I thought I understood grace. After all, I’ve been a Christian almost 32 years. And I’ve been a recipient of God’s grace all my life. But try to explain a subject to someone; try to prepare a teaching on it; try to write an essay about it; that’s when you discover how little you really understand about a gift of God. And that’s where I found myself this week. I was in the midst of writing my next book, In Pursuit of God, and I felt led to insert a chapter on “The Transformative Power of Grace,” when I discovered how little I understood about grace.
What’s more, as I began my research, I further discovered how little most Christians know about grace – and those who claim they understand it and who have written lengthy messages and teachings on the subject are themselves “all over the map” in defining it. Likewise, though nearly every denominational and non-denominational Christian church recognizes that a person is saved by God’s grace, that’s about where the agreement on the doctrine of grace ends.
Searching the Scriptures
So I went back to where I should have begun in the first place – to the Holy Scriptures. At the risk of getting too technical and losing the interest of a lot of my readers, I nevertheless think it’s important to look at the Hebrew and Greek words that the Bible writers use, when they talk about grace. In the Old Testament there is one basic Hebrew word which has been translated “grace,” and that word is chen. The word literally means favor. Its root word is chanan [grace, favor, goodwill, kindness, gracious, pleasant, to be favorably inclined, to pity, to be compassionate, to make acceptable]. Strongs Concordance even indicates it implies bending or stooping in kindness to another as a superior to an inferior.
Most theologians believe the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the word most frequently used for “grace” is charis, which has the idea of graciousness in manner or action. It comes from a root word chairo, to be cheerful or happy. When used in reference to God, it is the benevolent action of Him stooping down to us in His kindness to reach us in our need, and convey upon us a benefit. Most Christians are familiar with the definition of God’s grace as “unmerited favor;” but it is more than an attitude of favor or mercy. His mercy is an expression of His compassion toward us; but His grace is an extension of benevolence translated into action that releases His enabling power into our lives.
I’m going to stop here, but a good web site to further your understanding of these technical interpretations of the Hebrew and Greek words for grace is http://www.bible-researcher.com/grace.html. If you do explore this further, you’ll find that the term “grace” is not always used in the same sense in Scripture, but has a variety of meanings. Sometimes it denotes the kindness of our Lord as He bestows His gifts upon individuals; at other times the word is expressive of the emotion awakened in the heart of the recipient of such favor, and thus acquires the meaning “gratitude” or “thankfulness.” In most of the New Testament passages, however, it signifies the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, and involves the active communication of divine blessings by the in-working of the Holy Spirit.
God is manifested throughout the Old and New Testaments as a God of love and mercy. When God grants His grace, it likewise is rooted in and flows from His love. Whenever He extends mercy and forgiveness, favor and blessing, kindness and forbearance, it is by His grace.
Grace before the day of Pentecost
Although the prophets of old spoke of the coming grace, they did not fully understand it. The apostle Peter wrote that “grace” remained a mystery to the prophets, and even to the angels, but it has now been revealed to the church. “… the prophets who have prophesied of the grace which should come to you, have diligently searched out and intently inquired, searching into what way, and what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them was indicating, and testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Christ, and those glories which would follow; to whom it was revealed, that not for themselves, but to us, they were ministering these things, which now have been announced to you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven, into which things the angels are desiring to look.” 1 Peter 1:10-12, AT
The Scriptures reveal that only a few in Old Testament times received God’s Holy Spirit and were granted the grace of God unto eternal salvation. Nevertheless, God’s blessing and grace was extended bountifully in the physical realm for those who loved God and kept His commandments. And mercy and forgiveness was extended to all who repented from the heart.
Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord….Noah was a just man and perfect [spiritually mature] in his generations. Noah walked with God. Gen 6:8-9
The apostle James makes it clear that Abraham’s calling and God’s promise that He would make him a great nation, through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed, were all acts of God’s grace. “And the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness and he was called the friend of God.” James 2:23 God knew Abraham, and Abraham knew God! That is what grace is all about! We must come to know God—His love, His grace, His goodness, and His mercy.
Lot found grace in the sight of the Lord, Who granted his request and delayed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah until Lot and his daughters had safely entered the city of Zoar. And Lot said unto them, ‘Oh, not so, my Lord: behold now, Your servant has found favor [grace] in Your sight, and You have magnified your mercy, which You have showed unto me in saving my life. Gen. 19:17-20 Moreover, God would have delivered Lot’s entire family from destruction if they had not rejected His grace. Rejecting the grace of God, Lot’s sons-in-law (and Lot’s married daughters) perished because they refused to believe Lot and treated the warning from God lightly and remained in Sodom. Lot’s wife also rejected the grace of God through disbelief and disobedience.
When Moses pleaded with God to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land, the Lord God revealed Himself as a God of mercy and grace. And Moses said unto the Lord, “See, You say unto me, ‘Bring up this people’….Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You, that I may find grace in Your sight: and consider that this nation is Your people….For wherein shall it be known here that I and Your people have found grace in Your sight?” And the Lord said unto Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have spoken: for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” Ex.33:12-16
The Old Testament is a history of those who sought God with all their hearts, and received God’s grace and blessing, as opposed to those who rejected God’s grace and blessing, and heaped to themselves punishment and wrath for their grievous sins. God extended His grace freely to individuals and nations who humbly sought His favor. God granted His grace to Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the children of Israel, the Ninevites, David, and even kings Ahab and Manasseh when they repented of their wickedness. The Scriptures also record God’s grace and blessings to those women who sought His favor, including Abraham’s wife Sarah, Ruth the Moabitess, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel.
However, the grace and mercy which God granted during Old Testament times was in most cases limited to physical deliverance and material blessings.
When we learn to live God’s way, we receive His grace and favor in all that we set our hands to do. The book of Proverbs gives us understanding of God’s grace under the Old Covenant as well as insight into the grace that He offers under the New Covenant. My son, forget not my law; but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to you. Let not mercy and truth forsake you: bind them about your neck: write them upon the table of your heart: so shall you find favor [grace] and good understanding in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart: and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:1-6
The Psalms are filled with wonderful descriptions of God’s love, mercy and grace, and God’s acceptance of those who truly repent and humble themselves before Him. Psalm 86 is a prayer of David which illustrates God’s bountiful grace and forgiveness toward those who repent of their sins: “Bow down Your ear O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul; for I am holy; O You my God, save Your servant who trusts in You. Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto You daily. Rejoice the soul of Your servant: for unto You, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon you. Give ear, O Lord, unto my prayer, and attend to the voice of my supplications. In the day of my trouble I will call upon You: for You will answer me… For You are great, and do wondrous things: You are God alone. Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name. I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart: and I will glorify Your name forevermore. For great is Your mercy toward me….But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth. O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me…”
See http://www.cbcg.org/series/grace/graceofGod_OT.htm for many more Old Testament examples of God’s grace in action.
It is in the New Testament that we get a complete picture of God’s grace
God gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5: 5), but resists the proud (Proverbs 3:34). True humility is acknowledging and recognizing God’s work in and through you. It is being able to see yourself from God’s perspective of who you are and then acknowledging His grace within you, developing your personal abilities to live and love as followers of and believers in Jesus Christ!
Grace justifies (Titus 3: 7), is given freely (Romans 3:24), gives humility & faith for salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9), glorifies God (Ephesians 1: 6), and says Jesus did it all for us (Galatians 5: 4).
Grace is God’s enabling power, through Jesus (John 1:16, 17); is able to build us up in Him (Acts 20:32); and enables us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:13-16), avoiding ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2:11-12); allowing us to become partakers of His strength, His presence and His nature (2 Peter 1:2-10).
Grace gives us access to the unlimited resources of God and enables us to do “an abundance for every good work,” (2 Corinthians 9: 8), and gives us special access to the throne of God in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
Ministry gifts are all based on grace. (Ephesians 4:7; Hebrews 12:28, 29)
Grace frees from both sin and religion. It is offensive to religious sensibilities and it threatens human pride. Paul preached grace so strongly that his critics accused him of promoting or being soft on sin n reaction, some think preaching the “law,” or holiness, or hard messages about sin, is the antidote to not “going too far with grace.” That is nonsense.
But what about false converts the former ask? That’s another conversation. There is only one answer for sin, one answer for victory: seeing, knowing, and experiencing the grace that is in Jesus Christ. Grace is much more than “unmerited favor.” Being “under grace” is to participate and share in the overflow of the covenant life, love, and power of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is also a transformative and empowered state of being.
In contrast, some think grace is a “get out of jail free” card that means you can do anything you want. That is likewise nonsense. When grace is usually preached in this case, the elements of empowerment and sharing in the life of the covenantal Godhead are normally left out in preference to forgiveness, i.e. acquittal of that person’s sin. Sure, they’re acquitted; but they’ve also been put into the very life, love, and power that abides at the center of the universe and holds this universe together.
Grace is a transformative power, not merely a judicial decree of innocence
You are not merely an acquitted criminal, trying to live life like a parolee. You used to be a relationally alienated rebel, and now, you have been made a dear son. Live like who you really are, a new creation. Live so radically in love with God and humanity that you would no more want to sin than you would want to poke out your own eyes. It is in the power of grace, that assurance of father-son love, where I live, rest, abide and find my being . . . that I am free. There is no room for nonsense in that and no room for indifferent attitudes toward sin. Rather, it is the very atmosphere and empowerment necessary to overcome sin.
Grace is power from God that makes good things happen in us and for us
In his second letter to the Thessalonians (chapter 1), Paul said that we fulfill our resolves for good “by his power…. according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The power that actually works in our lives to make Christ-exalting obedience possible is an extension of the grace of God.
Grace includes everything falling within the framework of Christian life. Creation, redemption (what Christ did for us), and salvation (what Christ gained for us) are all grace. Through the incarnation of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, grace refers to the act of God’s giving His self to us, and thus transforming us by redemption into the life of God.
Grace works in us to forgive, heal and elevate us. Grace is the daily fruit of the fact that God first loves us by giving His self to us, and transforming us from within.
Grace does not depend on our claim or merit in order to receive it. There is nothing at all I can do in order to attain this gift. Nor is there something I can do to lose this gift. Grace has been already “sealed” within me.
Grace is what transforms new (and sometimes “clueless”) Christians into ministers of his Word. The experience is simultaneously joyful and humbling
One need only look to the apostle Paul. What happened on the road to Damascus changed Paul’s life forever. His Pharisaical journey was interrupted abruptly and he was knocked off his mount. The voice cried out to him saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” From that occurrence, Paul worked diligently for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles. It is also the basis of his statement to the Corinthians that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, just as were the Twelve, because He saw the Resurrected Christ in His Heavenly Glory.
Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 15, this was so, not because he was so holy or good; on the contrary, he persecuted the Church of God, severely. But now by the Grace and transformative power of God, he says, “I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me was not in vain.” Even with a little boasting, which really seems to fit his nature, Paul says, “I worked harder than any of them,” still he confesses, “it was not I, but the grace of God that is in me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” Paul knew that he had worked hard and accomplished much for the Kingdom of God, but only because God had poured His abundant kindness, mercy, and grace upon him. He considered his conversion from “persecutor” to “Apostle to the Gentiles” to be a free and wholly undeserved gift from God, for it led not to passivity, but prompted his hard work in the promotion and spread of the Gospel of His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Then there were James and John. Through their mother’s intervention, they asked Jesus for the right to sit on either side of His throne. Jesus freed them from their illusions of grandeur, telling them they had to be prepared to suffer insults, persecutions, even death. These young men’s presumptive attitude upset the other apostles, but it didn’t faze Jesus. And the Bible doesn’t conceal their pettiness – so we would be able to contrast their former weakness with what they became later in life by the power of the grace that transformed them. Once they received the strength of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they changed, and were able to conquer human weakness. This same John who approached Christ with the petition, gave precedence always to Saint Peter. His brother James became so zealous for God that he gave up all earthly interests and became the first of the apostles to be martyred.
Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5 all discuss the events surrounding Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi (also known as Matthew) to be an apostle. Matthew subsequently hosted a dinner party in Jesus’ honor, attended by several of his friends that caused an uproar among the religious leaders.
The story demonstrates several aspects of grace in these sinners’ lives. It also contrasts those who are offered and receive grace with those who fail to receive grace or recognize the opportunity to receive it when it is given. Matthew’s account emphasizes Jesus’ power over sin and grace for discipleship. Mark’s account focuses on Christ the minister of grace. While Luke’s account gives a heightened contrast between those who receive grace and those who do not.
First, one might think that because Matthew was a notorious and loathsome sinner that his mere calling and acceptance as a disciple makes him an illustration of grace. But that is not the full picture. Matthew, the most notable sinner, would later distinguish himself as the author of the gospel which emphasizes righteousness to a greater degree than the other three.
Second, in contrasting the publicans and the Pharisees, we have an illustration of grace in that Jesus hung out with sinners. By the time the dinner is held, Matthew has already repented and laid down his life to follow Jesus. Therefore, the sinners who sat and ate with Jesus were not arrogant, crude and sinful in His presence. They weren’t there to cause trouble or be irreverently sinful in front of Jesus. Very likely they were all in a state of humility, since they knew they were sinners. We know this because Jesus later referred to Himself as “tending to the sick.” These verses are an example of ministering grace to any sinner who seeks forgiveness. Jesus contrasts the humility of these sinners with the arrogance of the self-righteous Pharisees who scorned them. The Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners were full of religious pride and lacked compassion. They were denied grace because they refused to admit their own need. The full transformative work of grace is offered to those in the sorriest of conditions who know their own depravity and seek Jesus with earnest.
Another contrast is made between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus. The disciples of John sarcastically asked why Jesus’ disciples spent more time celebrating than fasting, like they did. Jewish tradition encouraged the practice of fasting frequently. Fasting is a practice of self-denial that is intended to help a person recognize what’s missing in their life. While celebration serves as a reminder of what they have available to them. As Ecclesiastes states, “there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Both have their appropriate times. But fasting for John’s disciples had become an empty ritual void of meaning. They longed for what was missing in their life, but failed to recognize that what they needed was standing right in front of them, in the person of Jesus. The disciples of John, by external standards and experience, were probably model believers, but they were not the ones that were transformed by grace. The ones who received grace were a mixture of undesirables that surrendered everything to follow after Jesus.
There are many more conversion stories of the transformative power of God’s grace. But most do not have a “Damascus Road” experience. John Wesley, a priest of the Anglican Church, after encountering a group of Moravians on a voyage to the newly founded colony of Georgia, had his heart “strangely warmed” at a Moravian meeting back in his home country of England. Through the transformative power of God and the power of His Grace, Wesley worked tirelessly to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor and the outcast of England.
Our conversion doesn’t have to be as spectacular or as dramatic as Paul’s. It can also be as calm but no less powerful than Wesley’s. The important fact is that it happens and we seek and respond to God’s transformative grace in our own life! But this includes an element of labor, not passivity.
Grace is the foundation of our own spiritual work
Grace is what gives us the ability to accomplish that work. Our call is then to receive our commission, and to carry it out to the advancement of God’s Kingdom on earth through the way we live and the interaction we have with other people. By God’s grace and the working of that grace by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we become laborers for the Master.