Christians are called to be a light for Christ in a dark world as they bear witness to the gospel. This requires that God’s people be well-equipped with biblical truth, and Dr. R.C. Sproul founded Ligonier Ministries to support the church with teaching that exalts the holiness and grace of God. Today, millions of people around the world are requesting Ligonier’s Bible teaching—and your help is needed on this Giving Tuesday. To meet the rising global demand, Ligonier is developing the world’s largest library of discipleship resources that are faithful to the historic Christian faith. Through your generous support, you can help make more of this trusted teaching available in the top twenty languages over the years to come. Please watch this special message from Ligonier’s president and several other ministry leaders. See how your generous support can help accelerate the advance of biblical truth to millions of people in a spiritually dark world. And this Giving Tuesday, please consider giving a year-end gift to support this Great Commission outreach.
The teaching that God chooses some people out of the mass of fallen humanity to be saved and not others raises the objection that God is not fair. Somehow it is widely assumed that God owes all people either the gift of salvation or at least a chance of salvation. Since they cannot be saved apart from His grace, He owes it to everyone to grant them that grace. This kind of thinking results from a fundamental confusion between God’s justice and His mercy or grace. Grace, by definition, is something that God is not required to grant. He owes a fallen world no mercy. If we cried out for justice at His hands, we could all receive the just condemnation we deserve. Justice is what we deserve. Grace is always and ever undeserved. If we deserved it, it would not be grace. The issue is complicated when we consider that God chooses to grant this saving grace to some but not to all. We recall that, in the first place, He owes it to no one. Once someone has sinned, God owes that person nothing. Indeed, even before sin, God owes the creature nothing. It is the creature who is indebted to God (for sustaining if not also saving grace), not God to the creature. But what is often assumed is that if God grants grace to some, then He must grant the same measure of grace to all if He is fair and just. Here we must stop for a moment and ask why this should be so. Why does the granting of grace to some require the granting of grace to all? Again we recall that in this process no one receives injustice at the hand of God. The elect get the grace they do not deserve, while the reprobate get the justice they do deserve. If God decides to pardon one guilty person, that does not mean that those He does not pardon somehow become any less guilty. In answer to his own question, “Is there unrighteousness with God?” Paul emphatically declared, “Certainly not!” For the Apostle, it was unthinkable that there should be any unrighteousness with God. He reminded his readers of what God revealed in the Old Testament when He said to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19). We see in this reminder the unmistakable concept of God’s sovereign grace. Paul made it unambiguously clear that God always reserves the right to exercise His mercy and grace according to His own good pleasure. This is the supreme right of executive clemency. It is this sovereign expression of love that redounds to the praise of His glory. It is this love that leaves us astonished and singing doxologies. It is this overwhelming love that provoked Paul to cry out: > Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! “For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?’ ‘Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?” (Rom. 11:33–35). The conclusion Paul drew from this sovereign expression of grace and mercy is this: “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
In his letter to the Romans, after the Apostle Paul describes the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), he gives us some sobering news. There is not one person who isn’t ungodly, unrighteous, a hinderer of the truth, idolatrous, immoral, full of evil, deserving of death, and under condemnation by the Creator (Rom. 1:18–3:20). Every person is guilty because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But what does this mean? To answer this question, we must grasp Paul’s entire argument in Romans 3:21–26. Paul begins, “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22). The righteousness of God has a redemptive quality. God saves His people from slavery to sin so they can enjoy a relationship with Him. He declares us just through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. From before the creation of the world, God planned to save His people by grace alone, but this was not made fully manifest until Christ came. To be sure, the Law and the Prophets spoke of this Christ who was to come. Through shadows and types, the Savior of the world was progressively revealed until “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This saving righteousness is “for all who believe” in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22). When Paul says, “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), he means that there is no distinction when it comes to being sinners, whether one is Jew or gentile, male or female, legalistic or licentious. This is because “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Apart from Christ, all humankind stands condemned before God. As fallen creatures, we no longer perfectly reflect the knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of God. But thankfully, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). In Christ, believers are being sanctified (growing in Christlikeness) until the day of His return, when we will be glorified (perfectly sanctified). God, in His grace, grants His children the gift of justification through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). The perfect Judge will declare believers not guilty on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work. The benefits of redemption are applied to believers by the Holy Spirit. The redemption of God’s people is truly a work of the triune God. God the Father put His Son “forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom. 3:25). According to the Old Testament sacrificial system, the Day of Atonement was the only time of the year when the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place. In it stood the ark of the covenant, with the mercy seat on top. It was from above this seat that God spoke to His people (Ex. 25:22). To make atonement for himself and for God’s people, the high priest would sprinkle the blood from the sin offering over, and in front of, the mercy seat (Lev. 16:15–16). In speaking of “propitiation,” Paul does not just have in mind the idea of sacrifice but also the truth that God’s wrath was satisfied in Christ’s death on the cross. This gift can only be received from God through faith in Christ; therefore, we cannot earn our salvation through good works. Since “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins,” God put forward His Son as a propitiation by his blood to show His righteousness (Rom. 3:25). Because the Old Testament sacrificial system never permanently did away with the sins of God’s people, the just and righteous God had to deal with sin, and He purposed to do this through the death of His only Son. Only the sinless God-man can represent God to man and man to God, give His life as a ransom for those who trust in Him, and be the substitute for sinners. The death of Christ revealed God’s righteousness, “so that He might be just [in dealing with sin] and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). On the one hand, when it comes to sin, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But on the other hand, when it comes to salvation there is a distinction. Only those who believe in Jesus will be saved: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Have you received and rested upon Jesus Christ alone for your salvation? If so, thank God today for saving you. If you are not sure, seek God in His Word and in prayer, asking Him to reveal Himself to you through the Holy Scriptures.
I think one point of encouragement would be that salvation is of the Lord. No parent can guarantee the salvation of their own child. When the book of Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6), that is simply a general observation; it is not a promise—that would be to misinterpret Hebrew wisdom literature.
Parents simply need to know that, before God, we have done the best we knew to do at the time, we looked to God, and we tried to bring Christian influence to bear upon our children’s lives. But we cannot coerce our children into the kingdom. We cannot manipulate them into the kingdom. There is only One who can bring them into the kingdom, and that is God the Holy Spirit. We must have a realistic understanding that salvation is of the Lord, not of man.
Every parent wants their children, longs for their children, and prays for their children to be in Christ. But at the end of the day, no parent can save their child, and no parent can give repentance and faith to their child. God must do that work of grace. So, my encouragement would begin there.
Second, I would say that the story is not over. A child who becomes a prodigal may yet come home, and a gracious Father will receive them, clothe them with the righteousness of His Son, and wash their sins away. Until that child is in the grave, there is still hope that God will yet work.
The third thing I would say is that God will do what is right, and God owes salvation to no one. He says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15), and, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13). A great encouragement for every parent is that God will do what is right. It should amaze us that any child is saved and converted, and they become a trophy of grace. We can understand the wayward child, but it takes divine intervention for God to rescue a child and bring them to Himself.
So, I would say those three things by way of encouragement. Continue to pray, continue to love, and continue to reach out, knowing that the end of the book has not yet been finished. God may yet bring them to Christ.
When someone orders us to do something, or imposes an obligation, it is natural for us to ask two questions. The first question is, “Why should I?” and the second is, “Who says so?” The why and the authority behind the mandate are very important to the question of forgiveness. To answer the question of why we should be forgiving people, let us look briefly at the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel, we read this account: > Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. > Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt. 18:21–35) In this parable, the point of Jesus’ teaching is clear, that the why for forgiving others is rooted in the fact that we have been the recipients of extraordinary mercy and compassion. We are all debtors who cannot pay their debts to God. Yet God has been gracious enough to grant us forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus instructs His disciples to say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” There is a parallel, a joint movement of compassion, that is first received from God and then we in turn exercise the same compassion to others. God makes it clear that if we lack that compassion and harbor vengeance in our heart, rather than being ready to forgive again and again, we will forfeit any forgiveness that has been given to us. Thus, the foundation for a forgiving spirit is the experience of divine grace. It is by grace that we are saved. It is by grace that we live. It is by grace that we have been forgiven. Therefore, the why of forgiving is to manifest our own gratitude for the grace that we have received. Again, the parable of Jesus points to one who took the grace that he received for granted and refused to act in a way that mirrored and reflected the kindness of God. Why should we forgive? Simply, because God forgives us. It is not an insignificant thing to add on to the why the point that we are commanded by that God of grace to exercise grace in turn. When we look at the question of forgiveness, however, we also have to ask the second query, “Who says so, and under what conditions are we to keep this requirement?” If we turn our attention to another gospel, we see in Luke 17 the following: > And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:1–4) It’s important that we look closely at this directive from Jesus regarding forgiveness. It is often taught in the Christian community that Christians are called to forgive those who sin against them unilaterally and universally. We see the example of Jesus on the cross, asking God to forgive those who were executing Him, even though they offered no visible indication of repentance. From that example of Jesus, it has been inferred that Christians must always forgive all offenses against them, even when repentance is not offered. However, the most that we can legitimately infer from Jesus’ actions on that occasion is that we have the right to forgive people unilaterally. Though that may be indeed a wonderful thing, it is not commanded. If we look at the commandment that Jesus gives in Luke 17:3, He says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Notice that the first response to the offense is not forgiveness but rather rebuke. The Christian has the right to rebuke those who commit wrong doing against him. That’s the basis for the whole procedure of church discipline in the New Testament. If we were commanded to give unilateral forgiveness to all, under all circumstances, then the whole action of church discipline to redress wrongs, would itself be wrong. But Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents . . . ,”—here is where the command becomes obligatory—if the offender repents, then it is mandatory for the Christian to forgive the one who has offended him. If we refuse to give forgiveness when repentance has been manifest, then we expose ourselves to the same fate as the unforgiving servant. We open ourselves to the wrath of God. If, indeed, I offend someone and then repent and express my apology to them, but he refuses to forgive me, then the coals of fire are on his head. Likewise, if we fail to give forgiveness, when one who has offended us repents of the offense, we expose ourselves to the coals of fire, and we are in worse shape than the one who has given the offense. In other words, it is transgression against God when we refuse to forgive those who have repented for their offenses to us. This is the teaching of Jesus. It is the mandate of Jesus. As we are united in Christ, we are to show that union by extending the same grace to others that He extends to us.