The English word “grace” can be used in three ways. First, it can refer to the cause of salvation: it represents the aspect of God’s nature that causes him to love sinners and seek their salvation even though they do not deserve it. Second, “grace” can refer to the way of salvation: we are saved by the grace system (via the grace gate), as contrasted with the impotent law system (via the law gate).
The third way we use the word “grace” is this: it refers to the content of salvation, which we receive as a gift in the moment when we make the transition from lost to saved. In this sense grace is like a package we receive at conversion. What’s in this package? An old hymn (“Rock of Ages”) includes this prayer: “Be of sin the double cure: save me from its guilt and power.” (Another version says, “Save from wrath and make me pure.”) This “double cure” is the content of grace.
If grace is a double cure, then sin must inflict upon us a “double trouble” or a “double curse.” Two of the worst curses in life are serious debt and serious sickness, which often fall upon someone together as the result of a catastrophic illness. This has happened to every man and woman in a spiritual sense as the result of sin. Every sinner is under a double curse. How do we explain this?
First, sin makes us guilty. When we break God’s law, we become guilty sinners. This guilt puts us into debt to God: we OWE him the debt of eternal punishment in hell (Matt. 6:12: “Forgive us our debts”). This is the sinner’s most serious problem. It is like a slave owing his master millions of dollars—an unimaginable and unpayable sum (see Matt. 18:23-35).
Second, sin gives the sinner a sinful nature. It is like having a fatal illness of the body, only in this case the disease of sin affects the soul (i.e., the spirit, heart, or inner man). Sin is not just an act; it is a condition, a state of sinfulness or corruption or depravity (partial, not total). As Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” It is even called a state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13).
If I wanted to write this “double curse” up for a national gossip magazine (like The National Enquirer), I would give it this catchy title for the cover: “Preacher Confesses: I’m in Trouble with the Law, and I Have a Bad Disease!”
But this is not where the narrative ends. It’s time now for “the rest of the story,” as Christian broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say. The whole purpose of God’s grace is to counteract this double curse with a DOUBLE CURE! “Amazing grace” solves both aspects of the curse of sin.
First, to resolve the problem of guilt and punishment, God gives us the forgiveness of sins, or what the Bible often calls justification. We are “justified freely by his grace” (Rom. 3:24). God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). This means that our “lawless deeds are forgiven,” and our “sins are covered” (Rom. 4:7). It means that God is not holding our sins against us (Rom. 4:8); he does not require us to pay him the debt we owe him, i.e., eternity in hell.
The reason the righteous God is able to do this is that he himself—in the second person of the Trinity, God the Son—became a human being and paid the debt for us! He took upon himself our penalty of God’s eternal wrath when he died for us on the cross. Thus we are “justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9).
Justification thus means that in the moment of our conversion (i.e., our baptism), God’s attitude toward us instantaneously changes from wrath to grace (he already loved us, of course). He no longer looks at us as guilty, hell-bound sinners, but as his forgiven children. “Justification” is literally a legal term. It means that God in his role as Judge looks at us as defendants, and he addresses this legal declaration to us: “No penalty for you!” (See Romans 8:1.) And he continues to whisper this in our spiritual ear for as long as we hold on to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Our debt of punishment is gone, because Jesus paid it for us.
But that is just the first part of the double cure. In the second place, the grace of God resolves the problem of our spiritual sickness and restores us to spiritual wholeness. Here God is working on us in his role of Healer or Physician; indeed, he is performing “open-heart surgery” upon our souls. He is giving us a spiritual heart transplant: “And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
This direct operation on the heart is usually called regeneration (see Titus 3:5), but it is the same as being “born again” (John 3:3, 5), and being raised up from spiritual death to new spiritual life (Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:12-13). It is also a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is the spiritual equivalent of what doctors in old western movies used to mean when they said, “The fever broke.”
This moment of regeneration is caused by the renewing power of the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:27; Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5; John 3:5). This instantaneous event is just the beginning of the life-long healing process usually called sanctification, which is empowered by the continuing indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13; Eph. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:23). The success of this process depends on our ongoing submission to and cooperation with the Spirit (Phil. 2:12-13).
So who are we now, or where do we stand now—now that we have received the double cure of grace? What is our Christian life all about? Two things: we are NOT in the process of trying to pay our debt to God, or trying to “make it up” to God, or trying to work off the consequences of our sins in some way. Justification means that “Jesus paid it all!” We are continuing to trust this promise. Also, we are in the process of getting well from a serious disease. This includes following the divine Doctor’s instructions on how to live so as to help facilitate this healing.
What happens when we die and meet God face to face? We will no doubt still have a residue of sin in our lives; we will not be perfectly healed yet. But this does not disqualify us from heaven! This is when God will make us completely well in our spirits; this is when our spirits will be “made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). The main point, though, is this: when we die and meet God, in the most important way we will still be the same as we are now! We will meet God 100% debt free! There will be nothing to pay – no penalty for us – EVER! This is the “blessed assurance” that grace gives us.