description. To be the subject of such love is to be the recipient of grace or favour which is immeasurable. Such was this love and the free grace motivating the Father to exercise it that he gave his Son to procure redemption. It is the Father’s good pleasure not only to give his Son to redeem his people (he shall save his people from their sins) but to give them the Kingdom (Matt. 1:23, Luke 12:32). The extent of the Father’s grace is seen in that he was careful to predestinate that everything should work for their good. His free favour toward his children is rich and comprehensive. His care for them is meticulous and is given with perfect wisdom.
The grace of the Father is described as a free grace but sometimes also as sovereign. He is the sovereign in the choice of those upon whom he wills to give Salvation. ‘I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy’ (Rom. 9:15). The exercise of sovereign grace was referred to by our Lord when he said, ‘I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight’ (Luke 10:21). The occasion of this saying was when the seventy returned from their mission. They rejoiced in their gifts and power to cast out devils. He told them to rejoice rather in the sovereign grace of God. ‘Rejoice,’ he says, ‘because your names are written in heaven.’ Sovereign grace means that the Father alone is responsible for our names being written there. The choice we made for ourselves was hell. The choice he made for us was heaven. He sovereignly overruled our wretched choice by his choice and determination to bring us home to himself through grace.
The grace of the Son can be seen in the whole of his life and work on our behalf. ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor that we through his poverty might be rich’ (2 Cor. 8:9). That is a beautiful summary of the way in which God’s grace has come to us. All grace that we receive is mediated through the person and work of Christ.
When the Scriptures conclude with the words ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all’ (Rev. 22:21) it summarizes that which has been done for God’s people and that which continues to be theirs. God’s favour in, through and by Christ continues to rest with them. This is the wish and prayer frequently expressed by Paul at the conclusion of his letters.
The Holy Spirit who applies God’s grace or favour is called the Spirit of grace (Zech. 12:10). His great work is to regenerate and sanctify God’s elect. This raises the very important distinction that exists between sovereign, effectual grace and common or general grace.
When God’s attributes of goodness are celebrated in Psalm 145 the Psalmist quotes the revelation that God made of himself to Moses (Ex. 34:6,7). God’s grace as expressed to all the world is praised. His goodness is shown to all, and his tender mercies over all his works. This general favour or common grace is something too easily taken for granted. There was no favour shown to the fallen angels. God was not obliged to show rebels grace. Nor was he obliged to bestow favour upon a race that had sided with a race of rebel angels. But he did show grace to mankind in general by granting a period of probation in which they might repent.
Common grace is God’s attitude of good will towards his enemies in which he shows much goodness, longsuffering and forbearance with a view to their repentance (Rom. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9). Evil in the world is restrained on a vast scale by the exercise of the Holy Spirit (Gen. 6:3), by the provision of civil governments (Rom. 13:1-4) and by the provision of family life. Not only does God restrain evil, he positively bestows enormous good by way of human gifts and talents, by the sciences, by innumerable benevolent institutions and abounding provisions made to meet human need. All this undeserved favour is usually referred to as common grace. But this grace does not save. It does not apply the blood of Christ to sinners. It does not regenerate. It must be carefully distinguished from the free grace of God which is the exercise of God’s power in calling out an elect people for himself.
The experience of free grace
In times of revival sinners experience a deep conviction of their sinful condition. Sometimes this experience can be agonizing. As souls first discover their appalling condition of lostness and guilt and then are led to search for and find salvation by faith in Christ, the glory of God’s grace shines resplendently. The hymns which stem from revival times well express admiration for God’s saving grace. Well known is John Newton’s expression of gratitude,
Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
Observe the sense of former wretchedness, lostness and blindness and the overwhelming sense of joy and praise that follows.
We are certainly not living in times of spiritual awakening today and we find that most believers came to salvation without deep, protracted or profound conviction of sin.
When people come easily to Christ their appreciation is not always very strong and there can be a tendency to take things for granted. A shallow experience is reflected in an unwillingness to sacrifice or to serve. Little enthusiasm is shown about prayer meetings or worship services. Behind this easy-going and often lukewarm attitude is the simple philosophy that God has given everyone in the world an equal chance or opportunity to be saved. By his Spirit, so the idea goes, he enables all to have a free choice. Those who exercise faith are saved and those who do not are lost. It is all very matter of fact.
The teaching of free grace explodes this easy-going philosophy as false. In its place the truth is established that men by nature do not choose God; he chooses them, predestinates them, calls them, justifies them and infallibly brings them home to glory.
The meaning of what has just been said is alarming to the easy-going Christian who believes that it is his faith which makes the difference between him and the lost. That is true in one sense. But where did faith come from? It is God’s gift (Heb. 12:2, 2 Pet. 1:1, Eph. 2:8,9). Now in order to preserve a place for human merit (albeit a tiny bit) some will argue at great length that the Holy Spirit helps people to faith so that it is a combination of human effort and divine enablement.
The Holy Spirit’s method of bringing believers to free grace is by causing them to experience conviction of sin and need. For instance it was when Jonah came to see that there was no way out of the fish that he exclaimed, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9).
By conviction of sin the sinner realizes that he would never have come himself. His will was not free. His will was in bondage. Several main Scripture passages such as Romans 3 confirm that none seeks after God by nature. Salvation is not only provided. It is applied by God as he calls people to himself.
After a prolonged time of deep conviction Spurgeon came to embrace free grace. He describes his experience as follows:
Lying at the heart and core of the lives, motivation and ministries of the outstanding Christians of the age is a passionate appreciation of free grace. That Peter should be restored after such a dismal failure was due to grace. Peter’s conviction of his unworthiness was intense, and his subsequent devotion commensurately so.
That Paul should receive grace and apostleship when his activities as a persecutor warranted nothing but wrath gave him a sense of indebtedness to which he constantly testified in his preaching and writings.
The sixteenth century Reformation began in the heart of Luther. His was a free grace experience born out of a tremendous struggle in which he came to see that salvation was not by free will but by grace alone.
George Whitefield tells of how he came to experience free grace as a young man aged twenty-four. This was during a sea voyage to America. As an immensely successful preacher the temptation to pride was as wide as the sea and sky around him for there was no preacher as able as he. Yet it was then that he was overcome by conviction of sin and a wretchedness so intense that he even contemplated giving up the ministry. This time of conviction, according to his own testimony, helped him to understand the doctrines of grace: election and adoption. This experience of humbling served to deepen and strengthen him and cause him to lean more upon God. This was not the last time Whitefield was to experience such conviction.
We must not think that this kind of experience belongs to the archives of church history, something confined to a past age. The story of Drew Garner and his wife Frances furnish us with one example of many multiplying throughout the world today. Drew Garner was a young pastor of a large Southern Baptist Church with about one thousand members. Behind an impressive facade of highly organised and efficient evangelical activity lay a disillusioned and theologically disorientated pastor. Drew confesses that he was far along the road of liberalism in his heart and heading straight in the direction of total scepticism and abandonment of the faith. Nevertheless the machinery had to be kept going, and the machinery also kept him going.
One Sunday he was tipped off to visit a newcomer into the area who might, if visited, be drawn to swell the ranks of the church. Southern Baptists do not generally lack in speed of movement when it comes to making additions to their churches. Early Monday morning Drew knocked on the door. In his own words, ‘the ugliest man I have ever seen appeared unshaven and in his dressing gown’. The man informed Drew that there was time only for a few words.
‘Do you make altar calls?’ the ugly man growled.
Just as Drew began to think, ‘what kind of a nut have I got on my hands’ the ugly man said, ‘I would like for you to see my library’. He showed Drew inside. A magnificent array of Puritan books was unveiled before Drew. Although at sea theologically, Drew had been well educated. He knew instinctively that he was with someone who knew what he believed, who studied those books, and who was well grounded in Christian doctrine and life. Bringing the short meeting to a close the ugly man said, ‘I want you to read two books’. He gave him Pink’s The Sovereignty of God and Loraine Boettner’s Predestination.
Drew made a few more calls and returned home. ‘A strange man called this morning on his way to work,’ said Frances. ‘He said he was new to the area and that he would like me to read John chapter six.’ ‘Was he a big ugly man?’ asked Drew. ‘Yes,’ replied Frances. ‘He’s a nut!’ said Drew, and went into his study.
Sitting down the old familiar feeling of theological desolation came upon him. He had run dry and was desperate. Apart from evangelical gimmickry he was doctrinally and spiritually bankrupt. His eyes fell upon the two books he had brought in. He began to read.
The ugly man dropped in next day to see Frances about her progress in John six. Her studies were going well and by Wednesday she was breaking up. On Thursday Drew’s reading of the two books brought him suddenly and dramatically to the point of revelation. Suddenly his eyes were opened! He saw it all in an instant! Leaping in the air he shouted as loud as it is possible for a man to shout. The whole plan of God, his sovereignty and his purpose had fallen into place. He rushed out to share it with Frances. She too had seen it. They rejoiced together. Life had begun anew. The theological desert, the barren spiritual wandering, the doubt and scepticism had all gone, and gone forever. A new life had begun.
The future years were to prove hard but rewarding. Drew Garner has never ceased to thank God for sending that excellent man and using him so decisively. In the place of evangelical tradition has come a full and rich ministry not only in the realm of soul winning and evangelism but in pastoral work and church planting.
The blessings that result from the free grace experience are many. It is a great help to have a strong, clear grasp of God’s overall plan of salvation. To be able to understand theology and rejoice in God’s sovereign purpose as it is unfolded in Scripture is most helpful. As we have just seen in the case of Drew Garner, doubt was expelled. Clarity and strength of faith replaced uncertainty and doctrinal ineptitude. A potent grasp of the truth accompanied with joy in the knowledge that it is the truth revealed by the Holy Spirit can transform a man’s entire ministry. This was Drew Garner’s experience. The change in his life is typical. Yet in my opinion humility is really first among the benefits that result from the free grace experience.
Humiliation as an experience is fundamental and indispensable to true Christianity, for of such evangelical humiliation come two essential attributes, namely, the fear of God and humility.
The fear of the Lord receives little if any attention in evangelical circles today.
We still have the phrase, ‘a God-fearing man’, although it is not used as much as it used to be. The fear of God lies at the very heart of true Christianity. Both Old and New Testaments speak much of this fear. Indeed, there are hundreds of direct or indirect references to this matter in Scripture. One of our most able modern preachers has well said: ‘Take away the soul from the body and all you have left in a few days is a stinking carcase. Take away the fear of God from any expression of godliness and all you have left is the stinking carcase of Pharisaism and barren religiosity’. We would go further and say that the most excited and enthusiastic expressions of religion: shouting, raising of hands, singing of choruses, intense speech, praying all at the same time, exuberant laughings or sad wailings, if devoid of a true fear of God, are all revolting in the extreme especially to those who have come to experience the fear of God. How does one discern a true fear of the Lord? The answer is that it is accompanied by a reverence for Scripture, a repudiation of all lightness, frivolity and flippancy, a conformity of heart to the precepts of the Word. A true fear of the Lord is often experienced in awful stillness: ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10). Such a fear leads to a thoughtful and living relationship with God in which those beautiful attributes described by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount are developed, namely, sorrow for sin, meekness, purity, mercy, peacemaking and joy (Matt. 5:1-12).
One of the practical effects of the fear of God is humility. The Prodigal Son was brought to humiliation. He soon squandered his substance and his gifts of character, thus bringing himself both to profligacy and penury. The backward slide was permitted in order to bring him to an end of himself. He showed true repentance when he determined to return to his father. That he was humbled was seen in his words, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son’. The case of the Prodigal illustrates well God’s purpose in the humbling of all his people. Can you think of one saved character in Scripture who was not humbled?
The free grace experience not only results in the fear of God and true humility but it also brings about a new attitude about assurance. This is discussed later. Enough to say here that the first consideration in assurance is objective — that is a knowledge that God has given us the Holy Spirit to witness in our hearts that we are children of God.
Free grace causes us to leave every reliance upon ourselves or dependence on what we have done and to look to the Lord alone to save us. We see that ‘it is not of him that willeth, or of him that runneth but of God who sheweth mercy’ (Rom. 9:16).
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Appreciation of free grace is the source of intense joy, a joy which inspires profound worship which is perhaps best expressed in the hymns we sing.
Sovereign grace o’er sin abounding,
The fruit of the experience of free grace is rich; love, worship, gratitude, humility, joy, dedication, zeal, meekness, gentleness and compassion towards others. Those who have received so much so freely are the most thankful to God and the most ready to seek the good of others. Having so freely received they are the most zealous to give.
What are the dangers of free grace? We considered the dangers of the Charismatic movement. Are there no perils for those who profess experience of sovereign grace?
There are several serious dangers. The first and most obvious is to rest in the experience and doctrine and to neglect the practical responsibilities of the faith. Another danger is to become sectarian about the matter. Even after fifteen years or more of renewed interest in free grace, those who put the doctrines into practice are still only a small minority among the wide family of believers. It is a temptation therefore to some to become negative and critical about those who do not accept free grace teaching and practice, and even to fall into the terrible sin of despising them. The Pharisees, we remember, fell into the sin of despising others.
There is also the danger too of becoming lop-sided or unbalanced by being hyper-intellectual as though reading free grace books was the alpha and omega of Christianity. Paul warned the Corinthians about knowledge which was not spiritual — a knowledge that puffed up (x Cor. 8:1).
Then there is the most obvious danger of all which is to make the wrong conclusion that since grace is sovereignly given then we can leave it all to God and relax. The truth is that grace is given through human means. It is most significant that the truth of Romans which stresses the necessity of preaching the Gospel is found between the ninth and eleventh chapters which declare God’s omnipotent sovereignty. Paul and the master he served both declared the sovereignty of God. Neither neglected the necessity of hard work and the maximum use of the means of grace by which sovereign grace comes to men.