WHAT IS GRACE?
By Lonnie Kent York
Whenever the word “grace” is used in a religious context, the thought of “God’s unmerited favor” comes to mind. The way that this is interpreted varies according to different religious philosophies. The doctrine of Grace is usually understood as the way one obtains salvation: salvation free from works. The central text used to support this view is Eph. 2:4-9.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Most of us feel that we understand the subject of Grace. Yet, when we have to explain what it is, we might have some difficulty explaining Grace. This article will seek to provide you with some answers to the question: what is Grace?
The word for Grace in the Greek is “charis.” Thayer, and other Lexicographers usually will present four primary meanings for the word “charis.” Depending upon the context, we can learn the meaning the writer had in mind for the word “charis.” A brief examination of these different meanings will be helpful in our understanding the doctrine of “Grace.”
Graciousness should be the characteristic of the Christian’s speech. This is Paul’s admonition: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” (Eph. 4:29). Our speech should not be harsh. It should be able to edify others. In Col. 4:6, we find a further admonition about our speech: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” Besides the manner of our speech, Paul now adds that we have it seasoned with experience. In such a manner we shall know how we should answer every man.
In a similar way, this meaning implies the “kindness which bestows upon one what he has not deserved.” This is how most people understand Grace. The context of Eph. 2:4-9 is a classic text that expresses this meaning.
We also have the “goodwill” of God working through His children under this meaning. It is His favor toward us, leading us by His providence, toward those things that are best for us. Paul uses this aspect of Grace when he wrote: “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Paul points out that we must accept this grace. We must use what God has given to us, so that God might receive the glory. Each of us are beneficiaries of this Grace. Our spiritual growth is dependent upon how we use the goodness and favor of God in our lives. How great it would be to say as Paul, that what God has done for us is “not in vain.”
Thayer’s definitions were used because he is accepted more universally than some newer lexicons. Depending upon which lexicon you use, the break down of meanings might vary a little. The sense of the word, however, is the same. Context should always govern our understanding for the word “charis.” When this is done, then error in interpretation will be avoided.
The most common understanding of “Grace” is: “the unmerited favor and love of God toward man.” This is correct, yet many interpret this to mean that man does nothing to receive the benefits of Grace. Taking all the verses where “charis” occurs, and viewing grace in its broadest meaning, the following statement can be made regarding Grace.
The Grace of God is the time that God has shed forth all of His mercy and extended to us a period of time, by which we have opportunity to redeem ourselves from our sins.
Grace can be liken to a time period. Grace is a time period when God gives to humanity His full mercy and favor. This time period is given so that we might be redeemed from our debt of sin. Our debt is due, yet God extends the payment period to allow us to obtain redemption. We see this principle used in modern banking. Our loan is a debt that is due every month. The day arrives, and we do not have the means to pay off that debt. The bank extends to us a short period of time in which we can redeem our debt without suffering any consequences. If we do not redeem that debt within this “grace period,” then we shall suffer the consequences.
God has granted to each of us time. Time in which we can redeem ourselves from our debt of sin. God has given His Son as the means by which we might redeem ourselves (cf. John 3:16). Two circumstances will govern our own period of Grace. The first circumstance is our lifetime. We do not know how long we shall live. God gives to all men opportunities to know His will, and to obey the gospel. If we do not redeem ourselves within our lifetime, by taking advantage of God’s grace, then we shall suffer the consequences – eternal life in hell.
The second circumstance is the second coming of Christ. If we are alive then, and have not yet advantaged ourselves of this Grace, then it will be too late. That will be the end of Grace for all time. There will be no more time extended for us to be redeemed by God’s Grace.
Peter expresses this nature of Grace when he penned the following words: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). Yet, if we fail to do this, then we only have a fearful expectation awaiting when we stand before God in judgment.
Paul gives a similar warning to those who heard him in Athens (Acts 17:30-31). Paul warned that a time would come when men would have to face the consequences of their sins. God commands us to repent, now, and not delay. That day will come when Christ will return and judge the world. That day will end this period of Grace.
Without Christ Jesus, we would not have the Grace of God. The Grace of God comes only through Jesus Christ and the sacrifice that He made on the cross. Without that sacrifice who could ever know or receive the Grace of God.
A fact that all agree on is that we cannot by ourselves or through our own means obtain the favor of God. Man cannot forgive himself of his sins. No work done by man alone can ever remove one sin, or gain eternal salvation. This was the point that Paul was making in that most famous verse.
Eph. 2:8 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:”
It is by Grace that we are saved. It is not by anything that we have done apart form God’s word. Paul tells us that it is the “gift of God.” Grace, then, is the “gift of God.” If we know what the “gift of God” is, then we shall know how we can obtain the benefits of the Grace of God.
The gift of God was Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God has shown His love, favor and mercy toward humanity. Through Christ we have the hope of salvation. We see this from the words of our Lord to the woman at the well in Samaria.
“Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” (John 4:10)
Some would limit this Grace of God only to those who were elected to salvation. Those who are elected, or the “Elect,” refers to a doctrine that teaches that a select few were elected to salvation before the world was created. This is contrary to the scheme of God’s redemption for humanity. God’s grace, which comes through Jesus Christ is extended to all, not just to a select few. Paul taught that “the Grace of God brings salvation” (Titus 2:11). We all agree with this statement. Yet, Paul continues by saying, “hath appeared to all men.” This Grace is not limited. It has appeared so that all men might have an opportunity for salvation. The word “appeared” means, “to become visible,” or “to be seen.” How did God’s Grace “appear” to all men? It has appeared through the birth, life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Although the Grace of God has appeared to all men, this does not imply that all men are saved. It means that all possess an opportunity to take advantage of the gift of God, which is Jesus Christ. Our salvation comes through our faith in Him, when we do what Grace demands.
Paul teaches that we all have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). As such, we are in our sins and in need of salvation. Our salvation can come only through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 5:9; Acts 4:12). To receive the benefits of the Grace that God offers, we must go to Christ.
The Grace of God has come by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus Christ died is significant. If that is all He did, then we are void of God’s Grace. It was through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that God’s Grace became effective. Peter says it aptly:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” (1 Peter 1:3).
Without the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all would be without hope or salvation. Grace, as it relates to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, is a theme that Paul develops in his letter to the Romans. Paul proved that all are guilty of sin, and that by one man’s disobedience sin came into this world. In chapter five this theme is well developed. Paul also noted that it was by one man’s obedience that all have the hope of salvation. This theme is summed up in one verse.
- “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:19)
Finally, in chapter six, we see that when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into the likeness of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. In this act we realize the true significance of God’s Grace.
Before Christ came into this world to be our sacrifice for sins, we were dead in our sins. Christ did not come because we were so good or great. He came because we were in our sins. Whenever we think about the Grace of God, we must understand this fact. This is what makes Grace – Grace. We were dead in our sins, but through Christ we can be made alive. The key is “through Christ.” This helps us to understand Paul’s statement: “Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)” (Eph. 2:5). The parenthetical clause explains the idea of Grace being through Christ.
The Gift of God is Jesus Christ. Through Christ, and His death, burial and resurrection, we have access to the Grace of God. Peter makes a simple, yet profound statement about the Grace of God:
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
The scriptures teach that we are saved by a combination of several principles. No one principle exclusively saves. We are saved when we combine all of the essential principles that are outlined in the New Testament. Only then, can we obtain salvation.
We are saved by Grace. Our principal text proves this fact. Salvation comes through the Gift of God, which was the sacrifice of His Son. Through the resurrection of Christ we now have hope. Grace is only one principle of our salvation. Its presence, alone, cannot save.
We are also saved by the PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL. Without the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, how could anyone know what Christ has done for their salvation? Paul taught that the Corinthians were saved by the preaching of the gospel. “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:1-2) Paul preached the gospel. They received, or obeyed that gospel message. They were currently faithful (standing) to that gospel. Paul clearly says, “by which also ye are saved.” Saved by what? The gospel that they had responded to.
We are also saved by our obedience to that gospel message. Paul’s letter to the Romans begins and ends with the idea of obedience. From the beginning to the end of that letter obedience is stressed. In the sixth chapter, which shows how one is saved, Paul suggest that we either obey sin, which yields death, or we obey righteousness, which yields eternal life.
Rom. 6:16-18 “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” (The form of doctrine was the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, cf. vs. 3-6).
We are saved by our faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8). We are saved by our repentance (2 Cor. 7:10). We are saved by the combination of several principles, but the ultimate or climatic principle that saves us is the Blood of Christ. Without the shedding of His blood, and His resurrection from the dead, we would be void of any salvation. It is through the shed blood of Christ that we have redemption.
Eph. 1:7 “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace;”
Rev. 1:5 “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,”
When we are saved by Grace, it is a gift from God. Because Grace is a gift, some feel that we do not earn that gift by any action on our part. This is true, yet we need to know what is implied by the idea of a gift. I have a gift for you. I want you to have this gift, and it is yours free of charge. Yet, as long as I am in possession of that gift, you cannot receive the benefits of that gift. Before a gift can be of any value to anyone, that person must take possession of the gift. Without possession, a gift does not possess any value to the one for whom it was intended. Possession is the key.
Christ is the author of our salvation. He has provided for all humanity the gift of Grace. It is free for the taking. But, in reality, no one can receive the benefits of that gift until they take possession of that gift. Possession occurs when we obey Jesus Christ. Only then can we take possession of that gift. When we receive the gift of Grace, by our obedience, Jesus becomes the author of our salvation. Until that moment, Jesus is not our savior. “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9).
Our debt is our own sins. The reward for unforgiven sin is spiritual death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We do not have to pay that debt if we accept the Grace of God. “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23b). The gift of God, which is Christ Jesus and the Grace that comes through Him, is eternal life. God’s love for us has been extended to us by this gift of Grace. God has given to each of us an opportunity to redeem our debt of sin. Now is the time for your salvation. Now is the time to redeem your debt of sin through Jesus Christ, by obedience to the gospel.
No one is exempt form this debt of sin (cf. Rom. 5:12 & 14). If, in this life, we reject this opportunity to receive the benefits of God’s saving Grace, then we have the wrath of God to look forward to in that day. If we are disobedient to the gospel of Christ, what do we have to look forward to? Paul says that: “For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience” (Col. 3:6).
In the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) our Lord teaches us that we are now living in the last time. This is time for us to accept the Grace of God. If we do not accept this Grace, then we will be rejected by Him.
Luke 13:6-9 “He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”
For three years the lord of this vineyard sought fruit from the fig tree. Each year there was no fruit. What is represented by the fig tree? What do the three years represent? The fig tree represents God’s people, or in this text the Jews. The three years represent the three ages in which God provided opportunities for His people to accept Him. The first year was the age of the Fathers, or the star light age. God’s will was revealed, but not in full. Some accepted what was given, but many failed to produce fruit. They rejected God and turned to idols instead of the living God.
The second age was that of the Law or the Mosaic age. In this period of time, God presented His law and gave His people guidance by that Law. He also sent them prophets to guide them. Yet, they failed to produce proper fruit. We call this the moon light age. More knowledge of God was revealed, yet God’s people still failed to produce meaningful fruit.
The third age was the time when our Lord Jesus Christ ministered the gospel upon this earth. God sent His only begotten Son to reveal God and His word. Yet, they would not hear the Son. They crucified Him: again rejecting God. They failed to produce fruit, even when the sun light of God’s word was the brightest.
No visible fruit was produced during these three ages. The Lord wanted to destroy the fig tree, but the keeper (Jesus Christ) asked for one more year (age). The Lord of the vineyard granted one more year, or age, in which the dresser of the vineyard would put forth an all out effort to cause the tree to produce fruit. If it did not produce any fruit at the end of that year, then it would be cut down, and no more opportunities would be given.
This last year, or age, is the Christian age. It is the age of the Holy Spirit. We now have all of God’s Word revealed, there will be no more new revelations. If we fail to obey God during this age (the period of Grace), then their are no more opportunities given to obey God. This truth was made clear by our Lord: “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.“.(Matt. 12:31-32)
The last year of this parable is the age of the Holy Spirit. This is the time when the Holy Spirit would reveal all truth. If all truth would be revealed, then no more could be expected. To reject the Holy Spirit is to reject the message that the Holy Spirit presented. That message is found in the New Testament. Now is the time for our salvation: not some time yet to come. You are now living under this age of the Holy Spirit, which is the time that God has provided His Grace. Once you die, then the period of Grace has ended for you. There will be no more opportunities. Solomon makes this clear in Eccl. 9:10: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
What did Paul have in mind by the word “works?” Did he have in mind the actions we must perform through obedience to the Gospel, or did he have in mind the works associated with the Law of Moses? The answer to this question will resolve the difficulty of understanding this verse.
This verse does not refer to the actions or works we do when obeying the commands of God. There are certain works necessary to be pleasing before God. Once, Christ was asked a question regarding this type of work. “Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (John 6:28-29). This text teaches that belief in God is a work that is necessary for one’s salvation. Not all works, then, were included by Paul’s statement.
The works that Paul had in mind were the works under the Old Testament Law. All scholars are in agreement with this interpretation. The context of this verse supports this understanding. No one could be justified under the works of the Old Law, or the Law of Moses. If any were to be saved by the Grace of God, it could not be by that system of religion. That Law could not justify anyone. That law led to a system of boasting, which was contrary to that of Grace. The following three verses prove this point.
Rom. 3:20 “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
Rom. 11:6 “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”
Gal. 2:16 “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
This does not mean that the Old Testament Law was useless. It had its place in the scheme of man’s redemption. It was the schoolmaster for Israel to bring them to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24). Yet, this Law of works could not justify anyone. When Christ died upon the cross, He took away the binding force of that Law of works (cf. Col. 2:24). It had to be removed so that we could come under the Grace that is through Christ (cf. Rom. 7:1-4). The context of Eph. 2:1-9 refers to this freedom we now have in Christ. Those who seek to be justified before God by that Old Law cannot find justification. Grace does not come through that Law.
We cannot be justified by our own works or those of the Law. Our justification comes through the Grace of God. When we obey the gospel, we are only doing what God commands. This is a work that is acceptable by God.
The scriptures are very plain about this issue. Paul gives us the answer to this question. “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4). To seek justification by the Law of Works (the Old Testament Law), once you have been saved by Grace, is to fall from Grace. To fall from Grace is to loose the benefits of Grace. This verse plainly teaches the possibility of falling from Grace or losing one’s salvation.
The Grace of God can save. There are too many scriptures that teach that we are protected while in Christ and His Grace. None should ever question the power of God to save by and through His Grace. This is not the issue of this question. Ultimately, each individual must stand responsible for their own souls. We can do things that will separate us from the Grace of God. We can fall from Grace when we depart from the truths revealed by that Grace. No one can separate us from God’s Grace except ourselves.
Peter gives a very stern warning about going back to our former sinful condition. Once we have been saved, or freed from the stain of sin, and we go back to those former things, we are, in reality, in a worse condition.
2 Peter 2:20-21 “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.”
How could it be “better for them not to have know the way of righteousness?” To understand this statement, we must realize that there was a time that we did not exist. Once we came into existence, there never will be a time that we will not exist. We shall spend eternity either in heaven or hell. If we have obeyed the gospel and received the benefits of God’s Grace, then we have the hope of heaven. If we turn our backs on that hope, then we only have to look forward to hell. In eternity, those who once obeyed the gospel, but turned back to the world of sin, then it shall be worse for them in eternity. They not only will be in hell, but they will, for all eternity, have the knowledge that they did not have to be in a state of condemnation.
It is possible to depart from God’s Grace to a point of no return. It was with fearful contemplation that Paul wrote the following words to the Hebrews: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” (Heb 6:4-6). Paul was writing to those who were Christians. They had not yet fallen away. They were warned that if they continued in their present state of affairs, they could reach a point where it would be impossible to return. They would not repent of their sins. We too, must head this warning, or we could fall to a point of no repentance.
There are many verses that show that the child of God possesses the possibility of falling from Grace. There is the parable of the sown seed, where our Lord talks about the seed that started, but later was choked out because of the cares and riches of this world (cf. Matt. 13). There is Paul’s warning to the young man Timothy (2 Tim. 3:1-9) that in the latter times some would depart the faith. Such verses teach that men can and would depart from God’s Grace. Be it known that each one who so departs, can only blame themselves – not God, for their departure.
Matt. 7:21 “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.