In 1 Timothy 1:11, the apostle Paul says that the Lord entrusted him with the task of preaching the Gospel of Christ. Referring to this great trust launches him into a doxology—a song of praise to Christ—for calling him, of all people, to salvation, and giving him the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming such glorious news.
Paul says in verses 12–13,
“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.”
The word “injurious” means that Paul was arrogant and violent in his attacks against those who followed Christ.
“But,” Paul continues, “I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.”
In other words, because Paul was so hostile against the followers of Christ, because he was so hardened in his heart and ardently committed to the destruction of Christianity, the mercy of God was his only hope.
Paul is reflecting, of course, on that day years earlier when he still went by the name of Saul and the Lord dramatically intervened in his life. He was journeying to Damascus on a mission to persecute the believers there, to bring them bound to Jerusalem to be thrown into prison and some of them even to be executed (Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 22:4–5).
As Paul himself tells the story, in Acts 22,
“I was nearing Damascus, when about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
“So, I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“And the voice said, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’
“I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’
“And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus.’ And they led me by the hand to Damascus. And once in Damascus, a devout man named Ananias healed me of my blindness and told me, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. So get up! Call upon the name of the Lord for salvation and be baptized.’”
And Paul did.
Do you know how the apostle Paul summarizes God’s act of salvation in his life? The answer is in verse 14:
“And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul could ask, “Do you want an explanation for how a hardened, violent, aggressive persecutor of Christians was transformed into a fervent, passionate, preacher of the Gospel?” His answer, “It was grace.” God’s grace.
“Grace” is a beautiful word that has profound and eternal significance. But what are the properties of this concept of grace?
The Properties of Grace
1. The grace of God is free.
You cannot earn it. You cannot deserve it.
Romans 3:24 says that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The ESV has it, “Being justified by his grace as a gift.”
When God shows favor to us, it is never because of what we have done to deserve that grace. It is always in spite of what we have done, whether we think we have been either good or bad.
Think of the apostle Paul. What had he done to deserve God’s grace? He was a blasphemous, arrogant, violent, hater of the Lord and his people. He was on his way to catch Christians unawares. To bring them bound to Jerusalem. To take parents away from their children. To torture. To imprison. To slay. He was hated and feared by believers everywhere.
But what does Paul say about God’s calling in verse 12?
“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry.”
That is an astounding statement. Paul is not saying merely that God saved him. He says that God counted or considered Paul faithful. Faithfulness is a mark, not merely of salvation but of spiritual maturity.
And the text doesn’t say that God watched to see if Paul would faithfully serve him for a number of years and then finally decided, “Okay, I can now consider you to be faithful.” Using an aorist verb (which indicates completed action or action as a whole), God counted Paul faithful then and there on the road to Damascus. On what basis? The only basis upon which God calls and saves any of us: on the basis of his favor toward those whom He saves.
Paul had no heart for Christ. He was a hardened sinner whom no one thought could be saved. And yet God said, “I’ll show you how my grace works. I’m going to save Paul and make him a preacher of the Gospel.”
And he did. That’s why Paul calls it “grace.”
2. The grace of God causes us to respond in humility and praise.
Notice what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:15 and 17:
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
There is Paul’s humility. The fact that he received God’s grace did not make him proud; quite the opposite. It made him humble.
God’s grace also made Paul grateful. That is why he climaxes his doxology with the words,
“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Those who realize that they have been saved by grace alone, because of God’s favor alone, though they did not deserve it, are forever thankful to God. No one boasts that he did something to receive grace. Otherwise, it is no longer grace. The praise for grace culminates in the giver of grace, never the receiver.
Now, if it is true that grace is the free gift of God that causes our salvation, and that there is nothing we can do to earn grace, so that we who are the recipients of grace have a deep and abiding humility and joy for God, then this final property of biblical grace follows:
3. The grace of God is all we need.
Do you realize that when the Reformers broke away from the Roman Catholic Church it was not because the Catholic Church rejected the idea that we need God’s grace for salvation? In fact, if we say that the Roman Catholic Church does not believe in salvation by grace we are misinformed about Catholic theology.
Consider this statement from the Catholic Catechism, #1996:
“Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”
You say, “Well, then, why the Reformation? What’s the difference between what they say about grace and what we say about grace?”
The answer is not in the word gratia. The answer is in the word sola. The difference between Protestant theology and Catholic theology is grace alone. And any Catholic or Protestant theologian will make this distinction. The Catholic doctrine of salvation is based on God’s grace, but there is more to the story.
In Catholic theology, God gives His grace—which begins at baptism—in order that people might believe and participate in that grace through good works and the sacraments (such as mass). Through these works, they eventually become justified, or right with God. Therefore, if I do enough good works (enabled by God’s grace), I can hope to be in heaven someday. But if I do not do enough good works, I will spend centuries in purgatory having the sins I did not work off burned away until I am made pure.
When we compare this caricature of “grace” to the true “grace” spoken of in the Scriptures, the grace of God as described in Catholic theology appears to be stingy grace, a puny grace, a grace that needs our cooperation to save us.
By contrast, grace alone means that we do not cooperate with God as a means of our salvation. For there is nothing that we can do. God has done it all, by His grace.
So, the Reformers, whose work we celebrate this month, read of God’s grace in the Scriptures and came under the conviction that the church had got it all wrong. For they watched the endless droves of people flooding to mass, to hear a service in Latin, to kneel before the priests who would turn their backs against the people and chant magic words over the bread—hoc est enim corpus meum—so that the worshiper could receive the bread as the actual body of Christ. And all because they believed that they were receiving more grace so that they could perform more good works. And the people were bound by this ceremony, and other means by which they sought to earn more grace.
Sola Gratia is the message of the Reformation, because in the Reformation God used those who broke with the Roman Catholic Church to teach his people that they can come to God for salvation by His grace alone.
The Application of Grace
Why is this understanding of grace so important?
Because this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And if you put your faith in a Gospel but you get the Gospel wrong, then you are not saved.
We can read about God’s grace in the Scripture, and we can know that salvation is God’s work and even come to Him for salvation by faith alone through His grace alone. And yet, we can still have it in our minds that if we do more good things than some other believer God will somehow love us more, or at least like us better, that He’s prouder of us than He is of some of those other believers.
If you think that way, you still do not understand God’s grace. God’s grace, when we understand it, rebukes our arrogance, our sinful thinking that somehow we can add to the grace of God; that God will love us any more or any less, we whom He has purchased through the death of His Son and called us by His grace alone.
But, God’s grace not only rebukes our arrogance. It also encourages us when we stumble in our spiritual journey. We may not struggle with spiritual pride, but we may be discouraged about our walk with God. Maybe we are trying to impress God and we feel like there is nothing we can do make ourselves more spiritual. Well, if you are thinking that way you’re absolutely right. There is nothing you can do. Your walk with God is a product of His grace. So, if you’re discouraged, then call upon the Lord and seek Him and pray for His grace to strengthen you and renew you.
God’s grace is profound! And it’s wonderful. It’s beautiful. God does it all! Grace alone saves lost sinners! It’s the message of the Reformation.
And if you have never truly called upon Christ for salvation, God’s grace alone can save you through faith in Christ. And God’s grace alone can grow you as a believer.
So, cling to Christ in faith and obedience and know the beauty of trusting in the grace of God alone in your life.