The subject of God’s grace permeates every aspect of the Gospel, giving it weight and power. The saving acts of God, due to the work of Jesus on the cross and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead bring reconciliation (“atonement”) between people and God. This is why the Gospel is described as a message of hope for the whole world (Luke 14:15-24).
The word ‘grace’ itself is described by one author as “the last, best word” in English, remaining unspoiled over the years in its meaning. Its many usages still retain some of the glory of the original, with words like gratitude, gratuity, congratulations, and gratefulness all carrying the idea of something that brings delight, joy, happiness, or good fortune.
The White Flag Of Grace
The word ‘grace’ in the Bible (hen in Hebrew, charis in Greek), literally means ‘favour’, with the idea of bending or stooping in kindness to another, together with graciousness in manner or action. The Old Testament use of the word includes the concept of those who “show favor” by undertaking gracious deeds, or acts of grace, such as being kind to the poor and showing generosity. Examples of God’s graciousness are also seen throughout the Old Testament, as in Deuteronomy 7:8, Numbers 6:24–27, Psalm 119:29 and Psalm 27:7.
In the New Testament, the word grace has many layers of meaning, including the deepest and most transformative – God’s saving grace, as defined by Ephesians 2 – the gift of eternal life, freely given through Jesus Christ. In God’s language, His grace gives us what we don’t deserve and cannot earn. This is why it is so frequently contrasted against the Law of Moses, which still condemned every man or woman, no matter their sincerity or good deeds.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, ESV
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8, NIV
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” John 3:16-17, NIV
We see God’s love for humanity demonstrated in His grace – His undeserved favour and kindness, bestowed on the human race. God’s grace was shown in action – in sending His son, to save the world through him.
God’s Grace Is A Gift
Paul the apostle frequently described God’s grace as a gift because he, of all people, understood how easy it was for Christians to be deceived into believing they could earn God’s love or forgiveness. Paul, previously known as Saul, had been an extremely zealous Pharisee. He was strictly religious, scrupulously lawful and he actively persecuted the new Christian religion (believing them to be heretics) – consenting even in their murder, in the misguided belief that he was doing God’s will (Philippians 3:5-7).
Yet Paul was confronted on his way to Damascus in a very real way by the risen Jesus, who made it clear to him that God’s grace is something that is given freely, not earned.
The truth is, we cannot “earn anything” from God and we don’t “deserve anything”, apart from the sentence passed on humanity for Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the beginning – death. Yet God generously offers us something quite different, something undeserved – forgiveness and life, as a gift. God has, in effect, raised the white flag of grace, enabling a way for us to be reconciled back to Him.
“He has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” 2 Timothy 1:9, NIV
God’s call to saving grace has been echoing down the centuries, appealing to any who would listen. Isaiah 55 likens this call to the provision of thirst-quenching water, free of charge, to those who are dying of thirst.
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Isaiah 55:1, NIV
The Spirit Of Ungrace
Grace is, perhaps, the easiest concept to speak about in the enthusiastic language of a born-again believer (John 3:1-21) but, in reality, the hardest virtue to assimilate into our Christian lives. Legalism, not grace, is one of the first lessons we learn in life; that all things come with a price and that nothing is given for free. We can tend to persist in this mentality after our conversion, even on an unconscious level, viewing God and each other in this light.
Yet, the concept of grace flies in the face of what we perceive to be deserved or fair and offers a completely different way of seeing things – less like ourselves and more like God. Jesus taught in his now famous prayer, known as “the Lord’s prayer”, that we should ask God to’ forgive us as we forgive others (Matthew 6:9-13). Peter later tried to clarify exactly what Jesus meant by this, asking him to specify how many times he was required to forgive (Matthew 18:21). Peter hadn’t grasped the ‘unreasonableness’ of grace, as God sees it. We are to forgive as God has forgiven us. Wholeheartedly and without reservation.
Peter’s question prompted Jesus to tell another story – that of the ungrateful servant (Matthew 18: 21-35). Despite having been forgiven a massive debt of some several million dollars by his master, the servant proceeded to demand repayment of a debt owed to him by a fellow servant, of only a few dollars. When the fellow servant was unable to immediately repay, he had him thrown into prison, ‘until he could repay the debt’ – which would have been practically impossible from his prison cell. The master soon heard of the ungrateful servant’s behaviour and the conclusion of the tale is sobering:
“Then the master called the servant in.‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’. In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:32-35, NIV
The parable was designed to impress upon the listeners the importance of their attitude towards each other in response to the forgiveness they had received from God. Keeping score or imposing limits of forgiveness simply do not find a place in Christian behaviour. God has already forgiveness us a debt so mountainous that any person’s wrongs against us shrink to anthills in comparison. How can we not forgive in the light of what we ourselves have received?
In fact, there is a direct correlation between our professed love for God and our love for our ‘fellow servants’. John puts it this way:
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20, NIV
Forgiveness Is An Act Of Faith
“One day I discovered this admonition from the apostle Paul, tucked in among many other admonitions in Romans 12. Hate evil, Be joyful, Live in harmony, Do not be conceited – the list goes on and on. Then appears this verse, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
At last I understood: in the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out. I leave in God’s hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy.
When Joseph finally came to a place of forgiving his brothers, the hurt did not disappear, but the burden of being their judge fell away. Although wrong does not disappear when I forgive, it loses its grip on me and is taken over by God, who knows what to do. Such a decision involves risk, of course: the risk that God may not deal with the person as I would want. (The prophet Jonah, for instance, resented God for being more merciful than the Ninevites deserved.)
I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I do so because the Gospel makes clear the connection: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors. The reverse is also true. Only by living in the stream of God’s grace will I find the strength to respond with grace toward others.” – Henri Nouwen
The long and short of it is this: if we cannot show even the slightest resemblance of grace in our lives to one another, then we have totally misunderstood who God is and what exactly it is that He has done for us.
Grace teaches that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are. Therefore, we choose to show that same attitude of grace in our behaviour to others. Showing grace isn’t because we should forgive, it’s because we’re reminded that we have been forgiven.
“And this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.…” Romans 3: 22-24, BSB