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Salvation by Grace

Joseph Stevens Buckminster


“By grace ye are saved.”—Eph. 2:5.

This simple proposition, though often in the mouth of Christians, is yet not without its difficulties. Every believer in the gospel acknowledges its truth; and yet there are very few men who would entirely coincide in their interpretation of the passage.

It is not to excite your surprise that we shall now proceed to enumerate some of the most popular senses in which this proposition has been understood, but only to guard you against being carried away by the dogmatical assertions of men who are contented with detaching a form of Scripture words from the place where it is found and insisting that it means only what they choose to understand by the phrase.

What, then, is the meaning of “grace”? When spoken of God, it means, simply, gratuitous kindness; and thus is it often applied to anything in which his favor is discovered. Thus the gospel is called "the grace of God." The terms, "saved," and "salvation," originally mean deliverance from danger, from disease, or evil of any kind, and hence are often used with a latitude which embraces all the benefits derived from the introduction of the gospel, whether relating to this life or the next, including of course the healing of the mind and deliverance from the power and consequences of sin.

The following are some of the interpretations which the clause in our text has received.

First. There are many who understand by the proposition, "by grace ye are saved," that man can do nothing towards his own salvation. By grace they understand a supernatural operation of the Divine spirit, which effects a change in the moral nature of a man, toward which his own exertions contribute nothing, and where this change is effected, salvation is certain; and thus God is not only the ultimate source, but the sole and immediate agent, in the production of goodness in moral beings.

This, in technical language, is the doctrine of human inability. It represents the moral state of man to be such that he can do nothing to save himself from ruin; for, if it were otherwise, his salvation, it is said, would not be of God, but of himself.

In this statement it is obvious to remark that, though there is a sense, and a very just one, in which man can do nothing without God, it cannot be regarded as any derogation from the grace or glory of God to admit that man can do all that God enables him to do. God governs and treats his moral creatures in a moral way, and it would seem to be charging God with folly or contradiction to say that he offers men means and motives to virtue, while he has provided them with no capacity to use the one, and no susceptibility of the influence of the other, without his own immediate and extraordinary operation. To a plain man there is no greater mystery in our dependence on God in the affair of religion than in any other. We are to be saved, indeed, by grace, as by grace we are, every moment, preserved from natural and moral ruin, that is, by the goodness of him who gives us our powers and appoints us our circumstances.

Others, on the contrary, to avoid the perversion to which the interpretation just stated is exposed and by which Christianity has suffered, think that they sufficiently answer the meaning of the apostle when they admit that man is not saved either by his own exertions or by the operations of divine grace alone, but by the concurrence or cooperation of God's spirit with human endeavors. Thus they suppose that grace, by which they mean spiritual influence, is communicated to all good men in answer to prayer, or in consequence of human endeavors, and especially in seasons of great temptation, trial, necessity, or peculiar infirmity, and yet always in such a silent manner as not to be distinguished from the natural operations or ordinary state of our minds. Thus, say they, we are truly saved by grace, because, if left to ourselves, we could not work out our salvation, but should, infallibly, sink in the arduous undertaking. In this way they propose to avoid the difficulties attending the doctrines of human merit or ability, on the one hand, and those of human inability and irresistible grace, on the other, while their adversaries say that they only unite, in one unintelligible scheme, the real difficulties of both. Perhaps the principal advantage of this mode of interpretation is that it seems to allow sufficient meaning for the various phraseology of different passages of Scripture, while it leaves the real metaphysical difficulty of man's dependence and activity as inexplicable as ever, and as much open as before to the disputations of those who wish to penetrate into the secrets of the Divine influence on moral agents.

There is yet another class of Christians who conceive that men are said to be saved by grace because the introduction of the Christian religion, by which men are prepared for salvation or a state of future happiness, is a singular instance of the grace or undeserved favor of God. It is a proof of his care, to which mankind had no claim, and of which they had no previous desert. It was God’s grace or favor only which originally appointed Jesus the mediator and sent him into the world; it is God’s gratuitous or unmerited kindness which provides the means of reformation and recovery offered us by Christianity, which gives the promise of pardon to the penitent, establishes the hopes and wishes of immortal life. It is in consequence of God’s favor that we are born under this dispensation; and if we attain, at last, to the salvation which it offers us, by grace only do we reach this felicity, because it is pure goodness which originally furnished the means.

In all these interpretations of the clause, “by grace ye are saved,” you may have observed that it is taken for granted by the different parties that the apostle refers to the final salvation of those to whom he is writing; but it is at least doubtful whether this is here the meaning of the apostle. You well know that the term “saved” is used to express any kind of deliverance, temporal or eternal: salvation from danger, from disease, from miseries of various kinds, from intellectual darkness, from doubt or despair, from habitual corruption, from present condemnation, and from everlasting punishment. When Peter, in the name of the apostles, cries out in the midst of a storm, “Lord, save us, for we are perishing” [Matt. 8:25], everyone understands him to mean deliverance from the immediate danger of shipwreck. When our Savior discovers in the sick woman a remarkable confidence in his power for curing her, and other dispositions worthy of his favor, and says to her, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace” [Luke 7:50], no one imagines him to mean anything more than this: to your faith you owe the recovery of your health. So, when the jailer, alarmed by the earthquake and fearful that his prisoners had escaped, rushed into the presence of the apostles, crying out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” [Acts 16:30], the best interpreters understand him to mean: how shall I best consult my safety? And when Paul says in reply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you and your family shall be saved” [Acts 16:31], he not only includes the idea of present security, but extends the meaning of the word to embrace the spiritual benefits which would follow from his reception of the Christian doctrine.

If, now, we examine the meaning of the apostle in the clause before us, we shall find that he cannot here refer to the eternal salvation of those to whom he is writing. He says of them that they are now saved, not that they will be saved hereafter. Here is actual and present privilege, and not the unconditional promise of a future benefit. That the Ephesians had not then entered upon the heavenly felicity it is unnecessary to prove; they could not, therefore, be then saved in the sense in which we commonly use the term. Neither is it probable that the apostle meant they had been made subjects of an irresistible and effectual grace from which they could never fall—that their final salvation was as certain as if they had actually entered upon it—for though we may believe that there would not be an impropriety in figuratively saying that they were saved who had only an infallible security of being saved, yet we cannot find that this was the idea of the apostle, or of the early interpreters, but only a fiction of later theologians. No, the apostle’s meaning cannot, perhaps, be more exactly expressed in English than in these words: by God's unmerited favor are ye delivered. If it is asked from what the Ephesians were delivered by the grace of God, I answer: from the ignorance and wickedness of their former heathen condition. This is the only salvation intended in the passage under consideration. Their final salvation still depended on the use they made of the new light, the new motives, and the new means which they enjoyed for virtue and happiness.

In support of this interpretation, let me refer you to the words which precede the text and to the whole strain of this epistle. On what does the apostle continually insist? Does he say, “You are now secure of an eternal salvation, and therefore you have no conditions of acceptance to perform”? Far from it. The whole tenor of his exhortation is this: by God's favor you are delivered from the darkness and miseries of your idolatrous state. “Ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” [Eph. 5:8]. The blessings you already possess are but the pledge and foretaste of those which the same grace will bestow on you hereafter, if yet walk worthy of God, who hath called you to glory and virtue.

If anyone, in consequence of the explication we have given of this passage to the Ephesians, should accuse us of diminishing the grace of God in the final salvation of believers and of encouraging the obnoxious plea of human merit, let such person first know whereof he speaks and what he affirms. We believe, and so must every Christian, that if any of us reach, at last, under Jesus Christ, the blessedness of his heavenly kingdom, it will be through the grace or gratuitous goodness of God, whose grace alone introduced the Christian dispensation, whose grace has fixed the terms of acceptance and forgiveness, in mercy, and not in the rigor of law, and, finally, whose grace alone could have offered a reward so infinitely transcending the deserts of the believer. Salvation, under the gospel, begins, proceeds, and terminates, in grace, and although we do not believe that it was the apostle's intention, in this particular passage, to state all these principles of our religion, yet we are so impressed with their truth and importance that we propose to illustrate them in what remains of this discourse.

In the first place it would be enough, to justify the propriety of the assertion that final as well as present salvation is of grace, to remark that the introduction of the Christian dispensation under which we live is an instance of the undeserved goodness of God. No reason can be assigned for the mission of Jesus Christ into the world but the love of God to his rational creatures. Nothing but grace could have led him to look with an eye of pity on the state of mankind and provide a method of recovering any part of them from the dismal influence of idolatry, in which they were sunk, or from the unfavorable and uncharitable operation of the Jewish economy, in the state to which it had then fallen. Indeed, no motives but those of pure benignity can be assigned for God's granting to his creatures, at all, any light beyond that which unassisted nature furnishes. It was not his fault, but man's, that they had debased and extinguished much of that illumination which reason had given, or which he had vouchsafed to them in former communications. God would not have been unjust, if he had left our race to all the consequences of their self-depravation, to the miseries of superstition, to the honors of idolatrous worship, and to all that moral darkness in which the world was enveloped before the coming of the Christ. It was, then, because “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” If, then, a single Christian attains to glory, honor, and immortality under this gracious dispensation, it is by grace he is saved. For no one man or nation has a claim to the light which it furnishes, to the motives which it affords, to the promises it makes, to the pardon it extends, or to the eternal life which it disclaims. These advantages, by which so many men are recovered to spiritual life, who without this would have been sunk in idolatry, are the benefactions of a merciful Father. If, then, Christian, in consequence of your knowledge and improvement of the gospel, you are saved at all, it is by grace you are saved, and for this grace you ought to be unceasingly grateful.

Secondly. But not only may we say, with great justice, that every Christian who attains to heaven under the gospel dispensation is saved by grace, because it was pure grace which sent Jesus Christ with this religion into the world, but the terms of human salvation under this dispensation are conditions of favor on the part of God; and the system proceeds altogether upon the principle of benignity or kindness. God is represented as forgiving the sins of mankind upon their repentance, and as receiving them to his favor upon their faith. The terms of acceptance are not a strict and literal conformity to the whole law of God without any place for repentance or allowance for infirmity, for if this were the case under the gospel, who then could be saved? But the gospel is introduced as a dispensation of grace, in contradistinction to that of law. “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17]. The new covenant, as it is called by the writers of the New Testament, in opposition to the old, or Mosaic, is founded upon better promises; and the situation of mankind, with reference to God as their moral Governor, is exhibited in a different light.

The terms of our salvation under the gospel are not laid in a sinless obedience to what may be called the rule of right, but in the sincerity and strength of the principle line which our obedience proceeds, or in other words, of our faith. The difference between law and gospel is this: that, by the former, considered as a law, no provision is made for human transgression; its language is positive, unbending, and unaccommodating, and if God's conduct towards his creatures were to be guided purely by what we may call legislative exactness, we should have no hope of escaping from the condemnation to which every man, as a transgressor, is exposed. It is in opposition to this view of God's government of his creatures that the gospel is so often called grace, a spirit, a life—in other words, a principle of faith. It provides for remission, for pardon, and for repentance. It represents God in the light of a father, disposed to receive the returning child, as a friend who looks at the disposition which his creatures exercise towards him, as a gracious governor who wills not that any should perish, but rather that they should come to repentance.

In this view, the gospel is continually held up by the apostles in opposition to the law; it is called a spirit and not a letter, life and not death, grace and not condemnation. I do not say that this has not always been God’s method of justification from the beginning of the world; indeed, the apostle to the Romans seems to declare that it has, and that in fact the gospel, or rather that faith which is the principle of gospel obedience, is as old as Abraham. I say only that the Christian dispensation is the first in which the character of God has been expressly and explicitly exhibited in this parental light, as justifying men freely by his grace, and as accepting a principle of sincere faith, and the practice of unreserved repentance, instead of legal, strict, and unerring obedience.Text Box: f

But even if we had no other dispensation with which to contrast the Christian, yet whoever looks into his own character and considers the terms of the gospel salvation, the impossibility of our ever attaining to eternal life on the ground of merit, and the very nature of those promises which the gospel contains must be sensible that, if he is made heir of an immortal life at all, he must he saved by grace and cannot be sufficiently thankful for a religion which throws such a light on the character of God and relieves the mind of man from its misapprehensions and doubts on the subject of pardon.

This leads me to say, thirdly, whenever, as Christians, we look into our own characters, and then at the heaven which is opened to the true believer, and observe the astonishing disproportion between the rewards promised and the service done by us, we feel the whole truth of the assertion, “By grace ye are saved,” in the sense in which it is commonly used. The first honest attention to our own characters discovers to the Christian the absurdity of the doctrine of merit, in the sense of our deserving reward from the hands of a holy and just governor. There is not a law of God which we have not broken; there is not a class of duties in which we are not sensible of defective performance. The law of God requires of us love to him with all our hearts. Who is there that can boldly step forward and put in his claim to the rewards of heaven on the ground of the complete performance of this law? Is the case easier with the law relating to our social duties, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”? The man must be foolish or infatuated who can believe that his obedience has been such, either in spirit, in extent, or in constancy, as that he may go and demand a compensation from the justice of his God. On the contrary, no fact in the history of religious men is more certain than this, that their humility before God always increases with their piety and virtue, and they are most sensible of their need of God's mercy, whose characters, in the estimation of the world, are thought to put in the strongest claim to reward.

But even if it could be allowed, for a moment, that it might be said, without abuse of language, with respect to some very good men, that they were worthy of a better world than this—which is a form of speech, however, to which there are very strong objections—yet, when we consider the terms in which the state of the blessed is described, how can we imagine for a moment that even the best of them have merited, or could merit, such a reward? For “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” [1 Cor. 2:9]. When you add to all this the idea of this reward being unlimited in duration, as well as inconceivable in greatness, who will not say that it is infinitely beyond anything to which man can have a right or a pretension? When, therefore, the Scriptures teach us the exceeding grace and mercy of God as displayed in the salvation of men, they teach us the same doctrine which a consciousness of our own deficiencies establishes and confirms. Whet we feel in ourselves corresponds with what we read in Scripture.

But against this doctrine of salvation by grace there have been raised two objections, which I should think myself unfaithful to the subject if I neglected to consider. The first is founded, not in just views of Christian doctrine, but on the systems sad vain interpretations of men. It is asked, “How can God be said to forgive us freely or gratuitously if, as is sometimes declared, complete satisfaction is already made to his justice by the death of Christ for all the transgressions of those who are admitted to partake in the benefits of his death? If, by the punishment, which some represent as inflicted on Christ as the substitute of the human race, the claims of God's law are satisfied, it is no longer mercy, but justice in God to accept those for whom this satisfaction has been made. How, ask they, can it, with any propriety, be said that we are saved by pure favor, after such an atonement has been made by the blood of Christ? To this the common answer is that we are to ascribe it to the pure goodwill of God that he accepted any atonement, or provided any satisfaction, and therefore we may still he said to be saved by grace, because it was grace which made it just to save us. All this confusion follows from men's substituting words or inventions of their own in place of the general expressions of Scripture.

The death of Christ is nowhere in Scripture spoken of in such terms as make it necessary to imagine that a strict equivalent has been paid to God for the transgressions of mankind. The terms “satisfaction,” “substitution,” and some others equally used on this subject are not to be found applied to it in Scripture, but only in the systems of theologians. If we will but go back to the simplicity of the faith and language of Scripture, we shall find that all which Christ did and suffered, from his birth to his painful death, proceeded from the antecedent love or favor of God, and was a part of his great design to recover mankind from sin. The idea of satisfaction to an offended Deity never once enters into the different statements which are made of these facts. There is nothing in Scripture which represents that Christ has made it just for God to forgive sins now, upon repentance, when it would not have been before. The dispositions of God toward mankind, or the principles of his government, are not altered by the death of Christ; on the contrary, the disposition of mercy, by which we must at last be admitted to everlasting life, is the same which sent Jesus into the world and admitted Jew and Gentile into the church of Christ.

Unless, therefore, we affix to the death of Christ ideas of an efficacy which the Scriptures do not ascribe to it, there is no kind of inconsistency between the merits of this death and the gratuitous dispensation of pardon upon repentance; but both the death of Christ and the acceptance of mortals are alike parts of the same gracious scheme and flow from the same sentiments of mercy in God. We only embarrass ourselves and our religion when we attempt to introduce the legal ideas of substitute, equivalent, surety, or satisfacton.

But a more important objection still recurs. If the grace of God is so gratuitous as you represent it, and if the death of Christ, though you do not choose to call it a satisfaction, has any efficacy in the forgiveness of the sins of mankind, how is this to be reconciled with the indispensable necessity of good works, for which the apostles have, in so many places, taken care to provide? I might answer this question by saying that the nature of Christian salvation is such that it impossible for any but a good man to enjoy it; and Christianity cannot alter that original constitution of the moral world by which God has made salvation, or happiness, dependent upon virtue.

But if this should not be deemed satisfactory, or accommodated to every apprehension, I shall be excused in giving, in conclusion, the following quotations from one of the plainest and most popular of writers.[1]

“In this business of salvation, there are, naturally and properly, two things, namely, the cause and the condition; and these two things are different. We should see better the propriety of this distinction if we would allow ourselves to consider well what salvation is, what the being saved means. It is nothing less than, after this life is ended, being placed in a state of happiness exceedingly great, both in degree and duration, a state concerning which it is said, ‘The sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed.’ ... It is, out of all calculation, and comparison, and proportion, above and more than any human works can possibly deserve. To what, then, are we to ascribe it, that endeavors after virtue should procure, and that they will in fact procure, to those who sincerely exert them, such immense blessings? To what but to the voluntary bounty of Almighty God, who, in his inexpressible good pleasure, hath appointed it so to be? The benignity of God towards man hath made him this inconceivably advantageous offer. But a most kind offer may still be a conditional offer. And this, though an infinitely gracious and beneficial offer, is still a conditional offer; and the performance of the conditions is as necessary as if it had been an offer of mere retribution. The kindness, the bounty, the generosity of the offer do not make it less necessary to perform the conditions, but more so. A conditional offer may be infinitely kind on the part of the benefactor who makes it, may be infinitely beneficial to those to whom it is made—if it be from a prince or governor, may be infinitely gracious and merciful on his part—and yet, being conditional, the condition is as necessary as if the offer had been no more than that of scanty wages by a hard task-master.

“In considering this matter in general, the whole of it appears to be very plain; yet when we apply the consideration to religion, there are two mistakes into which we are very liable to fall. The first is that, when we hear so much of the exceedingly great kindness of the offer, we are apt to infer that the conditions upon which it was made will not be exacted. Does that at all follow? Because the offer, even with these conditions, is represented to be the fruit of love, and mercy, and kindness, and is in truth so, and is most justly so to be accounted, does it follow that the conditions of the offer are not necessary to be performed? This is one error into which we slide, against which we ought to guard ourselves most diligently, for it is not simply false in its principle, but most pernicious in its application, its application always being to countenance us in some sin which we will not relinquish.

“The second mistake is that, when we have performed the conditions, or think that we have performed the conditions, or when we endeavor to perform the conditions, upon which the reward is offered, we forthwith attribute our obtaining the reward to this our performance or endeavor, and not to that which is the beginning, and foundation, and cause of the whole, the true and proper cause, namely, the kindness and bounty of the original offer. This turn of thought, likewise, as well as the former, it is necessary to warn you against. For it has these consequences: it damps our gratitude to God; it takes off our attention from him. Some who allow the necessity of good works to salvation are not willing that they should be called conditions of salvation. But this, I think, is a distinction too refined for common Christian apprehension. If they be necessary to salvation, they are conditions of salvation, so far as I can see.”

I can add nothing to the simplicity or perspicuity of these statements. I will only, therefore, beg you to remember that the grace and mercy of God in the salvation of men, so far from diminishing the necessity or the obligations of holiness, constitute, in fact, the strongest obligations and motives to Christians to lead a life of unreserved and grateful virtue; otherwise they are “treasuring up for themselves wrath against the day of wrath,” by, “despising the riches of God's forbearance,” and “neglecting this great salvation” [Rom. 2:4-5].


[1] Paley, “Sermon on the Efficacy of the Death of Christ.”

© 2006 American Unitarian Conference