Summer 1998

Volume 17, Issue 2


by Douglas Falls

Douglas Falls is Assistant Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Christian Education at RTS/Jackson. An RTS graduate, Douglas served first as Registrar, then Director of Distance Education at RTS/Orlando before coming to RTS/Jackson. He holds a B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and is an Ed.D. candidate in education. He and his wife, Ruth, have three children.

"There is a defect in our belief in the freeness of divine grace," wrote Archibald Alexander in his book Thoughts on Religious Experience. "To exercise unshaken confidence in the doctrine of gratuitous pardon is one of the most difficult things in the world." He believed that this defect was the primary reason many of us do not seem to experience much growth in our spiritual lives.

Like most words, gratuitous has a couple of meanings. Giving freely, without charge, is the most common definition. Birthday presents approach this idea, but the gift given with no prompting other than the love of the giver is the best example, such as when the loving husband comes home after an ordinary day's work with flowers for his wife to find that she has sent the kids to the baby-sitter and has a wonderful candlelight dinner on the table.

Given this understanding of gratuitous, you may be puzzled as to why Alexander would say that our belief is defective. Don't most of us realize that our salvation comes to us by grace through faith alone? After all, isn't that one of the foundations of the evangelical world, just as "Sola Fide" was one of the great hallmarks of the Reformation?

Alexander was not asserting that we fail to realize that the gift of salvation is given freely, without charge, by God. We know, intellectually at least, that we can do nothing in the world to buy eternal life for ourselves. As the Lord said in Isaiah 55:1, "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."


Our problem with gratuitous pardon becomes clearer when we consider the other aspect of gratuity -- when something is unjustified, uncalled for, undeserved. Jumping to a conclusion about a person or a situation without any reason is a gratuitous assumption. A particularly violent movie scene which has little to do with the plot is gratuitous violence.

One day, after being dropped off at the airport, I handed my suitcase to a baggage handler at the door. In my haste and absentmindedness, I stood there for a moment thinking something was amiss, but then stumbled on, heading for the door and my flight. "Ah, sir!" someone hollered. I turned around to see the same baggage handler say to me in a drippy, sarcastic voice, "Thank you." "What is his problem?" I thought to myself. Then I remembered -- his tip, his gratuity!

While nothing forces me to pay a tip to baggage handlers (I later decided he had practiced that comment many times), custom --not to say common courtesy -- certainly dictates that he should have received a tip from me. As a result, our tips or gratuity are no longer gratuitous.

Similarly, many times we fail to perceive God's graciousness towards us as gratuitous. Rather, we often treat God like the baggage handler treated me. "Ah, God!" We do nothing to warrant God's bestowal of grace in Christ. Yet we think we deserve God's favor but do not understand our situation apart from Christ.

It is easy to acknowledge that we are not perfect; perhaps we will even admit that we are sinners. Yet, in spite of that, we still feel that we are pretty good, certainly not hopeless! Henry David Thoreau is said to have been asked near the end of his life whether he felt that he had made his peace with God. "I wasn't aware we had quarreled," was his alleged response.

Our expectations of God's favor are also seen in the way we live daily. How else can we explain our anger with God when we or our loved ones are terminally ill, when the stock market plunges, or when we are fired from work? After all, didn't we sign up for Christianity because of its promise of a better family life or of greater success?

If God's pardon is gratuitous, then we have received the blessing of forgiveness without any reason to expect it. That is, absolutely nothing about us caused our Lord to save us. He calls us to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 11:44,45, 19:2, 20:7) and we are not. He calls us to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48) and we are not. All of our good deeds and righteous acts merely add up to a pile of "filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6), alienating us from Him rather than earning His favor.

Our justification is without justification! To realize that we contribute absolutely nothing, not even a teensy bit, to our right standing with God is unthinkable or unacceptable to many people. They insist on standing before God at the end of their lives trusting in their own righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ!


Our discomfort with the doctrine of gratuitous pardon may be one reason we abhor the thought of witnessing to people. It is one thing to urge others to "allow" God into their lives, perhaps encouraging them to receive the gift of eternal life. But it is another matter to insist that they must acknowledge that they are "without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12), that they need a Savior!

Others of us have a different problem: not that we cannot believe that we need gratuitous pardon, rather that we can scarcely believe one is possible. The ever- present power of sin seems nearly overwhelming at times. Feelings of guilt and inadequacy never seem to leave us. A convicting sermon at church leaves us wondering how God could ever put up with us, or maybe believing that He won't anymore! The enemy whispers "Have you justified your existence today?"

The thief on the cross is a great illustration of the truth of gratuitous pardon. If ever a person might be considered justified in doubting that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, it was this thief. After all, who was hanging on the cross next to him? A good man? An able teacher? Maybe a prophet? What of it? All of His plans led to the same end -- crucifixion.

Yet somehow, this thief recognized in the man hanging beside him all that he needed. He realized two things. First, his own sinfulness. As he said to the other thief, "We are getting what our deeds deserve." Second, he knew that the sinless one, his King, was hanging right next to him, so he did the only thing he could do, that anyone could do, he asked the King to remember him when He entered His kingdom.

Not one good work did this man perform; he brought no one to faith through evangelism nor did his friendship encourage anyone in the faith. Yet the King said to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise."

The greatest argument for gratuitous pardon is not the thief on the cross, but Christ on the cross! If our situation were not drastic, why would God's own Son have to be sacrificed in our place? If our situation were beyond hope, why would Christ bother to be crucified for us? We must follow Paul's example when he wrote, "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Galatians 2:21).

"Okay," you may be thinking, "perhaps we don't totally understand gratuitous pardon. So what? Does it make any difference? Why would Alexander think that it was the primary reason for spiritual weakness?"

Luke 7:36-50 describes one of the occasions when Jesus was eating at the home of a Pharisee. "A woman who had lived a sinful life" was wiping His feet with her tears. The Pharisee was disgusted (as many of us would have been) at this display by such a sinner, so Jesus asked him who would love more, someone forgiven a great debt or someone forgiven a lesser debt? Jesus said, "He who has been forgiven little loves little." Failure to comprehend the vastness of God's mercy towards us in Christ likely means that we will love God little.

The results of loving God little are obvious. There will be little awe for the greatness of God who could forgive so much at such a great price. There will be little gratitude to God for freely forgiving when we were totally undeserving. A person who loves God little will be a little Christian who lives in a little world with a little god, with little victory over besetting sin and little usefulness to God in advancing His kingdom here on earth.

Do you find it difficult to believe in the freeness of divine grace? It is there that Jesus proves both His love for you and your inability to earn it. He is the remedy for our sin; nothing else will work. How crucial it is that you believe that! Can you become like the fallen woman who worshipped Jesus with her tears? She understood how much His love and forgiveness were worth to her. Look to the cross and fall in love again with the Savior, then allow that love to permeate everything that you do. Your life, both for eternity and today, depends upon it.

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Last updated 4-2-02.