The Doctrines of Grace
(A Testimony)[The following anonymous testimony shows how the doctrines of grace affect our whole outlook on life. We trust it will help others who find themselves in a similar situation to that of the writer. Ed.]
My early Christian years were spent in evangelical churches where the ministry of the Word was far from systematic. A variety of speakers brought a variety of sermons on numerous texts, the result of which was occasional blessing but no regular consistent instruction.
During this time a Christian friend introduced me to the Reformed Faith, and as a result of reading John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, along with other Puritan literature, I was brought to see that the Arminian teaching of these churches was un-Scriptural. The more I compared these Puritan writings with the Word of God, the supreme standard of doctrine and practice, the more I realized by the grace of God just how far removed from the Bible the preaching in such evangelical churches was. Furthermore, I began to realize just how many problems and troubles spring from this fact.
And so by the mercy of God I came to embrace and love those doctrines of grace which give God all the glory, and refuse to share that glory between God and man.
1. Total Depravity
With this doctrine we are at the root of all true religion. If we fail to see that the Bible teaches man’s total depravity, our grasp of Christianity will be defective from the start.
In my early Christian life I was taught that when the Bible says that man is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph 2.1), it really means that man is spiritually sick. He can still believe in God if he chooses, though he needs God to help him. But in seeing that being dead in sin means that man can do nothing towards his salvation I had to make great changes in my thinking.
The Bible says that ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Cor 2.14). It also says, ‘Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ (Psa 51.5). Furthermore, it says, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?’ (Jer 17.9). In the light of such texts I realized that man can do nothing spiritually good and acceptable to God as he is by nature.
This taught me to appreciate in a way I had never done before the absolute power of God in my salvation. I saw that I believed on Christ, not in order to be born again, but because I was already born again. Without this new birth from above I would never have come to detest sin and desire Christ.
Then again, the knowledge that man can do nothing to put himself right with God brought a greater compassion for those who are lost. Because they are absolutely helpless to please God and are led captive by Satan at his will, I could not help wanting to show the answer to the great problem of our relationship to God to those who are still ignorant of it.
Thirdly, this truth of total depravity and inability led me to see that in evangelizing others, we are wholly dependent on the grace and power of God, and not on our ability to convince or persuade them. As Paul says, ‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.’ (1 Cor 3.6). Only when the Holy Spirit plants the incorruptible seed of God’s Word in men’s hearts shall they be made spiritually alive. (1 Pet 1.23; Rom 10.17).
2. Unconditional Election
In my early Christian life I rarely heard the doctrine of election mentioned. Even when I did, it was always a conditional election, in which God’ 5 choice depended on His foreknowledge of future faith. That is, God knew beforehand who would believe, and therefore He chose them. For some time I really believed that God had relinquished His own sovereignty, and that He had made His purpose depend entirely on man. He either allowed man to thwart His purpose or limited Himself to working only as man permits Him.
But when I read in the Bible that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world in order that we should be holy, and not because He saw that we would be holy (Eph 1.4), and that Jesus chose His disciples, not because they had borne fruit, but so that they would bear fruit (John 15.16), I realized that I had got everything the wrong way round.
This in turn led me to see that I owed everything to God’ 5 mercy. If I believe that I am chosen because of my faith, then I will see God as under some obligation to save me. But when I see that it pleased God to save me, according to the good pleasure of His will (not mine), then I began to understand my infinite debt to Him.
Secondly, receiving this doctrine vitally affected my attitude to ‘the world.’ God’s unconditional election of His people puts a difference between them and those who are of the world. (Exod 11.7; Rom 12.2). I now saw it as my responsibility to preserve this difference in my relationship to the world and its standards. Thus the glorious truth of election became one of the great spurs to living a holy life.
Then again, the doctrine of election has a vital bearing on the question of Christian fellowship. Clearly the doctrine implies that my closest human ties should be with fellow Christians. I saw Christians cultivating strong friendships with the unconverted at the expense of fellowship with other Christians. So in this area too there had to be a radical change. How much stronger would the Church of God be if its members would speak often with each other on the things of God (Mal 3.16; Eph 5.19) and be prepared to endure all things for the elect’s sake. (1 Tim 2.10).
3. Limited Atonement
For some years in my Christian life I believed that Christ died to save every individual who ever lived. Like many other evangelicals I thought that this was the only possible interpretation of the love of God.
Yet through a careful study of the Bible I came to see otherwise. As Spurgeon pointed out, there must be some limit to the atoning work of Christ, because if God has chosen some to eternal life, and not others, then plainly Christ would redeem only those who were chosen, and not others. But Christ’s atoning work was not limited in power. Its merit before God is sufficient to save all. Therefore it must be limited in extent.
And this is what the Scriptures teach. Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine… and I lay down my life for the sheep.’ (John 10.14-15). Elsewhere he prays to His Father, ‘I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.’ (John 17.9). The apostle Paul places the same limitation on Christ’s atoning work, ‘Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it.’ (Eph 5.25); and again, ‘feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.’ (Acts 20.28).
Through realizing this truth of Limited Atonement, or Particular Redemption, I came to value the death of my Saviour more than ever before. As long as I believed only that Christ had died merely to give me the opportunity to be saved, I was grateful, but the turning point still depended on me believing. But when I saw that Christ died to secure my salvation, I saw as never before the wonder of what Paul means when he says, ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ (Gal 2.20).
4. Irresistible Grace
Like many others, I was taught as a young Christian that the hinge on which my salvation swung was my free will. God, I was told, would never force anyone to believe. If the sinner refuses to yield, God is helpless, and can do nothing. It is not difficult to see from this that our evangelistic efforts sometimes led to despair. If people would not believe, neither we nor God could do anything. Also, I saw from this that ‘giving one’s testimony’ produced pride. People would say, ‘I accepted Christ,’ ‘I let Him into my heart,’ and so on.
Yet I read in the Bible that when Paul preached to Lydia, it was the Lord who opened her heart, and not Lydia herself. (Acts 16.14). Then again, I saw that those who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ were born again ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1.13). In fact, I began to see this truth of irresistible or invincible grace all over the Bible. The inward change that takes us out of sin and brings us through Christ by the Holy Spirit to God is called a ‘raising from the dead’ (Eph 1.19-20), a ‘birth from above’ (John 3.3), a ‘making alive’ (Col 2.13), a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17), a ‘passing out of death into life’ (John 5.24), a ‘calling out of darkness into light’ (1 Pet 2.9), a ‘giving us a new heart’ (Ezek 36.26). It is something wrought in us, not performed by us. God’s chosen people become willing in the day of His power (Psa 110.3; Ezek 16.6).
Knowing that salvation is of the Lord, and not of our free will, removes both the despair and the pride that accompanies Arminian evangelism. How encouraging it is to know that even the hardest heart is not too hard for God to change. There is nothing too hard for the Lord. Also, we may be sure that all who are ordained to eternal life shall believe. (Acts 13.48). The salvation of sinners does not depend on the way we state the truth, but on the almighty power of God.
Secondly, how destructive to our pride to know that unless God had chosen us, we would never have chosen Him; and that it was not our deciding for Christ, but His good work within us that brought us to Himself. (Phil 1.6). As Christ Himself says, ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’ (John 6.37). In speaking of our experience of conversion, no longer do we begin with our response to the Gospel, but to God’s free choice of us, Christ’s love in dying for us, and the Spirit’s irresistible grace in delivering us. Here lies the blessedness of this doctrine: it gives God all the glory for our salvation.
5. Final Perseverance
Some Christians prefer to call this Final Preservation, since it is God who keeps us through faith until we go to glory. Yet early in my Christian life I was taught the eternal security of the saints – usually expressed as “once saved, always saved” – in a very misleading way. The teaching emphasized God’s work of preservation without reference to our perseverance. This produced in me a false assurance. I claimed to be going to heaven, even though I lived a very compromised life. This is known as Antinomianism, since it neglects obedience to God’s law as a proof of conversion.
Arminianism teaches the very opposite: that though we may once have been saved, we may later be lost, especially if we do not strive earnestly to be as holy as possible.
Yet the Bible teaches both that God preserves His saints, and that therefore they persevere. In other words, our perseverance is not based on our efforts, but on God’s preserving grace. Consequently the Reformed believer does not live with the constant sense of insecurity that plagues the Arminian. It was not until I saw such texts as the following that I realized what inexpressible comfort, as well as incentive to persevere, lies in the truth of the Preservation of the Saints: ‘He that believeth hath eternal life.’ (John 6.47); ‘He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.’ (Phil 1.6); ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.’ (John 10.27-28); ‘who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’ (1 Pet 1.5). In short, those whom God unites to His Son, He keeps by His Spirit through faith till they exchange grace for glory.
Perhaps these reflections teach us two things:
First, the doctrines of grace show us the most beautiful harmony that exists in the Word of God. Not only that, they alone provide the essential basis for the kind of interpretation that perceives this harmony.
Secondly, these doctrines have vital practical implications for every facet of Christian experience. Above all, they bring most glory to God in our worship and service of Him. This is the effect these doctrines always produce when by the ministry of the Holy Spirit they are truly believed.
So often these precious truths are received with a formal approval by our understanding, without ever reaching and changing the heart, destroying its pride, unbelief and self-dependence; without lifting it up to God, making it glory in Jesus Christ and Him crucified; in short, without emptying us of ourselves and filling us with all the fulness of God. This is loathsome in God’s sight.
May God Himself grant us His Holy Spirit, that we may receive both a sight of these glorious truths and the power to set us free from all false teaching and living to serve Him to the praise of His glorious grace. (Adapted)
Peace and Truth: 2003:4 www.sgu.org.uk
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