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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Only Jesus’ Grace Works

May 22, 2014 •

This article is the fifth and final part of a series. The first part is called "Salvation is by Works Alone," the second is titled "God Works Grace," the third is "God's Work in Jesus," and the fourth is "Sympathy Made Perfect."

Theology regularly gets a bad rap. “Don’t give me doctrine. I want something practical.” “I like sermons that touch my heart, not those that fill my head.” Or, “Come on. I’m not interested in all this theology. I just want to love Jesus.”

Stated or assumed, such ideas have stormed the Church like ants at a picnic. But they also devastate the Church like the ants’ destructive cousins. Theology bashers are termites, who eat away at the Church’s very pillars­­—the apostles’ teaching. And theological antipathy has no fans in heaven. Scripture rebukes those who have little time for theological substance: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  (Hebrews 5:12-14)

Emotion can cloud even the discerning mind. Many folks prefer feeling good over knowing truth, experiencing some feel of grace rather than knowing real grace itself. Through its years of warm and winsome baby steps away from doctrine, the evangelical Church as a whole has drifted from her Christ ordained charter. Sentiment has trounced substance, and grace has lost its Christological compass. In many instances, the Church’s notion of grace is no longer even biblically recognizable.[1]

The problem is exacerbated by other winds and whims. Ours is a world in which psychological liberation serves as the ultimate spiritual expression. The final arbiter of theological truth is if I feel better. Truth is true when my soul soars. In fact, the sense of freedom becomes more important than freedom itself! And since my sensation of grace is so amazing, how could I soar any higher than when I celebrate the mental and emotional freedom produced by cancelled guilt and sin? That realization is grace. Or is it?

We must take great care here. We can so desperately want release from a guilty conscience or from present circumstances that we easily settle for shallow or even empty promises – gospel impostor promises. Yet what if my sense of freedom does not align with real freedom? What if my perception is actually an illusion? What if the grace I know is a product of my culture rather than Christ? What if my version of grace is not the truth?

These questions come with no intention of alarming sweet and simple faith in Jesus. But here is the point: the sense of grace only has value if the grace itself has value. If faith has no real Substance, it is mere sentiment. If faith has no reliable Object, it is merely wishful thinking. And grace without the grit of Jesus’ suffering and glory is a fake. It is not real grace.

We must take the Pauline warning seriously, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Paul does not mess around. His vision for missions requires pure theology. Preaching Jesus means preaching the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If theology does not matter, then what Jesus do we actually preach? Faithful theology and saving grace are not at odds with one another, because as Paul puts it, we are either redeemed by the pure and true gospel of Jesus Christ or we are not redeemed at all. No gospel substitute proffers real grace. Grace is real stuff or it is not grace.

To my knowledge, I’ve never heard an angel preach. I’ve certainly never heard an apostle (though I’ve read some of their writings!). However, I have heard a great deal of distorted and distorting sermons that spout “gospel,” “grace,” and “Christian” verbiage. Some of that celebrated so-called “grace” tastes like cotton candy – sugary at first, but dissolving almost instantaneously; a foul and enduring aftertaste drowns any initial shot of sweetness. And the only remedy for such disappointment is another terribly short-lived shot of emotional sugar. Like emotional junkies, we seek satisfaction in a sickeningly sweet yet gutless grace, an illusory removal of retribution with little (no?) consideration of how the demands of justice are met.

In the last several columns, I have sought to re-introduce a critical facet of gospel truth that has too often gotten buried beneath such sweet rhetoric: for grace to be real, God had to accomplish our redemption. Or as I put it in the opening column of this series, salvation is by works alone.

Grace comes to us by the real work of God in Christ, who did the will of the Father and toiled to bring about the salvation of his people. It is “the man Christ Jesus” who is the “one Mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is this historical Man Jesus who, in the vigor of his life, death, and resurrection, renders real grace. Grace is no impostor because Jesus is no charlatan.

To recap, grace is not sentiment and not emotion. In Jesus Christ, it is earthy, raw, and real. Grace came with sandals, suffering, and sympathy. Grace burst forth in Palestine two thousand years ago, enfleshed in justice and holiness, passion and compassion, love and mercy, and sorrow and joy.

No flighty flourish of superficial speech, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He learned obedience. He suffered. He bled. He died. He rose from the dead. All of it was work. Real labor. The Man Jesus Christ, in the turmoil of his life and death toiled for our salvation, and in his resurrection, became the real Source of grace.

A man of holy gravitas, Jesus turned heads and turned hearts. He made blind eyes see. He made lame legs walk. He made deaf ears hear. Jesus made an impression. He caught peoples’ notice. But for such attention to matter, he had first to capture his Father’s attention by his learned obedience and enduring faithfulness, even unto his ultimate self-sacrificial death. The Father’s attention came not by a mere facade, but based upon the objective truth of his pure, perfect life.

And wow, did Jesus ever capture his Father’s notice! The words come unmediated from heaven: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” Heavenly approval came to Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3:17), at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:5; cf. 2 Peter 1:16-18), and at his resurrection (Rom 1:3-4; cf. 1 John 5:9; Heb 5:5-14). Each of these benchmarks in Jesus’ life wins the Father’s fullest pleasure in the performance (the work) of his Son. The Father assessed the Son’s life and work and found him absolutely blameless and qualified to redeem! The Father assessed the Son’s righteous death and in his resurrection openly, proudly, and definitively vindicated him as the Redeemer Son. By the supreme witness of the Father in heaven, he “. . . was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. . . .” (Romans 1:4)

Talk about emotion! Such powerful redemptive work for us sends us heavenward! Human words cannot adequately articulate the spectacle.

In his classic essay, “The Emotional Life of our Lord,” B. B. Warfield concludes, “[Jesus] subjected himself to the conditions of our human life that he might save us from the evil that curses human life in its sinful manifestation. When we observe him exhibiting the movements of his human emotions, we are gazing on the very process of our salvation: every manifestation of the truth of our Lord’s humanity is an exhibition of the reality of our redemption. In his sorrows he was bearing our sorrows, and having passed through a human life like ours, he remains forever able to be touched with a feeling of our infirmities. Such a High Priest, in the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘became’ us. We needed such an one.”[2]

And such a One we have: One who graciously slaved for redemption, and One who willingly died for our life. Our redemption is sure because our Redeemer became one of us, lived as one with us, and died as the One for us. And therein lies grace.

Jesus worked salvation for us. He did what we would not and could not. And he did it for us. Grace works because God worked it in Christ. Such redemptive grace comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone, and comes precisely because of the faithful work of Jesus. Salvation is by works alone, the works of Jesus Christ.

[1] These abuses include legalism, antinomianism, and even denials of the exclusivity of Jesus Christ.

[2]  Read this classic and stellar essay by B. B. Warfield, now available on the Internet at

Related Articles: "Salvation is by Works Alone," "God Works Grace,"God's Work in Jesus," and "Sympathy Made Perfect,"

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