Grace: What It Isn’t, What It Is (1)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Ephesians 2.8, 9
Words without meaning?
During a recent meeting of his leadership team, a pastor friend of mine asked what would seem to have been a good conversation-starting question: “What is grace?”
No one in his group could explain it.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” “Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within…” “Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus…” “More of His grace to others show…” We sing about the grace of God, and feel certain that we stand secure in grace. But if we’re not clear about what grace is, how can we expect to know the benefits and obligations grace brings with it?
All of which puts me in mind of the scene in that excellent film, The Princess Bride, when the Spaniard, having heard the Sicilian exclaim one time too many, “Inconceivable!”, remarks, “You keep on using that word. I’m not sure it means what you think it means.”
In the Christian community today, we are guilty of the same. Except that we have many words, words that we bandy about all the time, the meaning of which I’m not sure we really understand. Words like praise, worship, discipleship, Kingdom of God, salvation, revival, and above all, grace.
We use words fraught with the most important meaning – life-changing meaning, world-transforming meaning – but meaning we don’t really understand; and so the reality and power of these words generally evade us.
It’s time we stopped using such meaning-full words in meaningless ways. Beginning with the word grace.
What we know about grace
Of course, every believer knows something about grace. Just as most people know something about St. Patrick. That he was a great Irish saint. Or that he taught the Trinity using a shamrock, and that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. None of which, of course, is true.
So also with grace. We know just enough about grace to be able to use the word with a measure of confidence. We’re saved by grace. We can pray for grace to help in our time of need. God’s grace sustains us, and that’s a good thing. Certain people seem to have more grace than others. We know just enough about grace like I know just enough about Russian to greet someone and ask them how they are. But just as I would very quickly be at sea trying to carry on a conversation in Russian – missing all the cues and jokes and important points being made – so we are at sea much of the time when it comes to grace. We’re just using and hearing a term without really knowing what it means.
Most of what we know about grace is only partly true, and some of what we know may be entirely wrong.
And for a people who claim to be saved by grace, and thus to be a people of grace, that doesn’t bode well.
Grace for Your Time of Need
Today we begin a 5-part series (35 installments) on the subject of grace. It will take us 5 parts to begin getting our minds and hearts around this subject. But first we need to establish a working descrption of grace, which we can build on for the remaining installments in this series.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to seek mercy and grace from God for our times of need (Heb. 4.16). A frequently-heard explanation of the difference between these two terms has it that mercy is not getting what you deserve (judgment, wrath, punishment), while grace is getting what you don’t deserve (forgiveness, eternal life, heaven). There’s a good bit of wisdom in that distinction, especially where grace is concerned. Grace is entirely undeserved. We can’t earn it, as if we could work hard enough or be good enough to deserve it. There is nothing inherent in our being human that demands grace should abound to us. We don’t deserve grace, and nothing we could ever do will change that.
And yet there it is, grace abounding to chiefs of sinners such as we. What a wonder! What a miracle! What a mystery! And what an infinite bounty of grace awaits us, if only we know what it is, what it’s for, and how we may obtain more of it.
Rather than try to define grace, let me begin our series by describing it: Grace is a divine disposition, leading to divine communication, that issues in divine power for the good of the world and the glory of God.
Let’s just briefly note the following: (1) Grace begins in God, in the deep, secret, mysterious counsel of the divine Trinity, where the thoughts and decisions of God can be known only perfectly and completely to Him. So if we ask, “Why grace?”, the answer will always only be “Because God”. You cannot know grace – at least, you cannot appreciate grace or increase in it – unless you know God and believe in Him.
(2) God does not keep grace to Himself. He communicates it. But to whom? How? And with what in mind?
(3) Grace brings with it divine power, and divine power always accomplishes holy spiritual work. You cannot work for grace, but you cannot work without it. The people who know God and His grace have been saved unto good works, for which incessant and increasing measures of grace are required.
(4) Grace at work results in good for the world – good, defined as God defines it – and brings glory to God. The telos of grace, in other words, is worship. Grace is unto worship, because worship is what God deserves and what we’re made for as human beings. Because in worship, we encounter grace in a Person, our Lord Jesus Christ, and are fulfilled and renewed in Him and His grace so that we can live for the glory of God in every area of our lives.
But before we unpack the details of this description, we need to clear up some common misconceptions about grace. We need to see what it isn’t before we can begin to understand what grace is.
1. Do you agree that Christians often use terms without really understanding them? Explain.
2. For Christians, what constitutes a “time of need”?
3. Review the description of grace provided in this article. In what ways do you see this grace at work in your life?
Next Steps – Preparation: Share this article with a few friends. Invite them to join you in reading and discussing the installments in this series on grace.
Grace flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ. The better we know Him, the more His grace will do its work in us. Our book, To Know Him, can help you in drawing closer to Jesus and increasing in Him. Order your copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
It's All Grace. Right?
- T.M. Moore
- August 19, 2019
Yes, but we need to make sure we know what we mean.
Grace: What It Isn’t, What It Is (1)
T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.