When we study the plan of redemption and the human drama that started in Eden, we can have a clear but not complete understanding of the great love of God on behalf of humanity.
Some keywords in the plan of salvation are substitution, transfer, grace, mercy, and justice.
Before the fall of Adam and Eve, God had declared: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (, ).
According to God’s justice – because He cannot tolerate sin – the couple should have died eternally on the same day they ate the forbidden fruit. Therefore, if God had used His attribute of justice, He would have destroyed the transgressors.
Instead of applying justice, He introduced grace and mercy to deal with sinners. So, what is grace, and what is mercy? They are two faces of the same coin – the love of God.
These two essential words in the plan of salvation are very close to each other. It seems that they have the same meaning. Nonetheless, they are different.
Grace is “11. (a) the free, unmerited love and favor of God; (b) divine influence acting in man to restrain him from sin; (c); state of reconciliation to God.” Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition.
“Grace (Charis) had the underlying idea of a bestowal of help by an act of one’s free generosity. Aristotle could therefore define Charis as ‘helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything’ nor that the helper may get anything but for the sake of the person who is helped (Rhetor. ii:7) … Philo speaks much of God’s ‘grace,’ but always in the sense of giving gifts to men. He does confess that ‘Often when I get rid of a foul suggestion in my mind by a rush of good thoughts, it is God flooding my soul with His grace’ (Leg. Allegor. Ii:9).” Merril C. Tenney, Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. p. 799.
“Divine grace is the great element of saving power; without it all human effort is unavailing.”—Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, pp. 537, 538.
“Grace is unmerited favor. The angels, who know nothing of sin, do not understand what it is to have grace exercised toward them; but our sinfulness calls for the exercise of grace from a merciful God. It was grace that sent our Savior to seek us as wanderers and bring us back to the fold.”—Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 331, 332.
“Grace is unmerited favor, and the believer is justified without any merit of his own, without any claim to offer to God. He is justified through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, who stands in the courts of heaven as the sinner’s substitute and surety.”—Ibid., p. 398.
Besides being unmerited favor, grace is also divine power for the transformation of character and enabling the sinner to do God’s will.
How about mercy?
The words grace and mercy are used many times interchangeably, but they have some differences. While grace is giving someone what he doesn’t deserve, mercy is not giving someone what he deserves. By divine grace we receive eternal salvation we do not deserve. By divine mercy, we do not receive the eternal death we deserve.
The prophet Jeremiah says that “it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not” (). Here the prophet connects mercy with compassion.
Being sinners what we do deserve is “eternal death”. “The wages of sin is death” ().
On the other hand, grace is an undeserved gift. The whole work of saving men is a gift package of God’s love.
What is mercy?
“1. A refraining from harming or punishing offenders, enemies, persons in one’s power, etc.; kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness; forbearance and compassion.
2. A disposition to forgive, pity, or be kind.”—Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition.
As we see, grace and mercy are interdependent in the plan of salvation. God doesn’t punish the sinner without giving him another chance, and at the same time offers him eternal salvation purely by His sovereign grace. Thus, we can say that we are saved purely by God’s grace and mercy.
“Salvation is a free gift, and yet it is to be bought and sold. In the market of which divine mercy has the management, the precious pearl is represented as being bought without money and without price. In this market all may obtain the goods of heaven. The treasury of the jewels of truth is open to all. ‘Behold, I have set before thee an open door, the Lord declares, ‘and no man can shut it.’ No sword guards the way through this door. Voices from within and at the door say, Come. The Savior’s voice earnestly and lovingly invites us: ‘I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich.’, .
“The gospel of Christ is a blessing that all may possess. The poorest are as well able as the richest to purchase salvation; for no amount of worldly wealth can secure it. It is obtained by willing obedience, by giving ourselves to Christ as His own purchased possession. Education, even of the highest class, cannot of itself bring a man nearer to God. The Pharisees were favored with every temporal and every spiritual advantage, and they said with boastful pride, We are ‘rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing’; yet they were ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.’. Christ offered them the pearl of great price; but they disdained to accept it, and He said to them, ‘The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.’ .
“We cannot earn salvation, but we are to seek for it with as much interest and perseverance as though we would abandon everything in the world for it.
“We are to seek for the pearl of great price, but not in worldly marts or in worldly ways. The price we are required to pay is not gold or silver, for this belongs to God. Abandon the idea that temporal or spiritual advantages will win for you salvation. God calls for your willing obedience. He asks you to give up your sins. ‘To him that overcometh,’ Christ declares, ‘will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne.’.”—Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 116, 117.
How about God’s justice?
Justice is full harmony with the law. With respect to God’s justice, it is perfect harmony with God’s Law, His character, and the complete absence of sin. It is perfect and perpetual obedience. The essence of God’s Law is love. Therefore, everything contrary to perfect love is sin and is a transgression of the law.
God has perfect hatred against sin. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” ().
In order to have a clear understanding of God’s justice, we need to study deeply what happened to Jesus on the cross of Calvary. Why did Christ suffer so much in the wilderness of temptation, in the garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross? It was because He took upon Himself the sins of the entire world. He felt the separation from His Father. If God could tolerate and ignore the transgression of His Law, then Christ didn’t need to suffer and die on the cross of Calvary. That we can live today, and eternally, is because Christ paid for the sinful guilt of the whole world when He died on that terrible Friday afternoon.
Returning to the beginning, when Adam and Eve transgressed God’s Law, God had said that if they would disobey His express command, they would surely day “in the same day”. If God would execute His justice on that day, the first couple would die eternally “in the day” they “ate thereof” (). But we know that they didn’t die on that fatal day. Why not?
It was because instead of executing His justice, God introduced “grace and mercy” to deal with the transgressors. Christ took the place of the guilty couple.
Substitution and transference
Paul sums up the whole process of substitution and transference in the plan of salvation with these few words: “For He [the Father] hath made Him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him [Christ]” ().
“As man’s substitute and surety, the iniquity of men was laid upon Christ; He was counted a transgressor that He might redeem them from the curse of the law. The guilt of every descendant of Adam of every age was pressing upon His heart; and the wrath of God and the terrible manifestation of His displeasure because of iniquity, filled the soul of His Son with consternation. The withdrawal of the divine countenance from the Savior in this hour of supreme anguish pierced His heart with a sorrow that can never be fully understood by man. Every pang endured by the Son of God upon the cross, the blood drops that flowed from His head, His hands and feet, the convulsions of agony which racked His frame, and the unutterable anguish that filled His soul at the hiding of His Father’s face from Him, speak to man, saying, It is for love of thee that the Son of God consents to have these heinous crimes laid upon Him; for thee He spoils the domain of death, and opens the gates of Paradise and immortal life. He who stilled the angry waves by His word and walked the foam-capped billows, who made devils tremble and disease flee from His touch, who raised the dead to life and opened the eyes of the blind, offers Himself upon the cross as the last sacrifice for man. He, the sin-bearer, endures judicial punishment for iniquity and becomes sin itself for man.”—The Story of Redemption, p. 225.
“Adam listened to the words of the tempter, and yielding to his insinuations, fell into sin. Why was not the death penalty at once enforced in his case? —Because a ransom was found. God’s only begotten Son volunteered to take the sin of man upon Himself, and to make an atonement for the fallen race. There could have been no pardon for sin had this atonement not been made. Had God pardoned Adam’s sin without an atonement, sin would have been immortalized, and would have been perpetuated with a boldness that would have been without restraint.”—The SDA Bible Commentary [E. G. White Comments], vol. 1, p. 1082.
“As soon as there was sin, there was a Savior. Christ knew that He would have to suffer, yet He became man’s substitute. As soon as Adam sinned, the Son of God presented Himself as surety for the human race, with just as much power to avert the doom pronounced upon the guilty as when He died upon the cross of Calvary.”—Ibid., p. 1084.
God’s justice waits
Instead of applying justice immediately after the transgression, God introduced grace and mercy.
“The longsuffering of God is wonderful. Long does justice wait while mercy pleads with the sinner. But ‘righteousness and judgment are the establishment of His throne.’, margin. ‘The Lord is slow to anger;’ but He is ‘great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the Lord hath His way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet.’ .
“The world has become bold in transgression of God’s law. Because of His long forbearance, men have trampled upon His authority. They have strengthened one another in oppression and cruelty toward His heritage, saying, ‘How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the Most High?’. But there is a line beyond which they cannot pass. The time is near when they will have reached the prescribed limit. Even now they have almost exceeded the bounds of the long-suffering of God, the limits of His grace, the limits of His mercy. The Lord will interpose to vindicate His own honor, to deliver His people, and to repress the swellings of unrighteousness.”—Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 177. [Emphasis added.]
The grace and mercy of God do not annul His justice. They give probationary time for sinners to accept God’s provision for their salvation. The justice of God’s Law was executed when Christ died on Calvary. Those who accept God’s plan for their salvation will be free from the eternal punishment against sin and unrepentant sinners. Those who reject God’s grace will be responsible for their eternal perdition.
Christ made clear that if we do not possess true righteousness, we shall “in no case enter in the kingdom of heaven” (). He put a big difference between the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” and true righteousness.
What is the big difference between “the righteousness of the Pharisees” and true righteousness?
The “righteousness” of the Pharisees
“The rabbis counted their righteousness a passport to heaven; but Jesus declared it to be insufficient and unworthy. External ceremonies and a theoretical knowledge of truth constituted Pharisaical righteousness. The rabbis claimed to be holy through their own efforts in keeping the law; but their works had divorced righteousness from religion. While they were punctilious in ritual observances, their lives were immoral and debased. Their so-called righteousness could never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“The greatest deception of the human mind in Christ’s day was that a mere assent to the truth constitutes righteousness. In all human experience a theoretical knowledge of the truth has been proved to be insufficient for the saving of the soul. It does not bring forth the fruits of righteousness. A jealous regard for what is termed theological truth often accompanies a hatred of genuine truth as made manifest in life. The darkest chapters of history are burdened with the record of crimes committed by bigoted religionists. The Pharisees claimed to be children of Abraham, and boasted of their possession of the oracles of God; yet these advantages did not preserve them from selfishness, malignity, greed for gain, and the basest hypocrisy. They thought themselves the greatest religionists of the world, but their so-called orthodoxy led them to crucify the Lord of glory.”—The Desire of Ages, p. 309. [Emphasis added.]
True righteousness — Christ’s righteousness
“The righteousness which Christ taught is conformity of heart and life to the revealed will of God. Sinful men can become righteous only as they have faith in God and maintain a vital connection with Him. Then true godliness will elevate the thoughts and ennoble the life. Then the external forms of religion accord with the Christian’s internal purity. Then the ceremonies required in the service of God are not meaningless rites, like those of the hypocritical Pharisees.”—The Desire of Ages, p. 310.1
How can we be righteous?
Only by faith in the perfect righteousness of Christ—His perfect life and His vicarious death on Calvary.
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” ().
God’s mercy and grace, our only hope of eternal life
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised [us] up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” ().
The Lord’s messenger writes: “In my recent bereavement, I have had a near view of eternity. I have, as it were, been brought before the great white throne, and have seen my life as it will there appear. I can find nothing of which to boast, no merit that I can plead. ‘Unworthy, unworthy of the least of Thy favors, O my God,’ is my cry. My only hope is in a crucified and risen Savior. I claim the merits of the blood of Christ. Jesus will save to the uttermost all who put their trust in Him.”—The Review and Herald, November 1, 1881. [Emphasis added.]
“The only safety for the Israelites was blood upon the doorposts. God said, ‘When I see the blood, I will pass over you’ (). All other devices for safety would be without avail. Nothing but the blood on the doorposts would bar the way that the angel of death should not enter. There is salvation for the sinner in the blood of Jesus Christ alone, which cleanseth us from all sin. The man with a cultivated intellect may have vast stores of knowledge, he may engage in theological speculations, he may be great and honored of men and be considered the repository of knowledge, but unless he has a saving knowledge of Christ crucified for him, and by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, he is lost. Christ ‘was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed’ ( ). ‘Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ,’ will be our only hope for time and our song throughout eternity”—Selected Messages, vol. 3, pp. 172, 173 [Emphasis added.]
“The instant man accepted the temptations of Satan, and did the very things God had said he should not do, Christ, the Son of God, stood between the living and the dead, saying, ‘Let the punishment fall on Me. I will stand in man’s place. He shall have another chance.’”—SDA Bible Commentary, [E. G. White Comments], vol. 1, p. 1085.
“As representative of the fallen race, Christ passed over the same ground on which Adam stumbled and fell. By a life of perfect obedience to God’s law, Christ redeemed man from the penalty of Adam’s disgraceful fall. Man has violated God’s law. Only for those who return to their allegiance to God, only for those who obey the law that they have violated, will the blood of Christ avail. Christ will never become a party to sin. Bearing the penalty of the law, He gives the sinner another chance, a second trial. He opens a way whereby the sinner can be reinstated in God’s favor. Christ bears the penalty of man’s past transgressions, and by imparting to man His righteousness, makes it possible for man to keep God’s holy law.”—Ibid., vol. 6, p. 1092. [Emphasis added.]
“God could not abolish His law to save the human race, for this would immortalize transgression and place the whole world under Satan’s control. But He ‘so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ In this wonderful gift is shown the depth of God’s goodness. He so loved sinful people that He gave Himself in His Son, that they might have another opportunity, another trial, another chance to show their obedience. He so loved men and women that in order to save them He gave His Son to the world, and in that gift, He gave all heaven! This was the only provision God could make. By this gift a way was provided for sinners to return to their loyalty.” Christ Triumphant, p. 279.4.
“How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?”.