Saying and Saving Grace
Grace. There is no better word to use to describe the uniqueness of the message of Jesus than this one word. Biblical grace is a concept not found in the religions of humanity and it is one that is often misunderstood or simply missed completely in contemporary culture. Today when one hears the term it is likely provoke thoughts of a prayer said before meals or a character on a popular television drama. Many Christians may talk of grace, but few of us actually live in light of the grace of God.
In this essay I want to do a few things. First, I want to contrast biblical grace with most ideas of religious observance found throughout our world. After doing so I wish to offer a simple definition. Then I will breakdown several different ways in which the Bible talks about grace in God's relationship to human beings. It is my fear that we could be too narrow in our understanding of the Scriptures teaching on grace. Finally, I will conclude with some practical guidance on living in grace in relationship to what we might call habitual or besetting sins.
Biblical Grace vs. The Chains of Religion
Before we make a positive definition of what we mean by grace, I want to first prepare us for its meaning by way of contrast with human religious traditions. We might think of religion as humanity's attempt to please, connect with and commune with transcendent reality. Simply put religion is a human exercise - an attempt to please God or align with the universe etc. It is an enterprise founded on the devotion, actions and morality of human beings. Religion would teach us that God will like you if you say, do, believe all the right things. The more perfect you are, the more favor you will find with God (or the karmic universe in some ways of thinking). Many are the mantras of religion: keep the law, follow the eight fold path, observe the five pillars or sow towards good karma. Perhaps then you will find a right standing with the transcendent or divine. Biblical grace is a stark contrast to these sorts of ideas.
There are many worthy definitions of the concept of grace, but for the sake of brevity I will offer a basic definition given by Millard Erickson in his Christian Theology:
By this [grace] we mean that God deals with his people not on the basis of their merit or worthiness, what they deserve, but simply according to their need; in other words, he deals with them on the basis of his goodness and generosity.1
It is tempting to look into the mirror to tell oneself I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and dog gone it, people like me. The wonderful truth of the grace of God is that he accepts sinners, not perfect people, he gives grace to the needy, not to those looking to be full of themselves. The teaching of the Bible about grace reveals that God's acceptance of broken, imperfect people is not based upon them getting their act together. God accepts those who come to him in the knowledge that they are undeserving and in great need. He does not turn away those who come to him with a trusting soul. Those with a spiritual hunger and thirst may come to him and be accepted in grace.
35Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
Species of Grace
The Bible teaches us that there are several kinds of grace which God lavishes on his creation and human beings. God is always expressing kindness to a world which is living in rebellion from Him. One of the most fascinating truths of Scripture is that God showers grace even upon his enemies. The following are a sampling of the kinds of grace God expresses to his world.
Widespread (or Common) Grace
First, there is an aspect of grace that is widespread and given to all human beings. God's design of the universe and our planet provides that the sun rises2 on all people equally and the just and unjust receive rain and physical provisions for life. (Matthew 5:44-45). Furthermore, God's widespread, or common, grace bears daily witness to his loving care by giving us fruitful seasons and harvests and allowing people to have satisfied, glad hearts in our food and drink (Acts 14:15-17). Finally, God graciously reveals himself to all of us through creation and conscience (See Romans 1:18-23 and Romans 2:14-16). He does this for all so that they might know that he is God and we are accountable to him.
Yet in addition to God's widespread grace, he additionally gives saving grace to those who believe. We are saved from sin, death and hell by the kindness and grace of God. His rich mercy towards us brings us to trust in his grace rather than our own works to make us justified and forgiven (Ephesians 2:4-9)before Him. God's grace is lavished upon his people so that their sins are forgiven and they are made right with him. He brings us back into a close relationship of love and trust through the work of Jesus (Romans 3).
Sanctifying (Life Changing) Grace
God's grace does not simply save us so that we get on a life waiting list for heaven. No, his graces transforms our lives to be more like Jesus. His grace teaches us to renounce worldly passions and to now live our lives for the glory of God. His grace purifies us and places in us a strong desire for good works where we may not have given a rip before (Titus 2:11-14).
Finally, all followers of Jesus who have received widespread grace, been rescued by saving grace and who are being transformed by sanctifying grace are also kept by grace until the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. God preserves his people by grace (John 10:27-29) and he holds a coming reward for all he is guiding towards his Kingdom. He guards and keeps his people by his sustaining grace until our temporal death or the coming of Jesus in fullness at the end of time (1 Peter 1:3-5).
One of the beautiful teachings of the New Testament has really connected with me over the years. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes the following: It is the grace of God that I am what I am, and this grace was not without effect, no I worked harder than them all, but not I, but the grace of God within me (1 Corinthians 15:10). This passage teaches us the centrality of grace in shaping our lives and giving strength to labor in the purposes of God.
Grace in the Trenches
A strong concept of the grace of God is needed to keep us from the edges and extremes of prideful self righteousness or despair from our own sin. Martin Luther's classic reformation theology teaches us that Christians are Simul Justus et Peccator-we are simultaneously justified yet at the same time sinful. God's grace has accepted us, justified us through the work of Jesus. Yet throughout life we battle with what some have called indwelling sin. We must daily yield our lives to his grace and trust him to lead us away from temptation. Romans 8:1-17 teaches us that the new life we have in God must be lived by his Spirit and power every day. While at the same time we work to put to death the sin in our lives. This tension must be embraced or we will become either proud or despairing.
If we think we have made ourselves better, or our good works have made us somehow more pleasing to God then we will think too much of ourselves. If we forget the unconditional acceptance of God through the work of Jesus we will despise ourselves and despair at our brokenness. The middle way is the way of the cross whereby we daily die to our sins and ask God to help us live in newness of live (Romans 6). We do this by practicing confession (See Psalm 51 and 1 John 1:9) and repentance. By confessing our sins to God we walk in the light with him and experience the truth of grace. As Jesus once said to an adulterous woman-neither do I condemn you. Then we turn from our sin back into (not run away from) fellowship with God and his people. As Jesus said to that same woman-go and sin no more.
As we struggle with habitual sins of pornography, self-image, pride, self-exaltation, eating disorders, lying, gossip, slandering our neighbors, rebelling and just being punks, we must remember that we are saved by grace. Only then will we have the courage necessary to be changed by grace. Confession and repentance are great gifts to the believer. They are like a scuba tank of live giving oxygen for those suffocating in the deep oceans of the soul. As you struggle with sin, remember Jesus-he is able to sympathize with you and change your life. If you go it alone, denying the grace of God, you are literally up the creek without a paddle.
Learning to walk with you towards our gracious God,
Reid S. Monaghan
1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 320.
2. Jesus and the Scriptures, as many others, use phenomenological language to describe the relationship of the earth to the sun. It is common in all times in history to speak of “the sun rising” and is in no way “unscientific or inaccurate” to speak this way. In fact, every time the weather person is on the news you will hear talk of the sunrise. Plus, watching sunsets and sunrises with a friend at the beach is much better than “lets go observe the well timed planetary rotation of our earth.” That won’t get you too many dates. God has given us certain “means of grace” or practices by which he transforms our lives.
3. To read about these practices see Reid S. Monaghan Spiritual Disciplines at the book table or online at —http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/booklets.html.