Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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by John D. Clark, Sr.
“For you are saved by grace, through faith. And this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God”
God is the initiator of all true religion. Just as with true conversion, true religion is “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13). In the way of grace, God is the actor, and we, the reactors. “It is God who is working within you”, wrote Paul, “both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phip. 2:13).
True repentance is only a response to the call of God. God calls; we answer. God is always the only initiator of action in His kingdom. All that man can do is to respond to what God does.
True prayer is only a response to the will of God because only if we ask according to what He has willed, does He hear us (1Jn. 5:14). That is the way of grace.
Prayer that springs from man’s spirit will not reach God’s ear. In ourselves, “we do not know what to pray for as one should” (Rom. 8:26), but prayer inspired by God is prayer “in Jesus’ name”, and Jesus said, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, He will grant you” (Jn. 16:23).
There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer when we are led by the Spirit to pray. Wise Job knew that even if God did something for which he prayed, it was not that the Almighty had listened to him (Job 9:16). Job understood that if his prayer was answered, then God had put that prayer into his heart.
Saving faith is nothing more than a response to the word of God (Rom. 10:14); obedience is a response to God’s word; fear of God is a response to being touched with His awesome power and glory (e.g. Dan. 10:7—8). Confession of the truth is only a response to God’s revelation of it. Love for God is only a response to God’s loving us. “For this is love,” wrote John, “not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1Jn. 4:10). We love God only because He first loved us and we responded to that love (1Jn. 4:19). “When we were yet without strength,” Paul wrote, “at the appointed time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). We were all “without strength” when God initiated the action that delivered us.
Jesus taught that there is absolutely nothing that any human can do to obtain salvation. At one point, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus’ answer was both terrifying and hopeful. He said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk. 10:23—27).
Jesus’ words, “With men, it is impossible”, mean there is nothing any man can do to save himself from eternal damnation. No man by his own wisdom understands God, and no man living by his own standard can please God.
Man’s heart is “deceitful above all things” lamented Jeremiah (Jer. 17:9). This is true. Man’s heart is so darkened that man cannot even believe that his heart is darkened. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. In fact, he very often claims to possess the knowledge of God, although he is altogether without it. Men have often boasted of walking in God’s way even while they persecute those who really are walking in it. Paul did that himself before Jesus stopped him. To his disciples, Jesus foretold of a time when “everyone who kills you will think he’s doing God service” (Jn. 16:2). Paul, as a young and zealous Pharisee, uttered “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He was filled with murderous hatred for those who were in God’s way of grace. He “persecuted this Way to the death, binding and handing over into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4). And yet, in all his cruel persecution of God’s innocent children, Paul thought he was pleasing God.
We are utterly blind without God! Even in our attempts to do good, we do evil. Referring to man’s miserable spiritual condition before Christ helps him, Paul wrote, “in me (that is, in my flesh), dwells nothing good, for the willingness [to do good] is present in me, but I do not find the doing of what is good” (Rom. 7:18). With men, clearly, it is impossible to escape the damnation of hell, just as Jesus said.
Every man’s one hope is that God will do something for him. And if God does anything, it is only of His mercy and love that it is done. That is “grace”, and that is the story of the gospel. “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).
God is the initiator of all hope. He loves first. He is the actor, and we, the reactors. He gave His only begotten Son for our sins. He raised him from the dead and glorified him as “both Lord and Christ”. Then He opened our eyes to our need of the Savior. The only part we can play in our salvation is to respond to what God has done.
Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you all will likewise perish” (Lk. 13:3, 5). A sinner cannot initiate the saving work of God; he can only respond to God’s call and offer of forgiveness. The offer must come first.
God’s providing the gospel to man will save only those who respond to it, for Paul said that the gospel, “is the power of God for salvation to EVERY ONE WHO BELIEVES” (Rom. 1:16). Men must respond in faith to the gospel in order for the gospel to benefit them. Remember the words of the man of God: “For to us was the gospel preached, as it was to them, but the word which was heard did not benefit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Heb. 4:2).
By God’s grace, the holy Spirit is given as a guide for those who believe, but it would be foolish to teach that the mere possession of the Spirit will save us, for the saints are warned that “if you live after the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit [that you already possess] you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Yes, Jesus has become “the source of eternal salvation” — but only “for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9).
Such things as repentance, obedience, and faith are responses to God’s grace. However, those are not the only responses of which man is capable. He can also refuse to repent; he can be disobedient; he can reject goodness. God sends rain and sunshine to both the good and the evil (Mt. 5:45), just as he graciously offers His pardon to all. Those who respond to His grace with submission and obedience are like the good soil which produces fruit for its owner “and receives blessing from God.” On the other hand, those who respond to His grace with unbelief and rebellion are like the soil that receives God’s rain and sunshine, only to produce “thorns and briers”. These people are in danger of damnation (Heb. 6:8).
The way of grace is the way of the Spirit, and those who are not being led by the Spirit are not being saved by grace; they are instead being lost without it, going a way that seems right in their own eyes. But our own ideas about how to honor God, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot lead to salvation. Remember Jesus’ words: “With men, it is impossible.”
In the way of grace, God is the actor, and we are the reactors. May our response to His grace be acceptable to Him, and may you and I meet someday in that place He has prepared for those who love Him.