Grace

GRACE (Gr. χάρις, G5921). Generally, the favor shown by the Sovereign Creator to human sinners. Sinners, having transgressed God's Law, cannot expect anything from God. In that He freely moves toward them and offers to them reconciliation, fellowship, and salvation, God is said to be the “God of grace” and Christianity to be “a religion of grace.”

Despite this generally-used definition, "grace" is a term used by the biblical writers with a considerable variety of meaning:

  • Properly speaking, that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, charm, sweetness, loveliness
  • good will, Loving-kindness, Mercy, etc.
  • the Kindness of a Master toward a Slave.
  • Thus by analogy, grace has come to signify the kindness of nodetitle to Man (Luke.1.30). The New Testament writers, at the end of their various letters, frequently invoke God’s gracious favor on their readers (Rom.16.20; Phil.4.23; Col.1.19; 1Thess.5.28). In addition, the word “grace” is often used to express the concept of kindness given to someone who doesn’t deserve it: hence, undeserved favor, especially that kind or degree of favor bestowed on sinners through Jesus Christ (Eph.2.4-Eph.2.5). Grace, therefore, is that unmerited favor of God toward fallen man whereby, for the sake of Christ—the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and Truth (John.1.14)—he has provided for man’s Redemption. He has from all Eternity determined to extend favor toward all who have Faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.

    Vocabulary

    In the Old Testament, two words are basically used to convey the idea of God's mercy and free favor: chesed (e.g., Lam. 3:22) and, more importantly, chen (Gen. 33:8,10,15; Jer. 31:2). Grace is revealed in God's choice of and care for Israel. In the nodetitle, the two equivalent Greek words are eleos (e.g., Rom. 9:15-18) and charis (e.g., 1 Cor 1:4).

    χάρις, G5921

    χάρις was the term most often used for “grace.” It was a word in general use that had yet to be virtually born again and baptized into Christ’s spirit to express all that the New Testament sought to convey by it. Taken up into the message of Christ, charis was to become filled out with a new and enriched content.

    Charis is a frequent term both in classical Greek and in the nodetitle. Its connotation in the former context is “attractiveness” or “charm,” and in this sense it joins with the verb χαίρω, G5897, “to rejoice,” “to be glad.” The word appears about 170 times in the Old Testament Greek with the meaning of “favor” where it renders the Hebrew chen (cf. e.g. Gen 6:8; 19:19; etc.). While the Old Testament has many expressions to convey the reality of God’s saving acts on behalf of men, charis never is used in this connection. “Not even the higher conception of the Divine hesed or mercy is able in Judaism to achieve the place occupied by charis in nodetitle. While the gracious love of God to men had been the real foundation of the prophetic religion of the Old Testament... it has to be noticed that even there the salvation of God was based not upon charis but upon the sovereign power and glory of God, upon His ‘righteousness,’ or ‘judgment,’ or ‘torah’” (“Grace in the New Testament,” W. Manson in the Doctrine of Grace, ed. W. T. Whitley, p. 37). As far as the Old Testament is concerned, “Of the two common English renderings of chen itself, favor and grace, the former is nearly always preferable” (C. Ryder Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Grace, p. 8). The process by which the word charis came to approximate the New Testament idea runs somewhat as follows:

  • the primary reference of charis appears to have been to the state of being charmed or delighted. Plutarch, for example, speaks of the “charm” of Homer’s Poetry and of the talkative person whose unreasonable chatter destroys the charis of his deeds (De Garrulitate iv, v).
  • The word then took on a subjective sense with the thought of “kindly,” or “courteous,” i.e. “a generous disposition.” It is a virtual equivalent for the idea of the willing of good to someone.
  • From this there developed the concrete connotation suggesting a “favor” or “boon.” A favor is the expression of good will. As exhibiting an attitude of the will and feelings it is to be taken as a token of kindness.
  • As grace implies not only a giver but also a receiver, it came to denote the gratitude felt by the recipient for the favor bestowed and the thanks by which the gratitude is expressed.
  • While the New Testament reflects all these significations, it generally uses charis with the enriched meaning which comes to it through the work of Christ. Grace is almost a synonym for Salvation.

    Charis also had the underlying idea of a bestowal of help by an act of one’s free generosity. Aristotle could therefore define charis as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything” (μὴ ἀντὶ πινός) nor that the helper may get anything, but for the sake of the person who is helped (Rhetor. ii:7). Before Bethlehem, the concept of a God of grace who gives Himself appears nowhere. Philo speaks much of God’s “grace,” but always in the sense of giving gifts to men. He does confess that “Often when I get rid of a foul suggestion in my mind by a rush of good thoughts, it is God flooding my soul with his grace” (τῃ̂ ἑαυτου̂ χάριτι) (Leg. Allegor. ii:9). Even here, although the idea of an undeserved favor is recognized, Philo never rises to the faith that God’s presence can enter a human Heart. God giving Himself in Christ His Son who finds a dwelling-place in the life of the believer is “the Gospel of the grace of God.”

    The synoptic gospels and grace

    The word “grace” was never used by Jesus except on four occasions in the ordinary sense of “thanks” (Luke 6:32, 33, 34; 17:9). It is entirely absent from both Matthew and Mark. Luke alone of the three synoptists mentions it on four other occasions, three of which have the sense of favor (1:28, 30; 2:52). The fact that Jesus never used the term charis in any other way than that of “thanks” is significant for two reasons:

  • it tells against the reiterated view that the Early Church constantly read back into the teaching of Jesus’ own faith and sought to justify that faith by crediting its utterance to Him.
  • it makes evident that Jesus could not have used a word to convey what, for example, Paul afterward sought to express by the word charis, for the reason that His own Death and Resurrection were the facts which were to give to the concept its real meaning.
  • Luke’s use of the word in 4:22 may, however, be taken as a link with the peculiar post-Calvary significance of it. The King James Version has here “they wondered at the gracious words... mouth,” the American Standard Version “at the words of grace,” the ERV has “at the words of grace,” the NEB “words of such grace.” In the light of these variant translations, the phrase τοι̂ς λόγοις τη̂ς χάριτος must mean more than that they marveled at Christ’s charm as a speaker, or at His winsomeness as an Orator. Luke uses the term in its aesthetic meaning to underscore the attractive quality of what Jesus said, but He evidently had more in His mind. Luke uses the phrase “the word of his grace” (Acts 14:3), as equivalent to the Gospel (cf. 20:24). Something of this objective sense is to be read in the use of charis in Luke 4:22. This is strengthened by an examination of the context. The context is a quotation from Isaiah 61:2, and our Lord asserts its fulfillment in His coming. The allusion is made more gracious still by His omission of any reference to the divine Vengeance which the original passage contained (cf. Isa 61:2; Luke 4:22). Luke intends to convey that the people did not simply marvel at the charming way Jesus spoke, or at its fascinating effects. Jesus was indicating that His presence in the world was to have a result wider and deeper than any nationalistic aid to the people of Israel. This was more than a hint of the Gospel as “grace for all.” While Luke of all the synoptic writers was impressed by the gracious manner of Christ’s teaching he wishes his readers also to be aware of the gracious matter of His teaching. The words of our Lord caused marvel because they came as “words of grace about grace” (A. B. Bruce).

    Throughout the gospels in several ways the category of grace was demonstrated in Christ’s acts and Teaching. He came to fulfill a divine commission. The recurrent phrase “I am come” (cf. Matt 9:13; 10:34; Luke 12:51, etc.), accentuates this acceptance. He had come as the Father’s beloved Son to seek and to save that which was lost. That is grace! By His attitude Jesus demonstrated what is meant by grace. He sought out the sinful. This is the new note of the Gospel. Judaism taught that God was ready to be gracious, but was inclined to leave the first step with the sinner. The distinctive thing with Jesus was His taking of the deliberate initiative on God’s behalf. That is grace! The whole tendency of His teaching was in the same direction. There are passages in His recorded proclamations, the logical drift of which is that salvation is a matter of God’s free generosity. In, for example, the sequel to the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-31), the astonished disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” They are answered that the ultimate right to enter the Kingdom of God and be saved lies with God. Christ enunciates the Gospel of grace in contrast with the gospel of law and works. Several critical writers introduce the term “grace” at this point to bring out the essential meaning of Christ’s reply. A place in His kingdom is not gotten by anything given up for God. It is given by the Father, and the Father’s giving is the Father’s grace. “What are we to get?” ask the disciples with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in mind (Matt 20:1-8). They are reminded of the folly of bargaining with God. The final principle of God’s dealing with men is a matter of grace. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican shows clearly that “grace is grace” because, though wholly concerned with moral goodness, it does not at all depend upon how moral we are (John Oman, Grace and Personality, p. 189). The symbolism of the Last Supper makes clear that Jesus wished to indicate that the divine purpose of grace was focused in His cross. The blood of the cross inaugurated a new covenant and was essential to God as a means and medium of His saving work. It was no post factum explanation of what had happened. From the beginning, the life and work of Christ were read in the category of grace. The story of the cross was not given as an account of how the life of Jesus ended, but as revealing the basis upon which God’s grace is assured and secured.

    Two broad facts are clear from the record of the gospels. On the one hand, it is evident that the saving initiative is with God; and, on the other hand, any plea to human merit is ruled out. While Jesus is not the source of the term charis which describes these two facts, His own person is the source of the “grace” of which the whole New Testament speaks. It was the Apostle Paul who took these twin ideas and included them under the one pregnant term χάρις, G5921. In this sense grace is specifically a Pauline concept.

    The Pauline doctrine of grace

    While all the shades of meaning noted earlier are to be found in the New Testament, not all of them together convey the richness which the term acquired in the theology of Paul. For him “grace” was nothing less than the unsought and unbought saving activity of God which made him a debtor forever. The Damascus road encounter with the risen Jesus brought to focus the two basic ideas which unite in the word charis—that the saving initiative is with God and human merit is of no avail. By “grace,” then, is meant that salvation is from first to last a gift of God. God’s saving relation to man has its beginning and ending in His own eternal purpose as the counterfoil of history. He loves because He would love; saves because He would save. God acts in grace; acts without waiting for a sign or a nod from us: this is grace.


    At the end of 2 Thessalonians, Paul adds to that which he had already dictated, the “grace” conclusion with his own hand (3:17, 18). Such, he declares is his sign (σημει̂ον, G4956) in every epistle. There is no reason to suppose with Bengel that he was in the habit of appending the “grace” in a specifically picturesque style of his own, although it may be agreed that if he could have done so he well might, for the word was engraven in multicolors upon his own heart. Paul had a purpose other than personal in adding his “grace” benediction. His letters were, as Dryden has said, “absent sermons,” and the last word for any church as well as the first is “grace.” This must remain the dominant note of the celestial symphony as a Pauline epistle dies away.

    Grace and the Trinity

    The grace of Christ


    The grace of God


    Grace and the Holy Spirit


    In spite of this association, however, the Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the grace of God, as is done, for example, by N.P. Williams. He argues for “a frank equation of ‘grace’ with the Person of the Holy Spirit” (Grace of God, p. 110). This is to confuse association with identification; and in the end is to throw doubt upon the Trinitarian conception of the Godhead which is authentically Biblical. It is therefore rightly said that “the grace of God is the grace of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” It is called “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” because...the Incarnation of the Son of God is its crowning expression; and it is esp. associated with the Holy Ghost in the Christian, because we live under the new dispensation consequent upon the accomplishment of Christ’s redemptive work and His appointment of “another Comforter.” “Grace is, nevertheless, the grace of the indivisible Trinity and is not to be equated with any one Person of the Trinity” (O. Hardman, The Christian Doctrine of Grace).

    Grace and justification

    Background

    This meaning of charis was obtained by expanding and combining other meanings. By the opposite process of narrowly restricting one of the meanings of the word, it came again into Christian theology as a technical term. The formation of this special sense seems to have been the work of Paul. When charis is used with the meaning "favor," nothing at all is implied as to whether or not the favor is deserved. So, for instance, in the New Testament, when in Lu 2:52 it is said that "Jesus advanced.... in favor with God and men," the meaning is not that Jesus didn't deserve this favor. Compare also Lu 2:40 and Ac 2:47 and, as less clear cases, Lu 1:30; Ac 7:46; Heb 4:16; 12:15,28.

    The word has abundant use in secular Greek in the sense of unmerited favor, and Paul seized on this meaning of the word to express a fundamental characteristic of Christianity. The basic passage is Ro 11:5,6, where as a definition is given, "If it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace." That the word is used in other senses could have caused no 1st-century reader to miss the meaning, which, indeed, is unmistakable. "Grace" in this sense is an attitude on God’s part that proceeds entirely from within Himself, and that is conditioned in no way by anything in the objects of His favor. So in Ro 4:4. If salvation is given on the basis of what a man has done, then salvation is given by God as the payment of a debt. But when faith is reckoned for what it is not, i.e. righteousness, there is no claim on man’s part, and he receives as a pure gift something that he has not earned. (It is quite true that faith involves moral effort, and so may be thought of as a sort of a "work"; it is quite true that faith does something as a preparation for receiving God’s further gifts. But it simply clouds the exegetical issue to bring in these ideas here, as they certainly were not present in Paul’s mind when the verses were being written.)


    Development

    Paul begins his exposition of justification by referring to God’s “grace as a gift” (Rom 3:24 RSV). To be declared righteous before God by virtue of our acceptance in Christ is altogether of God’s spontaneous compassion. The grounds of our justification are variously stated (cf. Rom 5:9, 18, 19; 1 Cor 6:11). While justification is based upon the objective mediatorial work of Christ for mankind, the channel by which this saving act is made effective in human experience is “faith.” Faith is the instrumental, not the formal cause: and has the meaning of a living personal trust in a perfect redemption and a present Savior (see nodetitle). The summary scheme of salvation is, then, “by grace...through faith” (Eph 2:8). Grace points back to the ultimate source of God’s act of justifying the sinner by His sheer goodwill and mercy. Faith, as man’s response to God’s act in Christ, is a divine work in us—itself a gracious and gratuitous gift of God. From first to last the justification of the sinner is a matter of grace: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would be no longer grace” (Rom 11:6).

    Paul sees “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (5:17), as greater and more powerful than the original taint of nature even when the added stains of actual sinful acts are taken into reckoning, for “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life through Christ our Lord (5:21; cf. Titus 3:5). This does not allow any idea of “cheap grace” (Bonhoeffer). Paul will not admit to the perversion of God’s free generosity in an antinomian direction. (Cf. Rom 6:1f.; Jude 1:4.) He insists rather that the grace of God which hath appeared for the salvation of all men trains them to renounce sinful passions and to await “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-14). Instead of sinning “that grace may abound,” the believer is called upon to “grow in grace.”

    Paul’s experience had taught him that God gives and God forgives. He was sure that “all is of grace”—here is the sovereignty of grace. This was the logic of his own sense of being overwhelmed by the mercy of God. The Gospel which he received and preached taught him that faith was something not confined to his own people after the flesh; and faith was, he knew, man’s response by the action of grace to God’s initiative. If faith was not limited to Israel neither could grace be. He was assured then that “grace is for all”—here is the sweep of grace.


    Grace and law, works and nature


    Paul declares that man is justified by faith (Rom 3:28), apart from the deeds of the law. Throughout he clearly puts the law and grace into antithesis. To follow the law as a way of obtaining salvation is but to increase one’s debt (Gal 5:3), and to fail of the grace of God. But “Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom 10:4 ASV). The law “met its end in Christ,” yet it was not just “ended” by Him. He is Himself its “end” as a means of attaining to a righteousness acceptable to God. The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God by faith. At the same time the law is not abolished, but has found its fulfillment in Him; here is the “grace of law.”

    Grace, too, cancels out works as a means of attaining salvation (Rom 11:6). A reward is not reckoned of grace (4:4); thus to receive “grace” is to renounce “works” as a means of justification. The association of faith and works in salvation is impossible for then would “grace be no more grace.”

    It has been contended that nowhere does the New Testament in general and Paul in particular oppose “grace” and “nature.” This is argued to justify the medieval maxim, “Naturam non tollit gratia sed perficit”—“Grace does not destroy but perfects nature.” The contention is false. For that is not rightly regarded as grace which is but a superadded gift, a donum superadditum, to man’s native powers. That is not grace which is a mere extra to man’s initial efforts. Christ did not come to supplement man at his best, but to redeem man at his worst. Throughout the New Testament and especially underscored in Pauline theology is the assertion that what is reckoned to be of the individual’s own origination is assigned to “nature,” whereas “grace” is what is given gratis to man. It is the plain teaching of the Gospel that man has no natural endowments and no moral deeds which merit favor with God; for if he had grace would not be grace, and man would have something wherein to glory.

    Grace in the other New Testament writings


    The Petrine epistles are no less undergirded by the same sense of indebtedness to God. God is the “God of all grace” (I, 5:10). It is to the humble He gives grace (I, 5:5; cf. James 4:6; Prov 3:34). Standing in the “true grace of God” (I, 5:12), men and women become “heirs together of the grace of life” (I, 3:7). This grace is now ours (I, 1:10), and yet there is grace coming to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ (I, 1:13). The sum of the believer’s aim must be to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II, 3:18).


    Six times in the Johannine writings does the term “grace” occur. This scantiness, however, is not esp. significant, for John tends to give “love” the idea “grace” has for Paul. A difficult use is that of “grace for grace” (in the gospel; 1:16). But the intention seems to be to stress the newness and adequacy of God’s favor: here is grace on top of grace, and grace following grace—more grace on the foundation of grace and more waves flooding the shore of life from the ocean of grace. An almost exact equivalent phrase is found in Philo (De Post. Cain, 43), with the meaning of “benefit upon benefit.” The term coming in the salutation of 2 John (v. 3) and Revelation (1:4, 5) has a Pauline sense, while nothing could be more apt than that the NT itself should conclude with the renewed benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints” (22:21). Here the distinctive word of the Christian message finds its climax. In Paul the special emphasis is that grace reaches down to our need: in the Apocalypse with its special stress on the sovereignty of Christ there is the assurance that grace reigns from the throne.


    Grace in the Old Testament

    There is no word in Hebrew that can represent all the meanings of charis, and in the Septuagint charis itself is used only as a translation of the Hebrew chen, "favor," due to the desire to represent the same Hebrew word by the same Greek word as much as possible. And chen, in turn, is used chiefly only in the phrase "find favor" (Ge 6:8, etc.), whether the reference is to God or men, and without theological importance. Much nearer Paul’s use of charis is ratson, "acceptance," in such passages as Isa 60:10, "In my favor have I had mercy on thee"; Ps 44:3, "not.... by their own sword.... but.... because thou wast favorable unto them." Perhaps still closer parallels can be detected in the use of checedh, "kindness," "mercy," as in Ex 20:6, etc. But, of course, a limitation of the sources for the doctrine to passages containing only certain words would be altogether unjust. The main lines seem to be these:

  • Technically, salvation by grace in the New Testament is opposed to an Old Testament doctrine of salvation by works (Ro 4:4; 11:6), or, what is the same thing, by law (Ro 6:14; Joh 1:17); i.e men and God are thought of as parties to a contract, to be fulfilled by each independently. Most of the legislation seems to presuppose some idea of man as a quantity outside of God, while De 30:11-14 states explicitly that the law is not too hard nor too far off for man.
  • Yet even this legalism is not without important modifications. The keeping of the law is man’s work, but that man has the law to keep is something for which God only is to be thanked. Ps 119 is the essence of legalism, but the writer feels overwhelmed throughout by the greatness of the mercy that disclosed such statutes to men. After all, the initial (and vital!) act is God’s not man’s. This is stated most sharply in Eze 23:1-4--Oholibah and her sister became God’s, not because of any virtue in them, but in spite of most revolting conduct. Compare De 7:7, etc.
  • But even in the most legalistic passages, an absolute literal keeping of the law is never (not even in such a passage as Nu 15:30,31) made a condition of salvation. The thought of transgression is at all times tempered with the thought of God’s pardon. The whole sacrificial system, in so far as it is expiatory, rests on God’s gracious acceptance of something in place of legal obedience, while the passages that offer God’s mercy without demanding even a sacrifice (Isa 1:18; Mic 7:18-20, etc.) are countless. Indeed, in Eze 16; 20; 23, mercy is promised to a nation that is spoken of as hardly even desiring it, a most extreme instance.

  • Other uses of the term "grace"

    A few special uses of "grace" occur throughout the Bible. The special blessing of God on a particular undertaking (Ac 14:26; 15:40) is sometimes called a "grace." In Lu 6:32-34 and 1Pe 2:19,20, charis seems to be used in the sense of "that which deserves the thanks of God," i.e. a specifically Christian act as distinguished from an act of "natural morality."



    Alternate approaches to grace

    Since grace is so fundamental and many-sided a concept, it is to be expected that Christians will have had partial or unbalanced understanding of it. In church history there have been important controversies over the nature of grace. Of these we may note those between Augustine and the Pelagians and between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. For Augustine, grace was absolutely necessary in order to begin, continue, and complete the salvation of an individual sinner. God must give the desire, the faith, and the perseverance. The Pelagians understood grace not as a supernatural power at work in the human soul, but as the normal functioning of the human faculties. So a man could freely accept salvation and later, if he wished, renounce his salvation.

    Within Roman Catholicism, grace has usually been portrayed as a power conveyed through the priestly ministry and sacraments by which justification and sanctification are achieved. So personal faith and works go hand in hand. For Protestants, the connection between grace and faith has been central. As the sinner believes in God through Christ, the grace of God is active in that his sins are forgiven, a declaration of justification is made on his behalf, and he is reconciled with God. Works follow as the believer, accepting God's help through the means of grace (prayer, worship), continues to trust in his Lord.

    In dogmatics, various adjectives are sometimes added to “grace” in order to describe aspects of it: e.g., Actual Grace is used by Roman Catholics to describe any supernatural help given in order to avoid sin or do a good work. Habitual Grace (Sanctifying Grace) is used by Roman Catholics to describe the divine power which assists men to perform righteous acts; for Protestants it describes the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the justified believer. Irresistible Grace is used by Calvinistic Protestants to describe the sovereign activity of God in regeneration and conversion. Prevenient Grace is used by Roman Catholics of God's work in the heart of the infant who is baptized, and by Protestants of God's secret, preparatory work in the heart of a sinner before he actually believes. Sufficient Grace is used by Roman Catholics to describe God's offer of help made to all Christians; when used it becomes Efficacious Grace.

    Bibliography

  • J. Oman, Grace and Personality (1917)
  • L. S. Chafer, Grace (1922)
  • E. Jauncey, The Doctrine of Grace (ch. 3) (1925)
  • N. P. Williams, The Grace of God (1930)
  • J. Moffatt, Grace in the New Testament (1931)
  • W. T. Whitley (ed.), The Doctrine of Grace (1932)
  • O. Hardman, The Christian Doctrine of Grace (1937)
  • A. R. Vidler, Christ’s Strange Work (1944)
  • J. Murray, The Covenant of Grace (1954)
  • J. N. D. Anderson, Law and Grace (1954)
  • H. Kuiper, By Grace Alone (1955)
  • E. F. Kevan, The Evangelical Doctrine of Law (1955)
  • C. Ryder Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Grace (1956)
  • P. S. Watson, The Concept of Grace (1959)
  • G. A. F. Knight, Law and Grace (1962)
  • E. F. Kevan, Salvation (ch. 2) (1963)
  • E. F. Kevan, The Grace of Law (1964)
  • H. D. McDonald, I and He (chs. 5, 6) (1966)
  • N.P. Williams, The Grace of God (1930)
  • H.D. Gray, The Christian Doctrine of Grace (1949)
  • J. Daujat, The Theology of Grace (1959)
  • P.S. Watson, The Concept of Grace (1960).