Saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
When found within the context of the awesomeness of God’s sovereignty and the propitiatory justice of definite atonement, these words are a powerful reminder of the grace with which God saves.
But what happens when they are not found within the context of God’s sovereignty and definite atonement? What happens instead when they are found within the context of free will and the struggle to self propitiate?
I was raised Pentecostal. In addition to this, I spent the first twenty-two years of my adult life in the Charismatic movement. I must warn you, not all Charismatics are the same. Some are of the TBN kind, worshippers of fortune and gold, while others are of the C S Lewis/Emergent kind, worshippers of experience. I was from the Emergent kind. I attended a large Vineyard church.
What I learned from while attending a Vineyard church was that God desires to save everyone. Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God in the flesh, died for everyone. Because He is both God and a man, His blood was therefore worth the blood of every human being, because God is at least worth all of His creation.
Had you asked me at this time whether I believed I was saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I would have answered yes with a hearty amen. Absolutely I believed I had been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Not by us, not by us, not by us, oh Lord, but by Your mercy and grace alone. I sang it virtually every Sunday.
The problem with this is that I could not live with it. I found myself doubting again and again whether I was really saved. Christ had shed His blood for me and for every human being on earth, hadn’t He? Why then don’t I feel secure in the knowledge of that?
At the time I could not articulate the real problem, which would much later emerge as a question. If Christ’s blood was worth the blood of every human being, then why didn’t His death save every human being? Rather than asking that question though, I instead kept struggling to assure myself that His blood was enough to have saved me.
I tried to sin less, and I devoted more of my time to outreach and evangelism. I prayed more. Studied my Bible more. But nothing worked. I could not quiet the doubt that plagued me. God loves me, He loves everyone He even loves people in Hell. Then why are they in Hell? What is the difference between me and them?
My pastors rebuffed me when I asked them to preach more doctrine and less practical stuff. They told me the will of God is that I do His deeds (which meant doing even more outreach and evangelism). It had never occurred to me that Christ had not died for everyone. In the entire twenty-two years I spent with the Vineyard, I had never heard the idea even mentioned. I had no clue of definite atonement. Instead, I took it for granted as an absolute fact that Christ had died for everyone. And the doubt continued to manifest itself in an ever increasing feeling of despair and exhaustion. All my efforts to assure myself that I was saved finally culminated in the decision to stop attending church altogether, and to just give up on the whole of Christianity. It was a neat story, it was a good story, but the problem with it was that it just didn’t work.
I will spare you the story of how I came to hear the gospel for the first time. The point is that God did bring me to hear it. And the first time I heard it, I was angry. How on earth could God not love everyone He had created. How could He create some people with the intent to send them to Hell? What kind of God is this?
But the more I pondered it, and the more I studied Scripture in view of it, the more I came to realize the sheer sense and beauty of it. It had right there the whole time in the pages of my Bible, in all those passages that I had skipped over because they hadn’t made sense. They made sense now.
I was corresponding by email with a friend I had met at a sovereign grace church that I had recently begun attending. My friend continued to patiently work with me, explaining the gospel to me again and again. At the same time, I was also reading Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics. One day, while studying the epistle to the Hebrews, things just suddenly clicked, and I found myself finally able to articulate the problem I had been struggling with this entire time.
I had been struggling with assurance, because the gospel I had believed up until that point was unable to give it. There is no assurance to be found in a Christ who died for everyone. If Christ died for everyone, but not everyone is saved, then His death cannot possibly be the sole cause of salvation. There had to be something in addition to His blood that I did or am doing that made the blood of Christ effect salvation. Saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was only true if I managed to keep doing what was required to make the Christ alone count.
The gospel though, the real gospel, the one and only true gospel, cannot be understood as grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone without the truth of God’s sovereignty and the propitiatory justice of definite atonement. It is only within the context of definite atonement and God’s sovereignty that grace is truly grace.
God is a just and righteous God. In His holiness, He demands the death of the sinner. This is His holy demand for justice. His justice must be satisfied. We have all sinned, therefore, He must demand the death of all of us. God cannot overlook this. He cannot pretend as though this isn’t true.
In addition to this, from eternity, God chose to glorify His mercy and grace by choosing from eternity a select group of people whom in time He would save by the shed blood of His Son. From eternity, God also chose to glorify His holiness and wrath by choosing from eternity a select group of people whom He would not save, but condemn instead to eternal destruction. The Bible calls these two groups of people vessels prepared for honor and vessels prepared for dishonor (Romans 9). It also calls them elect and reprobate, as well as sheep and goats.
This selection to election was not based upon anything we do or would do. Rather, it was exclusively God’s own choice. From before the foundation of the earth, He chose to save some, and He chose to damn others. His choice was dependant upon His own sovereign will alone.
In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a virgin, to die the death that God demanded of His elect for their sins. God imputed (charged) to Christ all the sins of His elect (2 Corinthians 5:21). When Christ died for His elect, He died the death that God demanded of His elect.
And that is the point. Christ died only for His elect. He did not die for everyone. He satisfied God’s demand for justice on behalf of His elect by dying the death that God demanded of them. It is upon this basis alone that God must now justify them. His holy demand for justice demands of Him that He justify them. If He does not, then He is not righteous.
Saved by God who glorified His grace and mercy by giving His Son to die for His elect alone, has guaranteed the salvation of His elect alone by satisfying His demand for justice on their behalf alone.
Had you asked me all those years ago whether I believed this, you would have had me stumbling all over myself.
So what’s the problem then? The problem today is that there are a whole lot of Calvinists today who do not believe grace in view of belief in definite atonement is necessary. They think that as long as you understand you were saved by grace alone, then you can be assured that you are saved, even if you deny definite atonement.
Worse still, they accuse you of hyper Calvinism if you attempt to correct them. They also accuse you of making perfect knowledge the basis of salvation.
But David, why then don’t we find the apostles preaching knowledge of definite atonement as part of the gospel in the book of Acts? Because Paul didn’t have Andrew Fuller in his ear telling him about his warped governmental theory of atonement. Because Peter didn’t have Jacob Arminius in his ear telling him that faith is what makes a person elect. Mostly though, because the people in Acts already understood the truth about election, and therefore knew that Christ did not die for everyone. Why don’t we find the apostles explaining election in the book of Acts? BECAUSE THE PEOPLE ALREADY UNDERSTOOD IT!
People today no longer understand it. Most have never even heard of it. Until they believe it, there is no bridge between them and me, but only an immeasurable gulf that can never be bridged. Unless God transports them to this side of the cross, they will remain on their side, marching steadily along on the road to their destruction.