ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
- What is grace?
Grace is a word we use in many different ways. Just consider the following ten examples:
(i) She danced with effortless grace.
(ii) He had the grace to admit his debt to his teachers.
(iii) The vicar closed the meeting by saying the grace.
(iv) He was given three days grace to settle the bill.
(v) The curate was asked to say grace before the meal.
(vi) His Grace, the Duke of –, opened the gala.
(vii) She has graced the pages of many fashionable magazines.
(viii) There, but for the grace of God, go I.
(ix) He lived in a grace and favour residence.
(x) He fell from grace after being convicted.
As you think over these ten sentences, which of them, do you think, comes closest to the Christian concept of grace?
Grace is a lovely word but it does have a specifically Christian meaning.
- So what is “Christian” grace?
The Oxford Dictionary of English suggests that (in terms of Christian belief) grace is “the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” So of the ten examples of the use of the word which were given above, which did you think comes closest to this dictionary definition? I would suggest (viii).
Many find it helpful to think of the word grace as an acronym (a word made up of the initial letters of a phrase), and so see G.R.A.C.E. as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense,” suggesting that we can receive of God’s riches because of the penalty Christ paid for us on the cross.
Grace is a lovely word, full of meaning for the Christian.
- Grace is a Pauline word.
Approximately two out of three New Testament references to grace are found in the writings of St. Paul. One thing worth noting is that each of his thirteen letters preserved for us in the New Testament has in the first few verses a greeting like “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” or “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” And again, towards the end of each of his letters Paul wrote something like “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” or, more briefly, “Grace be with you.”
So “Grace” must have been ever in the mind of St. Paul, to whom we owe so much of the New Testament, and it is therefore a good idea to explore the significance of this word both for Paul and for ourselves.
Grace is a lovely word which was very dear to St. Paul.
- Grace is an act of a superior.
Matthew relates a parable which Jesus told about a servant brought before his king and ordered to repay a debt of “Ten thousand talents” (which equates to millions of pounds today). When he could not pay his master “took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.” But that servant found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii (around a “fiver” to us) and refused to cancel that debt. When the king heard of this the first servant was duly punished. (Matthew 18:23 – 34).
The king was in a position to forgive the servant’s debt and initially showed mercy in a gracious act. It was only when the servant was ungracious to a lower servant that the initial act of grace was withdrawn. But it was only the superior, the one to whom the debt was owed, who could show grace and remit the debt. The one who owed the debt could only hope and plead for grace to be shown.
When we come to stand before our God and King it is not money that we owe. It is the list of sins we have committed that is under consideration. We can only plead for a gracious act of mercy that these be forgiven. And that is just what our loving Heavenly Father is pleased to do on account of what Jesus did for you and for me on the cross. God is infinitely superior to us and has the power to be gracious. (But we must remember that when Jesus told the parable it was in the context of one person forgiving another who had wronged him. Whenever we find ourselves in the position of being able to forgive, we are called upon to be a gracious superior and act in the same way as God acts to us.)
Grace is a lovely word in the hands of someone in authority over us.
- Grace is a free gift.
If you give someone a present on their birthday, you do not enclose a bill so that they can repay the cost. The gift is freely given in love. So it is with the grace of God. He gives us freely of His riches because He loves us. He does not give because we have lived a good life (because we have not done so in absolute terms) or because we can pay Him back (what have we to pay with?). No it is a free and wonderful gift that is truly priceless.
Grace is a lovely word for a free gift from God to humankind.
- Grace results in restoration.
One of the best known parables which Jesus told is the one we know as the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11 – 32) . One son demanded his inheritance, journeyed to a distant land, squandered his wealth in riotous living and was reduced to abject poverty. “When he came to his senses” (v.17), he decided to return home to live as one of the servants. But he was received with joy by his father who must have been constantly on the look out for him (v.20), and was restored to his sonship. In our eyes he did not deserve restoration, he hardly deserved to be taken on as a servant, but the Father was gracious beyond anything anyone expected. Indeed the elder brother was very angry at his father’s goodness to the younger son and had to be pacified by his father.
The grace of God results in our restoration as children of God, our salvation from the penalty rightly due to our sin – our wasting of all that God has given to us. God, in His great love, simply restores us, treats us as His children (1 John 3:1), having forgiven and forgotten our faults (Isaiah 43:25).
Grace is a lovely word and results in our salvation and restoration.
- Grace continues.
God is not just gracious to us as He forgives and restores us, He goes on giving His grace to us as we try to live out our Christian life. That does not mean that life will be a “bed of roses,” it can sometimes seem to be more a “bed of thorns”! St. Paul was aware of “a thorn in my flesh,” some unknown affliction (some have suggested poor eyesight, others a recurring fever) and he says that three times he pleaded with the Lord to take it away. But he was given the message, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7 – 9). If Paul’s path was not smoothed out for him – and it certainly was not (2 Corinthians 11:23 – 29) – we cannot expect that ours will be. But we will know the grace of God, His unmerited favour, at all times as He holds our hand as we walk the road, be it rough or smooth.
Grace is a lovely word that reveals the continuing presence of God with us.
- Grace must be accepted.
In section 5 I used a birthday present as an illustration of God’s grace. There is a further point. One could refuse to accept a present offered to you, perhaps by someone with whom you had fallen out, or you might feel you did not deserve it. It could be sent back, its gift wrapping intact.
Sadly many folk do this to the grace of God. It is on offer to all, but so many ignore it or deny its existence. As human beings we have been given the ability to make choices. The picture in Revelation 3:20 of Jesus standing at the door, knocking, is another way of putting it. Jesus brings gifts, He knocks, He could even oil the hinges, but He does not force His way in – although as Supreme Ruler of the Universe, He could. No, He patiently knocks and waits. We have to choose to open the door. Once we do the gracious gifts of God will flood in.
Grace is a lovely word and a lovely idea – but we have to hold out our hands in acceptance rather than turn our backs on it.
- No grace no Gospel.
The Gospel – the good news of our forgiveness and acceptance by Almighty God – depends on His grace. If God were not gracious, if He was not ready and waiting to show us the favour we just do not deserve, we would all be doomed to the destruction of hell. It is only because God, in His great love for humankind, holds out His hands full of rich gifts and begs us to take them, that we can join Him in His heaven.
But we have to believe that He has done all this for us, that His Son, Jesus Christ went to the cross in our place, which is the supreme expression of His grace. If we do not believe what God says, if we do not have faith in His Son as our Saviour, we refuse His grace and there is no good news, no Gospel, only a fearful expectation of the wrath of God.
Grace is a lovely word, the foundation of the Christian Gospel, the good news of our salvation, which we can receive by faith in Jesus Christ.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.