The Meaning of Sovereign Grace

By Evangelist Rolfe Barnard (1904-1969)


Why do we use the double term sovereign grace? What does it mean and what is implied by the epithet “sovereign” as attached to the term “grace”? The answer is immediately at hand. The whole so-called “Christian world” professes to believe in salvation by grace. Only a remnant within the whole believes in Sovereign Grace. I am happy to be found among the latter group. The popular conception of salvation by grace is that God used to be holy, but now He has found a way to let man off easier. Nearly all of the major groups talk of salvation by grace and it means, usually, whatever the holder of the view thinks it means. I am trying simply to say this; there seems to be no division among professing Christians as to salvation by grace, as the term is loosely and widely used – but there is a wide and real division among them when we consider the term “Sovereign Grace”! Because I believe there is no grace save sovereign grace, I use the term and dedicate my own ministry, unprofitable as it is, to the expounding of sovereign grace and to the calling of the ministry back to similar action.

(1) What do the terms grace and sovereign mean? One of the attributes of God is goodness. The goodness of God is the divine essence seen as energized benevolently and kindly towards the creature; “I will be gracious – I will be merciful”, Saith the Lord. “The Lord is plenteous in mercy.” “The Lord delights to show mercy.” Mercy and grace are varieties of God’s goodness. Grace has reference to sinful man as guilty, while mercy has respect to sinful man as miserable.

(2) This attribute (goodness) expressed in grace and mercy is free and sovereign in its exercise. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Exodus 33:19. The goodness of God is infinite and circumscribed by no limits; but the exercise of His goodness may be limited by Himself. God is necessarily good in His nature, but free in His communication of it. If the Bible is plain about anything it is plain about the fact that God must be just to all men; He may be merciful to some. God owes all men justice; He owes no man mercy or grace! A sovereign God exercises mercy and grace as it seems good to Him. “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight.” Matthew 11:25-26.

(3) Actually God exercises mercy in a general manner toward all men. Anything this side of hell is mercy! Mercy is found in and by the works of creation and providence and the delay of punishment, but special grace or saving grace and mercy in Christ are only exercised in redemption and regeneration toward those whom a sovereign God is pleased to save. Ephesians 1:3-7; Romans 9:11-16. This is our battle cry! How seldom it is heard, yet it is the very truth of truths.

If you will consider the history of the preaching of sovereign grace, you will arrive at the startling fact that every great period of spiritual awakening this world has ever known has come in connection with such preaching. Brethren, history and the pale imitation of revival present among us today, demand a restudy of and a return to the truth of grace in the hands of a Sovereign, whose exercise of mercy is optional within and to Himself.

The preaching of sovereign grace is not therefore the giving of undue prominence to any single doctrine of scripture. It is rather the proclaiming of a sovereign God graciously dealing with sinners as it pleases Him. We are often and somewhat vociferously accused of being guilty of the first part of this statement. This writer would certainly join in condemning the same. It is quite true that there is danger here. Any doctrine isolated from the whole body of revealed truth becomes perverted doctrine.The preaching of sovereign grace is not an enemy of true evangelism. Let me hasten to say that the preaching of sovereign grace will kill deader than a doornail the message and method of present-day evangelism! And some of us believe with a deadly intensity that the false message and method must be killed before the true message and method can become effective. We further believe that the only way this can be done is by the preaching of truth about God, the truth about man, and the truth about Christ who died and lives that God might be just and justified. These lines will appeal to no one who is happy about the results of evangelism today, but should you be one of many who mourn here, you will join in the task of raising up again the standard of sovereign grace.

A sovereign Christ is almost unheard of in church circles today: A Christ into whose hands all things have been given, who has all authority; who gives life and quickens whom He will, who decides the destinies of all men; who is Lord over all flesh (See Matthew 28:18-20; John 3:35; John 17:2; Romans 14:9; John 5:21). Present-day evangelism, for the most part, poses to men the question, “What will you do with Jesus?” Bible or true evangelism poses the question, “What will the sovereign Christ do with me?”

Present-day evangelism says to men, “Believe and be born again.” Bible evangelism says to men, “Be born again so you can believe.” The one makes the new birth depend on an act of men, the other on an act of God. Present-day evangelism takes for granted God’s mercy and grace, rather than marvelling at them in adoration and worship. Hear Paul say, “I obtained mercy.” Hear Peter say, “to all who have obtained like precious faith.” How I long to hear this note in the churches today! Salvation today is a physical rather than a spiritual matter. The preaching of sovereign grace is the need of the hour if we shall be true to God’s Word and true to the souls of men.



Sovereign Grace Hated by the Modern Religionist

By C. H. Spurgeon

If anything is hated bitterly, it is the out-and-out gospel of the grace of God, especially if that hateful word "sovereignty" is mentioned with it. Dare to say "He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and he will have compassion on whom he will have compassion" (Romans 9:15), and furious critics will revile you without stint.

The modern religionist not only hates the doctrine of sovereign grace, but he raves and rages at the mention of it. He would sooner hear you blaspheme than preach election by the Father, atonement by the Son, or regeneration by the Spirit.

If you want to see a man worked up till the Satanic is clearly uppermost, let some of the new divines hear you preach a free grace sermon. A gospel which is after men will be welcomed by men; but it needs divine operation upon the heart and mind to make a man willing to receive into his inmost soul this distasteful gospel of the grace of God. My dear brethren, do not try to make it tasteful to carnal minds.

Hide not the offense of the cross, lest you make it of none effect. The angles and corners of the gospel are its strength. To pare them
off is to deprive it of power. Toning down is not the increase of strength, but the death of it.

Learn, then, that if you take Christ out of Christianity, Christianity is dead. If you remove grace out of the gospel, the gospel is gone. If the people do not like the doctrine of grace, give them all the more of it.

I preach the doctrines of grace because I believe them to be true; because I see them in the Scriptures; because my experience endears them to me; and because I see the holy result of them in believers.

The doctrine which I preach to you is that of the Puritans: it is the doctrine of Calvin, the doctrine of Augustine, the doctrine of Paul, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Author and Finisher of our faith himself taught the most blessed truth which well agreed with our text--"For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." Ephesians 2:8.

[Excerpt from Spurgeon's sermon, "Our Manifesto," preached April 25, 1890]


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