Grace Is Profoundly Existential, Beginning With the Church
“Grace is a profoundly existential matter” (157).
That’s the verdict in Carl Trueman’s new book Grace Alone, a tour de force through the biblical, historical, and existential conversations surrounding salvation as a gift of God. How is grace existential?
[Grace] does not simply explain how the Creator and his fallen creatures are brought back into communion with each other… Grace should hold us in its grip in such a way that our whole being is affected. That which brings us from being under God’s wrath to being his beloved children is surely something that we cannot contemplate in a dispassionate manner. (157)
This is why Trueman culminates his book with an extended conversation on the means of grace through the church, preaching, the sacraments, and prayer.
Below are a few takeaways from his chapter about the profound existential mystery of God’s grace through the church.
God “Does”: The Agent of the Church
First a word on how the Reformers talked about God’s grace and the church. Although they moved away from a strong institutional ecclesiology, nonetheless “they knew that the church, even considered as an institution, was herself an act of God’s grace” (158). Consider this answer to question 54 in the Heidelberg Catechism:
I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life. And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it.
Trueman notes that this definition gives priority to God’s action in creating and preserving the church. This divine agency contrasts sharply with the popular evangelical parlance of “doing church,” for if we do church then its success is dependent upon our strength.
God Creates: The Existence of the Church
Next, Trueman traces several New Testament themes showing how the church exists because God created it:
- Christology. “[The church] is founded in the work of Christ, which once again reminds us of its origins in the grace of God” (163)
- Resurrection. “It is only because Christ is risen that we have the church…[our] identity and [our] existence is determined absolutely by an act of God’s complete sovereignty and grace” (163, 164)
- Temple. As Jerusalem’s temple stood according to God’s specifications and his actions, so too “the church is designed and built by God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit” (164)
- Body. Since Jesus himself identifies his body with the temple “to refer to the church as the body of Christ also highlights the sovereignty of God in the action of constituting the church” (165)
“The church that takes God’s grace seriously,” Trueman explains, “believes that the church is solely God’s creature—not our response to his grace” (166).
God Loves: The Choice of the Church
One of the strongest illustrations underlying God’s grace and the church is the language of bride—especially when understood in its biblical context:
In modern marriages, mutual attraction lies at the foundation of love and marital bond…Divine love precedes any intrinsically attractive quality in the object of love, and this reflects the biblical teaching on the Lord and his bride. (166)
Hosea, with his marriage to a prostitute at God’s command, and with his faithfulness after her infidelity, offers a picture of the kind of love God has for his people. Truman writes, “When the church is described as the bride of Christ, the point is not that the Lord has made her his bride because she is beautiful and delightful. It is because she was not so—and despite her ugliness and filth he has chosen to make her so” (166).
The Bible’s bridal language is saturated with God’s grace.
God Sustains: The Source of the Church
Finally, God sustains the church as its head. “As the embodiment of God’s grace, Christ is also the source of ongoing life for the church. There is a vital, ongoing connection between the resurrected Christ and the daily life of the church here on earth” (167).
From mission and purpose to governance and authority, we need to acknowledge that headship and how it shapes our ongoing communal life.
Trueman argues, “if we take seriously the church as the creature of God’s grace and the vessel wherein that grace is made available, through word and sacrament, to believers, then we need to take seriously the Bible’s own teaching about the way the church should be constituted and governed” (171).
“To think of grace is to be personally confronted with God, and thus no account of grace can omit discussion of the place, ways, and means of that confrontation” (157).
One of those areas of confrontation is the church. The others are the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. Engage Trueman’s book yourself to better understand the means of God’s grace.
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