The book of Romans contains some of the most challenging ideas in the entire Bible. Many have called this epistle Paul's Ph.D. thesis on Christianity. The book fits this description because in it Paul examines the core ideas of the Christian faith and answers many questions posed by both skeptics and believers concerning the gospel. Let us begin, therefore, by looking at a passage that summarizes the entire epistle.
The Gospel of Grace
Many scholars point to Romans 1:16 as the key verse in Romans because it distills into one sentence the whole point of not only the book of Romans, but the entire Bible itself.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
- Romans 1:16
When a person actually reads through the Bible, and the book of Romans in particular, they discover that yes, the gospel is God's power to save man, but the power that the gospel has is that through it the grace of God is revealed. This is why any time the gospel is preached and the main point made is something other than the grace of God revealed to men through Christ, the main point has been missed. For example, if the main point being made is that baptism is by immersion, or that there is only one church, or that the Bible is inspired etc., you have explained certain true principles contained in the Bible but you have not successfully preached the gospel itself.
This is why we often fail to bring people to Christ. We teach them many biblical doctrines but we neglect to expose them to the one thing in the Bible that has the power to save and change a person, and that is the good news (gospel) of God's grace extended to sinful man. Nothing builds one's faith and hope more than a deeper understanding of God's grace, and this is the main goal in the writing of this book.
Outline — Grace in Romans
The Renouncing of Grace - Romans 1:1-3:20
- The problem of universal sin.
- Paul begins explaining the concept of grace by detailing man's fall from grace and the state of universal sinfulness.
- You cannot understand light if you do not understand darkness. Paul begins with darkness.
The Response of Grace - Romans 3:20-7:25
- The cross of Christ is God's response to man's rejection of His initial offer of grace.
The Request of Grace - Romans 8
- Grace stimulates a response from man that the Law cannot.
- Grace enables man to live a "spirit filled" life.
The Refusal of Grace - Romans 9-11
- Why did the Jewish people stumble?
- Paul uses the Jews as an example of what happens to "religious people" who refuse God's grace.
- In chapters 1 and 2 he talks about those who fall from grace without religion; in chapters 9 to 11 he describes those who fall from grace but do so with all the trappings of religion.
The Result of Grace - Romans 12-16
- The result of grace is the church of Christ.
- Paul describes in detail what grace looks like in the lives of those who experience it.
- In the end, the church is the collective expression of those who are experiencing God's grace.
Definitions and Misconceptions of Grace
In the Old Testament the idea of grace was often seen as something that would come in the future. Their main thought was that eventually God would have mercy on them and save them from every enemy or sin, this was grace, out there in the future.
In the New Testament the English word "grace" comes from two words in the original Greek; one was the word "charis" which meant favor, and another was the word "eleo" which meant mercy. Grace, in the New Testament, was not seen as an object or event to happen in the future, but rather a disposition or attitude that God had toward man in regards to his failures and sins in the present.
4But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
- Titus 3:4-7
For the writers of the New Testament, grace begins with God's attitude of love and mercy toward men and is perceived through His concrete actions throughout history. These actions are the outworking of His grace.
Christianity's theology is based on this element of God's character, exalts this expression of His divinity and sees this as the motivating factor in His dealings with mankind. We will develop these ideas as we study Paul's epistle, but for now, suffice to say that grace is both an attitude and a quality of God's character that manifests itself in love and mercy towards sinful man.
There have been some rather serious misconceptions about grace throughout the years. Many of these have resulted in the development of entire religious systems, some of which are still with us today.
Grace - Roman Catholic Church
Catholic teaching says that grace is a spiritual commodity distributed through the "sacraments" delivered through the intermediary work of their clergy. These religious ceremonies (Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Penance, Extreme Unction) and the authority of the priest or bishop administering them, infuse these actions with "sanctifying grace" (grace that has salvific power). Catholic teaching also speaks of "actual grace," which is an everyday type of grace. It is experienced at Christmas and other holidays in the liturgical Catholic calendar, and is meant to bring joy and happiness into the life of the Catholic believer but has no power to save.
The Catholic view of grace sees it as an ingredient contained in these rites which, with repetition, supposedly lead to salvation and greater holiness. The sacraments serve as a kind of spiritual supplement for the believer.
In my opinion, this view of grace is incorrect because it uses grace as a commodity to be distributed rather than an attitude of mercy exhibited by God in His relationship with man. The danger of this commodity view is that it leads to legalism in its worst form as the believer strives to be saved and grow in Christ by repeating ceremonies that earn him spiritual favors instead of trusting in God's grace offered to him through the gospel.
Pelagianism was a fourth century heresy that put onto man the task of saving himself. It taught that with the knowledge of the law and single-minded determination, a person could live a sinless life. Greater knowledge and self-will worked hand in hand towards greater improvement.
Most self-help books work on this same principle: with the right knowledge and will-power you can do anything...Just do it! The Bible, however, teaches the exact opposite. Man is helpless to change or improve himself to the point of salvation. This is what grace is for: to provide salvation to those who recognize that they cannot save themselves.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
- Romans 5:6
Calvinism / Predestination / Election
John Calvin's concept of grace taught that God arbitrarily chose some for salvation and condemned others. This meant that an individual was saved or lost, and could do nothing good or bad to reverse this condition.
This idea of grace is incorrect because it eliminates man's responsibility to exercise his free moral agency in the process of his own salvation. That human beings can know and choose to do what is right despite their sinful nature is well documented in Scripture.
If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
- Joshua 24:15
17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
- Romans 6:17-18
The Calvinistic view of grace fails to differentiate between what is conditional and what is free. Something can be free but have certain conditions. For example, air is free but we need to breathe it in for it to be useful; a will leaves an estate to its inheritors for free (they cannot buy it) but certain conditions must be met. In the same way grace and its benefits are free and offered freely but they are not without conditions. Conditions do not make something less free. Throughout the Bible God has always placed conditions on man for everything, even salvation, where belief is the primary condition.
Calvinism presents grace as something that God distributes arbitrarily without any conditions since He controls the entire process. He saves those He wills to save and condemns others, all done according to His counsel and without human input. In this system of thought the only ones who receive grace are those God has chosen to save whether they wanted this or not. In doing this, Calvinism removes any joy possible for those who have received salvation in this way.
The most common misconception of grace, however, is what I call the "thermometer" explanation of grace. In this imagery the obedience and good works we contribute towards our salvation is represented by the degrees on a thermometer (zero degrees represents zero obedience and good works; 100 degrees represents the amount of obedience and good works necessary to have salvation). In the "thermometer" version of grace the good works and obedience of man are registered first, and whatever is missing in order to reach 100 degrees (necessary for salvation) is added by God. Grace, in this view, is the part that God provides in order to get us to the top. The saying, "God helps those who help themselves" is a good way to summarize this idea of grace. This is classic legalism.
The proper way to use this illustration in describing God's grace is to show that God provides 100% of what is necessary to save man and man provides 0%. This biblical concept says that man does not even possess what is necessary to save himself or others. Not that he might not want to or try to, it is just that he does not have what it takes to accomplish this because salvation cannot be earned with various degrees of human obedience and good works.
According to the Bible, man's salvation requires:
- A perfect life of obedience. A perfect, sinless life is necessary to avoid condemnation for oneself. In addition to this, a perfect life is also necessary to offer as payment for the moral debt (sins) of others and thus satisfy God's justice. The Bible shows that Jesus is the only person who had the currency necessary to pay the moral debt owed by all men on account of sin.
22who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
- I Peter 2:22-24
- Divine Spirit. In addition to a perfect life, a divine spirit was also necessary to save mankind because only a divine spirit could enter into the presence of Divinity itself to offer that sacrifice for sin, an entry denied to all men because of their sins and strictly human spiritual nature. It was not enough to live a perfect life, you had to be able to come before God and offer that perfect life. Jesus became a man in order to offer a perfect human life, but He retained His divine nature in order to be able to enter into the presence of Divinity to offer that sacrifice (this is what the book of Hebrews is all about).
For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;
- Hebrews 9:24
10By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God,
- Hebrews 10:10-12
Grace — Definition — Summary
God's original creation of the universe with man at the head of it; His subsequent decision to save fallen man through the method of atonement accomplished by Jesus; His establishment of the church in order to reveal this plan to all mankind. This is the full expression of His favor and mercy, what the Bible refers to as grace.
In the next chapter we will talk about the original fall from God's first expression of grace, or the universality of sin.