Satan quoted scripture: “For he will command his angels concerning you … On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Matthew 4:6). So does the text teach this or not? It does (Psalm 91:11-12). Satan was right that scripture taught this concept.
Yet Jesus’ response reveals Satan’s usage of this verse violated scripture’s message, namely the principle that we are to abstain from testing God (Matthew 4:7). Context matters.
If we are going to understand God’s message to us, we need to seek an objectivity anchored in what the inspired biblical author sought to communicate. Conversely, we will want to avoid the subjectivity of “what does this text mean to me?”
To grasp what an author intended to communicate, we will need to perceive his flow of thought and how snippets of text fit into it. When we merely ask the question, “does scripture state this or not,” we handle the text no better than Satan.
What does all of this have to do with grace? Grace is commonly understood as unmerited favor. That sounds easy enough to grasp. However, because opinions differ over what constitutes merit, this impacts what is understood by grace. Below are some of the proof texts people have used to defend various notions regarding grace.
To prove that even human volition qualifies as merit and thus God must exert his will in order for what is received to be on the basis of grace, some might quote: “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls …. it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:11,16). For them, if people are going to belong to God by grace, then this means people cannot exert their will to choose to serve God.
Others dismiss this idea that even exercising human will amounts to merit. Instead they claim that doing something qualifies as merit. To prove their viewpoint they quote, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Romans 4:4). For them, activity entails works. Therefore, in their thinking if someone does something, then what is received cannot be based upon grace because it was earned.
Still others claim more than just activity is required in order for something to qualify as merit. For them, works involves the effort to conform to a standard or command. Romans 8:1 serves as one of their proof texts. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Since Paul wrote this in the midst of arguing that Christians are free from law, they claim grace must mean that Christ has freed Christians from the necessity of conforming to all law-principle. By this they mean there is no standard or command that can condemn Christians since Christians are under grace.
Finally, the last perspective denies all of the former definitions as describing what scripture is referring to by merit or works. For them, merit consists of relying upon one’s ability to do the works of the Law. To achieve their definitions of works and grace, proof texts will consist of statements such as “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. ….we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:24,28).
If we want to align our thoughts with Paul, which definition of merit and grace should we adopt? Before we tackle this, we might first need to ask ourselves, which definitions do we want to be biblical? After all, our desires are known to powerfully wield power over shaping what we understand.
To align ourselves with Paul, we need to turn our eyes toward context. Since all of the preceding proof texts are from Romans, our next step will be to consider a thumbnail description of its message and how grace fits into it.
The first article in this series was: The Gravity of Grace: Definitions and Results (1)
The next article is: The Gravity of Grace: Overview of Romans 1-5