Why God's Grace is Sovereign and Free
(With Added Highlights from The Justification of God, by John Piper)
The Sinner’s Condition
Jonathan Edwards frequently emphasized the sinner’s exposure to infinite divine wrath, thus dramatically underscoring the need of grace. Romans 5:6-10 describes the unbeliever as under wrath, helpless, ungodly, and an enemy of God. Ephesians 2:12 depicts the sinner as outside the covenant, without God, and without hope.
It is not only the natural man’s will that opposes God, but also his darkened understanding. The unregenerate individual falsely imagines that he may perform in some way for salvation (note the rich young ruler – Mark 10:17-22). He wants to earn salvation, or exchange something for it. He believes that he may do something to ingratiate himself to God. But no man has the power to obligate God. No man can change his own nature (Jer 13:23; Eph 2:1-4).
All moralistic, religious zeal turns out to be a refusal to submit to the righteousness of God (Rom 10:1-4). True repentance does not begin until there is an apprehension of the seriousness of sin and an apprehension of the mercy available in Christ Jesus. It is solely by the conviction of God’s Spirit that a man is enabled to look completely away from self as source of salvation.
(ILLUSTRATION: Because of the weight of water, two and one half feet of rapidly moving water can carry away a truck. Sinners are “floating” downstream in a “river” of personal lusts. Because they have never put their feet on the bottom amidst the current, and lived a life of mortifying sin, they falsely imagine that it is within their power to be morally acceptable to God if they gave it their best shot. God often allows the awakened sinner to experience the impotence of his own fleshly efforts against sin. In preparation for salvation, God’s Spirit brings conviction of sin to these failed attempts at personal reformation.)
It is only by the Spirit’s convicting work that the awakened sinner longs for deliverance from the reign of sin. Through Spirit conviction, the sinner is shown the pollution of his whole nature and the chains that bind him to his sin. God’s sovereign free grace brings to him the reign of life in Christ (Rom 5:15-21).
Prior to salvation, the sinner’s pride animates his refusal to have any sentiment for God’s glory. But, in his unbelief, the sinner opposes himself. Since the whole universe exists to manifest God’s glory, it is only rational for the creature to seek God’s glory by running to Christ for forgiveness. (The very first act that glorifies God is faith in Christ.)
God’s glory is manifested in mercy and in hardening. God has annexed His glory to the fulfillment of His Word in its promises and threats. This is a powerful argument to seek God with all one’s might. Since God magnifies His name by the unbreakable fulfillment of His Word, no sandier foundation exists than the spurious hope that God’s Word will fail, and that His threats are idle.
Unbelief generates sin. Unbelief is a commitment to live independently of God, even though God is the source of all life, truth, blessing and, light to the creature. The sin of unbelief takes the creature’s worship elsewhere – he worships and serves the creature and the creation (Rom 1:25). The natural man’s life direction is idolatrous – he opposes God’s Person. The sinner refuses to prize Him and live with reverential regard for His holy character. Self will, presumption, pride, rebellion, and lawlessness in the sight of heaven are the result.
To be wrongly “adjusted” to God’s Person, purposes, claims, and precepts, is to be careening toward damnation. Each descendant of Adam must be either destroyed, or reconciled to God through Jesus Christ; there is nothing in between.
Sinful man’s only hope is the exercise of sovereign grace toward the defiled creature. In order for a sinner to escape eternal judgment, he must be rightly adjusted to God through Christ. God’s gracious work of justification by faith through grace provides that “adjustment” to God. In justification, God puts the sinner right with Himself (Rom 1:16-17).
The Sinner’s Need for Conviction
One cannot overly stress the need for the Spirit’s conviction (Jn 16:8-11). The wise pastor will counsel sinners to labor to obtain deep conviction of sin. “Don’t shun it – the knowledge of the wrath your sin deserves inspires reverential fear of God. It brings your focus squarely upon God’s character.” The Gospel is utterly great news only to those who have been slain by the law of God. Only those who have received a mortal wound to their consciences will cherish divine compassion. God’s mercy provides a God-approved righteousness that no sinner has any hope of achieving in himself.
Shocking as it may seem, we must admit that the sinner’s nature resists mercy! He resists because the kind of mercy needed is not in the form of repair, nor renovation, nor resuscitation, but RESURRECTION from spiritual death. To truly be prepared for divine mercy, the sinner must be shown the utter bankruptcy of his whole nature before God. He must be shown that self can provide nothing. His eyes must be opened so as to face his ill desert – only then will he despair of attempting to work his way out of condemnation and wretchedness.
Salvation is not a cooperative, synergistic effort between God and man. No amount of self-reformation can change the human heart. You cannot have a part in your deliverance from sin and wrath. God in Christ is your only hope. But sinners resist at this point. They loathe the idea of being utterly beholden to Christ forever. If they could but pay five cents of a trillion dollar debt, at least they would have the satisfaction of contributing something. But Christ must have all the glory because salvation is all of grace.
The saved person understands in the depths of his being, that allegiance, obligation, devotion, and loyalty to Christ’s lordship are absolute. The moralist, the pagan, the religionist, the legalist, and the antinomian all come short of true salvation. They have never been brought to complete bankruptcy. They have never taken God’s side against their own sin natures. Therefore they have never fallen at the feet of Christ with His mercy as their only possible hope.
General conviction of sin brought on by an accusing conscience is not the same as the Spirit’s conviction that prepares one for salvation. In Spirit-produced conviction, the sinner is crushed over his sin against God and will therefore not seek an exit short of true Gospel salvation. (Peter’s hearers were cut to the quick -- Acts 2:37).
It is the grace of God to see your sin as God sees it. God’s grace will inspire you ONLY to the degree that your sin inspires dread. God’s grace will promote gratitude and filial reverential worship ONLY to the degree that you have trembled before the Word of God.
God’s mercy provides a God-approved righteousness for believing sinners that Christ’s work on Calvary has purchased. In Christ’s work, God has satisfied the moral, legal, and penal requirements that are demanded by His character. It is impossible to add to the finished, all-sufficient work of Christ.
Life Under Grace
In the new covenant in Christ’s blood, God condescends to bind Himself by oath. He desires that the elect know for certain that He is their eternal refuge (Heb 6:13-20).
God’s name, honor, mercy, and goodness are the source of all eternal welfare to the creature. The redeemed individual is an object of mercy and a vessel of honor. He has been given a new nature as a gift of divine grace.
In justification, the redeemed creature has been radically adjusted to God so as to conform to God’s ultimate purpose of glorifying Himself (his heart now beats in tune with God’s ultimate purpose to magnify His glory). The redeemed creature is “exhibit A” in God’s sovereign display of the reign of righteousness.
Faith, love, honor, and esteem towards God’s name drive our practical righteousness. We glorify God by taking delight in Him. As creatures of dust, we glorify God by continually entrusting ourselves to Him and magnifying His majestic trustworthiness in so doing. We glorify God by keeping a humble, childlike posture of heart before Him. Christ is our “Source Person.” A child-like dependence acknowledges that every divine blessing is in Him, and purchased for us by Him.
God has joined His eternal glory to our good. Our commitment to His glory is completely rational BECAUSE, His highest glory is our highest good. Our former suspicions about God’s glory and our former reluctance to give ourselves wholly to God’s glory have together been dispelled by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:4-6).
Addendum: Highlights from The Justification of God, by John Piper
pp. 79-80 – Ex 33:12-34:9 Moses’ prayer of petition has two themes -- Moses asks that God will go with Israel, and he asks to see God’s glory. After the golden calf incident, and God’s assessment of Israel as “stiff-necked” Moses needs assurance about God’s purposes regarding Israel’s future (33:5).
Moses wants to probe the heart of God to assure himself that God, in His deepest nature, is the kind of God who pardons our iniquity and takes us as His inheritance, even after such spiritual defeat. This is the context for Moses’ request to see God’s glory. Thus the request to see God’s glory springs from the desire to have God confirm His astonishing willingness to favor a stiff-necked, idolatrous people – the confirmation will be the revelation of God’s glory – that glory being the ground and source of such great mercy.
p. 81 – The exercise of God’s grace involves His full freedom – there’s no appeal to the merit of self (in Moses), or to the merit of the people. In essence, Moses’ anxiety (about Israel’s future) is to be resolved by the personal revelation of God as merciful and gracious. Who God is, is the ground of how He will act.
p. 82-83 – “I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful” (Ex 33:19). There are no stipulations outside of God’s own counsel and will which determine His disposal of mercy. The freedom of God is self-contained. He is free to bestow grace or not – it is His own free, sovereign choice.
p. 88 – Ex 33:18-19 -- There are three realities in this revelation of God: 1.) God’s glory and name,2.) God’s propensity to show mercy, and 3.) God’s sovereign freedom in His distribution of mercy (also showing wrath as He pleases).
p. 89 – To demonstrate compassion or wrath apart from constraint originating outside of His will is the essence of what it means to be God. (This is His name and His nature – it is His essential glory.)
p. 93 – The mercy God bestows is not owed to the man’s willing or running (Rom 9:16). God’s sovereign freedom to show mercy or to harden is the means by which He preserves and displays the glory of His name.
p. 100 – God is free from human distinctives in determining the distribution of mercy.
Rather than merely consisting of the moral quality of absolute righteousness, the righteousness of God is His commitment to His name.
p. 112 – God’s righteousness is the display of His honor in showing mercy (and wrath).
p. 113 – Ps 31:1-3 – In giving refuge to the sinner in Himself, God acts on behalf of His own name. The righteous deeds of God are done out of respect to His own glory and honor (Dan 9:7, 13-19; Is 48:9-11).
p. 114 – The most fundamental characteristic of divine righteousness is God’s unswerving allegiance to always act for His own name’s sake.
p. 112, 115, 116 – God’s faithfulness is grounded in the display of His glory (Is 46:13; 51:5, 7, 8; 43:25; 48:9-11; Ez 36; Ps 79:9).
p. 119 – God’s righteousness is His unswerving commitment to preserve the honor of His name and display His glory. In light of this all-encompassing truth, man’s righteousness will be seen as radically God-centered (thus human righteousness is inseparable from the love and honor of God’s name, and esteeming His glory above all).
Our righteous deeds, as regarded by God, are a fitting expression of our complete allegiance to maintain the honor of God’s name and display His glory. Thus, “righteous” and “love Thy name” are interchangeable.
p. 120 – The righteous man esteems God a trustworthy refuge, and loves His name (Ps 34:21; 37:39; 64:10). We do righteousness out of love for God’s name, and that His name might be honored. The motive of the righteous man’s deeds is that he esteems God’s name. To know God is to fear God. If you fear God, you esteem His name (Mal 3:16-18). The human righteousness of the redeemed is radically God-centered. (What a contrast this is to the self-righteousness of the cults in which mastery of a moral code is touted).
God must preserve and display His name to maintain His righteousness. He is committed to act unswervingly for His own name’s sake and for the display of His glory. He is unconditioned by external constraints – He has complete sovereign freedom. He is free from all human claims. He has no debts to pay – He cannot be obligated.
p. 122 – He must always act out of full allegiance to infinite value of His own glorious, sovereign freedom. Therein His unimpeachable righteousness consists. Therein the contrite heart who flees to Him will find hope (Ps 71:1-5; 143:1, 11).
God must pursue His electing purpose, apart from man’s willing and running, for only in His sovereign, free bestowal of mercy on whomever He wills is God acting out of a full allegiance to His name and esteem for His glory.
p. 150 – God has accomplished His two-fold purpose in sending Christ: He has manifested and preserved his own righteousness, and yet, has justified the ungodly merely through faith. The glorification of God and the salvation of His people are accomplished together. (See Rom 3:23-26).
p. 174 – God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh was to demonstrate His power and magnify His name – the ground of God’s choice to do this was not in Pharaoh. He hardens not those who meet a certain condition, but “whom He wills” (Rom 9:18).
p. 180 – God’s freedom from human “running and willing” is at the very heart of what it means to be the all-glorious God (Rom 9:16).
p. 186 – The “objector” to God’s absolute sovereignty in Romans 9:19ff. presumes that man’s sense of values is ultimate. The objector falsely concludes that by this human sense of values man can prevail against God’s sense of values. According to the Apostle Paul, this is as ludicrous as a raving clay pot (v. 20).
p. 189 – The acts of God do not come forth as a continuous reaction to autonomous external stimuli, but from God’s unified sovereign purpose. All of God’s acts cohere with one great end: the magnification of God’s great glory for the eternal enjoyment of His chosen people.
p. 214 – The ultimate purpose of God is the manifestation of the wealth of divine glory.
God’s chief end in creation and redemption is to display (for the benefit of the elect) the fullness of His glory, especially His mercy.
p. 215-216 – People have no right to ask God to cease being God by surrendering His sovereignty. God’s purpose is to show the full range of His glory. He works with creation in such a way as to externalize all aspects of His glory. He delights to show mercy more than wrath (Ezek 18), but He shows mercy against a backdrop of wrath.
God acts consistently with His love of His own glory, ONLY as He opposes all who disdain finding delight in His glory.
He would cease to be God if He acted otherwise in a world He freely created. These truths about God’s nature, freedom, and ultimate purpose overturn the objection that God should not blame those whom He hardens (Rom 9:19ff.).
p. 218 – God preserves complete freedom in determining who will be the beneficiaries of His saving promises (Paul stresses that this applies to the “true” Israel, or remnant, within Israel – Rom 9:27).
God does not base His decisions on distinctions a person could claim by birth or effort – He’d be unrighteous if He did so. (Effort apart from utter dependence upon the grace of God constitutes a refusal to submit to the righteousness of God – Rom 10:1-4).
It is the human value system, not the divine, which says that God should elect people on the basis of their real and valuable distinctives, whether racial (Jewish), or moral (law keepers). This is not God’s concept of divine righteousness, for God states “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Ex 33:19). (Note that God has removed human merit from the face of the earth. All are “shut up in disobedience.” See Rom 11:32 and Gal 3:22).
God caused His glory and His goodness to pass before Moses (Ex 33). Thus God’s glory and name consist fundamentally in: 1.) His propensity to show mercy, 2.) His sovereign freedom in its distribution.
p. 219 – It is the glory of God in His essential nature to dispense mercy (also wrath) on whomever He pleases, apart from any constraint originating outside His own will. This is what it means to be God! This is His name.
Thus, election makes good sense in light of Exodus 33:19, because God has an unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of His name and display His glory. For God to be righteous is His sovereign freedom to have mercy on whom He wills. The exercise of His sovereign freedom in mercy and in hardening is the means by which He declares the glory of His name. (See God’s purposes in hardening – Ex 9:16).
p. 220 – CONCLUSION: If we cry “fatalism,” and abandon evangelism and holy living, we betray our failure to be grasped by Paul’s theology. For Paul prayed without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17), he labored in evangelism more than all the other apostles (1 Cor 15:10), and he willingly suffered all things for the sake of the elect (2 Tim 2:10).
If we are genuinely grasped by God’s glory, we will be deeply sobered and humbled by the awful severity of God, we will be brought down to the dust by the absoluteness of our dependence upon His unconditional mercy. We will be irresistibly allured by the infinite treasury of His glory – glory that is ready to be revealed to vessels of mercy and honor. We will be moved to forsake all confidence in human distinctives or achievements. We will be motivated to trust God’s mercy alone. And, in the hope of glory, we will gladly extend this mercy to others that they may see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).
(For an additional resource that lists the benefits and effects of believing in the sovereign grace of God, go to www.desiringGOD.org and locate the article entitled, Ten Effects of Believing in the Five Points of Calvinism, by John Piper.)