In another article (188) we made a case for the Gospel to be a message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. I want to pursue this matter by comparing and contrasting the issue of grace to the popular notions that circulate among us.
There are many flawed conceptions of grace. Sometimes people run to the dictionary when they want to find a definition to this word. However, our dictionaries are about 2,000 years late--and their definitions reflect today's thinking, not the thinking of the people of the first century. If we want to know what God's definition of grace is, we must go to God's Word and let Him tell us.
There are a couple of places where grace is defined in the Word of God. We quoted them last time. Romans 4:4 defines grace in respect to the issue of what a person gets from God; eternal life or eternal condemnation. That text, which says "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.", is dealing with the difference between grace and obligation. When we labor, we have a recompense due us by the laws of justice. If we have labored well, we are due a good reward. If we have labored with evil intent, we are due the punishment which God has decreed (the wages of sin is death). However, Romans 4:4 takes the issue of salvation by grace out of the realm of what is justly due us.
If heaven is a reward for good behavior, how shall any of us get there? The Bible says that all have sinned. The Bible says that God's punishment for sin under the notion of what is due us is eternal death (Hell, forever). And, even our corrupted courts of law recognize that good cannot compensate for evil in the realm of justice. When a person is put on trial for a crime, he is not asked whether he is a good person, whether he does any number of good things, whether his friends like him, whether his family loves him; he is only asked if he is guilty of the crime of which he is accused. If the answer is yes, he must pay the penalty for that crime. If the answer is no, he goes free if the evidence agrees with his profession of innocence. Thus, the issue of justice is not whether a person does some good things; the issue of justice is whether the person is guilty of a crime.
And so it is with Heaven's justice. God isn't interested in whether we have done all the evil we could have done; He doesn't ask if we have done some things that others would call good; He is only interested in whether we have sinned. The penalty for sin is eternal condemnation. If we are guilty, the penalty under His Law is death. So, heaven cannot be the reward for doing good; under the Law it can only be the reward for never having done anything bad. Thus, grace does not reckon the reward from our actions. Instead, it reckons the reward from God's actions in Christ. He died for our sins so we wouldn't have to. That is the grace of God.