Just How Free Is Free Grace?
“…being justified freely by His grace, through the
redemption that is in Christ Jesus,…” — Romans 3:24
It has been said that there is no such thing as a “free lunch.” To be sure, it may indeed be free of charge to the recipient; it may have been freely provided without cost to him; and it may have been donated as a free gift to feed someone who otherwise would go hungry for want of money to purchase his own food. BUT the lunch was not without cost. Someone had to buy the food itself; someone had to prepare the food; someone had to package the food; and someone had to deliver the food. And the “means of production,” as we well know, are not without cost here in this world.
Similarly, the justifying grace of God to poor sinners is free of charge to its intended recipients, namely, to all lost and condemned mankind; for St. Paul writes to Titus by inspiration of the Holy Ghost that “the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men” (2:11), and to the Ephesians that “it is the gift of God, not of works” (2:8-9). Indeed, Isaiah, the “evangelist of the Old Testament,” writes in the fifty-fifth chapter of his prophecy concerning that very same grace, the gift of God’s mercy to the undeserving, manifested in the Gospel covenant: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labor for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good; and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (vv. 1-3).
Indeed, justification had to be the free gift of God to fallen mankind (Romans 3:24a); and the reconciliation of the reprobate world of sinners to their just and holy God had to be the unilateral act of God Himself (II Corinthians 5:19). And from the inerrant Word of God, we know why. Since the fall of man into sin (Genesis 3:6), since man’s willful and wanton disobedience of God’s simple command (v. 11; 2:16-17) and his consequential loss of the image of God in which he had been created (Genesis 1:26-27) “in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24), all mankind has borne by nature both sin and guilt (Romans 5:12-14, 19a), as well as the “condemnation” of God’s justice (v. 18) and sin’s “wages” (6:23a). As we confess on the basis of incontrovertible Scripture, man is by nature totally corrupt, “lost and condemned, ruined in body and soul,” so that by nature man is “without true fear, love and trust in God. He is without righteousness, is inclined only to evil, and is spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God” (Catechism, 1943 Ed., Q/A 94-96; Ephesians 4:22; Psalm 51:5; John 3:6a; Genesis 8:21; Romans 3:10-19; etc.). “Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20). Man is simply incapable of restoring himself to a right relationship with God, no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries; “for there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). And every attempt to do so is doomed to failure, “for as many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them!’” (Galatians 3:10). It is therefore “evident,” Paul continues, “that no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God” (v. 11).
Therefore the sinner’s justification, his reconciliation with God, and his final salvation are ALL the free gift of God to the ungodly (Romans 1:18), to the undeserving (Genesis 32:10), to the unjust (Ecclesiastes 7:20), to the unrighteous (Romans 3:10), to the unprofitable (Romans 3:12); “for by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). “And if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace, otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:6). For justification, for reconciliation with God, for salvation, grace and works are mutually exclusive as causal factors. They are not dependent upon one another, they do not work in conjunction with one another, they do not supplement one another, they do not enhance one another. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded!” (Romans 3:27).
Thus we and all lost and condemned mankind are “justified freely by [God’s] grace,” Paul writes in our title-text. “The free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Romans 5:18b), so that “God…reconcil[ed] the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19), as His free, unilateral, unqualified and by-man-unmerited gift to every sinner.
But, as we noted before, even a “free” gift is not without its cost. Here in this world, among things temporal, to receive a gift that has not been purchased or, even if it has been “homemade,” its materials have not been paid for, is equivalent to receiving “stolen property,” a “hot” item, or at best what is often called a “re-gifted” present. In the latter case, St. Paul writes that no one has given anything to God that would have caused Him to “re-gift” it back again: “Who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?” (Romans 11:35). The idea that God gave to sinful mankind the gift of His saving grace “just because He felt like it” or “because He could afford to be generous” is contrary to Holy Scripture. To do so, God would have had to set aside and to ignore His attribute of perfect justice according to which He a) requires perfection of every human being (Matthew 5:48; Leviticus 19:2), b) demands perfect obedience to His Law (Deuteronomy 6:5, 17), and c) pronounces the sentence of “death” upon everyone that sins even once (James 2:10; I John 3:4b; Ezekiel 18:4b; Romans 6:23a). It is, therefore, a grave error concerning the doctrine of God and His absolute perfection to teach, or even to suggest, that there is an inherent contradiction in God, that He strikes a necessary compromise between His justice and His mercy, that He tempers or softens His wrath in order to accommodate His love, that He sets aside His justice in favor of mercy, or that He establishes the preeminence of one attribute (namely, love, including His mercy and grace) over another attribute (namely, His unremitting justice) — all by divine fiat or arbitrary decree. This error, essential to Reformed theology, expresses itself in the false teaching of God’s “sovereign grace” and His absolute or arbitrary election or predestination of some to everlasting life.
Scripture teaches the exact opposite as has already been pointed out above. It teaches that there is NO contradiction in God; that God did NOT set aside His justice in favor of His mercy; that God did NOT accommodate the inability of sinners to regain reconciliation with Him by cutting them some “slack” in satisfying His justice; that God did NOT replace His Law with the Gospel; that God did NOT by sovereign fiat grant His grace to some while withholding it from others; that God does NOT grant an exemption, as it were, to believers, so that His Law no longer applies to them; and that God does NOT justify sinners and count them righteous on the basis of their works of sanctification done after their conversion to faith in Christ. According to God’s never-changing justice (Malachi 3:6), “all the world” is “guilty” before God (Romans 3:19); “there is none righteous, no, not one” (v. 10); “all our righteousnesses [that is, even those of Christians] are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6); and the just demand remains unchanged and unchangeable: “If ye love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Moreover, this unremitting indictment of divine justice, penned by inspiration of God after Christ suffered, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, still convicts every sinful being: “Whosoever [regardless of whether he is a believer or an unbeliever] shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). And, according to God’s unremitting justice, the curse of the Law still condemns every sinner: “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them!” (Galatians 3:10).
So at what COST are “all [who] have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) “justified freely by His grace” according to our title-text? How could God’s perfect, unremitting and unrelenting justice be completely satisfied (and not just set aside)? How could His Law be perfectly obeyed (and not merely indulged)? How could the curse of the Law be fully borne (and not simply dismissed)? How could all of this be accomplished if sinners themselves, those who are “under the Law” (Romans 3:19), could never hope to do it? Someone had to assume the cost! Someone had to pay the price! Someone had to bear the expense …so that justice could remain just, and grace could indeed be free!
Redemption is properly-speaking a business transaction. It involves a quid pro quo, literally a “what-for-what” exchange of things of equal or better-than-equal value to satisfy a debt or to effect a change in ownership. It is the transaction whereby an exchange is made for the purpose of “buying back” an item held in lieu of payment, a pawned article held by a broker in lieu of cash, personal property retained as surety on a debt, even a person held for ransom, and so on. It may be a redemption effected by a borrower’s payment to a lender, or it may be a redemption effected by a “third party” who, for reasons known or unknown, renders a payment of sufficient value to unencumber another person’s property or assets or to purchase his release from custody or bondage.
As we have already seen, the individual sinner has no hope of redeeming himself to God, because he is unable perfectly to keep God’s Law at all and therefore is incapable of scraping together a redemption payment of sufficient value to pay off his debt to God and to effect his release from bondage to sin and Satan. Similarly, a third party, who is also a sinner, cannot hope to “redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; for the redemption of their soul is precious,” the Bible tells us (Psalm 49:7-8). Instead, it was God’s own eternal decree of redemption, effected before the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:20; II Timothy 1:9; Ephesians 1:4), according to which His only-begotten Son would become incarnate (“made flesh,” John 1:14; “took part of the same [flesh and blood],” Hebrews 2:14; “made under the Law” Galatians 4:4) and take the place of sinful mankind under God’s justice. As our Substitute, He would, on behalf and in the stead of sinful men, satisfy God’s justice on two fronts: a) He would, first of all, render perfect obedience to the Law as to its requirements (“the obedience of One” — Romans 5:19b) and thereby gain righteousness for every soul of man (v. 19b) by His active obedience. He would earn perfect righteousness in the sight of God (Romans 3:21; Romans 5:19b), righteousness graciously imputed to the ungodly (Romans 4:5), the righteousness of Christ, which is called already in Old Testament prophecy, “the garments of salvation” and “the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10) and is referred to by Jesus in the New Testament as the “wedding garment” (Matthew 22:11ff.) without which no one is admitted to the marriage of the King’s Son. b) Secondly, Christ would “redeem” lost and fallen mankind “from the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:13), that is, take upon Himself the punitive demand of the Law that all sinners die (Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 6:23a), and He would bear man’s punishment in his stead (Isaiah 53:5-8) by His passive obedience “unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
This substitutionary satisfaction of both God’s legislative and punitive justice is known as the vicarious satisfaction [satisfactio vicaria] or atonement of our Savior, the perfect redemptive work whereby Christ became “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2) . By definition, a “propitiation” is a satisfaction or payment of sufficient value not only to retire a debt but to change the way in which the creditor views his former debtor. Had Christ only “retired our debt” by paying the penalty of our guilt, the debt itself surely would have been “paid off;” but since we were spiritual “deadbeats” by nature and unable to do one thing either to earn righteousness before God or to pay our debt to Him, and Someone Else had to do it for us, we would have remained “deadbeats” in His sight, unworthy of everlasting life. But Christ completely “propitiated” God’s justice on all counts, so that “in Christ” [propter Christum] — because of Christ’s all-sufficient and all-surpassing propitiation — God graciously reconciled the whole world of sinners unto Himself, “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). He not only forgave the sins of the world for Christ’s sake and forensically declared all men righteous in His sight, but He refuses to “remember” our sins against us, as if they had never been committed! (Isaiah 38:17; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). Therefore, Christ’s vicarious satisfaction and propitiation which He “offered without spot to God” (Hebrews 9:14) already in eternity (Revelation 13:8) was the cause of His merciful and gracious reconciliation and justification of the world, and also of His eternal Decree of Election whereby He purposed to bring us by the Gospel to saving faith in that object and by that same Gospel to keep us in faith unto salvation (Ephesians 1:4; II Timothy 1:9; II Thessalonians 2:13-14; I Peter 1:5).
The COST itself, the assumption of our guilt and the payment of our debt, is properly-speaking restricted to Christ’s passive obedience, as the Apostle Peter by inspiration of the Holy Ghost described it — as contrasted with a temporal payment in terms of “hard, cold cash” — saying: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:18-19), who was “foreordained,” chosen, set apart and anointed in advance for this work of redemption “before the foundation of the world” but was “manifest” or made known “in these last times” (v. 20) by the Word of the Gospel, the “Word of Reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19b), for us poor sinners. How blessed indeed to know that God did not have to “wait around” for Jesus to accomplish His mission on the tree of the cross (John 19:30), but that “in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19a), in view of Christ’s foreseen fulfillment of His foreordained mission, God reconciled unto Himself and justified the world of sinners from Adam and Eve to the very last man ever to be born into this vale of tears, and announced to all mankind this scenario of amazing grace in the Gospel, down through the whole Old Testament already (Acts 10:43) and continuing in the New Testament (I Peter 1:20), that all penitent sinners — from the beginning of time even unto the end — might be comforted by that “Word of Reconciliation,” justified personally by faith in its assurance, and saved eternally by confidence in the merits of Christ Jesus as having paid in full the price of our redemption — all of it “by grace…through faith…[as] the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)!
Salvation unto us has come
by God’s free grace and favor!
Good works could not avert our doom;
they help and save us never!
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
who did for all our sins atone!
He is our one Redeemer!
Yea, as the Law must be fulfilled,
or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God’s anger stilled,
our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
and thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
which over us impended.
Since Christ hath full atonement made
and bought for us salvation,
each Christian therefore should be glad
and build on this foundation:
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead!
Thy death is now my life indeed,
for Thou hast paid my ransom!
(TLH 377, 1, 5, 6, adapted)
— D. T. M.