For some time there has been an error which has been nurtured in evangelical circles that sounds thoroughly evangelical yet actually undermines the whole message of the evangelical, that is to say biblical, faith. Because our greatest need as sinful human beings is for God to show His grace to us, it has become common to hear of the grace of God proclaimed as though that were His essential attribute, if we can put it like that. God is grace, and so is obliged by His very nature to be gracious.
Yet there is something quite drastically wrong with this presentation of the gospel. Somehow, evangelicals have come to be reading the wrong road map – or reading the right road map wrongly. There is a Richmond in New South Wales and there is a Richmond in Victoria. If one is hoping to arrive at one of them, one needs to make sure that one is in the right state. A destination with the same name is not the same destination.
What, then, is God’s essential attribute? The question itself sounds heretical, so one hesitates. All of God’s attributes fit together seamlessly, so none of them can be regarded as anything like “additions”. Nevertheless, God must be eternal or else there would be something behind God, or an infinite regress of gods (Ps. 90:2; 102:27; Isa. 44:6). He is also holy, and He must be holy (Lev. 19:2; Isa. 6:5); it is impossible for Him to sin (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). One must add that He is self-sufficient; He is not like us in that He does not need anything (Acts 17:25). When Israelites offered Him sacrifices, He reminded them, and us, that He already owned everything in all creation (Ps. 50).
We have now arrived at a difficulty in that God is love (1 John 4:8) and He is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). He had no deep-seated need to create the world (but He did), nor us (but He did), nor to redeem anybody from sin and death (but He did). What impelled Him to do this? Clearly, it was His loving kindness, overflowing mercy, and undeserved love. So it is by grace that we are saved (Eph. 2:8). God is described as being “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4). Would not any Christian want to ponder that truth, and any preacher to expound it?
Yet if we are not careful we may understand it in a way that actually debases it. We owe God a debt which we cannot pay and yet if we profess to have received His grace without knowing what it means we have nothing (Matt. 18:21-35). This takes us to the heart of the matter. Many understand the book of Romans to be teaching justification by God’s free grace which we receive by faith. True enough, but look at what Paul says about Christ’s shed blood in propitiation for the sins of His people. Calvary shows the righteousness of God, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25-26).
Grace is an attribute that bounces off justice; if there is no justice, there is not grace, but lawlessness. God cannot be lawless. God must be just to all, and His love means there is a love for all. Yet His holiness means He cannot show grace to all in the same way that He shows justice to all. It is not easy to explain – but He must be loving, but He is not under the same compulsion to be gracious in a saving way.
One of the most common heresies of today is that if there is a heaven, everybody goes there. It is a place where cricketers continue to play cricket, drinkers continue to press the boundaries, and everybody has a rollicking good time. God is not offended by anything much that we do here on earth. Aussie values should be enough to get you a ticket. It has been coming for a good while. Just before he was hanged by the Nazis in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented: “One is distressed by the failure of reasonable people to perceive either the depths of evil or the depths of the holy.”
Until we do better than these “reasonable” people, evangelicals will continue to embrace a grace which has the biblical name but not the biblical content.