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The Transcendence of Grace

Category Articles
Date August 21, 2009

I have been thinking about the grace of God, not so much in terms of how that grace affects us as the Lord’s redeemed people, but rather in terms of how such grace has affected our Lord himself. Such thinking is not a matter of mere human speculation, for there is much teaching about it in God’s Word. Nor is such thinking arcane and impractical, for everything that is revealed to us by God in his Word is for our instruction and edification.

We are all perhaps familiar with some of the formulations that result from our reflections upon the contrast between law and grace. We know that any formulation that separates law and grace or exalts one while excluding the other is wrong. Christ did not die to make us either legalists or libertines. The Son of God was given by the Father and laid down his life for us because God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loved sinners with a saving, redeeming love (John 3:16). God does not love us by his law, holy and righteous, good and necessary as the divine law may be. Divine law can only regulate and restrain sinners; divine love redeems and transforms them. But law cost God nothing; grace cost him everything.

The consideration of the contrast between grace and law focuses on the nature of our redemption primarily from our receptive perspective. As sinners, we who have violated divine law naturally dread the law of God and seek to suppress the knowledge of it. As redeemed sinners, we rightly rejoice in grace and in the marvellous truth that in Christ mercy has triumphed over judgment (James 2:13). However, there is more to grace and law than our receptive perspective (that is conditioned by our personal needs and dispositions) would lead us to understand. Therefore, God has revealed to us how the features of his holy law and his redeeming grace relate to him so that we might have a deeper and higher grasp of the beauty of his holiness and the wonder of his love.

To speak of law and grace, we are speaking of active communications of more fundamental divine attributes. Law is an expressive function of God’s holiness of being and of his righteousness of doing. Grace, which is the Lord’s lavishing of his favour upon undeserving sinners, is an expressive function of God’s mercy and love.

When we think of grace and law, we naturally suppose that law is the harder and more inexorable of the two. But God reveals to us that the opposite is true. When the righteousness of God is offended by man’s sinful violation of divine law, it grieves the Lord who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). During his earthly life, Jesus wept tears over the sinful persistence of the people of Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). But such divine grief over the offense of violated divine law would have been for God infinitely easier to bear than has been the actual cost of our redemption. The judgment and exercise of holy judicial wrath against sinners may give the Lord no pleasure (Ezek. 33:11), yet in infinite contrast, the Lord’s redemption of sinners has brought upon him infinite pains. The former cost God tears; the latter has cost him the blood of his only begotten and beloved Son. In contrast to his tears over unrepentant Jerusalem, our Saviour sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane as he anticipated not only the physical pains but more so the spiritual anguish that lay before him as he who knew no sin would become sin and bear all of sin’s awful consequences in order to redeem his people. Then, at the cross, he shed his blood and poured out his soul to accomplish our redemption (Isa. 53:12).

Therefore, when our God planned in the counsels of eternity, and prepared over the course of time, and accomplished in the fullness of time our redemption, he was doing an infinitely harder and more costly work than when he published his law or when he punishes sinful violators of his law. This is seen to be true also when we consider that mere men – all men – can and have violated God’s law, but that not one of the redeemed can ultimately rebel against the saving love of God in Christ that issues forth his irresistible grace (John 17:12).

As good and perfect as God’s law may be, it is but the expression of the Lord’s holy character and a directive decree of his righteous will. But the grace of God is the supreme fruit of his loving disposition and his infinitely costly determination and accomplishment of that which actually transforms sinners into justified saints. Our understanding of this will serve to keep us from developing truncated, superficial, and unbalanced views of our redemption. It will usher us into the most profound apprehension of the Person and work of our Triune God. It will also anchor our souls in the love of God that both preceded and will eternally outlast the partial revelation of God in Scripture as well as his provisional gifts of faith and hope (1 Cor. 13:13). It is from the treasury of the riches of God’s glory that he grants to us to know the unknowable magnitude of the love of Christ, which to know fills us with the fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19).

William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

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