By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"So that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace, in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus." Ephesians 2:7
The history of God's "grace" or "free love", goes back into eternity. Our earth's six thousand years mark neither its beginning nor its end. It dates immeasurably backward among the ages that are past, and it stretches immeasurably forward into "the ages to come." It is like Him in whose bosom it dwells, unbeginning and unending; so that, as he is from everlasting to everlasting "God," so is he from everlasting to everlasting the "God of all grace."
This grace must give vent to itself and be manifested, for it is the very law of the divine nature, not merely to be—but to manifest itself. This is the law of all being—to bring forth that which it contains; in other words, to manifest itself; as in the case of the seed sown in the ground; a law which, in the creature, is the finite copy or image of that which has its seat and origin in the infinite Creator himself. The sun cannot but shine; the fountain cannot but pour forth its waters; the seed cannot but shoot up and bear fruit after its kind. Just so, divine goodness cannot but spread itself out, divine holiness cannot but come forth, divine wisdom cannot but give utterance to itself, and divine grace cannot but unfold its riches.
But, for this unfolding of grace, this manifestation of what is gracious in the divine character, there must be a purpose; for grace is not to manifest itself at random, or without due regard being had to time, and place, and objects, and circumstances, and final outcomes. It is this "purpose of grace," as the apostle calls it, that is needed for giving shape and direction to the divine self-manifestation. It is this purpose of grace which answers the dreadful question—a question which no finite being can ever solve or ought to entertain—of how far a certain amount of permitted evil may so be overruled for far greater good as to warrant that evil being allowed to enter.
It is this purpose of grace which defines the objects towards whom this grace is to direct itself; the circumstances in which it is to find them; the time or times at which, and during which, it is to reveal itself; the channel through which it can righteously flow; the amount of obstacles which it can righteously overcome; the nature, as well as the extent and duration—of the results which it is to accomplish. All these, as so many preliminaries, God's purpose of grace must define; leaving nothing to chance, trusting nothing to the caprice of creature-will or the uncertainties of creature-mutability; embracing all conceivable contingencies, and regulating the exact amount of evil that righteousness can tolerate, and that grace can undertake to deal with.
The details of this purpose are to be found in the history of our race. That story, which in so many of its parts seems to us tangled and unmeaning—is no random assemblage of events. In all its processes, as well as all its outcomes—is the deliberate unrolling, fold after fold, of that purpose of grace, which, transmuting the indefinite into the definite, the contingent into the certain, and anticipating the permitted entrance of evil, proposed to deal with this evil, not by swift expulsion or extinction, not by immediate and unrepealable judgment on the transgressors—but in a way more transcendently glorious, and more fitted to draw forth the hitherto unknown wonders of Jehovah's character, and the unimaginable resources of his wisdom and grace.
This purpose selected the channel through which this divine manifestation was to come, and in selecting it settled, at once and forever, the vain question that has been so often raised—Could there not have been another channel equally efficacious? There could not. The divine selection of one channel, is the setting aside of all the rest as inadequate to accomplish the design. This purpose, then, gave definite shape to the future, arranging its endless movements—as certainly as the motions of each starry orb in the skies are adjusted, by the hand of the Creator. It regulated the time when grace was first to come forth, the place where it was first to be proclaimed, and the race in reference to whom the manifestation was to be made. It was not to show itself at the first eruption of sin. In that case, righteousness was alone to triumph—and the transgressors would have been consigned to everlasting chains. But after it had been proved that vengeance executed on the criminal could not deter others, and that thus righteousness alone was insufficient to deal effectually with sin—grace was to be introduced, to deal with it in a way such as would render any future outburst of it forever impossible. Immediately on man's fall, grace was to come in, and undertake the mighty work; a work in which righteousness had been baffled. On the very spot where sin had burst in upon the new-made world, grace was to plant its standard, and at the very commencement of the conflict, proclaim its certain victory. It was to meet sin face to face, choosing for its battle-field the very territory where sin had displayed itself. It was to begin its actings on the soil where the blight had fallen, and the ruin been wrought.
Confronting both the tempter and the tempted, interposing between the spoiler and the victim, bidding the law stand by and see itself vindicated to the full, though in a new way; calling on righteousness to forego its prey, under the promise of a far nobler and more satisfying victim—it proclaimed "glory to God in the highest" out of that event which seemed most to dishonor his name; "peace on earth" out of that disaster which seemed to have driven peace out of the world; "good-will to man" out of that sin which threatened to make God man's enemy forever. Near by the forbidden tree of Eden, God opened the well-spring of grace! Out of the fountain there opened, have flowed to us all the manifold streams of grace which have, since that, watered our parched and cursed soil.
This grace is something wholly new, and, as such, difficult for man to apprehend. The very idea of grace is strange, and, we may say, unnatural to man. He understands the meaning of righteousness—but not of grace, except in the false sense of 'mere indifference to sin'. His thoughts are not God's thoughts; and hence the difficulty of making the sinner comprehend what grace really is, or, having comprehended it, to act upon it. To know what grace is, and to act upon it—to know what grace is, and to go to God, simply as one who has heard that he is gracious—this is salvation—this is eternal life! Yet thus to teach the sinner what grace means is strangely difficult; and to persuade him to trust his soul for eternity to that God who has thus made known his grace—is a thing so impossible, that as nothing but the infinite skill of the divine Spirit is sufficient to overcome man's unteachableness in this thing, so nothing but the almightiness of the same Spirit is able to conquer a man's determination not to allow himself to be dealt with in any such way by God.
To the false grace, which consists in indifference to sin—man offers no objections; that grace that would allow him to work his own way back to God, and accept his doings at what he conceives them to be worth, he comprehends—to the grace that would make him 'partner in the work of salvation' he would submit! But to the grace which sets out with the total condemnation both of himself and his sin, which allows him no standing before God, except that of the sentenced criminal; and no plea but that of worthlessness, which treats himself as one thoroughly lost, and his case as absolutely desperate, and which, while doing all this, presents him with a complete, an immediate, an eternal salvation—without preparation or prerequisite, as the purchase of the great redemption on the cross, and the gift of God's free and boundless love—to this grace he has insuperable objections, and would perish rather than take life upon such terms! No—he would turn upon God and accuse him of unfairness in such treatment of himself, and of disregard to the interests of morality and virtue, in disallowing what he calls the 'honorable competition for eternal life'.
From the hour that God proclaimed this grace upon the earth, he gave man to understand that there was grace enough to meet his case as a sinner. The first promise embodies this as its essence; and upon the strength of this simple assurance, sinners in those early days drew near to God, and saints walked with him in holy companionship. They knew but little then; for God's purpose of grace dawned slowly on the world. But what they knew gave rest to their souls, for they could say this much at least, "There is enough of grace in God to meet my case." Thus they tasted that the Lord was gracious, and went upon their way rejoicing, to keep the commandments of their God.
But as the world went on, sin went on; and it might be doubted whether this grace of God—which was sufficient at first—was sufficient still; or whether man's sin might not exhaust it, or whether it could continue to widen its circle, and embrace yet larger and larger measures of unworthiness. Grant that the rays of the sun can pierce a certain amount of darkness, is there light enough to pierce all darkness whatever, though it were to deepen and thicken beyond measure? Grant that the light has proved itself sufficient to absorb the darkness of the world's first sad night, is it adequate to swallow up the darkness of ten thousand midnights gloomier and more sorrowful than these? Will grace last? Will it expand itself to take in greater guilt? Will not God be wearied with receiving so many sinners, and forgiving so many sins? All these questions required to be answered, and God proceeded to answer them age after age, by showing that "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound."
God not merely allowed sin to enter--but to spread; not only to spread--but to increase in heinousness; not only to increase in heinousness--but to vary itself, and take every conceivable shape that man's wicked heart could devise--all in order to demonstrate that His resources of grace were adequate to meet it all. Sin might widen its circle age after age—but grace widened its circle and still went far beyond man's transgression. Age after age sin ascended a higher pinnacle of rebellious ungodliness; but grace ascended along with it, and took its station far above it, like a bright canopy of heavenly azure. Age after age descended to lower and lower depths of hateful pollution; grace went down along with it. And when the soul found itself at the very bottom of the horrible pit, and expected to meet nothing there but hell itself, it found the hand of grace still beneath it, as mighty to save, as willing to bless as ever. Just as sin abounded, so grace did much more abound.
Such has been the history of our world, and such the way in which God's purpose of grace has unfolded itself, and widened its circle just as sin continued to widen—so that every part of it has been a story of abounding sin—and far more abounding grace. We know that Adam's case was such, and such has been the case of each saved one to this hour. What was Abraham's history, but one of abounding sin and super-abounding grace? What was Rahab's history, but a history of abounding sin and super-abounding grace? What was David's history, but a history of abounding sin and super-abounding grace? What was Manasseh's history, but a history of abounding sin and super-abounding grace? What was the history of Saul of Tarsus, but one of abounding sin and super-abounding grace, as he himself declares, "The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly." 1 Timothy 1:14
What has all Israel's history been—but the history of abounding sin and super-abounding grace? No, what is all this world's long history, protracted to its utmost length by God's marvelous patience, not willing that any should perish—but that all should come to repentance—what is it but a history of abounding sin and super-abounding grace? O the infinite dimensions of this immeasurable grace! It has a breadth and length, a depth and height, that pass all knowledge! And it is this wondrous grace, in all its exceeding riches, that God is presenting to each sinner here, that they may take it and live forever. There was enough for Rahab, and Manasseh, and Saul; be assured that there is enough for you!
But the past has not exhausted this grace; the future is as much connected with it as is the past. It is in "the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus." The Lord's first coming displayed much of these exceeding riches; his second coming is to bring them to light in yet larger fullness. From the foot of the cross, the fountain of free love poured itself plenteously forth; but from the foot of the heavenly throne, this same fountain is again to break out and send abroad its unexhausted abundance. Of the many ways in which grace shall then get vent to itself, I do not mean here to speak; yet this much may be said, that in a thousand forms and ways shall grace yet unfold itself—in bringing back the captivity of Zion, in converting the world, in binding the strong man, in removing the curse, in making all things new, so that God's last demonstration of grace shall be the strongest and the fullest—proving that where sin has abounded grace has much more abounded.
Of these, however, I do not speak further, as the Apostle's words in the passage before us speak more especially of the Church, and of what grace is yet to do for her in the ages to come. To this same thing and time refer the words of the apostle Peter, when he speaks of "the grace that is to be brought unto us at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:13). Both passages point us forward to the day of Christ's appearing, as the day in which new treasures of grace shall be unlocked to us, and God's free love have a new manifestation which shall show that the past has not exhausted it; no, that the past has merely been the pledge of the wonders yet to come. It is grace which strives with the sinner, grace which renews him, grace which leads him to the cross, grace which forgives him, grace which heals all his diseases, grace which bears with him after forgiveness, grace which guides him along, grace which fights for him, grace which comforts him, grace which trains him for the kingdom and makes all things work together for his good, grace which keeps his soul in peace amid the tumults of a stormy world, grace which maintains his unbroken fellowship with the Lord, grace which lays him down quietly to sleep in Jesus, with the blessed hope of soon rising again and putting on immortality. It is grace which does all these marvels for him and in him. "By the grace of God I am what I am." 1 Corinthians 15:10
In experiencing these things, he feels oftentimes as if grace had gone to its utmost stretch, as if it were not possible nor conceivable that grace could do more for him than it has done. Its past dealings with him have been so marvelous, that it seems ingratitude as well as presumption to anticipate more. Yet that which he is afraid even to imagine, is that which God has in store for him. Grace, no, riches of grace, no, exceeding riches of grace, are yet to be unfolded to him in the ages to come. Eye has not seen them, ear has not heard them, the heart has not conceived them; yet they are not the less surely provided for him.
There is, of course, a difference in the ages to come. There are no more sins to be forgiven, and no more perversity and unbelief to be borne with; but still the man is the same man that was once in the miry clay, that was once a sinner and an alien, and accordingly he can only be dealt with, even hereafter, by grace. It was only grace that could meet his case here in his sins; and it is only grace that can deal with him hereafter, even when made perfect. All that shall be done for him in the ages to come, shall be the result of grace. Here it is grace seen in justifying; hereafter it is grace seen in glorifying the justified. The amount of grace given out here is just the amount needed for the forgiveness of his sins, and the new-molding of his nature, and the helping of his infirmities; but the amount of grace to flow forth in the ages to come, is to be measured by the excellency of the inheritance which is then to be bestowed. That which man calls "exceeding riches of grace" is just that extent of grace which he needs here, when fighting his way to the kingdom, for his finite soul can hardly conceive of anything larger; but that which God calls the "exceeding riches of grace" is that which is measured by "the exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
We often feel as if grace had done its utmost when it has carried us safely through the desert, and set us down at the gate of the kingdom. We feel as if, when grace has landed us there, it has done all for us that we are to expect. But God's thoughts are not our thoughts. He does exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think. It is just when we reach the threshold of the prepared heavenly city, that grace meets us in new and more abundant measures, presenting us with the recompense of the reward. The love that shall meet us then to bid us welcome to the many mansions, shall be love beyond what we were here able to comprehend; for then shall we fully realize, as if for the first time, the meaning of these words, "The love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord;" and then shall we have that prayer of Christ fulfilled in us, "That the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."
It is grace which bestows the heavenly inheritance; and the greatness of that inheritance will be the measure of the grace. It is grace which crowns and enthrones us; and the crown and throne, which shall then be ours, will be the measure of the grace. It is grace which provides for us the New Jerusalem, with its bright beauty and divine magnificence; and that celestial city will be the measure of the grace. It is grace which spreads for us the Lamb's marriage-supper, and clothes us with the bridal-dress; and that marriage-supper, that bridal-dress, will be the measure of the grace. It was grace which on earth said to us, "Come unto Me, and I will give you rest;" and it will be grace, in all its exceeding riches, that will hereafter say to us, "Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
No doubt, in one sense, we might say that God's Son, his unspeakable gift, is the measure, even as he is the pledge of the grace; and, speaking generally, we might say, the grace must be boundless, seeing the gift is infinite, so that we do not need to wait for the ages to come to disclose the riches of the grace. But let us remember that it is one thing to know that a friend's bountifulness is large, and another thing to know in what gifts that large bountifulness will display itself. God's gift of his own Son assures us that there is nothing too costly for him to bestow on us; so that, applying this measurement generally, we may say, "He who spared not his own Son, how shall he not, with him, freely give us all things?" But not until these "all things" are made ours in the ages to come, can we realize all the grace that the "unspeakable gift" includes and implies.
Faith uses this as the great standard of measurement when calculating the extent of its anticipated possessions; hope assures itself by means of it that it shall not be put to shame. But all this is only seeing things "in a glass darkly." Possessing Christ, we feel assured that we can possess nothing of greater value; but still the things which we receive in him and through him, will most marvelously contribute to make us understand the grace which is given us in him. In giving us Christ, the Father traces round us, as it were, an illimitable circle; but then our exact appreciation of its wide dimensions depends much upon its contents, upon the nature of the things which it comprehends. To say that our treasure-house is infinite, is one thing, and to bring forth its treasures and spread them out before us, is another. It is one thing to tell us that there is over our heads a vast and all-including skies, bright with the glory and the love of God; and it is another to withdraw the clouds which veil it, and to present us with a whole sky of stars. And just as, in receiving our daily forgivenesses at his hand, God made us to understand the riches of his grace, while here, in a way such as we never could by any mere statement of their greatness; so, in conferring on us the incorruptible inheritance hereafter, he will give us conceptions of his unutterable grace such as, until then, we could not realize.
The truth is, though it may seem almost a contradiction, that while we measure the greatness of the coming glories by the unspeakable gift, we are also to measure the greatness of the unspeakable gift by the glories which shall then be revealed. We stand at the cross just now, and, realizing the love of which that cross gives us the happy pledge, we look forward into the ages to come and say—What will God not give? So hereafter, when these ages shall have begun, we shall turn our eye backward to the cross, and, encircled with the glory of the kingdom which shall then be ours, we shall exclaim, "Oh, what has God given us in giving us his Son!"
This glance into "the ages to come," with all their "exceeding riches of grace," is plentiful in lessons, as practical as they are precious. It opens out so largely, in all its breadth and length, in all its depth and height, the infinitely gracious character of "the God of all grace," that we cannot give it admission for a moment without feeling what a new intensity of light it casts upon "the gospel of the grace of God."
Pointing to these "ages to come," we can reason with the man of this age, the man who is walking "according to the course of this age," and who, if Christ were coming now to introduce the age to come, would be found all unready; we can reason with him and say, Behold these riches of grace! are they not enough to startle even your heedlessness into solemnity, and to convince you that there is a better portion, than this poor world, for that empty soul of yours? Is that boundless store of love, which the eternal ages are to unfold, not more satisfying, more gladdening to the spirit than this present evil world? And does it not assure you, though you be the guiltiest and most alienated that earth contains, that there is grace enough in God to receive you, save you, pardon you, bless you, and make you, even you, an heir of God and joint-heir with Jesus Christ!
Again, pointing to these ages to come, we can reason with the troubled spirit, weary of its burdens, yet doubting whether its wounds can be healed or its sins forgiven—These "ages to come," my friend, with all their exceeding riches of grace, do they not speak peace to your sorrowful spirit? Do they not tell you of grace so free and ample that it is not within the bounds of possibility, that your sins can exceed it? You do not need to vex yourself with the thought, "But what are these riches of grace, so long as I am not assured of my portion in that kingdom?" This is not the point with which you have more immediately to do. The question on which the commencement of your peace depends is not, "What is your ascertained participation in that promised heritage?" but, What is the character of the God with whom you have to do, and what is the light which these future ages cast upon his character as the God of all grace? His past dealings with sinners reveal his graciousness, and is not that enough to make you feel that there is a welcome for you? The cross of his Son; where the great pacification was accomplished, in virtue of which his grace has got righteous vent to itself; that cross makes known his graciousness. Is it not sufficient to pacify your conscience and win your reluctant confidence?
But, as if all that were still inadequate, he gives you a prophetic glance into the fountainhead of his immeasurable grace, and disclosing to you the gracious bosom out of which all grace has come, he shows you such a vastness of love, and such an infinite magnitude of resources ready to be poured forth at the bidding of that love, that it seems as if he would not allow the very shadow of an excuse to remain for one distrustful imagination, one suspicious thought. This God of all grace, the God of these coming ages—is he not just such a God as even you may go to, with the whole outcry of your troubles, the whole burden of your needs and sins? Whether it be your sense of sin, or your lack of a sense of sin that is saddening you; whether it be a new and sudden rising of doubts within you, or a long-protracted course of unbelief, and insensibility, and darkness; whatever it be, know this, that there is grace enough in this God of all grace even for such a case as yours! And if you would but be persuaded to give yourselves at once to the blessed impression which the simple announcement of these tidings of grace is fitted to make, you would know, before you were aware, the divine peace that calms every tumult within; and, tasting that the Lord is gracious, you would go upon your way rejoicing, the Lord directing your heart into the love of God and into the patient waiting for Christ.
Lastly, pointing to these ages to come, we can reason with the struggling saint and say, Look at these exceeding riches of grace which are to be unfolded at the revelation of Jesus Christ, and then ask yourself—Is there any room for that faintness and oppressive despondency which sometimes weighs you down? Is there room for care, and anxiety, and dread, and sadness? Is there room for anything—but joy in the Lord, and exultation in the hope of his appearing? It was thus that our Lord reasoned with his disciples, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." The meaning of which passage is not, as some take it, "Be not afraid, for you shall soon have a kingdom that will make up for all poverty and privation here;" but, "Fear not, neither despond respecting your present lot; he who is about to give you a kingdom will assuredly supply all your need according to his riches in glory; the kingdom which you have in prospect is a pledge that he will deny you nothing here."
So we say—He who has made you heirs of his kingdom—will he withhold anything from you? No, what will he not fully give, whether pertaining to the soul or the body? Is his grace large enough to give you a kingdom, and yet not large enough to provide for you on the way to it? Are not these exceeding riches of grace, which are to be unrolled in the ages to come, the pledge of all present grace which your case requires? That which God purposes to do hereafter tells you how much he is willing to do just now. What sin is he not willing to forgive? What need is he not willing to supply? What infirmity is he not willing to help? What enemy is he not willing to bruise under your feet? What evil in you is he not willing to uproot? What fruits of his Spirit will he not ripen in you? What fear is he not willing to remove? What burden is he not willing to bear? What desire of your heart is he not willing to grant? What trial is he not willing to alleviate? What wound is he not willing to heal? What sorrow is he not willing to turn into joy?
Ah, these exceeding riches of grace in the ages to come—these are the Church's pledge for all needed blessings now! If we may expect these hereafter, what may we not count upon now? He who has prepared for us a crown of righteousness—will he not uphold our goings here? He who has built for us the New Jerusalem with all its glory—will he not give us a place on earth whereon to lay our head? He who has provided the white clothing of the bridal feast—will he not give us clothing for our bodies in the days of our pilgrimage? He who is to spread for us the table with the hidden manna and the fruit of the tree of life—will he not give us bread to eat, while passing onwards to the kingdom? He who is before long to give us the bright and morning star—will he not shed light upon the darkness of our dreary path, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away?