What Is Grace?
What is grace? It seems like a simple question, but the answer has a lot of different angles to it. It is a recent email from a podcast listener named Heather. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m shy to ask this question because I’m embarrassed to admit that I struggle to understand one of the most commonly used words in the church today. That word is ‘grace.’ I often hear it defined as ‘unmerited favor’ or ‘getting what you don’t deserve.’ And I do understand it this way in the context of Ephesians 2:8 NKJV: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.’
“But I don’t understand it in the context of texts like 2 Corinthians 12:9: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Or 1 Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.’ I don’t understand ‘grace’ in these verses. Can you explain it to me?”
Well, one of the reasons I love this question — and I know I say that a lot because I love what we do here. I love all these questions. Actually, some of them are too hard to love. But this one is a softball to me because those verses that she is troubled by are some of my favorites.
But here’s one of the reasons I love this question: it gives me a chance to say to Heather and to everybody that we’re all really in this together, and I don’t have any special advantage over you in answering these questions except maybe that I’ve had a little more practice. In other words, what I do when I hear a question like this is something Heather could do or anybody could do.
Putting the Pieces Together
I open my Bible and I get my concordance, and I look up all occurrences of grace in the Bible. There are 131 uses of grace in the ESV — 124 in the New Testament, 86 of which are from the apostle Paul, which means two-thirds of all the uses of the word grace in the Bible are in one author: Paul. No wonder he’s called “the apostle of grace.”
So, I say that to encourage Heather (not that she shouldn’t have written in; I’m glad to have the question) and everyone else that there’s nothing magical about holding an office in the church, like pastor, and there’s nothing magical about having a degree and doing scholarship in the academy. We all go about answering questions pretty much the same way. Look at all the Bible has to say, and then do your best to see how it all fits together, all the while being humble and submitting your mind to what the Bible teaches.
You are always bracketing your preconceptions and trying to build your conceptions out of all the pieces of the Bible. It’s like a puzzle, where you’re trying to put the picture together with all the pieces. And you know, because it’s God’s word, that these pieces are going to fit. If they don’t fit in this life, they’re going to fit in the next. But we work on it as much as we can.
Grace as Undeserved Favor
So, to answer her question, let’s just limit ourselves to Paul, whom she quoted, and to the two uses of grace that she saw. On the one hand, grace is called — and I think it’s an absolutely wonderful phrase — undeserved favor.
Romans 3:24: “[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Grace is what inclines God to give gifts that are free and undeserved by sinners.
Romans 5:15: “If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” So, grace is that quality in God that produces free gifts for guilty sinners in salvation.
Romans 11:5–6: “At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” So, you can’t work to earn grace. It is free and undeserved.
Now, that’s what most of us have in our minds when we say God is a God of grace. And that’s true. It’s wonderful. Our eternal lives depend on it. None of us would be saved if grace were not undeserved favor, and were not a quality in the mind of God, in the heart of God, in the nature of God.
Grace as Power for Living
But then Heather rightly notices another group of passages, also in Paul, where he comes at grace a little differently.
2 Corinthians 9:8: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” Now, that seems to picture grace as a power or an influence for obedience.
2 Corinthians 12:9: Jesus says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder [that was the effect of grace] than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
In all three of those texts — and they’re not the only ones — grace is not only a disposition or a quality or an inclination in the nature of God, but is an influence or a force or a power or an acting of God that works in us to change our capacities for work and suffering and obedience.
Adjusting Our Categories
So, what I do when I see things like this in the Bible is to adjust my categories in my head. I won’t say, “Oh, well that can’t be, because I’ve got this category in my head.” No, no, no. You fix the categories in your head.
If once I thought of grace only as a character trait or a disposition or an inclination in the nature of God, which moved him to treat sinners better than they deserve — if that was my only conception, once upon a time — now, having seen all the texts, I broaden my understanding of grace as the Bible uses the term. Now I say, “Well, it appears that the word grace in Paul’s use not only refers to God’s character trait or disposition or inclination to treat people better than we deserve, but the word grace also refers to the action or the power or the influence or the force of this disposition, which produces real, practical outcomes in people’s lives, like being sufficient for good deeds or enduring the thorn in the flesh or working harder than everybody else, which Paul says about his own apostolic work.”
Now, that does not mean you have to give up that simple definition of undeserved favor. That’s true. That’s a good definition. It just means that the word also embraces the encouraging truth — at least I love the truth; that’s why these verses are so precious to me — that this favor overflows in powerful, practical helpfulness from God in your daily life where you most need it. That help is also called grace because it’s free and it’s undeserved.
Draw Near with Confidence
So, let me end with a precious verse that we all know and love and maybe have never thought about in this term of grace. Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.” That’s a throne with the quality and the character and the inclination to treat people better than they deserve. That’s the kind of throne we’re coming to. But then it says, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Or a more literal translation: “that we may find mercy and grace for a well-timed help.”
It is incredibly encouraging that God’s grace is both the inclination of the divine heart to treat us better than we deserve and is the extension of that inclination in practical help.