We tend to read Romans as a theological explanation of our salvation, a clarification about how we are justified or made righteous. This is a part—a large part—of what Romans teaches. If you check in your English Standard Version translation of Romans, for instance, you will find that Romans mentions ‘justification’ three times, ‘justify’ one time, and ‘just’ and ‘justifier’ in one verse (3.26). Yet there is considerably more to this. The same Greek word for ‘justification’ (and its other forms) more often gets translated as ‘righteous/righteousness,’ which appears forty times in Romans (ESV). Thus, Romans does, indeed, speak to the issue of how the unrighteous are made righteous. Yet this focus on our condition obscures other aspects of the theology of Romans. (One of these, not discussed here, is about God’s plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles—a corporate reading of the theological argument in Romans.) If Romans is about our salvation, it is also about God’s grace. This—God’s grace—is in focus here.
The term ‘grace’ appears twenty-one times in Romans in the English Standard Version. Of these, Paul greets the Roman Christians with ‘grace’ (1.7) and bids them farewell with ‘grace’ (16.20): the Christian life is a testimony of God’s grace through and through.
When I teach Romans, I like to talk about God’s ‘forgiving grace’ and His ‘transforming grace.’ Many Evangelicals have a firm grasp of God’s forgiving grace. While ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ we have also been ‘justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 3.23-24). We stand in God’s grace (Rom. 5.2), not in our own righteousness. The remnant is chosen by grace, not works (Rom. 11.5-6). This is ‘forgiving grace,’ if we can use that language. It functions as an ‘alien righteousness’—something we have received despite what we deserve. It is Christ’s righteousness applied to us. It is a static notion, a certification, a judgement that we are to be considered righteous because of Christ’s righteousness and not our own. Such a focus on sin, repentance, and God’s gracious forgiveness is largely the message brought by John the Baptist in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, of God’s reign.
Yet there is also a more dynamic aspect to God’s grace. This is what John the Baptist anticipated in the ministry of Jesus: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Mt. 3.11). This is transforming grace, God’s dynamic, empowering Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
In Romans, Paul says several things about God’s grace. Grace is the basis for Christian ministry. Paul mentions the grace given him in his ministry two times (Rom. 12.3; 15.15). Believers have gifts according to the grace that God has given them (Rom. 12.6). More than this, though, the Christian life is about a transformation that takes place by God’s ‘mercy’—a synonym for ‘grace.’ ‘Mercy appears twelve times in Romans, and a key passage is Romans 12.1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Here we see that God’s grace transforms us. God’s mercies are not just the objective basis for us to live transformed lives. Too often, we think that our changed lives as Christians is simply a matter of our gratitude for God’s grace. But this separates any change in the way we live too much from God’s grace. The mercies Paul speaks of in Rom. 12.1 refer back, first, to the end of the previous chapter, which brings Romans 9-11 to a climactic conclusion about God’s mercy: our disobedience shows forth God’s mercy (11.30-36). The word ‘mercy’ does not appear before ch. 9 in Romans. It occurs nine times in Romans 9 and 11, and only three more times after this in chs. 12 and 15. So, when Paul introduces a whole section having to do with the way Christians live with ‘in view of God’s mercies,’ in Rom. 12.1, he is building on what he has said in Romans 9-11. In fact, many read Rom. 9-11 as though the section’s main point is about God’s election (and this, too, is misread as a theology of the election of individuals rather than of people to advance God’s salvation plan for all humanity. Indeed, Rom. 9-11 is really about God’s plan of mercy to Jews and Gentiles—all people.
Yet there is more to Paul’s theology of God’s mercy, and it can be introduced by realizing that what Paul says in Romans 12.2 reaches all the way back to what he says in Romans 1.28. In Romans 12.2, quoted above, the resolution is given to the conundrum that Paul posed at the beginning of Romans, in Romans 1.28: ‘And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.’ The debased mind has become the transformed mind because of everything that is said in the intervening chapters, and what is said is all about the mercies of God to make the disobedient obedient (cf. Rom. 1.5; 15.18).
Thus, Paul speaks of God’s ‘gift’ (Rom. 3.24), His ‘free gift’ (Rom. 5.15-17; 6.23). The ‘abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5.17). God’s grace is not merely a status of justification, a surprise verdict despite our sins and because of Christ’s righteousness. It is also a dynamic power at work in us, a reigning of righteousness through Jesus Christ. Thus, when we later come to Paul’s point in Romans 8, we are introduced to the dynamic working of the Holy Spirit. He is the indwelling power of God who makes us obedient, not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Thus, the trajectory of Paul’s argument in Romans does not come to an end with divine forgiveness but with God’s transforming work in our lives, filled with the Spirit, bringing about the obedience of faith. God’s grace is not only forgiving but also transforming, not only a status but also a dynamic empowerment. God’s plan of salvation is not a community of forgiven sinners without also being a plan for the transformation of sinners. Grace is not a theological doctrine without also being a relationship: the Spirit-empowering relationship in which we stand in Jesus Christ before God the Father.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of false teachings about God’s grace. Having considered what we read in Romans about God’s forgiving and transforming grace, we might now consider some of the errors people fall into in their understanding of God’s grace.
The Hyper-Grace View of God’s Grace:
On one extreme, there has been a so-called ‘hyper-grace’ view, which downplays sin because God’s grace constantly forgives. Grace is understood to be a kind of free pass: it does not matter what we do because we are always going to be forgiven. This view goes even further in Paul’s comments in Romans 6 when he asked, rhetorically, ‘Shall we sin that grace might abound?’ The wrong understanding of grace that he is opposing goes so far as to suggest that, because our sin shows God’s grace all the more, we help Him to reveal Himself as the God of grace when we sin. The answer Paul gives to his question, of course, is ‘NO!’
In some Protestant churches, hyper-grace is a wrongful interpretation of the truth in Ephesians: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2.8-9). Hyper-grace correctly sees that salvation is by grace, but it fails to understand that grace is more than forgiving grace: it is also transforming grace. God’s work is not simply a justification of the sinner; it is also a making righteous of the sinner. Paul goes on to say in the next verse, ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (Eph. 2.10). God doesn’t stop with forgiveness: He goes on to create us as His work in Christ Jesus. This transforming grace produces a life of good works in us.
The Insincere Cad View of God’s Grace:
Imagine the naughty schoolboy who knows he can always get off the hook if he only offers an apology. Whether he runs off to a priest in a confessional, utters a 15-second confession with the rest of the church in a Sunday service, or simply says ‘Sorry’ at night in his prayers before going to bed, the cad’s repentance may well be insincere, designed only to get out of trouble. There is no sorrow, no contrition, no restoration, and no transformation. Sin and its consequences before a holy God is not taken all that seriously. It is more a matter of making occasional mistakes—we are, after all, mere creatures. Humans are not perfect, so the argument goes.
Yet the truth is that Christians are called to higher standards, albeit standards that apply to letting God work in their lives rather than standards that they try to climb up to by their own efforts in order to obtain God’s mercy. Paul says that, while sin once reigned in death, now God’s grace reigns in righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5.20-21). He later calls believers not to let sin reign in their mortal bodies so that they obey, like slaves, their own passions (Romans 6.12). They should not present their members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness but present their members to God as instruments for righteousness (Romans 6.13).
The Hyper-Transformation View of God’s Grace:
Note that Paul’s words in Romans 6 indicate that it is possible for Christians to sin: God does not override the will but restores it. God’s grace is transformative, but not in the sense that we cannot now sin. Rather, God calls us to present our members as instruments of righteousness. We have gone from living a life such that we are ‘not able not to sin’ (non posse non peccare)—i.e., we inevitably sin because we are slaves to sin—to living a life whereby it is now ‘possible not to sin’ (posse non peccare). We have not, however, been overridden by God to the point that it is now ‘not possible to sin’ (non posse peccare). This last is the hyper-transformation view. (The Latin is used to show that the Church has long taught this, and it is the correct interpretation of Romans 6). As Paul says,
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6.1).
In fact, most of the New Testament epistles are calling members of the church to give up sins and to live lives of righteousness: Christians are not perfected saints, only persons who know God’s transformative grace. What they need to do is let God work in their lives. They need the ongoing work of God’s grace, day by day, moment by moment. They need, as Paul says, to walk according to the Spirit, to be led by Him (Rom. 8.4, 14), to put to death the deeds of the body by the empowering work of the Spirit (Rom. 8.13), and to set their minds on the things of the Spirit (Rom. 8.5). This is ‘life in the Spirit’: not a hyper-transformation of being taken over by God but an empowering relationship with the Spirit of God. As Paul says, ‘… as you have always obeyed, so now, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2.12-13).
The error of ‘hyper-transformation’ arises, historically, because of an under-developed, Reformation theology that so emphasizes justification by God’s grace through faith that sanctification is thought of as an option. Too often, Protestants have considered sanctification as not all that important because it is separated from justification, which saves us. It is seen as a fruit of justification: we are saved by grace, so our moral lives are lived out in gratitude to God, not as a part of our salvation.
This is not a correct understanding of some of the key 16th-century reformers, however. John Calvin correctly understood sanctification as a result of regeneration: God’s grace is both forgiving and transforming through new birth. Paul and John both speak of the Christian life in terms of this regeneration/re-Creation—John 3.3-7; 2 Cor. 5.17). This emphasis came along in Reformation theology in reaction to the prevailing view in Roman Catholicism in the 16th century that works were necessary for salvation—a view that went against the teaching of St. Augustine (5th century) on grace, let alone the Scriptures, and had become entrenched in Catholic teaching by this time. The Protestant solution to this error, though, sometimes results in confusion and error as well. If justification and sanctification are separated too severely, one returns to the question, ‘Why should we live any differently if God has already justified us by His grace?’ Rather, we should see that ‘justification’ (even if understood in this limited way as a declaration that we are righteous even though sinners) and ‘sanctification’ are united as the seamless outworking of God’s grace in us. The Catholic error was to separate God’s grace from human works without seeing that human works, for Christians, were also God’s work in us (as Phl. 2.13 says, quoted above). The Protestant error is to separate the forgiving grace of justification too much from the transforming grace of God continuously at work within us as we submit our lives to the Spirit.
The Reasonable Judge View of God’s Grace:
Another common error is held by those who think of God more as a reasonable rather than holy Judge. On this view, surely God will not hold mere mortals to account if He is at all reasonable! Surely we are not all that bad. In fact, we are basically good. Yet, on this view, the cross is not really that important: why did Jesus need to die on a cross for my sins? Why would a reasonable God not allow for a few sins here and there from His creatures?
Not only does this view fail to explain why Jesus had to die for our sins; it also misjudges the human condition. It does not see the fundamental problem to be that we are sinners who need not a reasonable judge but a merciful God. John captures the mistake of not seeing our sin seriously enough when he says,
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1.8-10).
This view is also in error because it does not have a correct view of God’s holiness. We are not essentially good people awaiting a reasonable Judge to pass judgement on us but sinners standing before a holy God. We are to be holy because God is holy (Lev. 19.2; 1 Peter 1.15-16).
Conclusion: A Biblical Understanding of God’s Grace
Over against these errors, I would suggest the following understanding of sin, God, redemption on the cross, forgiveness, transformation, and life in the Spirit.
· Human Sinfulness: The human condition is one of sin and depravity (Genesis 6.5; Rom. 1.28). People are not ‘good enough.’ We all need a Savior. There is no one righteous to bring salvation to sinful humanity. We need God Himself to provide redemption through Christ Jesus. Isaiah made this point: God saw that there was no one righteous, so He Himself put on righteousness and provided a Redeemer to those who turn from their transgressions (Isaiah 59.15-21). Paul, having quoted Isaiah 59.7-8 in Romans 3.15-17, seems to be interpreting this text further in Romans 3.21ff: ‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested….’ Indeed, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23).
· The Holiness of God: God is not a jolly Santa Clause who adds up your ‘nice’ acts versus your ‘naughty’ acts and lets you off if the former is longer than the latter. He is not a reasonable Judge who lets you off because you are not all that bad. He is holy, and before Him the most righteous among us can only say, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.’ Any view of God that dismisses God’s holiness fails.
· The Cost of Redemption: The sin of humanity is not dismissible. Redemption is costly. The cross is not reducible to a story of how much God loves us (‘I love you enough to die for you!’). The cross is a sacrifice for sin; peace with God comes through the blood of Christ (Colossians 1.20).
· Forgiving Grace: The Psalmist says to God, ‘with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared’ (Psalm 130.4). We think of forgiveness as reducing fear, but the Psalmist realizes that, if God is the One before whom alone we can find forgiveness for our sins, He is the one to fear. In the previous verse, he says, ‘If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?’ (v. 3). Thus, John the Baptist inaugurated a ‘Kingdom of God’ movement of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3.3), Jesus brought divine forgiveness through His death on the cross, and the disciples were then instructed by the risen Christ to proclaim a message to the nations of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name (Luke 24.47). The ‘Gospel’ is ‘good news’ because it is the news that Jesus’ death on the cross was the sacrifice to save repentant sinners from our holy God’s just condemnation. In taking our place, Jesus provided God’s forgiveness of sins.
· Transforming Grace: God’s grace is more than forgiveness of sins. It is also transformative. If Paul says in Romans 1.28 that God gave sinners up to a ‘debased mind to do what ought not to be done,’ by Romans 12.2 he can say that we should be ‘transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ Once we were living in the flesh, and ‘our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death’ (Romans 7.5). Paul goes on to expound how the Law could not help sinners as it only pointed out what was wrong; indeed, the Law only exposed to sinners what else they might do to sin (Rom. 7.7-25). This is not, however, the condition of the righteous, in whom God has worked His transforming grace. Paul says, ‘But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit’ (Romans 7.6). He expounds on this point from Romans 8.1, saying that
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8.1-4).
· Life in the Spirit: Finally, this forgiving and transforming grace of God is expressed not only in terms of the cross but also in terms of the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. This is not like graduating from a college and getting a degree, as though we have completed a stage and are now graduates. Rather, it is a relationship—an ongoing relationship. Thus, it is possible for Christians to sin, but it is possible not to sin if we dwell in the power of God. Paul tells the Christians in Rome not to live according to the flesh as, if they do, they will die (Romans 8.13a). The wages of sin are death (Romans 6.23). Instead, life in the Spirit entails putting to death the deeds of the body, which will mean life (Romans 8.13b). Paul is saying that, in light of the work of Christ, the prophecy of Ezekiel of God’s empowering Spirit is now fulfilled:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezekiel 36.26-27).
The Spirit does not override or replace the human spirit. Rather, God’s Spirit is an empowering presence bringing God’s cleansing and transformation as we open ourselves to His work within us.