Grace finds a way

The grace of God expressed at Calvary does not operate as a mere moral influence independently of His righteousness.

J. C. Smuts van Rooyen is assistant professor of religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Using as his text Romans 5:20, 21 Van Rooyen explores the meaning of the phrase "grace reigns through righteousness. "He takes up two errors in the idea of the atonement—the first that grace reigns because of righteousness, and the second that grace reigns without righteousness. He rejects the first as nullifying the love of God and presenting the death of Jesus as a payment to God, and he rejects the second as incomplete be cause it views the cross only as a revelation of God's love and denies that it was a forensic substitute. According to the second view, the death of Christ is a mere moral influence. He concludes by expounding what is meant by grace reigning through righteousness. He sees this view as supporting the idea of substitution by which Jesus gave His life as a sacrifice not to placate God but to demonstrate both His justice and His love.

Without question, the discovery that God crushes death itself and gives to us eternal life is the single most significant discovery of life. Moved by mercy, God breaks into our death-history to take forceful and decisive action against our enemy. Where sin abounds He makes grace to abound much more. Where death reigns He executes a dramatic coup and establishes the reign of grace. No wonder Paul exults, "But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: that as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:20, 21).

Grace reigns through righteousness! No truth is more beautiful or crucial. Yet no truth is subject to more abuse and misrepresentation. There seem to be two fundamental misconceptions about the reign of grace. The first is the error that grace reigns because of righteousness. The second is that grace reigns without righteousness.

Grace reigns because of righteousness?

Many a well-intentioned, cross-loving preacher has unwittingly distorted the very gospel he loves by pressing the truth of Calvary in such a way that the cross becomes the cause of grace. In this distortion, Jesus dies to give God a legal right to love us. The righteousness of Jesus creates mercy in the heart of an unwilling God. Calvary changes hatred to mercy, and grace reigns because of righteousness. This error is devastating to spiritual commitment.

Why? First of all, because it upsets God's sequence in salvation. To a great extent the uniqueness of Christianity depends on the order it sees in the plan of salvation. Christianity is not concerned with substance alone, but with sequence as well. What comes when is of fundamental importance to the Christian. Place works before justification, or overcoming before forgiveness, and the very being of Christianity is destroyed. The same is true of sacrifice and mercy. Make sacrifice the cause of mercy, and Christianity ceases to exist; it is now nothing more than rank paganism. A change in God's sequence is therefore nonnegotiable. We must maintain God's progression of truth. That there might be no doubt on this fundamental issue, the Saviour Himself explicitly stated, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Clearly God's love precedes His giving, and God's mercy precedes His sacrifice. This is the divine order of things pertaining to salvation.

The second objection to the notion that grace reigns because of righteousness is that if this is so, grace ceases to be grace. Grace by its very nature is gratis, spontaneous, undeserved. If righteousness earns grace, then grace is not a gift but a salary. Grace, like love, becomes prostitution when purchased. Paul says that election is by grace and then adds, "And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Rom. 11:6).

But one may object that the works that nullify grace are man's works and not Christ's. The truth is that no work, even Christ's work, causes grace. We insist that Calvary is not the cause but rather the expression of grace. At Golgotha we do not see love trying clumsily to get off the ground. Never. Love is already in action, soaring in unhampered, full-spread glory. Calvary does not show divinity rubbing crossbeams together trying for a spark of mercy. God forbid! The fire already leaps like sun flames on the surface of a great star. Grace is reigning!

But our third and foremost challenge to this concept is that it misrepresents the character of God and calls His love into question. We do not serve a God who changes from hatred to love be cause blood has appeased Him. God is not merely loving; He is love itself. We may understand love, then, by looking at what God is, and He is eternal. His love Ministry, May/1980 is an unchanging fact. Never has there been a time when divine love was not, for there never has been a time when God Himself was not. This eternity pre cedes Calvary.

Grace reigns without righteousness?

The second distortion of grace, namely, that grace reigns without righteousness, has been held in a variety of forms throughout history by such great men as Socinus, Horace Bushnell, and more recently, C. H. Dodd. The motivation for their theology is beyond reproach. They seek to remove the impression that God is a stern judge ready to pass sentence at the drop of a hat. Their concern for the character of God must be admired and upheld, but unfortunately such concern has not prevented their leaping from the pan directly into the fire.

What does this position claim? Perhaps we may understand it best by looking first at what it rejects and then at what it upholds. The thing it emphatically rejects is the legal, substitutionary death of Jesus. In this view, Jesus did not die in my place. He died for my benefit but not in my stead. For Him to die in my place, it claims, is unfair. No court has the right to accept one man's life for that of another. It rejects the idea that Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law by His death. The law had no demands; no penalty was paid; there were no legal requirements on the part of God. Grace alone is sufficient, and man is saved by grace without any legal righteousness. Grace reigns without righteousness.

What does this view uphold in place of the substitutionary life and death of Christ? If Jesus does not die in our stead, how, then, does He save us? We are saved, according to this position, by His revelation of love. Man turns to God when he grasps what Jesus reveals about God. God has been misunderstood and misrepresented throughout the centuries, thus alienating man from God. Man has a mental block about God and does not like Him, and is therefore in capable of accepting His forgiveness. Jesus came to help man by removing this mental block. This constitutes salvation. On the cross Jesus reveals God's great love for us, and as man sees this revelation of love, his mind is changed. He loves God back. God demands nothing more than this change of attitude on the part of man. God has no justice to be satisfied. God does not need to be reconciled to man; only man needs to be reconciled to God. Grace reigns by revelation without righteousness.

On what grounds may we question the truth of this view? Is it not plain that the cross is a revelation of God's love? Certainly. Moreover, does not the cross in fact change man's attitude toward God? Of course. But the problem lies with how this truth is used to deny a companion truth. The position is wrong not because of what it affirms but because of what it denies.

Because this view rejects the legal, vicarious nature of the cross, it is decidedly inadequate as a means of atonement in a number of ways. In the first place, it leaves the generations of people that lived prior to Calvary without hope of salvation. If it is true (as this position claims) that a person is won back to God by the full revelation of His love, and if it is true that this demonstration of love came only at Calvary, then what about the millions that lived prior to the death of Christ? How was the mental block removed from their thinking if they did not have the benefit of this full demonstration of love? How were they reconciled to God?

In response, some may argue that men prior to the cross were reconciled to God by other evidences of His mercy. Then we must ask why Calvary was necessary at all? The horrendous death of Jesus becomes needless overkill if men were being saved prior to Calvary without the cross. If smaller love revelations were sufficient, why Calvary?

It is the forensic, substitutionary quality of the cross that enables it to reach back and save all generations. When that is denied and only the revelational aspects are affirmed (as this view does), a new form of Christian gnosticism is born. Knowledge, not righteousness, becomes the crux of salvation.

Moreover, to see Christ's death as a demonstration of mercy and nothing more fails in still another significant way. It presents an inadequate and maudlin conception of God's love that destroys the very love it seeks to establish. When substitution is denied, the love demonstrated at Calvary loses its rationale. What would we think of a man who had himself killed in order to convince his alienated wife that he really loved her? How convincing would his expression of love be? Would we not regard it as both senseless and unloving? Would we not reject its rationale? Somehow death for demonstration purposes only doesn't ring true.

Scripture does not hesitate to tie the love of God to the now unpopular concept of propitiation. It is precisely at the point of sacrifice that love finds its expression. "Herein is love," says John, "not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). We must not separate love from propitiation. It must remain where revelation puts it.

And, finally, the revelational model of the atonement fails because it puts forth an insufficient concept of love and justice. Justice is seen simply as an action that sets things right. It does not include any element of penalty whatsoever. In terms of the cross, this means that Jesus sets things right without bearing any iniquity and without bearing any penalty. How then was justice done at the cross? Simply in the fact that Christ, by love, gave to men a new perspective. Love brings about reformation. Things are set right again. That is justice according to this idea.

But is reformation the equivalent of justice? If so, then the worst murderer must be released the instant he reforms. Should he change, even before his sentence begins, then he must not be punished at all. He has changed; justice is done. And if he never reforms, he must never be released. But is this justice? Clearly, a penalty must be paid for justice to be done. Reformation alone will not suffice. We may hope and pray for a transformation in the guilty, but such transformation can never be regarded as the equivalent of justice.

The clear teaching of Scripture is that justice entails punishment. Nor is that simply an Old Testament view. One who takes the Scriptures seriously cannot sidestep the issue of retribution. Punishment is Biblical (see 1 Chron. 21:8-14; 2 Peter 2:4-9; Matt. 23:29-33; 2 Cor. 5:10, 11).

Is retribution upheld as a matter of vengeance? No. Retribution is necessary because to abandon it is to destroy all law. No legal system could survive if it had no way of enforcing its broken laws. Remove the sting from the law and it is no more law but mere policy. For this reason the demonstration theory of the atonement is fundamentally antinomian by nature. In denying retribution it denies both justice and law as well. It upholds love in such a way that justice is destroyed. It cannot see that justice is, in fact, the product of love.

Grace reigns through righteousness

The grand summit of Romans 5 is found in that splendid text "That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ" (verse 21).

But what does Paul mean? He obviously desires that we understand something about the way grace operates. He is not satisfied with telling us simply that we are saved by grace but seeks in addition to inform us regarding the how of grace. Righteousness, he says, is the method grace uses to save us. Grace is God's disposition, His desire, to save us, but righteousness is the mechanism He uses to affect it.

This naturally brings us to the question, What is righteousness? What is included in this marvelous thing grace uses to save us? On this crucial issue Paul gives us very specific information in Romans 3. There he presents righteousness as something that comes from God. He alone is its source. It is "the righteousness of God." It does not come from man's obedience because it is manifested "without the law" (verse 21). Rather, we receive righteousness by means of faith (verse 22). Yet this still does not tell exactly what righteousness is. But when Paul turns the light up all the way, we see that Jesus Christ Him self is the embodiment of the righteousness of God. Righteousness takes form; the abstract becomes concrete. When by faith we receive Jesus, we receive righteousness. The apostle points out that God sets forth Christ "to be a propitiation" for sin, and that God declares "his righteousness for the remission of sins" (verse 25). In other words, for Paul, righteousness consists in Jesus' dying for our sins. The propitiation Christ makes on the cross is righteousness—the righteousness through which grace reigns.

When we go to the immediate context of Romans 5:20, 21, we discover yet another fundamental characteristic of righteousness. Romans 5 indicates that righteousness is connected to the obedience of Jesus. "For as by one man's [Adam's] disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one [Jesus] shall many be made righteous" (verse 19). It cannot be more plain. The sinless action of Jesus is itself the righteousness that grace uses to save man. Again we are confronted and thrilled by a great substitutionary transaction. What Jesus did, what Jesus was, God now views us as being. Righteousness is His obedience on our behalf. This righteousness grace uses to reign.

By the phrase "might grace reign through righteousness ... by Jesus Christ," Paul simply means, then, that grace gives Christ to me in such a way that His death takes care of my penalty and His life meets the demands of the law on my behalf. Grace substitutes Christ for me. That is how it reigns.

Some have vigorously objected to such a system of salvation. To them it seems unfair. How can one man be a substitute for another and in effect hold his destiny in his hands? Is substitution just? Is it right for Jesus to take our place? If a college student should fail his math exam, would it be fair to have another student in the class rewrite it for him, so that the teacher could now pass him? Is substitution legitimate? In the example just cited the answer is No. Such substitution is clearly wrong. But the Biblical concept of substitution is not after this order. It is built on a wholly different foundation.

Biblical substitution is grounded on the rock of the everlasting covenant made by the Godhead before the Creation. In this transaction, the Trinity mapped out the procedure to be followed in the event man should fall. Here was laid down the legal framework that would operate should the salvation of men become necessary.

What did this covenant specify? The core of its contents can be summed up in the phrase, Christ is our surety, our guarantor. A guarantor is someone who is willing to assume an individual's legal obligations in the event the individual should fail to meet them. If man should fail, Christ would take his place before the law. This was agreed upon before man ever was made. And when man fell, the Godhead upheld their agreement. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world became the Lamb of Calvary (see 1 Peter 1:18-21; Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8). He became our Substitute.

Is this wrong? Not when it is based on a voluntary agreement made before hand. It is no more wrong for Christ to pay our debt before the law than it is wrong for someone who has cosigned a bank loan for a friend to pay the debt should delinquency occur. Christ volunteered to be our guarantor. He did not have to do so. That is grace. When we failed, He came forward and fulfilled the covenant made beforehand. He fulfilled the law. That is righteousness. Grace reigns through righteousness. But, some may object, by introducing the element of righteousness, have we not nullified the concept of grace? If grace must work by means of righteousness, is it still grace? Are legal obligations and grace not antithetical? Does grace ever have to act in a certain way? If it does, is it still grace?

Paul speaks to this important question: "To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he hath purposed in himself" (Eph. 1:6-9).

From this scripture we deduce the following: 1. Grace and redemption (the paying of a price) are not incompatible. Clearly the two concepts were not contradictory to Paul. He uses them in the same sentence. We cannot pit grace against redemption, as some do. We must not create a false dilemma for our selves.

2. While grace is the cause of salvation, redemption is the method grace employs. In other words, grace ex presses itself by means of redemption. Redemption is the expression of grace, grace in action. Paul praises grace precisely because it acts redemptively.

3. Neither grace nor redemption are compulsory for God, but are according to His good pleasure that He purposed in Himself. Let it be forever clear that God did not have to be gracious; grace is a free act. Its bestower is free to bestow or to withhold it as He pleases. Had God left us to die in our sins, He would have still remained the just and holy God of the universe. God extended grace be cause He chose to do so, not because He had to. Moreover, let it be forever clear that the death of Jesus was not an ab solute necessity. Jesus did not have to die. God may well have left us in our sin to perish. God could have survived without Calvary, but we could not. Therefore grace found a way. The cross is a necessity only because it is God's will that it should be.

4. God has selected the best possible way to magnify all His perfections. Paul calls His plan wise, prudent, glorious, and praiseworthy. We cannot improve on it by removing the scandal of redemption. It is the best there is.

All of the above mean that we must accept God's grace in the form He has chosen to give it, namely, the substitutionary life and death of Jesus. We are not at liberty to design a plan of salvation that fits our ideas of what grace is and how grace should act. Beggars cannot be choosers. God's attitude and way in salvation are decisive. Therefore we cannot be eager for grace but reluctant about substitution. Together they are a divine gift. We must allow the giver to deter mine the form he wants his gift to take. We must allow grace to reign, as the Bible says, through righteousness.

But, the objection continues, does this system of salvation in fact reveal the perfections of God to their best advantage? Does it not in reality do just the opposite when it presents a picture of a God who inflicts punishment on His innocent Son and then waits for Him to plead His blood and beg for the forgiveness of sinners? Is this not appeasement of the worst sort, sheer paganism?

If such a caricature of the truth were an accurate reflection of God's method, the accusation would be just. But such a sketch is unfair and unscriptural. The Biblical concept of the atonement is vastly different. Scripture refuses to drive a dividing wedge between the purpose of the Father and the purpose of the Son. Both seek to save man. Therefore it is not true that Christ gives His own life as a propitiation to an unwilling Father. John sets such distortion straight when he says, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). In other words, God Himself provides the propitiation and does so because of His love. Biblical propitiation is an expression of love.

Would God give a sacrifice to Himself? Is this not rather strange? At first it might seem so, but it is nevertheless precisely what the Bible teaches. We need only to recall the words of Abra ham, "God will provide himself a lamb" (Gen. 22:8), or those of Isaiah, "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shall make his soul an offering for sin" (Isa. 53:10).

Our perplexity over God providing a sacrifice for Himself vanishes when we realize that God occupies more than one station in the universe. He is the Father of all as well as the Judge of all. Is it not, then, conceivable that, as Father, God would uphold that which as Judge He deems necessary? Can His mercy not provide that which His justice demands? Paul emphasizes that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Him self" (2 Cor. 5:19). Obviously, God is both the reconciler and the reconciled. At the cross God's justice and God's mercy kiss. Grace reigns through righteousness by means of Christ's substitution.

But others object by saying that when all is said and done regarding the concept of substitution in Scripture, we must bear in mind that these are all merely cultural expressions -used by the Bible writers. Are the Bible writers not simply attempting to express divine truth in such a way that men of their time could understand it? Is sacrifice not now an outdated cultural concept that must be totally reinterpreted for our time? Must we not now boldly discard it as an ugly vestige of the past, as we do polygamy and slavery? Shall we let the Jews foist a pagan practice on us in the name of true worship? Is this not all cultural talk rather than underlying truth?

Of course sacrifice was a cultural practice of Israel. But this is not the issue. The real issue is, How did Israel come by the sacrificial system? Did they pick it up from the pagans? When Scripture is taken seriously, we find that not to be the case. Scripture teaches us that sacrifice was introduced into human culture by God Himself at the gates of Eden before the Jewish nation or any other nation existed. Jesus was in fact the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (see 1 Peter 1:18-21). Sacrifice is of heavenly origin and thus belongs to that special group of cultural practices that includes the Sabbath and marriage.

Clearly, God at times breaks into human culture to teach truth. Further more, when Christ penetrated human culture at His incarnation, a part of culture became the truth itself. The penal, vicarious, substitutionary death of Jesus is not merely a way of speaking; it is the substance of what is said, the truth itself. In this sacrificial way grace reigns through righteousness.


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J. C. Smuts van Rooyen is assistant professor of religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1980

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