Grace hand

Amazing grace

It’s a word Christians use a lot, but what do you understand by 'grace', asks Dave Newton.

Grace misunderstood?
It was the famous singer/philosopher Bono who wrote: “Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain, it could be her name.”

He continued: “Grace, it’s the name for a girl, it’s also a thought that changed the world.”

I believe most of us reading this would identify with some of Bono’s words, but what do we understand grace to be?

Even the BBC records a definition on their GCSE revision website stating, “Grace is the term Christians use to describe God’s unconditional love for everyone, whether or not they have behaved as he wants them to.”

So how do we understand grace and it really matter?

Is our understanding one-sided?

There are 131 uses of ‘grace’ in the English Standard Version of the Bible, 124 in the New Testament, 86 of which are from the apostle Paul.

Put simply, two-thirds of all the uses of the word ‘grace’ in the Bible are from one author: Paul.

No wonder he’s called ‘the apostle of grace’.

Undeserved favour
Probably the most common understanding is the concept of undeserved favour.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he clearly states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God,” (Eph 2: 8).

Romans further clarifies: “[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 (Rom 3: 24).

This concept of receiving from God what we do not deserve is a common one that Christians would relate to.

God is a God of grace, and this wonderful truth is one our eternal lives depend on.

None of us would be saved if grace was not undeserved favour, and was not a quality in the mind of God, in the heart of God, and in the nature of God.

Perhaps it could be argued that as Christians we have been quick to receive God’s grace but on occasions are not as willing to offer it to others.

As Jesus instructed the disciples on their mission, “in the same way they had freely received, you should also freely give." (Matt 10: 8).

The power to live
For some though, that is where the understanding of grace ends.

In his letters to the Corinthians, however, Paul opens up another side of grace.

It is not only a disposition, quality or inclination in the nature of God, it is also a force or a power of God that works in us to change our capacities for action, suffering and obedience.

“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 Cor 9: 8).

Jesus says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor 12: 9).

Dallas Willard, an American Christian philosopher, corrects the mistaken notion that grace is only for the forgiveness of sins, stating: “The sinner is not the one who uses a lot of grace; the saint uses more grace. The saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on take-off; everything they do is a manifestation of grace.”

Willard is alerting us to the fact that grace produces real, practical outcomes in people’s lives, like being sufficient for good deeds, and hardship, or working harder when called upon.

Grace is not simply a ‘get out of jail free’, it is also the transformative power that enables us to live the Jesus-life as his followers today.

Willard claimed, “Grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning. Effort is action; earning is attitude.”

Perhaps that is what Paul was meaning when he wrote to the Philippians ‘work out your salvation’ (Phil 2: 12).

So how are you experiencing the grace of God in your life today? How are you expressing grace to others that mirrors God’s grace for you?

Perhaps Bono was right in recognising that the grace God offers has the power to change the world. 

Dave Newton is the Director of Training for the Elim Pentecostal Churches, and Principal of Regents Theological College.

This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of Direction Magazine. For further details, please click here.

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