I was listening to another MP3 sermon recently, this one an introduction to Dispensationalism. I need to listen to it a few more times before I reach any conclusions, but my prognosis is that it's really a confused mess. There are a lot of problems in it, but the one that stands out in my mind is an apparent misunderstanding of grace.
Dispensationalists and Reformers both have a tendency to miss the mark on grace: dispensationalists seem to think it's a period of time between Acts 2 and 1 Thessalonians 4; Reformers seem to think it a mystical and/or spiritual tool in God's tool chest. (I'm painting with a broad brush here: I know there are plenty of exceptions on both sides.) I think they're both missing the point: grace isn't so much a thing or an administration; it's God's character.
Grace is God acting the way He wants to act, without regard to what I actually deserve.
So when our Reformed friends use the term "sovereign grace", they're hitting the nail dead on the head. Grace is sovereign in its essence: it's God deciding sovereignly and unilaterally to act a certain way. Grace is God saying, "I don't care what you deserve, this is what I'm going to do for you."
I've heard a lot about grace here and there over the years; one of the biggest problems I've encountered is people confusing grace with laxity. Scripture teaches God is gracious, it doesn't teach God has a "don't worry about it" approach to sin. Romans 3:25 & 26 gives us an intimate view of God's grace:
[Jesus Christ,] whom God has set forth a mercy-seat, through faith in his blood, for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God; for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus.We see a glimpse of tension in God's heart: God wanted to justify, but He needed to remain just. God can't just sweep sins under the carpet, so to speak; but He wasn't interested in allowing sinners to just perish. God acted in presenting Christ as the mercy-seat, or "propitiation". What is propitiation? It really means offering something to God so that He is for us, not against us. So Romans 3 tells us that God was able to "pass by" sins before Christ, because He was doing it on credit: He was looking forward to Christ's death and thus He was able to forgive sins in the past.
What's the difference here between what Scripture teaches and what people think? The difference is that our justification had a real cost, which God paid for Himself. The egregious (but common) error equates "getting away with it" with grace. But grace isn't letting someone get away with something: it's taking care of the cost yourself. God's grace is not expressed in His ignoring sin: it's expressed in His providing the payment for it Himself.
God's not a politician: He doesn't take credit for spending someone else's money.
Let's take an example: suppose you're driving down the road in a long line of traffic and you see someone waiting to make a right turn and join the line on a side street. It's not really grace for you to let the person in ahead of you. That seems like a kind thing to do, but really what you've done is make things worse for the people behind you. Grace would be if you signaled a turn and pulled into the side street so that the person could take your spot in the line. See, grace isn't grace if it doesn't cost you anything. If God merely said, "Look here, let's just forget this whole sin thing," that wouldn't be grace. That would be complicity, as in God would be making Himself an accomplice to your sin after the fact. Grace is when God sends His own Son to die in your place. Grace costs something.
God's grace is most dramatically shown in contrast to our own wickedness. The more we understand just how bad we are, the more we are astonished that God would want to save any of us. The more clearly we see ourselves, the more significant we see God's grace to be. In a sense, this is the whole purpose of the Mosaic Law: to demonstrate just how bad man is. If I may say so, this is the whole point of Romans 7: it's one thing to be justified by faith, but to really see ourselves for the wretches we are takes bitter experience. And it's only when we see just how bad we are that we begin to comprehend just how good God is.
There is a surprising result to this, which is that "liberalism" is effectively a denial of grace. Unless we are willing to acknowledge that men (and women and children) really aren't any good, we really don't have a gracious God. It wouldn't be remarkable for God to treat people kindly when they deserve it; the surprising thing about grace is that God treats us well when we don't.
But liberalism's not the only problem: another problem is when we think God gives us what we deserve. Let's be honest, we all tend to this at some point. But grace by definition contradicts the idea that we get what we deserve. Grace is God acting the way He wants, with no regard for what I deserve. I deserve to burn in Hell; God's grace says that He saves me with no regard whatsoever to what I deserve.
The fundamental flaw in what we call "legalism" is to think that God isn't gracious. And this is really an egregious error: the legalist completely fails to understand who God is. So the legalist thinks, "God will bless me if I'm good; therefore I need to be good." Listen, grace means your being good doesn't impress God. God's not impressed with human effort, He's impressed with His Son. God's not going to heap blessings on you because you're good, He heaps blessings on you because He is gracious.
So the end of Romans 3 and start of Romans 4 is almost entirely centered on this one point: justification is by grace. So Abraham was reckoned as righteous before God as a gift (Romans 4:3 & 4). Notice that justification has always been by grace, by faith. Scripture doesn't allow that there is ever someone justified in God's sight who wasn't justified by faith. Even the Old Testament saints, under the Law, were justified by faith, but I digress. But scripture puts grace and law as opposites: we can't be justified by works of Law, but we can be justified by grace. What you can't earn, God is willing to give to you freely.
But the role of grace isn't limited to justification, the command to the Colossians was, "as ye have received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him" (Colossian 2:6). We're not justified on one principle and called to live on another. We're justified by faith, we live by faith. We're justified by grace, we are to live by grace. That's the word to the Galatians as well, right? "Are ye so senseless? having begun in Spirit, are ye going to be made perfect in flesh?" (Galatians 3:3). We live like we start: we live by God's grace. In his excellent commentary on Romans, William R. Newell says, "To believe, and to consent to be loved while unworthy, is the great secret" (Romans Verse-by-Verse, chapter 7.).
And that, I suppose, brings us back to the beginning. Grace is not merely some abstract principle, it's a description of who God is. And ultimately this is what underlies and empowers the Christian life: the Christian life is a reflection of who God is. It's a demonstration of God's character in our lives.