GRACE FOR SALVATION
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
John Newton did not fully understanding what had happened to him that night on the North Atlantic, The very next day, that twelfth day, something incredible took place: He immediately gave up his profanity and profligate living. There was a turn-around in his life which he could not explain.
After reaching Liverpool in May, 1748, and arranging for a place to stay, he settled into a more routine lifestyle. This included romance. Shortly after his arrival, he began courting a young woman named Mary Catlett. It was nine years earlier that he first met her. In the intervening years, he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
On February 1, 1750, nearly two years after his life-changing experience in the North Atlantic, John and Mary were married. He was virtually bankrupt. He had received nothing after the disastrous North Atlantic experience. Employment in England was difficult for him to obtain. To help bridge their lack of money, John and Mary lived in her parent’s home.
The Slavery Trade
Although John Newton had received God’s grace, he was still bound by some of his culture’s ways of thinking. It was much like what happened when Jesus called Lazarus to life from the grave: “When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
“Jesus said, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’ ” John 11:43, 44. Jesus had called Lazarus to life and he came out of death. However, he was still bound by the grave clothes put on him while he was dead. He had to be set free. Again, someone else had to do this..
John Newton had also been brought to life but he was still wrapped in the grave clothes of the slave trading business. In those times, slavery was not offensive and the trading of slaves was considered an honorable profession. While Newton’s perspective would later change radically, after his marriage he made three voyages as a captain of a slave trading ship. Just before his fourth trip, however, he suffered a physical seizure and collapsed. He was unable to take command of his ship and it left without him. That ended both his slave trading and his sea-faring days.
His Mother’s Prayers
It had been the wish of John Newton’s mother that he would someday become a minister. Considering his father’s occupation, that was a giant leap of faith on her part. However, the next turn in John’s life eventually led him into fulfilling her dream.
John needed employment. Under the title of “Tide Surveyor,” he performed the duties of Custom’s Officer for the City of Liverpool. During this time, he met and was influenced by several godly people, including George Whitefield and William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth.
George Whitefield, along with the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, was instrumental in bringing spiritual revival to England. They inaugurated outdoor preaching that enabled them to bring the truth of God’s grace to thousands. Whitefield also made seven trips to America. He was a key figure in the revivals known as the Great Awakening. The patient influence of these men brought Newton to the next major step in his life. They were the ones who helped remove the grave clothes which bound John Newton.
In 1764, sixteen years after his North Atlantic storm experience, John Newton was ordained into the priesthood of the Church of England. He was offered a curate, or pastor’s position, in the country town of Olney. This town was already well known for its handmade lace. One day, it would also be famous for two of its residents: John Newton the minister and William Cowper the poet.
As they became close friends, Newton and Cowper cooperated in writing songs and hymns that received wide distribution. John remained at Olney for sixteen years until 1780. While at Olney Newton wrote Amazing Grace. There is a sense in which that was but a prelude to what John Newton would take on as his life’s work. The years of his sinful living and God’s gracious forgiveness would not be forgotten. He had more to say.
During this time, the horrors and inhumanity of slave trading and the immorality of slavery itself was gnawing at his soul. In 1787, Newton made his definitive statement on slavery when he published Thoughts on the African Slave Trade. By this time, Newton was preaching in London and was in frequent contact with William Wilberforce. Newton not only influenced Wilberforce’s spiritual life, but was largely responsible for the passion the political leader developed against slavery.
Newton encouraged Wilberforce to remain in politics and to bring an end to slave trading and slavery. Wilberforce was able to get legislation passed to abolish slave trading. It would be much later that slavery itself was outlawed in the United Kingdom. But Newton’s view of God’s grace was prevailing in the political as well as the religious world.
T’was Grace that Taught My Heart to Fear, and Grace My Fears Relieved
Up to this point, we have talked about the grace of God in general terms. Let’s direct our attention now to saving grace. The question we want to answer is: How is God’s grace effective in salvation? Or, is there a difference about saving grace that distinguishes it from other aspects of God’s grace?
The object is not to develop artificial compartments in our thinking about grace, but rather to help us understand the full measure of God’s grace. I believe this will help reduce the confusion that currently exists between God’s grace and God’s mercy. Although quite different, they are often used interchangeably. In fact, out of God’s grace, mercy is something we receive when we repent.
God’s grace, consistent in its nature and essence, operates on us in many different ways. It’s like the Apostle John wrote in his gospel, “From the fullness of (Jesus’) grace we have all received one blessing after another.” John 1:16. God’s grace does not come in a one-time application. It is constantly making inroads into our natural tendencies.
God’s grace is His enabling power to accomplish in us what is impossible without Him. Out of His infinite supply, He is continually filling up our meager lives.
Here is where we run into one of the age-old theological debates that has consumed much energy and given little light: The sovereign will of God versus the free will of man. Let’s recognize there are valid issues here we could consider. However, it is not the purpose of this writing to ignite a flaming debate. It is to help us understand and appropriate God’s amazing grace.
What do we mean by saving grace? To begin with, let’s develop a working definition of grace. Webster’s provides this definition; Grace: Unmerited divine assistance given man for his regeneration or sanctification; a virtue coming from God. We can paraphrase that definition: “God’s unmerited enabling and favor to us.” Nonetheless, there is always difficulty when we attempt to compress the essence of the God of all Creation into a sentence definition: It is utterly inadequate. We are trying to describe God’s infinite grace in a few words of one language when it is impossible even if we used every language.
Like the early morning dew, God’s grace condenses upon us, flowing out of the infinite reservoir of His being. This exposes our problem. As we dig deeper, we discover that God’s grace flows out of His character. Not only our language, but our character and our experience lie at the root of our misunderstanding. Our culture and our humanity so obscure our vision of God and His grace, we are unable to comprehend its inexhaustible supply.
The Apostle Paul was trying to bridge that gap in the understanding of the Ephesian Christians when he wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and that not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8, 9.
Notice carefully the order of events in Ephesians 2. Remember in the opening verses Paul had described mankind’s condition as “dead.” That is hopeless. But God’s grace intervenes. Although we are without moral credit and in spiritual bankruptcy, God nevertheless unloads heaven’s treasures of forgiveness and mercy to our account. God’s infinite credit completely cancels our debt of sin. There is nothing we can do to merit this favor.
Then, after God’s grace for salvation, by His grace He gives us something to do. Our activities do not pay for the grace we received. That grace, infinite in measure, is freely given.
You may recall that when God gave the two stone tablets of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, engraved with His own hand, He revealed to Moses the character of His grace. “And (God) passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.’ ” Exodus 34: 6, 7. That truly expresses what grace is: God’s unmerited favor to us.
For another example, Paul pictures the extent of God’s grace in his own life when he wrote to his associate, Timothy. “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (Emphasis added) I Timothy 1:13, 14.
When Paul understood the dimension of his sin (his “deadness”), he began to see the vastness of God’s grace. That was the same contrast he pointed out for all who have accepted God’s grace in redemption. “In him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.“ Emphasis added, Ephesians 1:7.
It is God’s grace that provides eternal salvation through His Son, Jesus, and it is God’s grace that enables us to partake of and participate in that salvation. Can you begin to see what John Newton meant when he wrote, “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear (honor, believe) and grace my fears relieved”?
As important as the Apostle’s description is, we are just at the beginning of grasping God’s grace. It’s like seeing the tip of an iceberg—there is much more to look at beneath the surface of the ocean. Grace in the Old Testament
When we think of saving grace, our thoughts are also drawn to the Old Testament story of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah’s personal experience could give us a lot to talk about, but we want briefly to consider God’s grace towards the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the Capitol of Assyria, one of the early military empires that the nation Israel had battled.
As one of God’s prophets, Jonah received an assignment from God: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ ” Jonah 1:1, 2. We must take note that God did not have to send Jonah to Nineveh at all. Although their wickedness called for judgment, God determined to warn them of their certain doom.
After some delay caused by Jonah, he arrived in Nineveh to announce God’s message:“ ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’ ” Jonah 3:4. God’s message to the city contained no conditions. Even Jonah knew of the sinfulness of the people of Nineveh. And since they had also plundered Israel in times past, he would be happy to stand aside and watch God “zap” the city. Nineveh Repents
When he finished preaching, Jonah withdrew to a safe, elevated location so he could witness the destruction and smoke. However, something unexpected happened in response to Jonah’s message.“Then the (king) issued a proclamation in Nineveh: ‘Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God.
“ ‘Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’ ” Jonah 3:7-9. The king recognized they were sinners and had taken on evil ways. He realized their sin was an offence to God. He knew that God’s promised judgment was just. He determined to lead his people in repentance and contrition before God.
The God who revealed Himself to Moses as, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,” was the same God who looked down on Nineveh. He took notice of their repentance.
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” Jonah 3:10.
When the people of Nineveh admitted they were sinners deserving of God’s judgment, God’s grace became available to them. When they repented of their evil ways, His grace was applied to their lives in salvation. God spared them. The experience of the people of Nineveh is a real life example of how God’s grace functions in our lives.
Notice the shift in living by the people of Nineveh: They “turned from their evil ways.” God responded. But His saving grace offered to the repentant people of Nineveh angered the prophet Jonah. He knew of God’s unchanging character revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. He even quoted the very words God spoke to Moses (Jonah 4:2). As humans, we want to get even. God delights in showing His grace on every possible occasion.
If you who have repented of your sin and asked God’s forgiveness like the people of Nineveh, you have already experienced His saving grace. What brought Nineveh to the point of repentance? What enabled them to receive God’s saving grace? As John Newton wrote, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” It is God’s grace that leads us into His saving grace—not our wise insight or eager initiative.
Remember our original condition: We were dead! (Ephesians 2:1). That fact is reinforced by the Apostle Paul as he wrote to the Ephesian Christians:”Like the rest (everyone), we were by nature objects of wrath (like Nineveh). But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:3-5.
What a wonderful transaction! What great freedom to be able to say, “I am saved by grace!” That forever frees me from anxiety about my salvation. It was not my action or goodness that brought it about. If that were the case, I would always have doubt about my ability to maintain my goodness. But if God is responsible, all fear is removed.
As Paul wrote to those Christians at Rome, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus, the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1, 2. The two great obstacles to living—sin and death—have been removed from our lives by the saving grace of God.
That is exactly what Jesus explained to Nicodemus, a religious leader in Israel, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already . . . ” John 3:17, 18. Apart from God’s saving grace, we are standing in condemnation. It is God’s design to make His grace available to mankind in the Person of His Son, Jesus. How Precious did that Grace Appear the Hour I First Believed! At this point in his song, John Newton reflects back on his experience with God on that North Atlantic voyage. For eleven days, he was in physical combat with the wind and waves, and in spiritual conflict with God. Much like Jacob who wrestled with God all night, Newton was exhausted but joyfully liberated from the load of guilt and sin on the morning of the twelfth day (Genesis 32:24-31). Both men knew they had seen God, “face to face.”
On many occasions, the Apostle Paul expressed the same rejoicing at the thought of his own salvation by the grace of God. In a chapter we already looked at, he begins by declaring, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus . . .” His conclusion of that chapter is a great doxology for the action of God’s grace in our lives through His Son, Jesus.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul writes. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:1, 38, 39.
That’s all inclusive, isn’t it? Yet many people struggle with the idea that the grace of God is fully sufficient for their salvation. You can see, however, rather than anxiety there should be exhilaration; rather than nagging doubt there should be overwhelming confi-dence.
The Apostle Peter dealt with similar concerns in his letter to those who had been driven out of Jerusalem because of their faith in Jesus. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . . that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power . . . ” I Peter 1:3-5.
Jesus Himself left no doubt about the power of His grace for salvation. At a time when even dedicated followers were doubting, He calmed their fears when He said, “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:28-30.
The everlasting unity of the Godhead has been extended to those who accept God’s saving grace. Understand that we are humanly incapable, in any manner or through any mechanism, of securing God’s favor on our own. If we could, God’s grace would be unnecessary, wouldn’t it? It is only God’s grace which makes possible our redemption from sin and death, giving us eternal life. Just “trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” God’s saving grace forever ends anxiety for the believer.
However, as amazing as that is, God’s grace extends beyond our salvation. He has much more in store for us after our initial encounter with His grace.“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all (mankind). (God’s grace) teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Titus 2:11-14.
We see that “the grace of God that brings salvation” has something to do with our living as well. By His grace, we are forgiven for our sin and sinning. It will be only by His grace that we will walk the Christian life. Just as God’s grace enables us to be free from the punishment of sin, His grace empowers us to be free from the influence of sin.