Understanding Grace

Understanding Grace

(Guest Post by James Quiggle, ThM)

The biblical word “grace” is one of the most used words in Christian vocabulary, and one of the hardest to define. Hebrew and Greek lexicons are very good at telling the reader what grace does, but not what grace is. The definition I learned as a new Christian was “God’s unmerited favor or blessing which we in no way deserve.” (That is a little redundant, because “unmerited” means “which we in no way deserve,” but I guess my mentor wanted to make sure I understood.)

In the Old Testament grace is used more often in a non-theological setting than theological. In the Old Testament, “grace” translates, hēn, a derivative of hānan, “a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need . . . an action from a superior to an inferior who has no real claim for gracious treatment [Harris, et al., “Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,” s. v. “694 (hānan),” “694a (hēn)”]. The word hēn, “bears the predominant sense of favor, with an undertone of meaning that the favor is undeserved” [Harrison, Ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, s. v. “Grace”].

When the Old Testament speaks of grace in a theological sense, hēn may be translated “favor.” Thus, “Noah found hēn [grace, i.e., favor] in the eyes of the Lord.” God approved of Noah and looked upon him with the intent of blessing him. Moses said, Ex. 33:13, “if I have found hēn [grace, i.e., favor] in your sight, show me now your way, that I may know you and that I may find grace hēn [grace, i.e., favor] in your sight.” Moses was asking YHWH for reassurance that he was YHWH’s choice to lead Israel (see vv. 12–23).

In the New Testament, the Greek word is cháris, from chaírō, to rejoice [Zodhiates, Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament,” s. v. “5485”]. Grace, cháris, is said in the New Testament to do a lot of things. The basic theological meaning, however, is the same as in the Old Testament theological use: undeserved favor; the goodwill of God and Christ as exercised toward human beings; divine favors, benefits, blessings, gifts conferred on human beings through Christ.”

Thus, Luke 2:40, the grace [favor] of God was upon him [Jesus]. Acts 13:43, Paul and Barnabus “persuaded them [the Jews of the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia] to continue in the grace of God,” meaning the favor and blessing that came through Jesus Christ, rather than continuing in the grace and favor that came through Moses.

That the above interpretation of Acts 13:43 is correct is seen at John 1:16–17. This verses are best translated, “16 That out of his fullness we all received, even grace instead of grace [chárin antí cháritos], 17 because the law was given through Moses; the grace and the truth came through Jesus Christ.” John’s point is a comparison between the grace that came through the Law given through Moses and the grace that came through Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus is the means in this New Testament age by which the merit of his propitiating death is applied to the spiritual needs of the soul. Thus, Acts 13:43, Paul tells those Jews and proselytes who wanted to hear more about Christ to continue in the grace that comes through Jesus rather in the grace that came through the law of Moses.

At Acts 20:24, grace means the Gospel of Salvation, “the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Romans 6:1, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Shall God’s favor and blessing abound if we ignore the regeneration salvation has brought and continue to sin as though unsaved? Romans 12:6, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us” etc., where the word “grace” indicates the Holy Spirit’s favor in giving his saved people various spiritual gifts. For, as 1 Corinthians 12:7 says, spiritual gifts are “the manifestation [the working] of the Spirit, and v. 11, the Holy Spirit distributes his gifts “as he wills,” which is to say, the spiritual gift is undeserved, given at the sovereign choice of God the Holy Spirit.

2 Cor. 9:8, “God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.” God supplies the spiritual power that enables the believer to perform God’s will. 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” God’s favor provides the spiritual and physical strength to persevere in God’s will. Eph. 1:2, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” A prayer for blessings in general. Favor and peace are often associated. Col. 3:16, “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord,” is one of those occasions when the believer blesses God, which is to say, gives praise to God.

2 Tim. 2:1, “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus”: the blessing from Christ that gives the believer spiritual power to persevere in the faith. Heb. 4:16, “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” which is to say, come in prayer and faith to God who gives his people spiritual strength to persevere in the faith by faith, and causes all things to work together for good. James 4:6, “But he gives more grace. Therefore he says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” God has favor toward those who submit to him and depend on him. 1 Peter 4:10, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Grace as spiritual gifts. 2 Peter 3:18, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Grace in the context of knowledge and growth is the power of the Holy Spirit interpreting and illuminating the Word while convicting and empowering the believer to obey the Word.

Grace, then, is a term that depending on context may refer to God’s blessing in salvation, perseverance, spiritual strength, spiritual maturity, spiritual gifts, or God’s blessing in general. When we speak and write about grace, we should reflect on the context.

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