Question 1: Grace

(Gospel Dialogue, CFP, 1-10, Watchman Nee)


Since the Bible declares that “by grace have ye been saved” (Eph. 2.8), then we need to ask the following questions:

Is grace

(a) given to whoever is deserving, that is, does God require man to do good in order to be saved?


(b) given to supplement what is lacking, that is, does God require man to do his best before he is saved?


(c) withheld because of the lack of merit, that is, can God refuse to save a person because he is no good?


(d) given less to the less deserving, that is, can God refuse to save a man because he is not as good as another man?

Does grace

(e) make the recipient a debtor, that is to say, is the word “recompense” proper to use here?


(f) absolve directly the sinner’s sin, that is, can God freely forgive a person out of compassion for the sinner?


(g) absolve directly the believer’s sin, that is, can God freely forgive a person out of love for the believer?



We human beings possess the greatest of defects, which is, that we tend to measure God’s heart by our own. Our human heart is one of law, not one of grace. We always imagine God as having a heart like ours, hence we often misunderstand Him.

We must be clear as to what grace is: (a) Grace is not given to whoever is deserving. “Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt” (Rom. 4.4). Stated conversely, though, to him who does not deserve and yet to whom is given, that is grace. If it is deserved, it cancels the very idea of grace. Grace is what it is because there is not the tiniest element of merit in it. “For by grace have ye been saved” (Eph. 2.8). To save the undeserved is grace. “Being justified freely by his [God’s] grace” (Rom. 3.24). What is meant by “freely”? In the original Greek, “freely” is the same word as is translated “without a cause” in John 15.25 where the Lord is recorded as saying, “They hated me without a cause”, quoting from the Old Testament. To say that the grace of God justifies freely simply means that God justifies us without any cause or reason. “The scripture shut up all things under sin” and “God hath shut up all unto disobedience” (Gal. 3.22; Rom. 11.32). God has placed all men on the same footing so that none may be saved by works (that is, by doing good), but that all must be saved by grace. Were you to ask Paul how he was saved, he would surely answer that he was saved by the grace of God. Were you to ask all the saints the same question, they would all give the same answer: saved by grace. God saves us without a cause; and this is grace.

(b) Grace is not given to supplement what is lacking in man. “Not of works, that no man should glory” (Eph. 2.9). This does not mean that there need be no good works after being saved; it simply indicates that man is not saved by works. If man were saved by works he would surely have something of which to boast. Were he saved with just ten percent of works, man would have ten percent of boasting but God would lose ten percent of glory. Yet God will not share His glory with man. He hates man’s self-bragging, for His purpose is for Him himself to be glorified. Hence the grace of God is not supplementary to what is lacking in man.

Grace is neither given to him who is deserving nor given as a bonus to the deserved. It is neither a fair reward nor an overabundant recompense. The question of “deservingness” or one’s worthiness has absolutely no common ground with grace. To receive grace is to cast aside completely this matter of worthiness. The thought of anyone’s being more or less worthy to be saved is entirely unfounded. Concerning salvation, none is able to obtain the grace of God by any works of his own.

People often think if they try their best to do good and to keep the law, that they can then depend on the grace of God for what they cannot do. This is plainly a depending on works for a certain percentage and on grace for a certain percentage. On one occasion a man was heard to declare: “We must keep the Ten Commandments, or else we cannot be saved.” “Have you ever violated the commandments?” he was asked. “Indeed, I have.” “What, then, do you do?” “What I cannot do, I rely on the grace of God for,” said he. Such thinking shows an ignorance of grace.

That young man in Matthew 19 asked the Lord Jesus: “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” And the Lord said to him: “Keep the commandments.” Having heard that this young man had observed all these things, the Lord then said: “If thou wouldst be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” In hearing this the young man went away sorrowful, because he could not do it (vv. 16-22). Truly, if a person desires to be saved by keeping the law he must do it “all”. He not only must love God with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength, but must also give away all he possesses without exception. But if he depends on the grace of God, he should rely on it wholly. It is never done partly by man and partly by God, for the grace of God is not to supplement the inadequacy of man. It is a case of either purely the grace of God or entirely the works of man. It cannot be partly of man and partly of God.

Why is this so? Because the Lord Jesus has already died. As God has put all sinners on the same footing, therefore, when the Lord Jesus was crucified, God “laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53.6). The problem of sin is thus solved once and for all. For this reason, man cannot trust in his own merit before God; otherwise the work of Christ would be overturned as though He had died in vain.

(c) Grace is not withheld because of the lack of merit. (This is quite similar to the first point of this question; only here, the matter is approached negatively.) On the contrary, grace is given because of man’s unworthiness. It is only at the time when man knows his utter helplessness that he will cry out for grace. It is also at this juncture that God will dispense grace. If a man himself has the strength he will not think of asking for grace, and so God need not give grace. Consequently, the lack of merit will not in any way hinder God from giving grace; quite the opposite, it is the sole condition for God to grant His grace.

“Grace is boundless mercy shown in boundless goodness,” one brother has said. What is grace? Grace is that which flows from the top to the bottom. What is love? Love is a treating as equal. What is respect? Respect is that which is shown to those who are over you. But grace flows downward. Grace has only this one direction. In order to obtain the grace of God, you must acknowledge yourself as a helpless sinner—this alone gives you the qualification for receiving God’s grace.

Many dislike grace because it requires a humbling act on their part. Grace compels you to concur that you are the worst person. For just as no inverted cup can receive water, so no proud person is able or willing to accept the salvation of God. We need to admit our uselessness before we can receive the grace of God.

(d) Grace is not given less to the less deserving. (This is the opposite to what the second point of this question speaks about.) God does not overlook the problem of man’s sin. As a matter of fact, He is most strict, definite, and thorough in His dealing with man’s sin.

Through His Son He has dealt most completely with this problem. Hence how can there be raised the question of deserving or not deserving, the matter of being more worthy or less worthy? The grace of God never questions man’s “undeservingness”. Before God, all men are the same, and all may have His grace.

Since God will not withhold grace because of man’s unworthiness (rather, He gives grace for that very reason), how can He ever make any distinction among the unworthy ones as to who are the less unworthy and who are the least unworthy in His dispensing of grace?

God will not give less grace to those who sin more and more grace to those who sin less. For grace is not used by God to mend the holes of sinners. In the realm of grace, both the sinner himself and his works are completely set aside.

Since grace is gratuitous, it is not at all conditional on the state of the recipient. He on his part does not earn grace for any reason whatsoever. Grace is not withheld because of the lack of merit. It has absolutely no relationship to the condition of the recipient. It will not be given in less measure to the comparatively more unworthy. Otherwise, grace would be conditional on the state of the recipient. Hence grace is given neither according to the man himself nor according to his relative position with other people. God’s grace is so vast and measureless that it is intended for all kinds of sinners. Those who consider themselves as fairly good need the grace of God as much as those who are looked upon as the chief of sinners.

People may perhaps speculate that the better ones certainly deserve a little more. But according to God, all are the same. For example, several bowls fall to the ground and are broken. Some may break into two pieces; some, five pieces; and some, into powder. Although their broken condition varies, they are all broken nonetheless. Whether you are “a little better” sinner or you are “the worst” of sinners, you are nevertheless a sinner. The Bible declares that all have sinned. In sending the Lord Jesus to the world to die for sinners, God gives opportunity to all sinners to be saved. Even if there is but a single man in the entire world who needs to be saved, God is still willing to send His Son to die for him. Does not the parable of the shepherd seeking the one lost sheep tell us that he leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one lost sheep? (Luke 15.3,4) As long as you are a lost sheep, and regardless of your being a great or a small sinner, you need the Lord Jesus to die for you.

(e) Grace does not make the recipient a debtor. When someone advances a certain amount of money to you and lets you enjoy it temporarily but requires you to repay the same amount afterwards—that is called a debt. Wages are dispensed according to your works. Grace is neither given as wages according to your works nor lent temporarily as debt to be repaid afterward. God saves us by grace; our salvation is not something God lends out to us. If it is lent, it must be repaid by us later on; but then it cannot be considered as grace. Grace does not mean that, seeing our current lack of merit in works, God lends us salvation at first but requires us to keep our salvation by adding on to it our merit afterward. For grace charges nothing—past, present, and future. Should God give us something now but require us to repay in the future, it is then a debt and not grace. But the grace of God is given freely to all the undeserved, without charging anything at any time.

People conceive an incorrect idea: yes, we are saved by grace, but we must thereafter keep this salvation by our own selves. This is an error. The Bible never tells us that God’s grace has made us debtors. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6.23). What is the nature of this eternal life? It is a gift. In other words, it is something which God bestows as a gift. Must it be repaid? Let us be clear that, it not being a debt, grace needs no repayment neither now nor many days later. This is not meant to imply, of course, that a Christian does not need to have good works or to serve God with faithfulness. After one is saved, he should perform good works and ought to serve God faithfully. Yet the motive behind such actions is the love of Christ, and the power for doing these things is the Holy Spirit. Good works and faithful service we must have, but they are not for the sake of earning salvation nor for the sake of keeping salvation. The works of a Christian are not used to pay back the debt of salvation which God has given. Just as God saves us out of His love for us, even so must we serve God out of our love for Him. Just as God does not give salvation as a loan, so we do not serve God faithfully as a form of repayment.

How many there are who do not understand the grace of God clearly! They assume that before one is saved, and though he is unworthy, God is still willing to save him; but that after he is saved he has to do good, or else God will withdraw His salvation. This is like a purchase which is made on the installment plan. The merchandise is first delivered and subsequently payments are made by installment; failure to pay on time will result in confiscation of the merchandise by the seller. Such a concept plainly distorts the grace of God. When we are saved God gives us eternal life; yet He never asks us to pay back by installments, nor will He take His salvation back even if we perform no good deeds afterward.

Moreover, since eternal life is a gift, how can anyone speak of repaying? Such a word is certainly wrong. We serve God out of love. For instance, suppose my father gives me a gift and yet I say I will repay him. I save for months and years to accumulate enough money to pay him back. By so doing, however, does it not turn out that I am in reality buying that gift? Grace never charges anything, else it would not be grace at all.

(f) Grace does not directly absolve a sinner’s sin. This matter is frequently misunderstood by many believers. They reckon that God forgives the sins of a sinner out of His liberality. Not at all. In forgiving a sinner God is not compromising, nor does He pretend either to be deaf or to overlook anything. This the Bible clearly never says. “As sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5.21). Sin reigns by itself, but grace reigns through righteousness. Grace does not reign by its own self. Let it be known that God not only has grace but He also has righteousness. He delights in having men saved, but He also delights in protecting their salvation with righteousness. He gives grace to us not because of His carelessness, but because of His having solved the problem of our sin.

If we mistake God’s grace as His liberality, then the cross of Christ is both unnecessary and meaningless. True, there can be no cross of Christ without the love of God. Yet God’s love alone, in the absence of His righteousness, will never demand the cross of Christ. God is very much aware of our sins; He cannot overlook them. And since we have no way of solving the problem of our sins, God causes His Son to bear them in His body upon the cross in order to have the problem of sin solved forever. This is the grace of God. God’s grace solves the problem of sin first before it absolves sin. The Lord must die as our substitute that we may be saved.

A sinner is reckoned as such because (1) his conduct is bad; (2) his nature is corrupted; and (3) God’s righteous law has so judged. In saving a sinner, God must (1) forgive the sins of his bad conduct; (2) regenerate him by giving him a new life; and (3) justify him. Now the Lord Jesus has already suffered the penalty of sin and died for us; therefore God cannot but forgive us. It is an erroneous concept among some people that we need to turn the heart of God by much begging. Not so. We are forgiven because God’s righteous wrath over our sin has already been discharged upon the Lord Jesus. We may therefore praise and thank God, saying, that since the Lord Jesus has already been judged and that righteousness can demand penalty only once, we shall not be penalized anymore.

(g) Grace does not absolve directly a believer’s sin. The principle involved here is the same as the foregoing one. After a person is saved, if he is incidentally overcome by sin and later repents of his sin, he does not obtain forgiveness through constant begging. It is not by asking God to make provision for forgiveness today; rather, it is by believing in what Christ has already done on the cross. God is righteous; He cannot but forgive those who have accepted salvation since the Lord Jesus has already died. So, if a Christian should inadvertently sin, he needs to be clear on the following four points: (1) that he receives forgiveness by confessing his own sin (1 John 1.9); (2) that forgiveness is available for all sin (1 John 1.7,9—noting especially “cleanseth us from all sin” and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness”); (3) that before he prays, God is already willing to forgive, because the Lord Jesus acts as the believer’s Advocate with the Father (1 John 2.1,2); and (4) that God thus forgives and cleanses because of His faithfulness and righteousness on the one hand and because of Jesus Christ the Righteous on the other.