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


From first to last salvation is all of grace. Paul says: "For we too were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, captives of various passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another. But when the goodness and love for man appeared from God our Savior, He saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit." Titus 3:3-5. So that it is clearly by the grace and mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit is sent down to renew our natures, and to accomplish in us the new birth. Pardon saves a sinner from the curse of the law and the lake of fire; acceptance through Christ gives him a title to heaven; but in regeneration the dominion of sin begins to be destroyed, and the soul begins to be fitted for the Master's use.

The new birth is a great mystery, yet it is much insisted on in Scripture. "The washing of regeneration" is as necessary as washing in the blood of Christ. "The renewing of the Holy Spirit" is as essential as the "justification of life." Within the space of four verses our Lord thrice declares how necessary it is to salvation. Hear him: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again." John 3:3, 5, 7. The fallow ground must be broken up or the good seed will not take root in our hearts. The wild olive tree must undergo the operation of engrafting with the good olive tree, or it will remain worthless. All the Scriptures teach as much.

Christ taught that a vile sinner must undergo a great spiritual change, before he could be fit for the service of God. Perhaps there is not a more driveling error than that which teaches that baptism with water is the regeneration, which Jesus Christ and his apostles insist upon. When men can confound the "washing of regeneration" with the washing with water, they are fully prepared to follow, in fact they are already following, in the footsteps of those, who confounded "that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh," with that circumcision, which is "of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God." Perhaps, too, no error is more mischievous than this. It is monstrous that such error and folly should be taught in lands where God's word is in general use. To baptism some add an outward reformation, and insist that this should be admitted as sufficient. Supposing this to be the meaning of Christ and his apostles, it is impossible to defend them from the charge of using very mysterious language to convey so simple an idea. But such a belief is never entertained by those, who have a fitting respect for God's word.

It will therefore claim no more attention at this time. Sound divines have very remarkably agreed in telling us what regeneration is. Witherspoon says: "A new birth implies an universal change. It must be of the whole man, not in some particular, but in all without exception." And he shows at length that it is not PARTIAL, EXTERNAL, IMPERFECT; but that it is UNIVERSAL, INWARD, ESSENTIAL, COMPLETE, and SUPERNATURAL. Charnock says: "regeneration is a mighty and powerful change, wrought in the soul by the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit, wherein a vital principle, a new habit, the law of God, and a divine nature are put into and framed in the heart, enabling it to act holily and pleasingly to God, and to grow up therein to eternal glory." Thomas Scott quotes with approbation another definition, but does not give his author. He says: "Regeneration is a change wrought by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the understanding, will and affections of a sinner; which is the commencement of a new kind of life, and which gives another direction to his judgment, desires, pursuits, and conduct."

Although this change is called by various names, yet the doctrine of Scripture respecting it is uniform. Sometimes it is called a holy calling, a creation, a new creation, a translation, a circumcision of the heart, a resurrection; but whatever be the name, the thing signified is everywhere spoken of in very solemn terms and as a rich fruit of God's grace. Thus says Paul, "It pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me." Gal. 1:15, 16. Again: God "has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began." 2 Tim. 1:9. Again Peter says that "the God of all grace has called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus." 1 Pet. 5:10.

Nor have the purest churches ever doubted the necessity of this change. They also remarkably agree concerning its nature. The Westminster Assembly teaches that "God is pleased in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call his people by his word and Spirit out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace." The Latter Confession of Helvetia says, "In regeneration the understanding is illuminated by the Holy Spirit, that it may understand both the mysteries and will of God. And the will itself is not only changed by the Spirit, but is also endued with faculties, that, of its own accord, it may will and do good," and quotes in proof, Romans 8:4; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27; John 8:36; Phil. 1:6, 29; and 2:13. The Synod of Dort says, "This regenerating grace of God works not upon men as if they were stocks and stones, nor does it abolish the will and properties of their will, or violently constrain it; but does spiritually revive it, heal it, rectify it, and powerfully yet gently bend it: so that where formerly the rebellion of the flesh, and stubbornness did domineer without control, now a willing and sincere obedience to the Spirit begins to reign; in which change the true and spiritual rescue and freedom of our will does consist. And surely, unless the wonderful Worker of all goodness should deal with us in this sort, there were no hope left for man to arise from his lapse by his free-will, through which, when standing, he threw himself headlong into destruction."

The truth is, that if we give up regeneration, the last hope that a sinner may ever again be either holy or happy is gone forever. The Church of Ireland holds that "All God's elect are in their time inseparably united unto Christ, by the effectual and vital influence of the Holy Spirit, derived from him, as from the head, unto every true member of his mystical body. And being thus made one with Christ they are truly regenerated, and made partakers of him and all his benefits." Indeed nothing could more distress one, who rightly considered his lost estate, than to have the hope, which springs from the doctrine of regeneration, destroyed or seriously shaken. In other words, God does in regeneration but graciously respond to an urgent demand of every enlightened conscience. Every man, who has ever had his eyes opened to see his own wretchedness and vileness, will agree to the saying of Usher: "It is not a little reforming will save the man, no, nor can all the morality of the world, nor all the common graces of God's Spirit, nor the outward change of the life: they will not do, unless we are quickened and have a new life wrought in us."

In his old age, when he could no longer see to read, John Newton heard someone recite this text, "By the grace of God I am what I am." He remained silent a short time and then, as if speaking to himself, he said: "I am not what I ought to be. Ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be. I abhor that which is evil, and I would cleave to that which is good. I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon I shall put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, what I wish to be, and what I hope to be, yet I can truly say, I am not what I once was, a slave to sin and Satan! I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge--By the grace of God I am what I am!"

God's people are born three times, once into this world, once into a state of grace, and once into glory. They and the finally impenitent have the first, and none but the first birth in common. It brings the same to all. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." This natural birth is a great wonder. Devout men have always so regarded it. David says, "You are he who took me out of my mother's womb; my praise shall be continually of you." Warm should be the heart and thankful should be the song of her, who is made the joyful mother of a living healthy child. To how many, is the womb the grave. The wonder is that it is not so to more. Every good man is ready to say, "I bless God that ever I was born." "Those born once only, die twice. They die a temporal, and they die an eternal death. But those who are born twice, die only once; for over them the second death has no power."

Our second birth brings us into a state of grace. It is one of the richest of God's covenanted mercies. When one is born anew, a fatal blow is given to Satan's kingdom in the heart; for "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."

This is a work of amazing power. It was for good cause that the Synod of Dort taught "that God, in regenerating a man, does employ that omnipotent strength, whereby he may powerfully and infallibly bow and bend his will unto faith and conversion." Paul uses all the strong words he is master of, to teach us that we are renewed by power, by amazing energy. He prayed that his Ephesians might know "what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead." Eph. 1:18, 19. We know of no greater power than that which accomplished the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet the same power converts the soul.

Augustine says: "To justify a sinner, to new create him from a wicked person to a righteous man, is a greater act than to make a new heaven and earth!" Nevins says, "Some think it easy to save a soul, to bend a will, to change a heart. But it is God's greatest work. Creation is not so hard. It is the most wonderful species of resurrection. With men it is impossible, with God it is possible. In saving a soul he puts forth a mightier energy than in making many worlds." In his Views in Theology Beecher admits that "the power of God in regeneration is represented as among the greatest displays of his omnipotence ever made, or to be made in the history of the universe. When the fair creation rose fresh in beauty from the hand of God, the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy; but sweeter songs will celebrate, and louder shouts will attend, the consummation of redemption by the power of God's Spirit; and such brighter glories of God, and illustrations of his power will be manifested to principalities and powers by the Church, as will cause the light of his glory in physical creation to go out and be forgotten, as the stars fade and are lost amid the splendors of the sun." Hervey says, "Without the powerful agency of the blessed Spirit to enlighten our understandings, and to apply the doctrine of the Bible to our hearts, we shall be, even with the word of light and life in our hands, somewhat like blind Bartimeus, sitting amidst the heat of day; or like the withered arm, with invaluable treasure before it."

Left to the freedom of his own will, man easily destroyed himself; but omnipotence alone can save him. In physical, as in spiritual things, destruction is easy, and restoration difficult. A child may in an hour burn down an edifice, which it took a hundred men a year to erect. One stroke of the sword may sunder a limb from the body, which all the surgeons on earth cannot restore to its position and its functions. A man may easily take his own life, but no finite power can restore it. The first Adam though earthy could ruin all whom he represented. But the second Adam must needs be the Lord from heaven, as his work was to save the lost. Thus the Church of God has always held. The Savoy Confession well says, "Although the Gospel be the only outward means of revealing Christ and of saving grace, and is, as such, abundantly sufficient thereunto; yet that men, who are dead in trespasses, may be born again, quickened, or regenerated, there is moreover necessary an effectual, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul, for producing in them a new spiritual life, without which no other means are sufficient for their conversion unto God." Our second birth is the result of the almighty energy of God's Holy Spirit.

Regeneration is no less the fruit of matchless kindness. So teach the Scriptures. "God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ." This is the way the Bible everywhere speaks. It holds no other language. Gurnall well observes that, "It is a greater act of grace, for God to work conversion in a sinner, than to crown that conversion with glory. It is more gracious and condescending in a prince to marry a poor damsel, than having married her to clothe her like a princess. He was free to do the first, or not; but the relation to her pleads strongly for the other. God might have chosen whether he would have given you grace, or not; but, having done this, your relation to him, and his covenant with you in his Son, do oblige him to add more and more, until he has fitted you as a bride for himself in glory."

This love of Christ shown in regeneration is exercised in a sovereign way. "Of his own will, he begat us." Those who receive Christ Jesus are "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man—but of God." The vessels to honor and those to dishonor are made "from the same lump of clay." By nature there is no difference between the elect and the non-elect. Paul was as bloody a persecutor as Domitian. Zaccheus as vile and greedy a worldling, as the rich man, who lifted up his eyes in hell. The thief who cried, 'Lord, remember me,' was as guilty and criminal as he, who perished, reviling the dying Savior. Manasseh was for half a century wholly corrupt and hardened, covered with sins and crimes, yet he was saved; while the young ruler, who was so amiable as to draw forth the natural affections of Christ, persisted in his covetousness, and perished.

This new birth is sometimes called a "translation." As Enoch and Elijah were taken out of this world and borne to heaven, so in its renewal, the soul is "translated out of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son." "Outer darkness" excepted, there is none worse than that, out of which the soul is brought in the day of its turning unto God. The kingdom, into which it is translated, is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Sinful nature is thus slain, while grace is enthroned and sways her peaceful scepter over the will and affections.

This new birth we must all undergo—or be forever undone. "All hangs upon this hinge. If this is not done, you are undone--undone eternally. All your profession, civility, privileges, gifts, and duties are ciphers, and signify nothing--unless regeneration is the figure put in front of them." This great change is a passing from death unto life. Nor can that transition ever be made in any other way. Better to have been born a heathen, a beast or a monster, yes, better never to have been born at all—than not to be born again!

I have known many to celebrate their birthdays every year; but the day of one's second birth is far more worthy of annual celebration. Flavel says: "What a distinguishing and seasonable mercy was ushered in by providence in the day of your conversion! It brought you to the means of salvation in a good hour. At that very point of time when the angel troubled the waters you were brought to the pool. John 5:4. Now the accepted day was come, the Spirit was in the ordinance or providence that converted you, and you were set in the way of it. It may be you had heard many hundred sermons before, but nothing would strike until now, because the hour was not come. There were many others under that sermon, that received no such mercy. As there were 'many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed--only Naaman the Syrian,' (Luke 4:27,) so there were many poor unconverted souls besides you under the word that day, and it may be that unto none of them was salvation sent that day but to you! O blessed providence, that set you in the way of mercy at that time! For consider:

1. Of all mercies, this comes through most and greatest difficulties. Eph. 1:19, 20.

2. This is a spiritual mercy, excelling in dignity of nature all others more than gold excels the dirt under your feet. Rev. 3:18. One such gift is worth thousands of other mercies.

3. This is a mercy immediately flowing out of the fountain of God's electing love, a mercy never dropped into any but an elect vessel. 1 Thess. 1:4, 5.

4. This is a mercy that infallibly secures salvation; for as we may argue from conversion to election, looking back; so from conversion to salvation looking forward. Heb. 6:9.

5. Lastly. This is an eternal mercy—that which will stick by you when father, mother, wife, children, estate, honor, health, and life shall fail you. John 4:14."

In due time the regenerate experience their third birth, which is into glory, but of this more hereafter. The first of these births is natural, the second and third are supernatural; the first is carnal, the others arc spiritual; the first inclines to sin ("they go astray so soon as they are born"); the second inclines to holiness ("he who is born of God does not make a practice of sin"); the third forever perfects both holiness and happiness; ("we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is"). Each of these births proves that God is almighty, wise and good. Yet the manner of their occurrence is mysterious to us. The transition from nothing to something, from death to life, from earth to heaven will perhaps ever be somewhat obscure. "You know not the way of the Spirit, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child." "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound thereof, but can not tell whence it comes, nor where it goes; so is everyone that is born of the Spirit."

Each of these births has its sorrows. We come into the world with a cry. We forsake sin and turn to God, mourning as for a first-born son, or as the people wept at Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon, when their good king, Josiah, was slain. We leave this world with a groan. Yet of the righteous it is always true that "the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth."

We cannot be too grateful for either of these births; but the pious heart loves to dwell on the first as the beginning of natural life, on the second as the beginning of spiritual life, and on the third as the beginning of everlasting life.

Neither of these births is the cause of the other, but God is the author of them all. To him belongs all the glory of our being, of our well-being, of our unfading bliss. In our spiritual regeneratiorn the grace of God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is very illustrious. Redemption devised by God, and purchased by Christ, is in the new birth applied by the Spirit.

One of the most admirable effects of divine grace in regeneration is the victory gained over the strongest evil inclinations. Many a time the bitterest foes to the gospel, have by the power of the new birth become the warmest friends of truth and righteousness. As David displayed his prowess by slaying Goliath, so the grace of God gains the victory over champion sins. The jailor at Philippi practiced undeserved cruelty towards his prisoners—but as soon as his heart was changed, he washed their stripes. In particular does the new birth bring a sinner out of himself, and lead him to exalt the Savior, and glorify God with all his powers. So that the soul rests in God, is satisfied with him as its chief good, and glories even in shame and reproach for the advancement of his cause. "All honor to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for it is by his boundless mercy that God has given us the privilege of being born again. Now we live with a wonderful expectation because Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. For God has reserved a priceless inheritance for his children. It is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay!" 1 Peter 1:3-4.