The Bias of Grace
The Bible Studies and Sermons on this site provide a verse by verse exposition of the set Bible readings for the Church Year. In determining the meaning of the text, particular principles of interpretation are applied. The key principle used is the bias of grace. "What God has done in Christ for sinful human beings is entirely a matter of grace", Moo. This truth finds its expression in the doctrine of justification and serves as the controlling principle of interpretation for the studies on this site.
The purpose of this short study is to show how the doctrine of justification powerfully influences our understanding of the Bible, particularly the teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels. When the doctrine is properly understood, it is possible to use it as an interpretive tool to unlock Biblical truth. In fact, the teachings of Jesus cannot be properly understood without a knowledge of the doctrine of justification.
For a more detailed study of the principles useful for the interpretation of scripture see the study Biblical Interpretation.
The covenant mercy of GodThe theological key for understanding God's Word
"A Christian is free from all things and over all things so that he needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things. Should he grow so foolish, however, as to presume to become righteous, free, saved and a Christian by means of some good work, he would instantly lose faith and all its benefits", Martin Luther 1550.
There is an abiding truth upon which all Biblical truth rests. The Lord God our creator is a God of grace. Not only is our God a righteous God, right-acting, a God who keeps his covenant promises, but above all he shows covenant mercy. Our God forgives covenant members when a just condemnation would be more appropriate.
God's kindness towards us is realized in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus Christ. We, who are totally unworthy of His kindness because of our sin, find in Jesus eternal approval and acceptance. In Jesus we stand without sin and are therefore righteous in God's sight. Because we are united to Christ, "in Christ", our sin becomes his, dying with him on the cross, and his righteousness becomes ours, living with him in his resurrection power. The instrument of this divine grace is faith - faith in the covenant mercy of God operative in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, it is by divine grace that we stand eternally right in the sight of God, justified, just-if-I'ed never sinned.
All is of grace, and this particularly when it comes to our justification. Justification is an eternal predetermination of the will of God to account us righteous in his sight, judge us right before him and thus set us right before him, and this kindness graciously granting on the basis of the faithfulness of Christ. So, this right-standing before God rests on the faithfulness of Christ appropriated through faith.
To properly understand the Bible it is essential to apply the bias of grace.
Before we examine the central place of the doctrine of justification in the teachings of Paul and Jesus, we need to realize that it is a truth easily forgotten.
In the popular chorus "Make me a channel of your peace", there is a set of statements we sing as an affirmation of faith, e.g. "It is in forgiving that we are forgiven". This, and similar statements in the chorus, are quite misleading; they do not sit well with the Biblical doctrine of justification. God's forgiveness is not dependent on our limited capacity to forgive. There will be times when we fail to forgive those who sin against us, but this does not limit God's forgiveness. His forgiveness is totally of grace and does not rest on works of the law; it is freely given through the instrument of faith. So, a person who looks to Jesus and asks for forgiveness, on the basis of Jesus' death and resurrection, is forgiven. It's just-if-I'd never sinned. The bottom line is this, our limited capacity for forgiving does not limit God's forgiveness.
In the final analysis, the chorus has made a fatal error in its understanding of the grace of God. The Christian walk is often centered on obedience, as if obedience to the law somehow confirms, maintains, even improves our standing before God. The trouble is, the prime purpose of the law is not so much to guide Christian living, which of course it does, but rather it serves as an instrument to expose sin, underline our state of loss, and therefore our need to rest on divine grace. Much of Jesus' ethical teaching serves this purpose. He uses the law to undermine self-righteousness and so lead his hearers to a righteousness that is a gift of grace rather than a reward for obedience.
So, why do we so blithely sing heresy? Of course, we sang heresy in Sunday School. "Trust and obey, for there's no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." The apostle would not be amused! "Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ", Gal.2:16. "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" Gal.3:3. Obedience cannot gain God's approval, it cannot win his good-pleasure. We too easily forget the extent of God's grace
A believer who thinks that their own faithful obedience to God's law somehow advances their Christian life and so provides access to God's promised blessings, has slipped into a heresy called semi Pelagianism. We are taught as children that Jesus loves good little boys and girls and we carry this heresy with us for the rest of our lives. The truth is, none of us are good, only God is good. The only goodness worth claiming is the goodness of Christ. Both Jesus and Paul go to great lengths to help us understand this truth, but somehow we drift toward nomism (the idea that law-obedience is essential to restrain sin and shape holiness (sanctify) for the maintenance of right-standing before God and thus the appropriation of God's promised blessings). Once we take on the yoke of slavery, Gal.5:1, we lose our understanding of Biblical truth. We become blind guides.
Defining the actual cause of the problem is no easy matter. Although many nominal Christians believe that they get to heaven by being good, I have yet to meet a believer who thinks that they are saved by obedience to the Law. The problem of nomism  seems to develop during our Christian walk. It's as if we begin our journey by faith, but go on in obedience. So, nomism is not so much a problem at conversion, but rather becomes a problem in our day-to-day living for Christ. It is then we begin to focus on the Law, as if obedience is the means by which we progress our Christian life. How easily we forget that rejoicing in heaven is reserved for the repentant sinner who rests on God's grace in Christ!
There are two specific heresies that promote nomism in the Christian life:
i] Nomism develops when we view justification as a past act of grace rather than an ongoing act of grace. When I knelt before the cross of Christ I found approval before God. Yet, this approval was not a past gift of God's grace which must be supported by my obedience. Rather, God's grace extends into eternity. My sins, past, present and future, are forgiven. Christ's righteousness, his perfection, his holiness, is mine for eternity. I cannot add to it or subtract from it, for I am complete in Christ. Therefore nomism flourishes when we limit justification.
ii] The other contributing factor to the development of nomism in the Christian life relates to an unsound view of sanctification. Sanctification is commonly defined as "the progressive realization of the person we are in Christ." Yet, the word "progressive" can lead to error, particularly where obedience to the law is used as a mechanism to "progress" Christ-likeness, holiness. Sanctification is best viewed as a product of justification, a state of holiness which, through a reliance on the renewing power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, we strive to apply in our daily life (be what we are), albeit, always imperfectly. It is very easy to think that sanctification is progressed by obedience, when in fact the imperfect realization of what we are in our day-to-day living for Christ, is ours by the same mechanism that gains justification, namely by grace through faith. I become like Christ (always imperfectly), not by striving to obey the law, but rather by trusting the indwelling Spirit of Christ to renew me daily. The more I trust Jesus the more I become like Jesus. So, nomism flourishes when we believe sanctification is progressed through obedience.
Justification is a divine declaration of a person's eternal right-standing in the sight of God as a gift of divine grace/mercy through the instrument of faith (Christ's faith/faithfulness and my faith in his faithfulness), and this apart from obedience to the law.
It is only when we understand the doctrine of justification that we are properly able to interpret the Bible, and in particular, the teachings of Jesus.
The apostle Paul on justification
The doctrine of justification is central to the teachings of Paul the apostle, although we must never forget that he functions as the exegete of Jesus. if we can understand Paul on justification, we will understand both the Gospels, and the Old Testament.
One of the clearest statements of the doctrine of justification in Paul's letters is found in Ephesians 2:1-10. Paul begins by describing the human condition without God. We are dead in our transgressions, "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature"; dead in our relationship with God and therefore "objects of wrath." Yet, out of love God acts toward us in mercy making us "alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions." Through our relationship with Christ there is now a sense where we are raised up (made alive) with him and "seated with him in the heavenly realms." It's just-if-I'd never sinned and therefore I am treated as if I were a perfect person. So, right now there is a sense where I am alive in my relationship with God as if I were happily seated in his presence. This has an eternal dimension such that "in the coming ages he (God) might show the incomparable riches of his grace expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus." How then is all this possible? "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works (of the law), so that no one can boast."
When dealing with people controlled by Biblical ethics, law-bound believers, Paul constantly made a point of identifying the function of the law in the process of justification. Our approval in the sight of God, our initial standing before Him, the maintaining of that standing, the gaining of his "good-pleasure", and even our progress in the Christian life, has nothing whatsoever to do with the level of our faithful obedience to the law. As far as Paul was concerned, the law's prime function is to expose sin, to make sin more sinful and thus prompt repentance, Gal.3:24. To rest on the law to maintain our standing before God is to undermine the very basis of our salvation, which is by grace through faith, Gal.5:4. To rest on the law is to place ourselves under the curse of the law, and thus to undermine our salvation, Gal.3:10.
So, our eternal standing in the sight of God is ours as a gift of God's grace appropriated through the instrument of faith, and is not by works of the law. When it comes to the realization of what we are in Christ throughout our Christian life, all is of grace through faith apart from works of the law.
Jesus on justification
The Bible proclaims that God's grace, his covenant mercy, realizes the justification of sinners. The law but serves to expose sin and thus lead us to the righteousness which is given as a gift of God's grace through the instrument of faith. The source of this right-standing in the sight of God is Christ. Israel was told, "Do this and you will live", but they didn't do it and so perished - cursed. In this way the true children of Israel were forced to find a righteousness apart from the law, the righteousness that Abraham found by faith. All ultimately rested on the one true Israelite was perfectly righteous and lived - blessed. We live, not by doing the law, but by identifying with Jesus ("united to", "in Christ"), the one righteous man. His righteousness, by grace through faith, becomes ours, and thus in him we live. We rise with him alive to God. This truth serves as the key to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible as a whole.
When we come to study the gospels, it is essential we remember that this doctrine, so central in Pauline theology, takes center stage in Jesus' teachings as well. Of course, this is where Paul got it from; Paul but functions as the exegete of Jesus. So, when Jesus speaks about the law, he is not pushing us toward obedience, but rather toward a righteousness that is not earned, a righteousness given through identification with the one righteous man. Jesus does not use the law as an ethical encouragement to godly living, worthy though this may be, but rather to show sin for what it is and so drive the self-righteous to the foot of the cross where they can gain both forgiveness and purity.
Take for example the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5-7. Jesus tells us that it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who are filled, not those who do righteousness. The righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, without which a person cannot live, is not a righteousness that can be done, for who can do it? Love, murder, adultery....... Jesus takes the law to its extreme so that no one can claim any righteousness, any purity, through obedience to the law. So for example, when Jesus says "anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment", he is not into teaching ethics, reminding us not to get angry, rather he is into exposing sin. I may not have murdered anyone, but I have sure been angry on many occasions. Therefore, my "righteousness is but filthy rags" and I will have to find some other source of righteousness if I am to stand before my Creator.
Just as Paul was forced to defend the doctrine of justification from the pietists of his day ("judaizers", "circumcision group"), so Jesus similarly had to contend with the pietists (nomists) of his day, namely the Pharisees. These "righteous" (self-righteous) men felt that their standing in the sight of God was secure because of their attention to the law. Jesus knew well that such a person must deny their sin by both reducing the laws demands (which is why Jesus revealed the ideals of the law - "fulfilled/completed") and by sublimating their condemnation. The sublimation of guilt requires dissipation, and the best way to dissipate guilt is to judge the sin of others. Jesus exposed this condition in Matthew 7. Speck removal only exposes the plank in our own eye. Jesus even gives an example of Pharisaic speck-removal in Matthew 7:6. The Pharisees treated the "lost" with total contempt.
How then shall we stand before God? "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Right-standing before God is not earned, rather it is a gift of grace appropriated through faith.
If the wise person is the one who hears and does Jesus' words, then none of us are wise. We are all fools with our houses set squarely on the sand awaiting the great crash, for we have heard, but not done. If we are going to survive then we will have to search out someone who has built his house on rock, knock on his door and enter his house, the house of the only person who has heard and done, namely Jesus. Our Christian life is sound when rest on Christ's rock, on his obedience.
So, the Sermon on the Mount is not primarily a guide to Christian discipleship, although it can be used this way. Jesus sets out to complete ("fulfill") the prime function of the law, namely to expose sin. He presents a righteousness which only he has fulfilled. Of course, once we accept that this was indeed Jesus' purpose, our whole interpretative approach to the Sermon on the Mount and to Jesus' teachings as a whole, will be radically changed forever.
Consider how the interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan is radically changed when we adopt the bias of grace approach. The parable immediately moves from the usual love your neighbor lesson - "be a good Sam". The "go and do likewise" is not so much an ethical imperative, but rather a jab to the heart of a "righteous" man (self-righteous) - a reminder that he is anything but righteous. Thus the law has done its task, namely to expose our sinful state and drive us to the foot of the cross where the grace of forgiveness is found. Of course, the context of the parable reinforces this justification approach to its interpretation. The "expert in the law" asks how he may "inherit eternal life." Jesus points him to the law, stating "do this and you will live". Obviously the lawyer has no problem with this, although there is the tricky question about "who is my neighbor?" It would be a shame if he got that wrong and missed out on eternal life. So, Jesus sets out to define the extent of neighborly love and thus show him that he just does not love his neighbor as himself, and therefore stands condemned. Note how Jesus runs the same line in his encounter with the Rich Young Ruler.
Consider also Jesus' teaching on divorce, Matthew 19:1-12. When he tells us that divorce is against the will of God, he is not giving us a regulation for the church. That regulation already exists in the Mosaic law - do it fairly is the rule. Hardness of heart is just as much a problem for a believer today as it was for a Jew in Jesus' day. We know only too well that marriages break down for church people, and trying to apply a no divorce and remarriage rule is next to impossible. We end up like the Pharisees, devising rules that diminish the law's demands. The disciples understood the impact of Jesus' ideal presentation of the law, and so their response was "it's better not to be married." ie. who can keep such a law? Well of course, none of us are immune from a marriage breakdown, although Jesus is. The whole point of the exercise is to explain the full impact of the law's demands and thus undermine any reliance on self-righteousness. Sadly, the disciples seemed to have missed this point. Hopefully the Pharisee, who asked the question and who had probably "righteously" put away his old wife, now understood the full weight of the law and stood condemned by it. Our only hope is to claim the righteousness of Christ rather than rest on our own.
For Jesus, the primary purpose of the law is to expose sin and thus drive the sinner to rest on the mercy of God - the reception of the grace of forgiveness through faith in Christ. Jesus' teachings in the gospels take on a new light when we come at them with an eye to the bias of grace.
Paul, the exegete of Jesus' theology, leaves us in no doubt that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (ie. law-obedience)", Gal.5:1. "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast", Eph.2:8,9.
This is certainly good news. "My righteousness is but filthy rags", yet when I put my hand in Jesus' hand, all my failings are nailed to the cross with Christ. From that moment on and for eternity, I am hidden in Christ and thus approved and made perfect in the sight of God, justified by grace through faith. With my past, present and future sins no longer accountable, my God smiles at me, smiles at me always.
To properly understand the Bible it is essential to apply the bias of grace.
A personal note
It was some twenty years ago when the substance of Paul's teaching on justification finally hit home to me. I was attending a Minister's Fraternal which began with a Bible study. A friend of mine led the study from Galatians. The substance of his argument was that believers are under grace, not Law (the Torah). We are no longer bound by the Commandments, but rather walk in the Spirit. The argument was so stark that it stunned all of us. The interesting feature was that many of the ministers present countered with the type of arguments used against Paul - "why not sin that grace may abound?" If we are no longer under the law then are we not free to sin? In fact, why not sin more and so increase the grace of God's forgiveness? I guess the counter arguments convinced me that my mate was on the right track. So, like Luther, Wesley and countless others, I began to understand the extent of God's grace in Christ.
I am amazed how this truth is so hard won, but so easily lost. It seems that each age must regain the truth and make it their own. This means contextualizing it for our own generation, and encapsulating it in banner form. For example, Luther proclaimed, "Christ forsaken? Christ forsaken for me." Indeed! For our age I think Phillip Yancy in his book What's amazing about grace has hit on the perfect line. "There's nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there's nothing we can do to make God love us less." That says it all. Study the Bible with this truth in mind and the text is set free.
1. Legalisim/nomism. This term is commonly used to describe law-bound religion, but in using the term we need to be more precise: i] "Legalism" is a reliance on the law for gaining right-standing in the sight of God; ii] "Nomisim" is a reliance on the law for maintaining and progressing right-standing in the sight of God, of gaining God's good pleasure and blessing. It is commonly thought that Paul in Romans and Galatians is addressing the problem of legalism, but actually he is confronting nomism. Today, most Christians understand that they are saved by grace through faith, that being good doesn't get a person to heaven. So, few believers are actually troubled by the heresy of legalism, but on the other hand, many believers do think that law-obedience restrains sin and shapes holiness for the maintenance of their standing in God's sight and thus provides access to God's promised blessings, ie. many believers are nomists. The Christian life proceeds in the same way as it beings, by grace through faith, apart from works of the law.
Law and Grace. A detailed study on the doctrines of justification and sanctification and their relationship to law-obedience.
Interpreting the Bible. A detailed study on the principles of Biblical interpretation.
Forgiveness. Is God's forgiveness of us dependent on our forgiveness of others?
The New Perspective on Paul. A historical survey and comment.
Index of studies.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons