The grace of God was realized in Jesus Christ, and continues to be the expression of God's action in Jesus Christ.
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"Grace" has been a much used, much misused, and much abused word and concept in Christian theological thinking. It is always amazing how men can twist the meaning of a word or concept to cause it to be defined almost opposite to its intended meaning, that because they refuse to accept what it is and what it means. Because of such semantic gyrations, the Biblical word "grace" is for many Christians today an almost meaningless word, and for many other Christians a word freighted with misconceptions and inadequate definitions.
The concept of "grace" is often defined too narrowly or too broadly in reference to New Testament usage. Grace is defined too narrowly when it is used to refer only to the initiative of God's redemptive efforts in Jesus Christ. The popular acrostic defines "grace" as
This has been described as the "threshold factor"1 of grace, as if God has redeemed mankind and done what was necessary to "get man saved" (popular conversion terminology), to get him "in the door," but the grace-application of living once you are in the "house" is often neglected.
Grace is defined too broadly when it is used to refer only to the graciousness, mercy, pity or favor of God. Sometimes when we observe another person in worse circumstances than ourselves (poor, homeless, family problems, job loss, etc) we sometimes remark, "There but for the grace of God, go I." Would it not be more precise to attribute our condition to the providential care of a sovereign God, rather than to "grace"?
It is of utmost importance that we understand "grace" in the specific way that it is used in the New Testament Scriptures, and have a new covenant understanding of "grace" in relation to Jesus Christ. In evangelical theology today the inadequate definitions of "grace" are leading to some disastrous theological perversions, to law-oriented, "works"-oriented, performance-based Christian living that is still being designated as "grace." It is similar to what happened in the Roman Catholic Church centuries ago when the misunderstanding of the Latin word gratia lead them to read their misunderstanding back into their Biblical interpretations to justify their thinking and their actions. There are many evangelicals today who are reading their inadequate understandings of "grace" back into their interpretations of the Bible. They end up with far-fetched theologies, and sadly miss all that God has for them in the "grace" of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is not difficult to see why James Moffatt wrote,
The Hebrew language did not have a word for what we know as the new covenant concept of "grace." Why have a word for that which does not exist in your experience? No one would know what it meant. New covenant "grace" did not exist in the context of the old covenant. John explains in the prologue of his gospel that "grace...was realized in Jesus Christ" (John 1:17); i.e. grace "came into being," "came to pass," "happened" historically in Jesus Christ. That is why they did not have a word for "grace" prior to the time of Jesus Christ, in the Old Testament era.
When one looks up the word "grace" in a Biblical concordance, he usually does find some occasions when the English word "grace" is translated into English in the Old Testament. This varies greatly in different English translations. Usually the translators have utilized the popular and generalized meaning of the English word "grace" to translate the Hebrew word hen. Hen is derived from the Hebrew root word hanan, which means "to favor, to bestow, to show or grant mercy." The Hebrew name "Hannah" is derived from this root. Hen implied "favor, pity, good-will, compassion, mercy, kindness, a favorable inclination towards another." The word study in the Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains that hen "denotes the stronger coming to the help of the weaker who stands in need of help by reason of his circumstances or natural weakness."3
The predominate usage of the Hebrew word hen in the Old Testament has to do with one individual finding a favorable inclination from another individual. Examples include Lot finding favor from the authorities in Sodom (Gen. 19:19); Jacob finding favor from Esau (Gen. 32:5); Joseph finding favor from Potiphar (Gen. 39:4); Jacob finding favor from Joseph (Gen. 47:29); Ruth finding favor from Boaz (Ruth 2:10); David finding favor from Jonathon (I Sam. 20:3); Esther finding favor from King Ahasuerus (Esther 2:17). The King James Version translates all of these as "grace," whereas most newer translations refer to "finding favor."
There are a few examples in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word hen is used of an individual "finding favor" with God. Noah is said to have "found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen. 6:8). Moses speaks of having "found favor" in God's sight (Exod. 33:12,13). Again, the King James Version translates these as "grace."
Sometimes hen or hanan are
used to describe God's attribute of "graciousness, kindness
or compassion." "I will be gracious to whom I will
be gracious" (Exod. 33:19). "Thou art a gracious and
compassionate God" (Neh. 9:31). "Thou art a God, merciful
and gracious" (Ps. 86:15).
In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, the LXX, the translators sometimes employed the Greek word charis to translate the Hebrew word hen as well as another Hebrew word hesed, meaning "loving-kindness, mercy, pity or favor." It must be remembered that the Septuagint was translated approximately 250 years prior to the birth of Jesus Christ. The translators were using the classical meaning of the Greek word charis, not the distinctive meaning of charis that we find in the New Testament, where "grace" is invested with a unique meaning in the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of the historical Jesus Christ.
To differentiate the activity of God by His attribute of "graciousness," from the activity of God in Jesus Christ, the theologians have sometimes referred to "general grace" or "common grace" as distinguished from the "particular grace" of God in the historic Savior, Jesus Christ. Such a usage of terms only serves to perpetuate the ambiguity over the word "grace," and is not Biblically justifiable.
Some refer to the "grace" of God in creation, "creational grace." The Bible does not describe such as "grace." Moffatt explains,
Sometimes writers refer to the "providential grace" or the "sustaining grace" of God. Some attempt to support the idea of "providential grace" by noting that "God causes the sun to shine on the evil and on the good" (Matt. 5:45). The idea of "sustaining grace" is sometimes documented by the New Testament statement that "...in Him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). There is no doubt about the providence and sustenance of God, but it is certainly debatable whether these should be called "grace."
The Greek language contained the word charis. We have already noted its usage 250 years before Christ in the Septuagint. The Greek word charis was derived from the root word char, which meant "well-being, that which was pleasant and delightful." Another derivative from char was chara, the Greek word for "joy." Charis had a double meaning. (1) beauty, charm, attractiveness, that which is lovely and delightful. (2) the expression of kindness, favor, friendliness. (This double meaning has led to many misconceptions when they are alternately applied to New Testament usages, apart from a clear understanding of God's "grace" in Jesus Christ.) Within the Greek language charis had to do with personal relationship; one person giving to another out of love and generosity, and making the other person glad by the gifts. The Greeks were not given to sentimentality, though, and often viewed such as a weakness. Charis was therefore not a major word in their vocabulary, and not touted in their philosophy.
Within the New Testament the Greek word charis was employed, especially by Paul, to refer to the unique activity of God in Jesus Christ. Paul took this ordinary Greek word and invested it with distinctive Christian meaning. He stamped it with new meaning as he identified "grace" with Jesus Christ. Moffatt explains that
What the New Testament writers were attempting to explain was something "new," the "new and living way" (Heb. 10:20) of the "new covenant" (Heb. 8:8) with the "newness of life" in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:4). The Greek word charis was the best available and convenient word to try to explain this living reality of Jesus Christ. L.S. Smedes notes that
Moffatt, once again, amplifies this point,
John W. Nevin concurs when he writes,
In the new covenant literature of the New Testament "grace" is used as the word to explain God's activity in Jesus Christ. The best that the Hebrew word hen could do was to refer to the attribute of God's "graciousness" and actions wherein God was gracious, merciful and kind. Conzelmann explains,
L.S. Smedes concurs:
The point being made is that the Hebrew word hen in the Old Testament referred primarily to an attribute of God, whereas the Greek word charis in the New Testament is used to refer to the new and unique activity of God in Jesus Christ.
There are numerous Scriptural affirmations in the New Testament that link "grace" to the historically revealed Jesus: "The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Paul explains to the Jerusalem Council, "we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15:11). To the Corinthians Paul writes, "I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus" (I Cor. 1:4). Paul begins his epistle to the Ephesians "to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6). In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes of God's "own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 1:9), as well as "the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 2:1). The last verse in the Bible commends that "the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all" (Rev. 22:21). By this sequence of Scriptures we document that "grace" is specifically identified with the historical person and work of Jesus Christ. There is a specific Christocentric meaning of "grace" in the New Testament.
The identification of grace with Jesus Christ exposes that the traditional and popular definitions of "grace" in Christian vocabularies are too general and too broad. "Grace" is often defined as "the undeserved favor of God." When we use such a definition, we allow the Hebrew word hen to provide all the definition of Christian grace. Impossible! If we read that "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen. 6:8), does that mean that Noah experienced the dynamic of God's "grace" in Jesus Christ, redemption, regeneration, sanctification, the indwelling Spirit of Christ; that Noah became a Christian? No! Is it any wonder that there is such ambiguity and misuse of the word "grace?"
A variant definition of "grace" is to define it as "the undeserved gift of God." This definition is also deficient in that it does not connect "grace" with the activity of God in Christ. It also allows "grace" to be conceived of as an entity, an object, some "thing." Smedes notes that "strictly speaking, no entity is given the label 'grace,' therefore grace is not a gift."16 Grace is not static and substantive. Grace is the dynamic of God's activity in and by the Son, Jesus Christ.
Even the definition of "grace" as "God's activity consistent with His character," though correct in identifying "grace" as God's activity rather than just an attribute of His nature, fails to tie that divine activity with the activity of Jesus Christ. It still allows the Hebrew hen to serve as explanation of Christian grace.
It is important that we define "grace" in reference to the activity of Jesus Christ, redemptively, regeneratively, in sanctification and even in eschatology. All attempts to define "grace" are, of course, hampered by the impossibility of explaining in human language how God operates in and by Jesus Christ through the Spirit. The divine activity is incomprehensible to the finite, human mind.
There is no way we can get God and His activity figured out, determined, stereotyped, and then go on to proceduralize and formulize such activity. This is not to say that it is not legitimate to attempt to give explanation and definition of God's "grace" as clearly as we can for the proclamation of the gospel. We are responsible before God to explain as clearly and as accurately as possible what the "grace" of God in Jesus Christ entails, documenting such Biblically.
Having noted the words used in the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Old and New Testaments pertaining to "grace," and how the historic activity of God in Jesus Christ gives definition to the New Testament meaning of "grace," it is necessary to caution Christians about a common interpretive problem that has long perpetuated the misunderstanding of "grace." I refer to the common practice of attempting to read the New Testament, Christian concept of "grace" back into the Old Testament. Such a retroactive application of "grace," reading "grace" back into the Old Testament narratives, is an illegitimate importation of a new covenant concept back into Old Testament exegesis and interpretation. There are some who interpolate all of the new covenant concepts such as grace, righteousness, faith, salvation, regeneration, sanctification, eschatology, etc. into Old Testament interpretations. What they end up with is a Christianized Judaism in the Old Testament, which is usually extended as a Judaized Christianism in the New Testament, or even a Christian Zionism. They fail to appreciate the radical newness of the new covenant in Jesus Christ; the radical difference between Judaism and Christianity which the early apostles took such pains to explain. In so doing they diminish the meaning of "grace," depreciate "grace," cheapen "grace;" they "gut" "grace" of its radical distinctiveness in Jesus Christ.
This retroactive application of "grace" is a form of "historical revisionism," revising history to make it say what one wants it to say, in order to justify ideological presuppositions and promote a particular agenda (in this case theological). R.E.O. White wrote,
Playing loose with history in this way fails to do justice to the Biblical concept of progressive linear time, the historical chronological time sequences. In their subjective applications, some interpreters often use circular concepts of time and history as are indicative of Gnosticism, mysticism and Eastern religions.
It is extremely important that we recognize the sequence of old covenant and new covenant, law and grace, and understand that "grace" is the unique expression of God's activity in and by the Son, Jesus Christ, within the new covenant.
Some have objected to any contrasting of law and grace. Their objection usually stems from an inadequate Biblical understanding of both "law" and "grace," along with theological presuppositions of time, history, covenants, etc. which cause them to attempt to integrate "law" and "grace." Using such unbiblical phrases as "the grace of the law" and "the law of grace," they create semantic confusion in their double-talk of attempting to merge law and grace. To attempt to import grace into law and law into grace is to misuse and amalgamate the meaning of the terms as used in Scripture. Such fallacious integration of law and grace inevitably perverts the gospel, causing one to devalue, denigrate and depreciate the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Although God's law and God's grace must ever remain historically connected, they must not be theologically integrated.
"Law" and "grace" are separate facets of divine operation which must be contrasted. L.S. Chafer writes,
B.S. Easton concurs with such a contrast, noting that
The law with its behavioral regulations demanded "works" of obedience, the "performance" (Gal. 3:10) of self-effort to attempt to "keep" (Gal. 5:3) and "do" (Rom. 2:14) and "practice" (Rom. 2:25) the law. The attainment of such law-keeping was impossible for sinful man apart from God. Something radically different was necessary. The provision of the grace of God in Jesus Christ was the only remedy.
Whereas the law was judicatory and legal, and demanded "works" of obedience, the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ simply invites the receptivity of faith. This is the contrast that Paul draws in Romans 4:14-16 where he contrasts law and grace.
The Old Testament Law revealed the sinfulness of man apart from God, and the need of God's grace in a Savior. This contrast is noted by Paul in Romans 5:20,21.
Law and its "basis of works" must be contrasted with grace and its basis of faith (Rom. 9:32). Paul explains this contrast in Romans 11:6.
The contrast of God's grace activity in Jesus Christ received by faith and the performance-oriented legalism of "works" continues within the context of Christian living. In Romans 6:14,15 Paul contrasts the law and grace in the Christian life.
When grace is operative in the Christian life there will be "obedience resulting in righteousness" (Rom. 6:16).
Writing to the Galatians, Paul amplifies this contrast of the "works of the Law" (2:16) and "faith in the Son of God" (2:20) even more explicitly. In Galatians 2:19 Paul explains, "I died to the Law, that I might live to God." He concludes with a most glaring contrast in Galatians 2:21.
In others words the death of Jesus Christ was redundant, unnecessary, a tragic mistake, if the Old Testament Law had any vital provision or purpose. If the Christian puts any stock in keeping commandments and obeying regulations as a basis of righteousness, they have, in effect, denied the efficacy of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Later Paul explains to the Galatians who were reverting to legalism, that law and grace are so mutually exclusive, and never to be combined or integrated, that "you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace..." Earlier in that same verse (Galatians 5:4), he said "you have been severed from Christ."
The contrasts that Paul makes between law and grace as antithetical bases of relationship with God and living the Christian life cannot be avoided or explained away. Law and grace are two separate operations of God. But let us never forget that it was the "law of God" in the old covenant, and it is the "grace of God" in the new covenant. The God who is "the same yesterday, today and forever" works in different ways at different times, but always in accord with His immutable character and unto His unchanging ultimate purposes.
In another study of "the law of God" we consider the purposes of the Old Testament Law. It is legitimate to refer to the purposes of the Law because the Law was instrumental for purposes beyond itself. The law was a "means to and end." It was not an "end in itself."
Grace, on the other hand, has no purpose beyond itself, for which it is provisional. There are no delineated purposes, goal or objectives to which grace looks, points or is a means to. Jacques Ellul says, "Grace has no motive that we can understand."22 To ask the question, "What is the purpose of grace?" is equivalent to asking "Why does God exist?" God is eternally self-existent. When He acts in grace through His Son, Jesus Christ, there is no higher end. Grace is not a "means to an end." Grace is an "end in itself," for when God acts in Jesus Christ, He is an "end in Himself." "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" (Rev. 21:6; 22:13).
Though there was an "end of the Law" (Rom. 10:4), there is no "end of grace," whether that be construed in terms of objective, completion or termination.
Some suggest that the "glory of God" is the purpose, goal or objective of the "grace of God." God is indeed glorified by the grace-expression of His all-glorious character, foremost by the expression of Christ who is the "image of God" (Col. 1:15; II Cor. 4:4). But God does not give His glory to another (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). It must be His own self-expression. Such expression of His glorious character cannot be construed to be a reason, a purpose or an objective of what He does in His grace when He thus expresses Himself. God needs no raison d'etre. God has no "reason for being" beyond Himself, since He is Being in Himself.
In the study of the Law of God the purposes of the Law are addressed under these headings:
We will now contrast the purposes of the Law to the expression of God's grace, though not in the same sequence.
(1) The Old Testament Law had instrumental purpose. We have already noted that grace is not instrumental. There is nothing beyond itself for which grace reveals or prepares. Grace is not an instrument of preparation, nor is it an instrument of causation. T.F.Torrance affirms this point when he states that
Within the history of Christian thought, grace has often been cast in instrumental forms, particularly as an instrument of causation through sacrament or ecclesiastical authority. Torrance continues to explain:
As concerns the grace of God, cause and effect are ontologically united in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
(2) The Old Testament Law had an essential purpose to reveal the essence of the character of God. Actually that was still an instrumental purpose, for the Law was used as an instrument to reveal God. So the essential purpose of the Law was instrumentally essential. Grace is not instrumentally essential. Rather, grace is essential. It is essentially God in action; the essence of God in action in Jesus Christ. The essence of God's Being is enacted in His expression of grace. God never acts en partio. All that He is is expressed in all that He does. All that He does is expressive of all that He is. This will be discussed at greater length later.
(3) The Old Testament Law did not have a vital purpose. It could not impart life (John 5:39,40; Gal. 3:21). It could not produce righteousness (Rom. 3:20,28; 10:4; Gal. 2:16,21; 3:11). It could not bring salvation. Grace is essentially vital. Not instrumentally vital as an instrument to convey life, righteousness or salvation, but essentially vital as the living God by the life of the risen Lord Jesus expresses the essence of His life, righteousness and salvation. Christ is our life (John 1:4; 11:25; 14:6; Col. 3:4; I John 5:12). Christ is our righteousness (I Cor. 1:30; II Cor. 5:12; I John 2:1). Christ is our salvation (Acts 4:12; II Tim. 2:10). The living God is active, alive in His every action expressing His grace in Jesus Christ. There must be no "separated concept" which detaches His Being from the benefits of His vital Being.
Grace vitally expresses the life of God in Christ. Peter refers to "the grace of life" (I Peter 3:7). Grace vitally expresses the righteousness of God in Christ. Paul explains God's intent that "grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:21). Grace vitally expresses the salvation of God in Christ. To Titus, Paul writes that "the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation" (Titus 2:11). Grace is essentially vital.
(4) The Old Testament Law did not have a functional or behavioral purpose. There was no provisional power within the Law to provide the enabling to keep the commandments. The performance of the regulations of the Law could only be attempted by the "works" of human effort, striving for meritorious obedience.
Grace is the functional provision of God for the behavioral expression of God's character within mankind. Again we must note that grace does not instrumentally cause functional behavior in man, but grace is essentially the dynamic function of God in man to express His character in human behavior by His Son, Jesus Christ.
The Roman Catholic Church has long regarded grace as an instrumental "infused grace," the receipt of which allegedly imbues Christian persons with the capability of living and functioning with behavioral righteousness and good works to please God. Protestant theology, as a whole, fell back on a moral supplementalism which though often adequately recognizing God's grace in conversion and regeneration, often advocated the moral incentive of obedience in good works to live the Christian life. The new covenant understanding of the dynamic of God's grace in Jesus Christ to functionally express the life and righteous character of God in human behavior unto God's glory, has been misunderstood and misrepresented by both segments of the Church.
What we have been attempting to explain is the necessary contrast between law and grace. The Law was instrumental, a "means to an end," that is God's end. "Christ is the end of the Law..." (Rom. 10:4). Grace is not instrumental. Grace is the essential expression of the vital character of God within Christian peoples receptive to God by faith. The Law demanded works of obedience. Grace is received by faith so as to express God's vital and essential good character in good works of behavior. What is of law is not of grace! What is of grace is not of law! "If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace" (Rom. 11:6).
To refer to the "content" of grace can be misleading. Grace is not an independent entity that has content or can be separately defined by its content or substance. Nor is grace a receptacle that contains or is filled with the contents of something else. Our use of the phrase "content of grace" is simply to explain all that is contained in the expression of divine grace, i.e. the activity of the very essence of the Triune God. The "content of grace" is the essential activity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The point being made here is an amplification of that made earlier when it was noted that grace is essential as it expresses the essence of God.
Grace is not some "thing," a "substance or force or any sort of static and uniform quantum."26 Grace is not an "instrument" of conveyance or causation. Grace must not be conceived as an impersonal "force" or "power," nor as a mechanical "principle." Grace is not a spiritual "benefit" that can exist independently and can be given as a "gift" to another (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). Grace is not a separate entity or spiritual blessing which can be "dispensed" by God and "received" by, "possessed" by, and/or "utilized" by Christian believers.
Yet, in Medieval Roman Catholic theology grace was thought of as
Grace is not a self-existent energy that can dwell within man causing him to be "like God," or to some extent divinized or deified. Theological concepts of "infused grace," "habitual grace," and "created grace" must be rejected as outside of the Biblical framework of understanding. Grace is not a "system" of theological explanation to be employed as a particular hermeneutic principle.
Grace is an essentially theistic concept, conceivable only in the operative function of the Creator God acting on behalf of the creature, man. Thus grace involves the greater condescending to the lesser. God alone is self-existent, self-sufficient, autonomous and independent. He is absolutely free to function as who He is, consistent with His character. His prime function is His own divine activity. The creation is dependent on that divine activity in order to function as intended. The Creative source so designed the creation to be contingent on Himself. All is to be derived from God, ek theos. This active self-expression of Himself within His creation might, in general terms, be referred to as divine providence and sustenance, but in specific redemptive and regenerative terms is the grace of God in Christ for, within and through Christians.
God is not a deistic figure-head, "wholly other," standing afar uninvolved in His creation. Deism is a denial of grace. Man was created by God as the epitome of His creation to express God's character in freely chosen behavior. Derivative man functions as intended only by the dynamic function of deity within humanity. When the presence of God is restored to man by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, our behavior "adequacy is of Him," ek theos (II Cor. 3:5). Grace can never be detached from the personal presence and action of God in Christ.
Grace is personal. "It is grounded in the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and its operation is never one that breaks connection with that ground."29 The personal Creator God created human beings so that His Being might be expressed in the behavior of their humanity, and His personal character within all their interpersonal relationships, this by His grace in Jesus Christ. "What God communicates to us in His grace is none other than Himself. The Gift and the Giver are one."30 Grace is indivisible from God Himself, and must never be separated from the activity of His own Being.
Grace is essential to mankind, as it is the "interpenetration of the essence"31 of God in humanity. Twentieth century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, has re-emphasized the personal, essential and Christocentric realities of God's grace, perhaps more than any other.
As God is illimitable, His action of grace is inexhaustible. Grace is not quantitative. It cannot be measured out in parts or quantities of blessings, virtues, fruits, etc. Grace is not something "that we can have more or less of."34 Thus we find such superlative adjectives used by Paul to describe grace: "abundance of grace" (Rom. 5:15,17,20; II Cor. 9:8; I Tim. 1:14), "sufficient grace" (II Cor. 12:9; 9;8), "surpassing riches of grace" (II Cor. 9:14; Eph. 1:7; 2:7). The infinite adequacy of God is expressed in grace. Grace is as complete as God Himself and expresses the quality of His own character.
God's every action is invested with the
totality of His Being. Everything He does He does as everything
He is. Everything He is is actuated in everything He does. Everything
He does He does as Creator, Redeemer, Savior, Lord, Sanctifier,
etc. He is not putting on different masks or costumes or persona
to play different roles. God functions as Himself to express
the totality of His own Being and character in grace, and that
through the expression of Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ.
The historic incarnational manifestation of the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ is the basis for Christian grace. "Grace was realized in Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Despite his self-contradictions, H.R. Mackintosh was correct in saying that,
The specific self-giving of God to allow for His presence and activity in mankind was effected historically in Jesus Christ and is effected spiritually through Jesus Christ. This Biblical identification of divine grace with the person and work of Jesus Christ is so complete that "apart from Christ there can be no talk of grace."37 "New Testament grace comes in a person, Jesus Christ, and is bound up with Him."38 James Moffatt observes that "Paul seems reluctant to associate 'grace' with any activity save that of the Lord Jesus Christ."39 William Barclay asserts that "Paul equates grace and Christ. Grace is Christ, and Christ is grace."40 T.F. Torrance explains that
John W. Nevin writes that Jesus"
Christians must not view grace as a Christian "benefit" separated or detached from the Being and activity of Jesus Christ. Grace is the direct dynamic of deity. It is the risen and living Lord Jesus functioning in and through Christian people.
The connection of grace with the resurrection of Christ has seldom been noted, despite the fact that numerous New Testament texts link resurrection and grace. Paul writes that Christ Jesus "was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead...through whom we have received grace..." (Rom. 1:4). "Jesus...was raised because of our justification..., through whom we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand..." (Rom. 4:25; 5:2). In light of the historic resurrection of Jesus Christ we see that grace is the dynamic activity of God by the life of the risen Lord Jesus. The Christian life, the life of the risen Lord Jesus lived out in us, is only lived by the dynamic of God's grace. The grace of the resurrection-life of Jesus is the essence of the Christian gospel. This was the desire of Paul, to know "the dynamic of His (Christ's) resurrection" (Phil. 3:10).
The essence of the life of the risen Lord Jesus is the content of divine Christian grace. Let Christians beware of "keying" on the crucifixion to the neglect of the resurrection. Such will create a weak emphasis on "grace." A resurrection perspective of grace also disallows the importation of "grace" into the Old Testament, preserving the distinctive of grace in the activity of Jesus Christ in Christian peoples.
The active grace of God expressing the essence of God must also be understood as inclusive of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The writer of Hebrews refers to "the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29). L.S. Smedes notes that
It has also been noted that "the experience of being 'full of the Holy Spirit' (Acts 6:5) and being 'full of grace and power' (Acts 6:8) is hardly to be distinguished"47
As the Holy Spirit and His activity have often been misunderstood in Christian thought, it is little wonder that the connection of grace and Holy Spirit has had variant interpretation. T.F. Torrance gives some historical perspective:
Grace must not be identified as primarily pneumatic, nor as impersonal spiritual power. The greatest failure in the understanding of the association of grace and the Holy Spirit is the detachment of both concepts from the person and work of Jesus Christ, as Torrance notes above. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). The disunification of Christ and the Spirit makes for a deficient Trinitarian theology and will necessarily lead to a deficient understanding of grace. Much of popular evangelical theology is guilty of this disconnection, inclusive of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.
The activity of divine grace must be tied in to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, but not be identified exclusively with the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit of Jesus Christ in the Christian is operative to manifest the "fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23) in our behavior. Thus the character of God is expressed by the grace of God unto the glory of God.
The "content" of grace is the function of God the Father, by the Son Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Grace is divinely personal, not impersonal and mechanical. Grace is qualitative with the whole of the character of God, not quantitative or partitive. Grace is dynamically active with the life of God, not static theological dogma.
Once again, this heading can be misleading. Careful explanation must be made as to what is meant by the "condition" of grace.
It must be admitted that from the divine perspective grace is unconditioned and unconditional. God is independent and autonomous. His activity is free and spontaneous. There is no "inner necessity or external obligation"49 to account for what God has done or is doing. "Grace proceeds entirely from within Himself, and that is conditioned in no way by anything in the objects of His favor."50 God "owes nothing to any counterpart. His grace condescension is free, i.e. unconditioned."51 God functions freely in doing what He does because He is who He is. But to indicate that God does what He does because He is who He is, does not imply that there is anything within His inherent character, nature or essence that requires or necessitates God to act in grace. Then grace would be conditioned by God's character and would not be a freely chosen act of His own love toward man in Jesus Christ.
God's grace is unconditioned and unconditional. Yet, this truth can be over-emphasized to the extreme in the failure to recognize man's response to grace. Such an extremism leads to various forms of "determinism" and "universalism." Moffatt notes that
To maintain Biblical balance we must consider that from man's perspective there is the "condition" of human response to God's divine grace activity. This "condition" of human response for the efficacious application of God's grace expression in our lives is called "faith."
Some Christian teachers in their desire to preserve the divine perspective of God's grace being unconditioned and unconditional, and wanting to avoid any suggestion that human faith is a cause or ground of God's grace, have concluded that even the faith-response of man is enabled and enacted by the grace activity of God. They have often attempted to document such by misinterpretations of verses such as Ephesians 2:8 and Galatians 2:20. More astute Calvinist teachers such as John Murray have countered this by noting that "faith is not the act of God. Faith is a response on the part of the person and of him alone."53
Faith is human response to God's grace. It is not a "work" or act that in any way prompts, induces, elicits or solicits God's grace activity. Faith simply responds to God's grace. William Barclay notes that "the first element in faith is what we can only call receptivity,"54 and Moffatt defines faith as the "attitude of receptivity towards the gift of God."55 Faith is our human receptivity of God's grace activity in Jesus Christ.
Grace and faith are often found in correlation to each other in the New Testament. The fulfillment of God's promise is "by faith in accordance with grace" (Rom. 4:16). "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that (salvation) not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9).
To understand that faith is human receptivity to God's grace does not imply that man's response is passivity. Moffat responds to such a misrep-resentation of the grace-faith correlation:
The Christian is not to be passive. Rather he is receptive to God's activity.
Since there have been so many misconceptions of this condition of human response to God's grace, it will be instructive to consider some of the phraseology attached to grace in the history of Christian thought. Augustine was one of the earliest writers to refer to "prevenient grace," the idea that God's grace preceded man's response and facilitated man's repentance and faith. Such a concept of "prevenient grace" led to the Roman Catholic teaching of "infused grace," the idea that God's grace implants in a man the ability to perform what God desires and commanded.
With grace thus regarded as an instrument of conveyance or causation, the next logical step was to indicate that God's grace was irresistible.
At the Synod of Dort (1618-19) the Reformed Calvinists asserted this causative form of "effectual grace," declaring that God cannot be resisted when He offers His grace to man. Calvinistic theology to this day advocates "irresistible grace" as one of the tenets of its T.U.L.I.P. theological acrostic, every point of which overemphasizes God's divine action to the neglect or diminishing of man's response. The sacramentalist theology of Romanism was carried over into much of Protestantism in their view of the sacraments being a "means of grace," whereby man could lay hold or implement God's grace. Torrance is again correct in noting that "so long as we talk about 'means of grace,' there will always arise in us tendencies to use grace for our own ends."59
With this profusion of misrepresentative phraseology, it is of utmost importance that we understand that grace is the active expression of the very essence of God Himself, and not the dissemination of some commodity, principle or empowerment. The grace activity of God is available to man to be freely received by faith.
But God's divine grace can be resisted by man. The possibility always exists that man may choose not to respond to grace in faith. In his correspondence with the Corinthians, Paul writes that God's "grace toward me did not prove vain" (I Cor. 15:10), that because he was receptive to the redemptive grace of God in Jesus Christ. Later Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians "not to receive the grace of God in vain" (II Cor. 6:1), but to recognize how God functions by His grace. In a scathing indictment of the Galatians, the Apostle explains that when a Christian reverts back to legalistic performance, he has "fallen from grace" and been "severed from Christ" (Gal. 5:4). The Hebrews are admonished to "see to it that no one comes short of the grace of God" (Heb. 12:15).
The failure to respond to God's grace by faith is to choose to trust something or someone else other than God. Thus it can be said that the only alternative to understanding and being receptive to God's grace in Jesus Christ is idolatry.60 To the extent that we do not grasp onto God's grace, we live idolatrously.
Lewis Smedes makes a most balanced and pertinent statement about the correlation of grace and faith:
To avoid all forms of "perfectionism"
and "triumphalism," it should also be noted that the
receptivity of God's grace in faith must always be accompanied
by a recognition of our own sinfulness. Since grace is the active
expression of God's good, holy, righteous and perfect character,
the receptive recipient of grace cannot help but see the contrast
of his own patterned propensities to selfishness and sinfulness.
This is a logical concomitant to the human response of faith.
Grace causes us to recognize the sin of
putting confidence in ourselves and our own abilities; the sin
of personal obsessions and indulgences; the sin of religious
piety and spiritual pride.
Grace humiliates us, for it implies there is nothing we can do to please or appease God. Man's indignant objection is often, "But I have to do something! I don't take handouts. I'm not a charity or welfare recipient. I work for what I get." Grace rejects all human performance, human accomplishment and human sacrifice (of time, money, ability, etc.); the basis of our cultural work-ethic. "Understanding the nature of grace, we decisively reject any confidence in ourselves, and we trust ourselves totally to Jesus."65
In those areas of our lives where we tend to compulsively indulge in sinful activity, grace forces us to realize that we are powerless and inadequate to change. Grace exposes our obsessions and addictions and causes us to exclaim, "I can't; only God can!"
Grace is antithetical to the establishment of man's religions. It is the human propensity to establish negotiated settlements with God in religion. These are inevitably based on a bilateral reciprocity of action: "You do this; I'll do this." Such contractual performance is contrary to grace. T.F. Torrance addresses this contrast of grace and religion.
Jacques Ellul likewise remarks,
Our human response to God's grace in faith will necessarily include the concurrent recognition of our sinfulness and the necessary rejection of all confidence in ourselves and our abilities. In grace we must recognize that we are derivative creatures who must derive all from God who alone is our sufficiency.
God's grace in Jesus Christ is not partitive. It always involves the full and complete expression of God. Never can we speak of a "measure of grace," as if grace could be measured out quantitatively and dispensed or distributed in parcels. The Christian does not receive a "measure of grace" at regeneration, to be followed subsequently by a "second work of grace." When God acts He acts in the completeness of His own Being.
The full grace-expression of God is to be seen in every facet of His activity in Jesus Christ. Grace is evidenced in incarnation, redemption, conversion, justification, sanctification, ministry, eschatology, etc. Christianity is entirely by the grace of God.
"The prophets had prophesied of the grace that would come" (I Peter 1:10). Such grace was "realized in Jesus Christ" (John 1:17), when "grace was freely bestowed on us in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6). "The grace of God was given to us in Christ Jesus" (I Cor. 1:4), when the "grace of God appeared bringing salvation" (Titus 2:11). This salvation was effected for man when "by the grace of God Christ tasted death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9). By the death of Jesus Christ the price of the death consequences for sin was paid; divine justice was served and executed. Mankind was "bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:20), that they might be invested with the very life of God in Christ.
In regeneration the grace of God enacts His divine life within the spirit of an individual upon the response of faith. In such a conversion Christians commence to be "saved" by the grace of God. "We are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus" (Acts 15:11). "He saved us and called us with a holy calling according to His purpose and grace which was granted in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 1:9). "For by grace we have been saved through faith" (Eph. 2:5,8).
Simultaneously the grace activity of God in Jesus Christ effects the justification of the believer. We are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ" (Rom. 3:24). We are "justified by His grace" (Titus 3:7). Justification must not be considered as only a legal or forensic declaration of righteousness which God has "put on the heavenly books" to explain our "position" in Christ. A Biblical understanding of justification must always convey the ongoing activity of God's righteousness in the Christian by His grace.
Protestant theology in general has tended to develop an event-centered concept of grace, tying grace either to the objective event of redemptive grace, or to the subjective event of conversion grace, saving grace or justifying grace. Limiting grace to an historical event or to an existential event of decision-making creates a static concept of grace. To tie grace particularly to a space/time event is to miss the continuous dynamic of God's grace activity in the living Lord Jesus. We must avoid this event-centered concept of grace that casts God's action primarily into a past-tense perspective. Joe Carson Smith notes this tendency,
The Christian lives day by day by the grace of God. The entire sanctification process whereby God's holy character is manifested in our behavior is enacted by God's grace. This is why Paul encourages Christians to "continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43). "The grace of God has appeared,...instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:11,12). We progressively "grow in grace" (II Peter 3:18) as we continue to allow God's grace activity to function in our behavior.
God's grace is the basis of our Christian identity: "I am what I am by the grace of God" (I Cor. 15:10). God's grace is the basis of our standing: "this grace in which we stand" (Rom. 5:2). God's grace is the basis of our behavior: "in the grace of God we have conducted ourselves in the world" (II Cor. 1:12). God's grace is the basis of our living: by the "abundance of grace we reign in life through Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:17) by the "grace of life" (I Peter 3:7). God's grace is the basis of righteousness expressed in our behavior: "grace might reign through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21).
God's grace is the basis of holiness: "He called us with a holy calling...according to His purpose and grace" (II Tim. 1:9). God's grace is the basis of our strength for living: "Be strong in the grace that is in Jesus Christ" (II Tim. 2:1) for "it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace" (Heb. 13:9). God's grace is the basis of our speech: "Let your speech always be with grace" (Col. 4:6).
God's grace is the basis of our sufficiency: "My grace is sufficient for you" ((II Cor. 12:9). "God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed" (II Cor. 9:8). God's grace is the basis of dealing with the trials, tribulations and hardships of life: "grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16). "You have suffered for a little while...the God of all grace...will perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you" (I Peter 5:10).
God's grace is the basis of all Christian ministry: "serve one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God" (I Peter 4:10). God's grace is the basis for everything in the Christian life.
Even unto the future God's grace is the operative, that because God is eternal and His grace continues forever. "Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:13).
God's grace is as broad as God Himself, His every expression. Grace must not be limited to redemptive grace or regenerative grace or conversion grace or justifying grace. When grace is defined predominantly by the benefits bestowed by God in Christ rather than by the dynamic Being of God in Christ, it degenerates into a "fix-it" commodity, rather than the ever-present and continuous dynamic of God's activity expressing His character.
The grace activity of God always maintains consistency with the character of God. God never acts "out of character." The character of Christ will be evidenced by the "fruit of the Spirit" which is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22,23).
Christianity is the grace of God. The gospel is the message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Paul thus refers to it as "the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24) and the "word of His grace" (Acts 14:3; 20:32). Writing to the Colossians, Paul refers to the "word of truth, the gospel" and their having "understood the grace of God in truth" (Col. 1:5,6). Grace is what distinguishes Christianity from all man-made religions as the activity of God in Christ functions within humanity. It is imperative that we maintain a Christocentric understanding of grace.
Joe Carson, article entitled "The Reality of Grace"
in Christian Standard, Dec. 9, 1979, pgs 6,7.