You’re not going to believe this story, but it is true. When I was a rather young child, surely pre-school age, I was with my parents at a viewing in a funeral parlor for some person who had passed away. I have no idea who the man was, though I’m quite sure it was not a relative.
My impression was that we were there at the very end of the visiting hours, most people having departed. I had no idea why this man was sleeping in a box. Being a rather verbal child (I know that surprises all of you) I probably asked a question of that sort, to which my father told me to go over and pick up the man’s hand to see if he would wake up.
That is the first and last dead person I’ve ever touched. The memory of the hardness, stiffness and lifelessness still is quite vivid. I don’t think I was traumatized terribly, but it is a clear memory. I recall to this day exactly where that funeral home was located – a house in New Jersey that is no longer used for that purpose.
Oh, yes … the man didn’t wake up. Halloween terror stories aside – replete with visuals of the ground shaking and a hand coming up through the dirt from the grave – dead people don’t come back to life. They don’t respond to any magnanimous offers of any sort.
The Scriptures say that without Christ, spiritually speaking, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. (Ephesians 2:1-2) We had no way to respond other than to have God’s grace given to us to even make us able to believe. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
So what is grace? It is something even bigger than we may tend to think. It is not just forgiving a person who has wronged you when they ask for it. Rather, it is choosing to forgive a person at a time when they were not sorry, and when they were in fact worthy of all the anger and judgment you could throw at them.
The definition of grace that I learned years ago that has always stuck with me is this: Grace is favor extended when wrath is deserved. And that is what Christ has done in dying for us. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
So the Reformers were saying that salvation is by grace alone. But didn’t the Roman church then and now believe in grace? They talk a lot about grace. Yes, they do believe in grace, just not in grace ALONE. There are sacraments and other obligations that are a part of meriting grace; that is the difference. In this regard, liberal Protestantism today is not categorically different. In fact, they can be farther from the truth by not actually believing in the deity of Christ or the virgin birth, etc.
The Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace alone, as articulated by Calvinists today, can also trouble certain evangelicals. To them it has a sound of “easy believism” … that one can just say a prayer of faith, gain the grace, and then go off and live however they want to, now having an insurance policy against hell. But that is not what Reformed teaching supports. There is the belief that genuine salvation will manifest itself in a changed life and desire to live for God, this being the evidence of true faith.
And Paul promotes this very idea also in Ephesians 2:8-10 … For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The works follow salvation; they don’t earn salvation; they don’t maintain salvation … they prove salvation in the life of the believer as statements of gratitude for the grace received. “Oh to grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!”