WHAT IS SOVEREIGN GRACE?
Holmes Moore is pastor of Bible Baptist Church of St. Louis, Missouri. He was the first Chairman of the Sovereign Grace Baptist Fellowship, which was formed largely through his leadership.
The first thing that must be done, as in any profitable discussion, is to define the terms used. In the question of this article, we have two primary terms: Grace, which is a noun, and the main word in our sentence; and Sovereign, which is an adjective that qualifies this noun. We use grace much as all Evangelicals generally do, meaning the unmerited favor of God, through Jesus Christ. Since the fall of mankind in Adam, the first man, the only way a Holy God could favorably deal with our race has been on the basis of grace. If otherwise, it could only be on the basis of justice, which because of our sin, would bring us but judgment resulting in our eternal condemnation!
The second term Sovereign we take in its ordinary sense of one having absolute power, free to do whatever he wills to do, as “absolute kings” used to have. Of course with men, such sovereignty was limited by human nature, for even “sovereign kings” could not do absolutely what they would. However, in our usage, both words grace and sovereign have direct reference to God Himself, and not to man. Thus we are asserting that God has absolute sovereignty, not limited by anyone or anything outside Himself!
Putting the two words together as we do, the term Sovereign Grace means that we believe there is a grace, which is God’s unmerited favor flowing to sinners through Jesus Christ, and that it is absolutely sovereign in its operation and application, being limited only by the will of God Himself. Those of us who affirm this realize that we are saying a great deal, but we willingly stand behind these assertions, believing them to be clearly taught in the Bible, God’s infallible Word.
WHAT SOVEREIGN GRACE MEANS RELATIVE TO OUR SALVATION
The Scripture firmly states, “Salvation is of the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9) Relative to our salvation, there are two important doctrines that must be understood: the Doctrine of God, and the Doctrine of Man. If we get these doctrines right, we have a proper foundation to grasp God’s salvation: if we do not, we will never be able to understand the way God saves sinners. Those who hear the Gospel and reject it do so either because they misunderstand what the Bible has to say about God, and/or what it teaches about man. On one or the other of these rocks their ship of faith is dashed and broken! Their hearts do not like the God Who really is—the God of the Bible—and their minds do not approve His way of salvation; therefore, their wills do not accept this proffer of salvation that He makes. Hence, like the rich young ruler who encountered Christ, when they learn His terms of salvation, they go away— perhaps sorrowfully, yet they do go away! (Luke 18:18-23)
The Bible is very clear that God is absolutely sovereign in all His dealings with His creatures, including man. Hear the personal testimony of one of the greatest kings who ever lived, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: “I 'ebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto Heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honoured Him that liveth for ever, Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His Kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?” (Daniel 4:34, 35) He uttered these sentiments after God had dealt with his pride and had humbled his heart. Before that, he was as proud and haughty as kings, and other people, tend to be, and attributed all his glory and accomplishments only to himself! (See Daniel 4:30) He sounds much like the successful farmer that Jesus tells us about in one of His Parables. (See Luke 12:16-21) He also thought that his success and riches were all due to himself. But God pronounced him a “fool” on the night of his death, and he who is a “fool” at death, is a “fool” forever! How we need to know Who and what God is, and to come to terms with that, for it is one thing that makes the difference between Heaven and Hell for our souls! And absolute sovereignty is one attribute that makes up the Person of God, and beyond all dispute, that is the God of the Bible!
That other great determinative Doctrine is the truth of who man really is. In our day particularly, our Anthropology (the Doctrine of Man) is all askew! We are apt to hold too high a view of man. As our idea of God is much amiss, (we think that if there is a God, He must exist for our use and pleasure.) so our conception of man is fatally flawed. Apart from God’s work in our hearts, we firmly believe in man’s inability and lack of true worth! We have been taught, and most willingly believe, that this world, this universe, this life were all made for us. Now don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Man, as he came from the Hand of God, was a most wondrous and marvelous creature, made in the image and likeness of God. As such, he was submissive to God’s will, and happy to be in that condition. God placed him in a Paradise and gave him a helpmeet, made from his side and perfectly suited to him. Together this first couple enjoyed a bliss that we now can only imagine, as they worshipped God and delighted to do His will. Had they continued in their first estate, again we can only imagine what a wondrous race they would have produced and what a world they would have made for themselves and for us all. But, “man in honour abideth not,” and how soon Adam and his bride sinned and brought death, natural and spiritual, upon all our race! (See Romans 5:12, et al) For Adam, when he sinned, acted not merely for himself, but for all his race, because he was the Federal Head and Representative of us all. In a mystical, yet very real way, I, you, and each member of our race were in Adam when he sinned, as the acorn is in the tree. But, someone might object, “I don’t remember being in Adam!” Neither do I. Yet I do remember too many times when Adam was in me, in his self-will, rebellion, and defiance of God and His Law! Therefore, it is certain that I was in Adam – and you too!
Since that fateful day in the Garden, a great change has passed upon our race. In the first place, man, who was created in the image of God, began to die: first spiritually, then physically. When one says that death is natural, just a part of living, he speaks according to our experience since the Fall of our race into sin. Yet apart from sin, it would never so have been! It is the most unnatural thing for a creature, made in the image and likeness of God, to die! The fact of death in our world proves our sinfulness and defection from God. It does not prove that death is natural! Man is dead spiritually, even while he lives in the flesh, in at least two ways. First of all, when a person contracts a fatal disease, all the tests have been run, medicine has done its best with attempted cures and yet the doctors shake their heads and say that there is no hope, it may be said that such a person is a dead man, even while he lives. This is the state of every sinner outside of Christ! Secondly, when a person has committed a capital crime, has been tried and convicted, and all of his appeals have been denied, it may be said of him, even before he is executed, that he is a dead man – dead in the law! So, too, is the lost sinner dead, in a spiritual sense. And make no mistake about it, sin has caused such a two-fold death! Also it is certain that such a death will become consummate and eternal without the intervention of God’s sovereign grace.
WHAT THE ROLE OF CHRIST JESUS WAS RELATIVE TO GOD’S SOVEREIGN GRACE
How grateful we should be that before there was a sinner, there was a Saviour! Life holds many surprises for us human beings, but not one for God! Sin did not take God off guard, for as it was with the death of Christ, so too with the advent of sin, it was all within the prevue of His “determinate counsel and foreknowledge!” (See Acts 2:22-36) There has never been a greater sinful act than that of Christ’s crucifixion and death, yet Peter tells us by Divine Inspiration that it was all a part of God’s Plan. So, too, was God’s permitting sin to enter into our race through Adam’s transgression. Now, let’s be perfectly clear about this: God is not the Author of sin! Since He is neither the Actor nor the Agent of sin, He cannot be its Author! He did not create sin, for it is not a thing that requires a Creator. Sin is a state of being within a rational, moral soul: it is not a substance, nor a thing.
So it was within Satan, the first sinner! There is much that we do not know about the origin of the Angelic Order. Yet we have enough revealed in Scripture that we can be quite sure of the following facts. Satan, or Lucifer, was once a bright and shining angel, even the Chief of them. Yet, when the evil state of being that we call sin entered his heart, this bright angel became the Devil, and he fell. Isaiah, chapter fourteen, gives us most interesting and instructive knowledge about what factors were involved in his fall. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning”! (Verse 12a) And then, as if to answer this question, we are told, “For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: …I will be like the Most High!” (Vrs. 12, 13) What a proud boast this is, even for a glorious creature like Lucifer! Read this passage entirely and see how many “I’s” and “my’s”, and “I wills” there are in this one narrative. Into the heart of every human sinner this same state of being invariably comes.
So it was within Adam, the first man and great progenitor of our race! Made sinless and holy by the Hand of God, the same strange infatuation came into his heart as came into Satan’s heart. He came to think that he did not have to obey God’s Law, that he could sin and get by with it. He began to give some credence to Satan’s lie that they would “be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) This false promise can be taken in this sense: “Ye shall be like gods, determining for yourselves what is good and evil!” This is basically the credo of every sinner to this day, and by its practice, the wrath of God, which fell on Adam, also falls on all our guilty race. Here is a truth that every person needs to retain in his mind and heart: there are only two men in the entire history of our race that can affect our salvation for time and eternity. They are Adam the First, and the Last Adam, Jesus Christ! (See 1 Corinthians 15:21-26, 45- 54) As we have already observed, we all are in the First Adam, and that by our natural birth. That relationship gets us death, both natural and spiritual. We all will forever stay in the First Adam and his (our) death, unless and until we are born again and thus translated into the Last Adam, Jesus Christ. We must come to be in Christ the way we are (were) in Adam. This “transfer,” this “relationship” is what the Bible intends by the word, “salvation.”
The reason the First Adam can have such an effect on us is that we are by natural generation one with him, thus we share his condemnation. (See Genesis 3:14-19, 24; Matthew 25:41-46, et al) Anything we can do in an attempt to change this relationship, such as reformation, religious observances, moral or intellectual improvements, or any other human effort will prove to be ineffectual, vain, and at last deceiving to our souls. The only hope that any sinful soul has to be at peace with God and acceptable to Him must come by way of Jesus Christ, the Last Adam!
The only way there is to come to Jesus Christ and be saved is by the Gospel of God’s sovereign grace! And God’s sovereign grace and mercy is all tied up in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the Last Adam! All of the salvation there is in this universe is all bound up in the Lord Jesus Christ! In order for any soul to be saved, that soul must come to God by Jesus Christ and do business with Him! He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me.” (John 14:6)
One of the most beautiful and full passages of Holy Scripture is Philippians two, verses 5-11. Here we have the Apostle Paul’s eloquent description of Christ’s great condescension as He came into the world to become our Saviour. No one was ever so high as He Who was in the very Form of God so that it was no robbery for Him to be equal with God. Yet He voluntarily made Himself of no reputation, that is, He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men. That which we value above all things, our reputation, He, as it were, repudiated, though He had the greatest reputation we could possibly think of, for He was equal with God, His Father. (See John 1:1- 4) Yet rather than clutch that to His bosom, He took “the lower room” and became a servant, even coming so low as to be made a man! But note, He comes even lower yet, for being found in man’s nature, He became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross! We humans live as long as we can and then only most reluctantly do we give in to death, and that only when we can do nothing else. But this One gave Himself up voluntarily to death, when death had no legitimate claim on Him as the Son of God and Son of Man, except as He took the burden of our sins. It is for the sake of sinners that Jesus died such a death as the death of the Cross.
Yes, this is how we may get into Christ and God’s forgiveness! It was the eternal will and plan of God to make Christ to be the Last Adam. As we are one with the First Adam in his transgression and death through our first birth, so we may become one with the Last Adam, Jesus Christ in His obedience and life, through the second birth. (See John 3:1-16) Thus Christ becomes the vital link to God and the way of salvation by sovereign grace alone.
The Apostle Peter expresses the plan of salvation through the sovereign grace of God to sinners in the following manner, as found in the first chapter of his First Epistle. There he writes, “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, Who by Him do believe in God, that raised Him up from the dead, and gave Him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.” (1 Peter 1:18-21) Notice again as the Scripture centers our salvation in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Here Peter uses the term redemption to describe Christ’s work of our salvation. Redemption means to buy back something or someone by a ransom price. In Peter’s day it was not uncommon for property or persons to be taken captive by pirates or other criminals and held for ransom. In order for such persons to be released and set free, a ransom had to paid, usually by their family. If the ransom was not paid, most ordinarily, the captives forfeited their lives. This fearful condition is a useful picture of the state of the lost sinner: through sin we are “captives” of our lusts and owe a “ransom” to the Law of God which we have seriously violated. To pay this ransom, we do not have the least ability, and therefore our lives, for time and eternity, are forfeit.
Our case would be hopeless if it were not for what Peter here presents: Christ Jesus has paid our ransom, not with silver and gold, but with His own precious blood, i.e., His own life! Take note that Peter informs us that Christ “verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” to do such salvation work for us. Note, too, that in the second verse of this same chapter, the apostle tells us that all believers are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Clearly we have here the sovereign grace of God! But someone might object that the word used in this verse is “foreknowledge,” not foreordination. That one might continue to insist that our election is according to God’s foreknowledge and that our salvation is therefore dependent on our foreseen faith, rather than God’s eternal choice of us! Compelling as this argument might seem to some, it must be pointed out to the careful student that both foreknowledge (Vs. 2) and foreordained (Vs. 20) come from the same word in the Greek language. The only difference is that the first is a noun and the second in a participle, which is a verb-noun form. Therefore the meaning in both verses must be essentially the same. Whatever it means in verse two, it also must mean essentially in verse twenty, and vice versa. Let’s try that on for size!
The meaning that many like to use of God’s foreknowledge may at first seem to fit verse two, that God looks forward down through time and foresees what you and I will do. It is usually insisted that He does not cause anything to come to pass, He merely foreknows or foresees what will come to pass by our own free will! There are at least two things wrong with that understanding: first, God’s foreknowledge never bears that meaning in all the rest of Scripture; and second, that meaning makes no sense at all when applied to the same word in verse twenty. In this verse it is clear that Peter is speaking of Christ giving Himself as the spotless Lamb of God for a sin sacrifice. He goes on to state that this Lamb was by God “foreordained before the foundation of the world.” We readily understand how foreordained fits the clear meaning in this verse, but how would foreknow do here? Let’s “run it up the flagpole and see how it waves!” Keep in mind that this is the Person and work of Christ that here is in view. God the Father would have to have looked down through the future and have seen that early in the First Century a virgin would conceive without the help of a man and bring forth a son!
Keep in mind that God is not causing such a thing, only seeing that it would happen. He then would have to say to Himself, “This is wonderful! I had better get in on this! I’ll make that one to become my Son! Furthermore God sees, He does not cause, that this one will grow up and live a sinless life. Then, too, God sees that this one will go to Calvary and die; what’s more, that he will, after dying, rise again from the dead! Remember, God is not causing this to happen, He only sees that it will happen all on its own! The case is even more compelling now: God just has to get in on this act! If, at this point, someone is compelled to say that such a scenario is ridiculous, remember, I am only interpreting this passage by using the meaning of foreknowledge that many insist is the proper way to understand God’s election and foreordination. I agree, such a meaning as is forced on this section of Holy Scripture is past ridiculous, it is just plain silly! Yet that is the way too many good people understand God’s foreknowledge in connection with His election. If such people were consistent, they would be forced to interpret this, and other like passages, in the above ludicrous manner.
Happily, such a twisting and gymnastic approach to Bible interpretation is not at all necessary: plain, honest Bible exegesis will do just fine! In verse 2, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God,” does not refer merely to God’s prescience, i.e., to His knowing things ahead of time. God certainly knows all things that shall come to pass, for Scripture proclaims, “Known unto God are all His works, from the foundation of the world.” Yet when God’s foreknowledge is spoken of in connection to our election and salvation, a much higher meaning of the word is ever intended. It means that the Eternal God has taken us as sinners and hugged us to His Great Heart in Eternal Love! It also ever intends His eternal intention, or purpose, to save us. Surely this is so in Romans 8:29: “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son.” Who cannot see there God’s eternal love and purpose? Who will there say that all this is founded on something God merely foresaw that we, the sinful descendents of the First Adam, would do of ourselves? Surely we are elect ones according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, that is, according to His eternal love and purpose to make us like Christ by His own sovereign and gracious work!
Now take this same essential meaning to verse twenty of First Peter one, and to the word, “foreordained.” There it fits perfectly. Peter is telling us that God the Father, in eternal love to His Son, purposed that He should become “a lamb without blemish and without spot” that He might be “manifest in these last times for you, Who by Him do believe in God.” It surely was in such purpose and love that Christ died for sinners and was “raised up from the dead,” and given “Glory.” (Vrs. 19-21) God’s purpose, that is, His foreordination, is plainly in view, just as the text says. However, we must remember that the word in this verse is essentially the same as it is in verse two of this chapter. When we allow the clear meaning in both verses to say what it says, then there is harmony of meaning in both verses, as well as in the rest of Scripture. If we force it to mean mere prescience, then all becomes nonsense and confusion.
WHAT SOVEREIGN GRACE HAS TO SAY TO CHRISTIAN DOCTINE, GENERALLY.
Those of us who hold to God’s sovereign grace in Creation, Nature, Providence, and especially the Gospel, hold the view of God Himself that is thoroughly Biblical and is consistent with the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments. This is what the saints of old believed, this is what Christ and His apostles taught, this is what the Christians throughout the centuries have held to, and this is certainly what the great Reformers insisted on. Furthermore, those who are familiar with the Historic Baptist Confessions of Faith, will recognize that this is what most Baptists have believed down through the centuries.
It is not everything to stand in the same faith as the confessors, martyrs, preachers and evangelists of the universal Christian Church have held to, but it can be most satisfying and challenging. Though I hope we would stand up for and promote the doctrine of Scripture whatever others might believe or stand for, yet it is encouraging to know that we are not the first and doubtless shall not be the last, while the world stands, to believe and joy in these grand truths of God’s sovereign mercy. We recognize the fact that not all Christians agree on every little point of doctrine. Still, until “we know as we are known,” until we stand in glory with Christ and all believers of all times, until we all are a part of that “Church of the Firstborn, the spirits of just men made perfect,” may we all, according to the light that God has given to each one, strive for “the faith once delivered unto the saints” in love, knowledge, understanding, and the unity of the Spirit of Christ.