Friday, May 17, 2013

Grace as an Attribute of God

This was part of a discussion with an acquaintance on the subject of "common grace". The man I was addressing questioned whether "grace" was actually an attribute of God:

Forgive me that I am less familiar with the Westminster Standards than my own Three Forms of Unity. Nevertheless, the Larger Catechism deals with God's attributes more fully (Q.7), and includes grace and mercy. Peter calls Him, "The God of all grace" in I Peter 5:10.

Beyond all doubt however is Exodus 33 and 34, when Moses asks to behold the glory of God. God replies (33:19), "I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy." And when He passes by, He proclaims the name of the Lord (34:5-6), "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth," The Psalms also repeat and emphasise this truth, that mercy and grace are divine attributes of the Lord and essential to His glory - indeed it is the sovereign particularity of His mercy and grace that is chiefly mentioned concerning the display of His glory in the creation.

Since God does not and cannot change, if He is merciful, then He is merciful eternally, even before the foundation of the world. The existence of the creature is not required for Him to be merciful and gracious in Himself. He also does not and cannot become more merciful the more creatures upon which He bestows mercy. Likewise, His love and His grace. These divine attributes do not increase or decrease or change in anyway, and do not depend on the creature whatsoever. God is love. He is also gracious and merciful, in Himself, independently of the creation. Finally, notice that God's mercy is "everlasting" and "endureth forever" as the Psalms continually repeat.

The "grace" of God is His beauty. In the Psalms again, reference is frequently made to the "beauty of the Lord" or the "beauty of His holiness". This word "beauty" is the same word elsewhere translated "grace". :)

Psalm 27:4 "One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the **beauty** of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple."
Psalm 29:2 "Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the **beauty** of holiness."
Psalm 90:17 "And let the **beauty** of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it."
Psalm 96:9 "O worship the LORD in the **beauty** of holiness: fear before him, all the earth."

His grace towards us is a beautiful attitude of favour that seeks to make us spiritually and morally beautiful, and which actually makes us (who are spiritually ugly sinners) into spiritually beautiful saints as we are conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) and thereby renewed in the image of God (Eph. 4:24). This is the picture of Christ and the church in Ephesians 5: " Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."

A grace that leaves spiritually ugly sinners in their sinfully ugly state cannot be a grace at all.

Of course grace, like all of God's beneficences (love, goodness, kindness, mercy, long-suffering, etc) is undeserved when directed towards a mere creature, and especially when towards a sinful creature. "Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen." (Rom. 11:35-36). That we are saved by grace proves that we are not saved by works is exactly because grace is from God, and therefore not of ourselves. Works are of ourselves, and therefore no part of our salvation which is of grace.

Our confessions also teach the simplicity and unity of God, so that all His divine attributes are one in Him, in His one simple divine essence. This means that just as His love or justice cannot be separated from His grace, so He cannot be said to have another separate or different grace.

The grace given to each member of Christ's body is all of the one infinite grace of God, but it is given according to the measure of Christ's gift, as Eph 4 says. We receive grace therefore, only as a gift from Christ by being members of His body, and the measure of the grace we receive is in accordance with Christ's purpose for us as a member of His body with our own specific role in the body for the edification of the other members. As creatures, God's attributes can only ever be communicated to us in a limited finite measure, in a creaturely way - and only in Jesus Christ who is in one divine Person, both God and man. By His hypostatic union, the divine attributes are communicated to the human nature, but only ever in a limited, finite, creaturely way (II Peter 1:4), because the human nature remains human, creature, and finite. In God, grace and love (for example) is infinite. But in us, grace and love is limited. For example, our love can never be omnipotent. Only Christ Himself receives the Spirit without measure, since He is also God.

I hope you can see that the position that grace is only ever particular comes not from a mean-spirited attitude towards the non-elect or some kind of hyper-Calvinism, but rather from a very high and profound view of the marvellous indescribable glory of God's grace.

So, the short answer is that the Larger Catechism Q.7 includes mercy and grace as attributes of God, and Scripture only speaks of the variableness or limitedness of God's infinite grace as it is communicated to the finite creature as he is united to Christ. It does not speak of variableness of God's grace in Himself. Nor can there be any variableness in God: "Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." (James 1:16-17).

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