The Doctrines of Grace

Charles Wingard

New Horizons: May 1997

The Doctrines of Grace

Also in this issue

The Late Afternoon Workers

The theological outlook of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is often described as "Reformed." Reformed churches endeavor to lay before men and women the full biblical truth concerning the holiness of God and the terrible sinfulness of humanity. Between God and humanity there is a chasm that humans cannot bridge. For there to be reconciliation between God and sinners, God must save.

The truths of Scripture that highlight the activity of God in the salvation of sinners are often called "the doctrines of grace." Let's look at five of them:

1. Sinners are spiritually dead

Sinners are not spiritually sick, but dead. They cannot understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14), nor hear the word of Christ (John 8:43), nor see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), nor come to Jesus (John 6:44), nor submit to the law of God (Rom. 8:7). (See Ernest C. Reisinger, Today's Evangelism [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Craig Press, 1982], pp. 97-98.)

Paul sums up the natural spiritual condition of every person when he writes, "You were dead in your transgressions and sins" (Eph. 2:1). The death in view here is not the absence of physical life, but the absence of spiritual life. Jesus said, "This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3). Knowing God and his Son Jesus—that is eternal life! Spiritual death is knowing neither the Father nor the Son.

We too easily confuse life with activity. A strong athlete, a thriving businessman, an energetic student—they are full of life! But a person can be full of energy and thrilled with life, and still be dead to the things of God.

There is a terrible finality to death. Dead people are unresponsive to external stimuli. Imagine standing at a person's graveside and shouting your lungs out. The deceased will never respond. In some ways, spiritual death is like and unlike this picture.

First, let's consider the similarity. When we say that a person is spiritually dead in sin, we are making the claim that lost men and women cannot and will not respond favorably to the call of the gospel. They cannot choose Christ or turn from sin. Because lost sinners are responsible for their sin, they are responsible for their own spiritual condition. But they can do nothing to save themselves, or even recognize their need of salvation.

But spiritual death differs from physical death in that the spiritually dead are quite responsive. When men and women are dead in sin, they are in rebellion against their Creator God, and, in varying degrees, hostile to the gospel of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.

In describing the spiritual condition of fallen humanity, Reformed Christians often use the term total depravity. The fact that people are totally depraved does not mean that they are as sinful as they can be. Rather, it indicates that every aspect of our humanity is fallen. Our hearts, minds, and wills are corrupted by sin.

And the devastating effects of human depravity do not merely scratch the surface of our life, but cut to its very core. The result is that lost persons are unable to choose what is spiritually good. People may live morally responsible lives in their community, but apart from Christ a love for the God of the Bible and a desire to live a holy life before him are absent.

For further study of the doctrine of total depravity:

  • Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Psalm 58:3. What do these verses teach about sinners?
  • Romans 8:6-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1-3. What do you learn about the condition of humanity apart from Christ?

2. Election to eternal life is unconditional

Once the biblical view of human depravity is recognized, it immediately becomes clear that we are without hope of eternal life, apart from the electing grace of God. Sinners need a spiritual rebirth that they cannot provide for themselves. Since people are spiritually dead, they cannot be saved unless God chooses to bring them to spiritual life.

But there is hope. Out of a world of fallen sinners, God chose to save some. He undertakes to do for sinners what they cannot do for themselves. He raises those who are spiritually dead. He gives new life to them. He saves the lost. He brings them to heaven. Predestination and election are the terms that refer to God's choice of men and women for salvation. Those sinners who are predestined to eternal life are called "the elect."

Because all human beings are spiritually dead, God's decree of election cannot be based on any goodness or worthiness in them. Because people are unable to choose what is spiritually right, God's decision to choose some of them for salvation cannot be dependent upon any foreseen act of obedience on the sinner's part (for example, future faith or repentance). There is no condition that qualifies anyone to be chosen by God. Rather, the election of sinners to salvation is based solely upon God's good pleasure (Eph. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rom. 9:10-18). Therefore, Reformed Christians teach the doctrine of unconditional election.

For further study of the doctrine of unconditional election:

  • John 6:44, 65. What must occur before a person can come to Christ?
  • Ephesians 1:4-6. When were God's people chosen?
  • Why were they predestined?
  • What is the purpose of election?
  • Acts 13:48. Who believed the word of the Lord preached by Paul?

3. Christ died for the sins of the elect

Many Christians who are not a part of the Reformed tradition believe that Jesus died for every person. By his death, they say, Christ suffered for the forgiveness and redemption of all. Yet, only those who believe are actually forgiven and saved. In a very real sense, this means that much of Christ's suffering was done in vain. Whole hosts of people for whom Christ died, on this view, are never saved.

Reformed Christians dispute this understanding of Christ's death. We do not believe that it accurately describes Christ's work on the cross. Scripture teaches that God, from before the creation of the world, chose an elect people for salvation (Eph. 1:4). For these people, and them alone, God sent his Son to purchase salvation (John 10:11). Jesus prayed that the benefits of his death might be applied to these people; he did not pray in this way for the world out of which they were taken (John 17:9). Not one drop of Jesus' blood was spilled in vain, for all that the Father has given him will come to him (John 6:38-39).

Reformed Christians speak of a particular atonement. It was for the particular sins of particular people that Christ died. The purpose of Christ's death was not to make salvation a possibility for all persons, but to make salvation a certainty for his people, the elect of God.

Sometimes Presbyterians speak of a "limited" or "definite" atonement. What they mean is precisely what I have described here. Christ died to atone for the sins of a definite group of people. From this viewpoint, the scope of Christ's work was limited to the elect.

God's intention in the death of Christ was to save his elect. That mission was perfectly accomplished.

For further study of the doctrine of particular atonement:

  • John 6:37. What persons come to the Father?
  • John 10:11, 14-16. For whom did Jesus die? Who hears his voice?
  • Does the shepherd lay his life down for the wolves?
  • John 10:26. Why do these people not believe?
  • John 17:2. To whom does Jesus give eternal life?
  • John 17. How many times in this chapter does Jesus refer to those given to him by the Father?

4. God's saving grace is irresistible

To be saved, the elect must undergo a radical change of heart. The old sinful nature must be destroyed, and a new nature, which seeks after God, must be given in its place. Only God can bring about such a mighty change.

God promises his people that he will give them a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). This change of heart is presented in various ways in the Bible. Believers are said to be born again (John 3:8); they are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17); they are raised from spiritual death to life (Eph. 2:4-7). New birth, new creation, spiritual resurrection—these are words describing the new heart. Each one focuses on the awesome power of God, who has chosen to transform sinners so that they will come to Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel.

God never fails in this work of spiritual transformation. All of the elect receive, at some point in their life, a new heart that seeks Jesus. With a new heart, they freely embrace Jesus in faith and repentance. The elect of God are sinners from birth who oppose him, but the grace of God ultimately triumphs in their life. No one can resist the saving power of God. Therefore, Reformed Christians speak of God's irresistible grace. God's grace accomplishes what he intends for it to accomplish. All whom God has chosen for salvation will come to Christ.

The Bible is not a few disconnected stories about religious life in ancient times, but an account of the unfolding of God's eternal plan to claim for himself a people that will ultimately be perfect in holiness and love. All barriers separating our holy God from his people are torn down and overcome by the triumphant power of his grace.

For further study of the doctrine of irresistible grace:

  • John 6:37. Of those given to Jesus, how many will come to him?
  • Acts 16:14. Why was Lydia able to respond to Paul's message?

5. All the elect of God will persevere in faith

All "those [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). This verse has often been called the "golden chain." All whom God has chosen as his own will be finally and completely saved in glory.

The biblical doctrine that believers are kept in faith by the power of God is called the perseverance of the saints. The "saints" (the "holy ones") are simply the elect who have become righteous (holy) through faith in Christ and the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God.

God's great work of salvation began before the creation of the world as he set apart an elect people to be holy and blameless before him (Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13). God's saving work continued as he sent his Son into the world to die for the elect. Since then, his Spirit has worked to bring all the elect to saving faith in Jesus, so that they experience the benefits of his life and death. God will persevere in the work that he has begun in his people. Because God perseveres, believers will persevere also (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). Salvation is God's work. He never fails.

For further study of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints:

  • John 6:39. What is promised concerning all those persons for whom Jesus died?
  • John 10:28-29. What does Jesus promise his people?
  • Romans 8:30. What does God do for all those whom he has predestined?


The doctrines of grace should powerfully influence our day-to-day lives.

The doctrines of grace subdue our pride. The reason God elects one person to salvation and leaves another to perish in sin forever is not that one person is in some way more attractive or more worthy than another. Remember, God's election is unconditional.

The implications of this truth for the life of the church are staggering. Christian, you were saved not because of your status in society, or your intellect, or your wealth or poverty, or your dependable character, or because of your potential usefulness to Christ's kingdom. You are a Christian because of God's free grace—pure and simple. Every manifestation of elitism within the body of Christ is a repudiation of the basic gospel truth that we are who we are by the work of God and not by our own effort.

The doctrines of grace lead to our heartfelt worship. Some ask, "Why didn't God choose to save everyone?" Although the question represents a sincere desire to understand God's plan, it approaches the issue from the wrong direction. Given the Bible's teaching about human sin and God's holiness, the question should rather be, "Why did God choose to save anyone?" Vibrant Christians are those people who, having studied the Word of God, come to a powerful sense of their unworthiness. They are overwhelmed that God would lovingly conquer their hatred of him and save them in Christ Jesus. Where joyful worship is missing, genuine knowledge of the depth of human sin and of the glory of God in salvation is also missing.

The doctrines of grace personalize the gospel for us. When we understand the truths of God's electing love and of the death of Christ for the elect people of God, we understand that God did more than make salvation a possibility. Rather, we can say with confidence that Christ "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). When Jesus went to the cross, he went to reconcile specific persons to the heavenly Father. "He suffered for me, he bled for me, he died for me," are the words of all Christians who know that Jesus took their personal sins to Calvary, and there died for them.

D. Clair Davis ("Personal Salvation," Presbyterian Journal, July 30, 1986, p. 19) clearly explains the personal nature of Christ's work on the cross:

His atoning work was personal too. He gave his life not for sin, but for sinners. He died for you. His atoning death was for his people. Presbyterians may call it limited or definite, but personal is what they mean. Jesus didn't die to open the door. He didn't die to give you some help. He didn't die to stir you up to make something of yourself. He did a lot more than that. He saved you from your sins. He set you free from your foolish unbelief so that now you see him in his glory.... Jesus didn't die for you, and then leave you to take it from there. He didn't lay down his life for you and then sit back to watch you slide off into confusion. Jesus has begun a good work in you, and he will carry it out faithfully to the end.

The doctrines of grace give us a strong sense of identity. We were chosen by God before the creation of the world. We were redeemed by the death of Christ, and the work of Christ was personally applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The biblical doctrine of salvation is an intensely personal love story of the triune God who has sought us and won us to himself.

The doctrines of grace cultivate in us a life of absolute dependence upon God. At no point in the Christian life are we able to carry on by ourselves. From the new creation to final glory, we rely totally upon the power of God. When you are tempted to believe that your pursuit of holiness is hopeless, turn your eyes away from your own weakness and look to the glorious, unfailing plan of God for you. You will persevere in faith because God will persevere in you. Depend upon him!

The doctrines of grace lead to our fervent prayer in evangelism. Make no mistake: you should be very energetic in presenting the gospel to unbelievers. You should be just as energetic, however, in praying that God will grant a new heart to those with whom you share the gospel. Without the demonstration of God's power in granting the new birth to the lost, your evangelism will never see the fruit of new believers.

One of the saddest facts about the modern American church is that many people who have their names on a church roll do not manifest any evidence of holiness of life. Never has the church been so successful at recruiting new members, and yet never have there been lower standards of holiness. Where there is no emphasis on the necessity of being born again, the church will overflow with unsaved members.

The doctrines of grace will be a source of strength and encouragement to you. Know them. Believe them. Live confidently in your God, and glory in his magnificent grace.

Mr. Wingard is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (OPC), in Ipswich, Mass. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 1997.

New Horizons: May 1997

The Doctrines of Grace

Also in this issue

The Late Afternoon Workers

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