Grace that Instructs

Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) was a well-known figure of the Counter-Reformation and was no mean theologian.  He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and in 1930 he was canonized and consequently named a Doctor of the Church.  Protestants often reflect on the Reformation as the time in which the doctrine of justification was once again restored to a Biblical foundation.  However, according to Bellarmine, the greatest error of Protestantism was not its doctrine of justification. 

According to Bellarmine, the Protestant’s reprehensible heresy was the belief that they could be sure of their eternal inheritance.  Assurance was the problem.  But why?  Well, he thought that if people came to believe that they were pardoned fully and freely by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – they would presume that such a thing was a license to sin fully and freely!

If Bellarmine is correct, then we have some serious thinking to do.  But is he?  Consider Paul’s pastoral letters written to a young man named Titus.  Titus was the pastor whom the Apostle Paul left on the isle of Crete in order to shepherd the flock of God there.[1]  In one sense his task was simple.  Titus was to appoint elders on the island.  Paul even gave some specific instructions for Titus to follow.[2]  But having finished instructing Titus the Apostle turned his attention to the flock on the island.  They were in need of shepherding and oversight and the Cretans were not especially disposed to follow the guidance of the shepherd’s staff. 

The problems spelled out in the letter indicate that Paul likely had been in the homes of these island dwellers.  He knew what Titus was up against.  He was left with older men and older women who were intemperate, some were drunkards.  There was insensibility among the young and old alike.  Young wives needed to be subject to their husbands while learning to love them and their children.  Subjection needed to be learned by both the young men and the slaves of the island.  In fact, Paul says, winding up this particular series of exhortations, “you must adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.”[3]

Now, here is the question.  Why?  Why must our lives be changed, sin be put away, relationships be re-ordered?  Why must our lives adorn the gospel?  The answer is in verse 11 of chapter two.  The NKJV renders the text like this, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men…”  In other words, based on the conjunction “for” we are to understand that because of the arrival of the salvation bringing grace of God our lives are to be of a different character.  To put it another way, the Christ who alone saves through faith alone brings moral renovation to His own. 

In fact, verse twelve spells out the purpose accomplished by the appearing of the grace of God in Jesus Christ; it is instructive in nature.  In other words, the salvation bringing grace of God not only saves but instructs us to renounce ungodliness and worldly lusts.  Or as one commentator puts it, “grace teaches us to deny both the root principle, ‘godlessness, impiety,’ and its many concrete manifestations, ‘worldly desires.’”[4]  Thus, the grace that saves is also the grace that instructs and motivates us toward greater godliness. 

Now, is this not the very thing taught by the Reformers, Luther not the least among them?  In a Christmas Sermon based on the third chapter of Titus the German reformer said, “Works never merit heaven; heaven is conferred purely of grace.”[5]  But then he made the following statement, “Good works are to be performed without any thought of merit, simply for the benefit of one’s neighbor and for the honor of God.”[6]

Consequently, according to Luther, works have their place in the Christian life but a “delusive doctrine of works blinds the Christian’s eyes, perverts a right understanding of faith and forces him from the way of truth and salvation.”[7]  Thus, for Luther and those who followed him, Bellarmine’s criticism’s missed the proverbial mark.  Grace is not license but a righteous life clothed in righteous deeds because it is a life united to Christ.  For Luther, it was simple, “No one can do good until he himself is good.  He does not become good through works, but his works are good because he is good.  He becomes good through the washing of regeneration and in no other way.”[8]    The salvation bringing grace of God in Jesus Christ appeared not only to save but to instruct us in godliness.  That was the Reformer’s understanding because it was the Bible’s understanding, but sadly, it was contrary to Cardinal Bellarmine’s understanding.


[1] Titus 1:4-5

[2] Titus 1:5-9

[3] Titus 2:10

[4] George W. Knight III, New International Greek Commentary: Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 320.

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Christmas Sermons, vol. 1, (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1908), 151.

[6] Ibid., 151.

[7] Ibid., 152.

[8] Ibid., 159.


Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.


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