The Grace of Christ, or,
Sinners Saved by Unmerited Kindness
William S. Plumer, 1853
"We believe it is through the grace of our
Lord Jesus that we are saved." Acts 15:11
MAN IS UTTERLY HELPLESS
As a sinner, man can neither commend nor convert himself to
God. He cannot atone for his sins, he cannot satisfy divine justice, he cannot
subdue his own iniquities, he cannot perform any holy action. In our day there
are but few Protestants, who maintain that man can make any atonement for his
sins against God; or redeem himself, by paying any ransom for his soul. "Christ
has redeemed us from the curse of the law." "He is the atoning sacrifice for our
sins." "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." These and
many similar passages of Scripture have brought all but outrageous errorists to
acknowledge, that in the work of salvation we are wholly and absolutely indebted
to the Lord Jesus Christ for reconciliation with God. He is our peace.
But some are not so ready to confess their indebtedness to
the Holy Spirit for all right perceptions of truth, for all really good desires
and proper motives, for all spiritual strength and power to do good. It is with
extreme reluctance that men admit their utter helplessness in this respect. And
yet the Scriptures speak a language as decisive, as unmistakable about our
inability to purify our hearts as to make an atonement for transgression.
Therefore when God promises aid it is in this way: "He gives power to the faint;
and to them that have no might he increases strength." Isaiah 40:29. "Not by
might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts." Zech. 4:6. Even
converted people stand by borrowed strength. "Be strong in the Lord, and in the
power of his might." Eph. 6:10. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself,
except it abides in the vine, no more can you except you abide in me." John
15:4. "Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." 2 Tim. 2:1. Indeed the
righteous have always delighted to acknowledge that all their strength is in
Of the helplessness of unregenerate man the Bible speaks in
the clearest terms and in many ways. First, it teaches that he cannot see and
know the truth. "The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit; for
they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them, because they are
spiritually discerned." 1 Cor. 2:14. Left to themselves men are "always
learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." 2 Tim. 3:7.
Accordingly unregenerate men are often spoken of as blind; and God very
graciously promises to "bring the blind by a way that they knew not." Isaiah
Secondly, without God's Holy Spirit, men cannot believe,
cannot receive Christ: "No man can come unto me, except the Father who has sent
me, draws him." "No man can come unto me except it were given him of my Father."
John 6:44, 65. "How can you believe, who receive honor one of another, and seek
not the honor which comes from God?" John 5:44. Even a disposition to hear God's
word belongs to no man without God's Spirit. "Why do you not understand my
speech? Because you cannot hear my word." John 8:43. Lydia never attended to the
preached gospel until the Lord opened her heart. Acts 16:14.
Thirdly, without God's Spirit man cannot obey a single law of
God. "The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of
God, neither indeed can be." Romans 8:7. The Church of God has always held this
doctrine. Augustine, whom the truth has perhaps never had an abler uninspired
defender, says: "Neither does a man begin to be converted, or changed from evil
to good by the beginnings of faith, unless the free and undeserved mercy of God
works it in him." "So therefore let the grace of God be accounted of, that from
the beginning of his conversion to the end of his perfection, he that glories
let him glory in the Lord. Because as none can begin a good work without the
Lord, so none can perfect it without the Lord." The Lord does not say, 'Without
me you can hardly do anything;' but he says, 'Without me you can do nothing.' In
the very same sentence of the Gospel, he does not say ,'Without me you cannot
perfect,' but 'Without me you cannot do anything.' For if he had said, You
cannot perfect, then men might say, We have need of the help of God, not to
begin to do good, for we have that of ourselves, but to perfect it." He
subsequently quotes and remarks on those notable texts, "Not that we are
sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves;" and "Who makes you
to differ?" He also says that "unless God works, we can have no piety or
righteousness either in word or in will." "It is certain that we act when we
act, but it is God who makes us to act, by affording most efficacious strength
to our will."
Ambrose says: "Although it be in man to will that which is
evil; yet he has no power to will that which is good, except it be given him."
In like manner Maxentius says: "We believe that natural free-will is able to do
no more than desire carnal and worldly things. But those things that belong to
eternal life, it can neither think, nor will, nor desire, nor perform, but only
by the infusion and inward working of the Holy Spirit." Fulgentius says: "We
have not received the Spirit of God because we do believe, but that we may
believe." "In the heart of man, faith can neither be conceived, nor increased
unless the Holy Spirit does infuse it, and nourish it." "He delivers us not by
finding faith in any man, but by giving it." Bernard says, "If human nature,
when it was perfect, could not stand; how much less is it able of itself to rise
up again, being now corrupt." "What do you have--which you have not received?"
"By the grace of God I am what I am." The Confession of Helvetia says that since
the fall, the understanding and will "are so altered in man, that they are not
able to do that now, which they could do before his fall." "Man, not as yet
regenerate, has no free-will to good, no strength to perform that which is
In proof of this doctrine it presently quotes several texts
of Scripture, of which the following are two: "Unto you it is given in the
behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake."
"It is God, who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Phil.
1:29 and 2:13. The Confession of Basle says: "Our nature is defiled, and become
so prone unto sin, that, except it be renewed by the Holy Spirit, man of himself
can neither do nor will any good." John 3:3. The Confession of Bohemia says:
"That will of man, which before the fall was free, is now so corrupted, troubled
and weakened, that henceforth of itself and without the grace of God, it cannot
choose, judge or wish fully; nay it has no desire, nor inclination, much less
any ability to choose that good, wherewith God is pleased. For albeit it fell
willingly, and of its own accord, yet, by itself, and by its own strength, it
could not rise again, nor recover that fall; neither to this day, without the
merciful help of God, is it able to do anything good at all." Romans 7:19-23.
Again: "No man by his own strength, or by the power of his own will, or of flesh
and blood, can attain unto or have this saving or justifying faith, except God
of his grace, by the Holy Spirit, and by the ministry of the Gospel preached,
plants it in the heart of whom he desires, and when he desires." John 1:13.
The Confession of England says, "that the law of God is
perfect, and requires of us perfect and full obedience;" and "that we are able
by no means to fulfill that law in this worldly life." In one edition the
Augsburg Confession speaks thus: "Man's will has no power to perform a spiritual
righteousness without the Holy Spirit;" and quotes in proof 1 Cor. 2:14 and John
15:5. The Confession of Saxony says: "Man by his natural strength is not able to
free himself from sin and eternal death." The Confession of Wirtemburg says: "As
a man physically dead is not able by his own strength to prepare or convert
himself to receive physical life; so he, who is spiritually dead, is not able by
his own power to convert himself to receive spiritual life." The churches of
England and Ireland both teach that "the condition of man after the fall of Adam
is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and
good works, to faith and calling upon God." The Synod of Dort says that all men
are "adverse to all good tending to salvation, forward to evil; dead in sins,
slaves of sin, and neither will, nor can (without the grace of the Holy Spirit,
regenerating them) set straight their own crooked nature, no, nor so much as
dispose themselves to the amending of it." The Westminster Confession says that
by our "original corruption, we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made
opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil."
Alas! in what a sad condition we are by nature! Ambrose says:
"Though bound with the chains of my sins, I am held fast hand and foot, and
buried in dead works. Only by your effectual call, O God, I come forth free."
Beveridge says: "I cannot pray, but I sin. I cannot hear or preach a sermon, but
I sin. I cannot give an alms, or receive the sacrament, but I sin. Nay, I cannot
so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of them.
My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears need washing, and the very
washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my
Truly all our hope is in free grace alone! If we are not
still in spiritual death, it is because we are "risen with Christ." Our
helplessness, when left to ourselves, is as manifest in small as in great
things, on little as on great occasions. It has long been observed that men are
as apt to err from the right way upon a slight, as upon a great provocation.
Jonah said he did well to be angry, even unto death, about a gourd. A young
damsel put Peter to cursing and swearing. Job bore all his losses without one
sinful word; but when falsely accused by his brethren, he entirely lost his
temper. A bee has killed a man, who had survived the perils and grievous wounds
of battle. Many will weigh every word and speak the whole truth in solemn
judicature, and yet forfeit veracity in talking with a child, or in telling an
amusing anecdote. I have seen a man bear with composure the burning of his
house, and yet lose proper control of himself, when charged too much for a quire
John Newton says: "The grace of God is as necessary to create
a right temper in Christians on the breaking of a china plate, as on the death
of an only son." We as truly need help from God to enable us in a right spirit
to bear the tooth-ache as to suffer martyrdom in the cause of truth. In all
things, at all times we need the grace of Christ. By it alone, can we be or
do anything pleasing to God, or beneficial to our own souls. "It is impossible
for free will without grace--to begin or perfect any true or spiritual good. I
say, the grace of Christ, which pertains to regeneration, is simply and
absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the ordering of the
affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good. It is that
which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good
thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the affections, and leads the
will to execute good thoughts and good desires. It goes before, accompanies, and
follows. It excites, assists, works in us to will, and works with us, that we
may not will in vain. It averts temptations, stands by and aids us in
temptations, supports us against the flesh, the world, and Satan; and, in the
conflict, it grants us to enjoy the victory. It raises up again those, who are
conquered and fallen, it establishes them, and endues them with new strength,
and renders them more cautious. It begins, promotes, perfects, and consummates
salvation. I confess that the mind of the natural and carnal man is darkened,
his affections are depraved, his will is refractory, and that the man is dead in
Richard Watson fully admits that "the sin of Adam introduced
into his nature such a radical impotence and depravity, that it is impossible
for his descendants to make any voluntary effort of themselves, towards piety
and virtue." He also quotes with entire approbation this celebrated sentence
from Calvin: "Man is so totally overwhelmed, as with a deluge, that no part is
free from sin, and therefore whatever proceeds from him is accounted sin." Do
not all these Scriptures and reasonings from Scripture make it clear that the
victory over sin will never be gained by an arm of flesh? Nature is too weak.
She is broken, and crippled, and helpless. In this work, all men, if left to
themselves, are stark nothings. They have no might to do good, though they are
mighty to do evil.
One of the most instructive portions of personal history is
the record of various attempts made by several great men to reform their hearts
by a self-invented discipline, without the aid of God's Holy Spirit. They have
reflected, have made resolutions, have drawn up schedules of their vices to be
corrected, have examined their hearts, have found fault with their own efforts,
and have formed new plans; but with the exception that now and then a decent
exterior has been attained, all has been a sad failure. Their history was long
ago given by Prosper: "Though there have been some, who by their natural
understanding have endeavored to resist vices, yet they have
barrenly adorned only their present life; but they could not attain to true
virtues and everlasting happiness." Bernard addresses such in these words: "What
have you philosophers to do with virtues, who are ignorant of Christ, the virtue
of God?" Fuller's soap and much water will not take out the scarlet dye and
crimson hue. Leviathan is not thus taken. The core of depravity is not thus
extracted. "Old Adam is always too strong for young Melancthon." Prodigality may
wage war on covetousness, pride on the love of popularity, the love of ease on
the love of show; but one evil passion cannot so expel another as to purify the
heart. "Restrained sensuality often takes a miser's cap, or struts in pharisaic
pride." It is easy to pass from one sin to another, but to become holy is never
possible but by the power of God's efficacious grace. "Nature can no more cast
out nature, than Satan can cast out Satan."
These views are strengthened by the fact that we not only
have sinful natures, but have also formed sinful habits, whose power is
terrific. "Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take
away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you always do evil." Jer.
13:23. "If Adam, when he had committed but one sin, and that in a moment, did
not seek to regain his lost integrity; how can any other man, who by a multitude
of sinful acts has made his habits of a giant-like stature, completed many parts
of wickedness, and scoffed at the rebukes of conscience?" The power of habit is
such that even in the pallor and agony of death, its influence is often manifest
in the whole manner of a dying man. But enough of this.
In full accordance with all that has been said, these things
are noticeable in Scripture.
First, God has mercifully promised the needed strength and
grace: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in
weakness." 2 Cor. 12:9. "The Lord will give strength unto his people." Psalm
29:11. "Your people shall be willing in the day of your power." Psalm 110:3. See
also Deut. 30:6-8; Ezek. 11:19, 20 and many other places.
Secondly, pious men do uniformly ascribe all their ability to
God. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." Psalm
46:1. "In the day when I cried--you answered me, and strengthened me with
strength in my soul." Psalm 138:3. "Sing aloud unto God our strength." Psalm
81:1. "Our sufficiency is of God." 2 Cor. 3:5. "I labored more abundantly than
they all; yet not I, but the grace of God, which was with me." 1 Cor. 15:10.
Thirdly, wise and good men always have looked to God alone,
and not at all to themselves or other men for ability to do right. "O Lord God
of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel--keep this forever in the imagination of the
thoughts of the heart of your people, and prepare their heart unto you." 1 Chron.
29:18. "O that my ways were directed to keep your statutes." "Incline my heart
unto your testimonies." "Quicken me, so shall I keep the testimonies of your
mouth." Psalm 119:5, 36, 88. See also Heb. 13:20 and 21 and parallel passages.
Let it, however, not be forgotten that our helplessness does
not at all proceed from any defect in the original constitution of our minds as
they came from the hands of God. He made man upright. It is sin, which has done
all the mischief. This very helplessness is part and proof of our wickedness.
Our very weakness is our crime. It is very wicked to have no right views of God,
to have our minds full of ignorance and prejudices against him, to have no heart
to fear, love, or obey him, or to fail to do these things perfectly. Thus the
Scriptures abundantly teach. Paul says neither in the way of boasting, nor of
excuse, but in confession and humiliation: "I know that in me (that is, in my
flesh) dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me, but how to perform
that which is good I find not." Romans 7:18 and context. "The flesh lusts
against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the
one to the other; so that you cannot do the things that you would." Gal. 5:17.
He is not expressing approbation, but reproof, in so speaking to the Galatians.
So when Peter describes a class of men, "having eyes full of adultery, and that
cannot cease from sin;" 2 Pet. 2:14, no man will so far pervert his meaning as
to say that he is freeing these people from blame. It was in reproof that Christ
said, "How can you believe, who receive honor one of another?" etc.
In fact there is no deeper guilt in man, than that contracted
by having no heart to do right. The very essence of filial impiety consists in
having no heart to love and honor one's parents. The very ground of impiety to
God is to have no heart to know, or love, or obey him. To have eyes and not see,
to have ears and not hear, to have a heart and not understand is the very sin
Isaiah charged on degenerate Israel, the very sin of apostate angels. If the
helplessness induced by sin were any excuse or palliation of sin, fallen angels
would be quite innocent, at least excusable; for no sober man will say that they
can by any possibility turn to God and live.