We’re saved by grace through faith.” This phrase, which expresses so succinctly the means of our salvation, can become so familiar that we lose the meaning of what God has done in us. On the one hand, we can fall into legalism, trying to earn God’s favor by works. On the other, we can fall into sin, taking God’s grace for granted and rationalizing that “God will forgive me anyway.” We need to regain a biblical view—one that relies completely on God’s grace but does not trample on it by continued sinfulness.
The venerable Heidelberg Catechism, published in 1563, is one of the most widely circulated books of all time. What makes the catechism so popular is its unique three-part structure, popularly known by three words: guilt, grace and gratitude. These three words taken together help us understand the true meaning of grace and can prevent some prevalent misunderstandings.
First, consider the concept of guilt. Why is guilt a part of this three-word trilogy on grace? The answer is that grace presupposes guilt on the part of the recipient. All my life I have heard the definition of grace as unmerited favor. While that is certainly true, it fails to do justice to the concept of grace because it ignores the idea of our guilt.
When I was growing up in the Depression years of the 1930s, men known as hobos would travel on rail cars from town to town looking for work. Occasionally one of them would appear at our front door asking for food. My mother would go to the kitchen and prepare a plate from whatever food she had on hand. That is an act of unmerited favor in that the hobo did nothing to earn the food, but that is not grace.
Suppose, however, at some time a hobo had actually robbed our house. Some months later that same hobo shows up at our front door asking for food. My mother is certain he is the robber, but instead of calling the police, she again goes to her kitchen and prepares a plate of food for the man. Now a new factor is involved. The man is not simply undeserving, he is actually ill-deserving in the sense that he deserves to be punished for his crime.
This is true of all of us. Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” is a favorite verse for Christians. We believe it, and we rejoice in it. But before Ephesians 2:8, Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us of our guilt and sad state as objects of God’s wrath. We deserve to be punished by God, but instead we are saved from His wrath by His grace. Until we see ourselves as justly deserving God’s eternal wrath, we will not understand grace. That is why guilt is the first word in the catechism’s three-word trilogy.
One of the problems in evangelicalism today is that we don’t see our guilt. We tend to define sin in its more flagrant forms of sexual immorality, greed, violence and the like. We don’t see our anxiety, selfishness, envy, pride and gossip as sin. Consequently, we don’t take seriously our guilt before a holy God, and therefore we don’t appreciate grace.
Now let’s consider the meaning of the word grace at Christ’s expense.
So let me offer a definition of grace that goes beyond the idea of unmerited favor. Grace is God’s blessings through Christ to people who deserve His curse. The key words are through Christ. It is through Christ that we do not receive the curse we deserve. And it is through Christ that we receive the blessings we don’t deserve.
Note the plural word blessings in this definition. We are not only saved by grace, we are blessed by grace every day of our lives. A common misunderstanding is that we are saved by grace, but we earn God’s blessings by our obedience. I believe this misunderstanding is not just common, it is the unspoken assumption of the vast majority of Christians.
Let’s examine that assumption. When Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment in the law, He responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). This is a standard none of us meets any day of our lives. So how can we think we’ll earn God’s blessings by our performance? Does God grade similarly to the academic community, where 70 is passing? No, God requires absolute perfection (Galatians 3:10, James 2:10). But that’s where Christ’s perfect obedience comes to our rescue. That’s why we can say that grace is indeed God’s riches at Christ’s expense. Jesus, through His lifelong, perfect obedience, earned for us every blessing we will ever receive.
There’s another truth about grace we need to understand if we are to live by this precept every day. God is sovereign in dispensing His grace. From our vantage point, it seems as if God blesses some people more than others. In fact, it often seems He blesses those whom we feel are less deserving than we are.
In Matthew 20, Jesus told a parable about workers in a vineyard who each received the same wage, a full day’s pay, despite the fact that some workers had worked a full 12-hour day while others had worked less, some only one hour. When the 12-hour workers grumbled that those who had worked only one hour received the same pay as they did, the owner of the vineyard replied, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matthew 20:15).
This is God’s answer to us when we begin to compare ourselves with others who seem more blessed than we. Sometimes when I have spoken on this parable, I have asked the audience how many have been troubled by the apparent unfairness of the vineyard owner in paying the same wage to the one-hour workers as he paid to the 12-hour ones. Always a great majority raises their hands. Why is this true? It is because we tend to identify with the 12-hour workers.
The truth, however, is that we are all essentially one-hour workers. Our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). Paul counted his obedience as rubbish (Philippians 3:8). In fact, rubbish is really a polite word. Our word garbage better captures Paul’s disdain for his own righteousness.
This is again why our realization of our own personal guilt before God is so necessary to a biblical understanding of grace. Because we see ourselves as good people who don’t commit any of the flagrant sins, we think we earn God’s favor on our lives. And when we think this way, we are no longer living by grace. We may be saved by grace, but we are living by works.
The third word in the catechism’s grace trilogy is gratitude. A true understanding of our guilt before God, which leads to a true understanding of the nature of grace, always produces gratitude. And the more deeply we sense the depth of our guilt and experience the reality of God’s grace, the more expressive our gratitude will be. It will be more than a mere attitude of gratefulness. It will be a gratitude that expresses itself in humble obedience and sacrificial service.
In the familiar story of the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little loves little.” The opposite, which is the whole point of the story, is, “He who is forgiven much loves much.”
Most commentators believe that this woman must have had a prior encounter with Jesus, had become painfully aware of her sin and had received from Him assurance of the forgiveness of her sin. The acute consciousness of her sin and the assurance of His forgiveness produced in her the gratitude that prompted her bold act of entering the Pharisee’s house to anoint the feet of Jesus. She loved much because she had been forgiven much.
So if we want to regain the sparkle of our Christian lives, let us take a lesson from the Heidelberg Catechism and continue to grow in an ever increasing awareness of our remaining sinfulness, coupled with a deeper appreciation of God’s grace, resulting in an ever vibrant expression of grateful obedience and service to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jerry Bridges was an evangelical Christian author, speaker and staff member of The Navigators.