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David Guzik :: Part 1 - What is Grace?

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What Is Grace?

I am David Guzik. And in this special message for our Blue Letter Bible family, I'd like to talk with you about getting grace. And I want to begin with a passage from the Gospel of John 1:17. It's a simple verse, but very powerful, and I can imagine you've probably heard it before. Let me read it to you, John 1:17.

“For the law was given through Moses, [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

That simple, yet powerful phrase, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” has brought a lot of light to my life and to my soul, and I hope it has for you as well. I hope you know something of what it means to live in the grace and truth that Jesus Christ brought. I have found, however, that through the years, there are many Christians who, though they love Jesus, though they have a passion for Jesus, yet in some way they seem to fall short of really walking in the grace that Jesus Christ came to bring. This really came to my mind many years ago when I was in a library. You remember what libraries are. It seems like people don't go to them very much today anymore, but many years ago, I was in a library and I was looking at the magazine rack in the library. And a certain magazine caught my eye—it was the humanist magazine. Well, being a Christian and a pastor at that time, even though I was a young pastor, I didn't have a very high expectation of what I might find in the humanist magazine. But, there was an article described on the cover that caught my eye. And the article was titled this—“Christianity and Mental Health”. And the author of the article was a man named Wendell Waters. Wendell Waters had worked as a psychiatrist for twenty-five years, and his main idea was this. And I'm going to quote you a little line from the article here.

“I want you to entertain the hypothesis that Christian doctrine, the existential soother par excellence, is incompatible with the principles of sound mental health, and contributes more to the genesis of human suffering than to its alleviation.”

Well, I’ll have to say that really caught my eye when I read that little opening paragraph by Wendell Waters. He says that all his years as a psychiatrist has taught him that Christianity does more harm than good for people. Well, I had to read on, and in other places, this is what he says. Again, I'm quoting.

“A true Christian must always be in a state of torment, since he or she can never really be certain that God has forgiven him or her for deeply-felt negative feelings, in spite of the Catholic confessional and the fundamentalist trick of self-deception known as being saved or born again.”

I think that was fascinating when I read that little paragraph and the rest of the article as a whole, because it reminded me of something that I had to say was true. I had to say that the way that Wendell Waters described the Christian life was, in fact, how the Christian life is experienced for many people. See, I don't think Wendell Waters was really writing against biblical Christianity, but he really had something to say about Christianity as many people experience it. He wrote against what I would call a “graceless Christianity,” Christianity with less grace, or just a little bit of grace, or a wrong understanding of grace. And I have come to learn over the years of my life that if there's anything we need to get a good grasp of, not only in our mind, but also in our hearts, also in the way we live, we need to get a grasp upon the grace of God. But, many people don't get grace. I think this is true in at least two senses.

They don't “get it” in the sense that they don't understand it. You know, we speak that way, don't we? That if somebody doesn't “get” something, they don't understand it. And many people don't understand the grace of God. Many Christians who love Jesus and want to walk with Him, they yet don't understand the grace of God. Here's the other sense of “get it”, though. We use the sense of “get it” in the sense of somebody receiving something. And many Christians don't receive the grace of God, or at least they don't receive it in a conscious, living sense in the way that they should receive it.

I remember a very moving testimony from an internationally-known pastor. He said this. He said, “I don't remember my conversion experience. I was too young when it happened.” But, he said this. And I'll never forget this quote. He said, “But I will never forget my grace experience.” What did he mean by his grace experience and never being able to forget it? What he meant, as he went on to explain, was the recognition, the understanding of the grace of God as a reality in his life, not merely as a theological idea, but as a life reality. Charles Spurgeon, that great preacher of Victorian England, I love Spurgeon and I read a lot of him, he wrote a little something in a sermon that he had prepared from 1 Corinthians 15. He says this:

“You see that the mark of a child of God is that, by the grace of God, he is what he is. What do you know about the grace of God? ‘Well, I attend a place of worship regularly.’ But, what do you know about the grace of God? ‘I've always been an upright, honest, truthful, respectable man.’ I'm glad to hear it, but what do you know about the grace of God?”

I'd like to bring Spurgeon's quote right to you, here, as you listen to this. “What do you know about the grace of God?” Now if you're determined to learn more about grace, you might open up theology books. And I don't think that's a bad thing. I'm grateful for the contributions of theology throughout the century that many great Christians have brought to us, both in writing and in speaking. But I have to say that as I dug down into the subject of God's grace, often times many of the best theologians weren't of much help. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest theologians throughout church history was a man named Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a great theologian who was in the 4th century of the early Christian church. And as brilliant as a theologian as Augustine was, he could be at a loss for words when describing God's grace. He once wrote this:

“What is grace? I know until you ask me, but when you ask me, I don't know.”

Sometimes we feel that way and especially when you dig into what the theologians say, it can leave you a little bit more confused. You'll find out that theologians love to divide up grace into all kinds of different categories. What do I mean? Well, again, open up the theology books and you'll find that they like to talk about prevenient grace, subsequent grace, habitual grace, actual grace, external grace, internal grace, common grace, irresistible grace, sufficient grace, efficacious Grace, and it could go on and on. As a matter of fact, there's a whole segment of the Christian world that uses the phrase “the doctrines of grace” as a way to speak of God's role, God's part, in the salvation of man. Now, listen. When we're talking about God's role and God's part in the rescue of humanity, from sin and death and shame, it's very important to talk about God's grace as part of that. But as for myself, I'm not really into the phrase “the doctrine of grace,” because I think it can make us focus on grace too much as a theological system instead of a life reality. I think that many theologians misunderstand grace when they fail to emphasize that the grace of God is deeply personal. It's more than a description of God's action or His power to help us. Grace describes how God feels about us as well.

You see, grace, as the New Testament understands it, it isn't a cold technical word. Grace is filled with the warmth of God's love and affection. And if we see grace in sort of an abstract, overly-technical way, it'll lead us to exactly the kind of “graceless Christianity” we're trying to avoid. But, if we do want to get a little more technical understanding of this whole idea of grace, it's best to think of how this word “grace” had a meaning to the writers of the New Testament. You probably know that the New Testament wasn't written in English, and it certainly wasn't written in Elizabethan English, such as we find in the King James translation. The New Testament was written in a form of the ancient Greek language that we usually call koine Greek, “common Greek.” And what it means is that the writers of the New Testament had a whole language and vocabulary of words that they chose from, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to describe God's work for us and our life with God. And the word that's normally translated “grace” in the New Testament is the word charis.

Let me put it to you this way. When the apostolic writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, began to write the gospels and the letters that make up our New Testament, they had the ancient Greek word charis at hand to describe the Christian concept of grace. So if you want to understand what the New Testament means by the term “grace,” you have to begin with an understanding of what the ancient Greek word charis meant to its ancient users. And, actually, when you dig into it, that ancient Greek word charis was a word full of nuance and subtle variety. You know, there's many things in life that have sort of a simple explanation. But then when you dig into a bit, there's a lot of nuance and subtlety to it. And so, we need to take a look at some of the different ideas behind this ancient Greek word that we translate “grace”—the ancient Greek word charis. First of all, charis, in the ancient world, it had the sense of something that brings happiness and satisfaction.

A quoting from the scholar of a couple generations ago, William Moffitt, he said this, that “charis could be applied to that which awakens pleasure or secures joy.” In other words, in ancient times, let's just pretend you went to a chariot race, and the entertainment of that contest was very pleasing for you to watch. You might say that the chariot races had charis, or “grace,” because they caused you joy. Moffitt put it very well when he wrote this:

“What rejoiced men was called charis.”

In modern times, we use a word charis that expresses this thought very well. We use the word “charisma” or “charismatic.” If a person has a magnetic personality or a unique charm, we might say that the person has “charisma.” And it's taken from the same ancient Greek word. So, first, the idea of grace in the Old Testament and in the ancient culture from which it came from had the idea of what rejoiced men was called charis. It was something that awakened pleasure or secured joy.

There's a second aspect. charis was also applied to something beautiful. Grace carried with it the thought of beauty because beauty gives us pleasure. Beauty awakens joy within us. Even today, we say that a dancer or an athlete who moves beautifully is graceful. In other words, they're full of grace. And in saying this, we use the word “grace” for people or things that have beauty, that have style. You see, the person who is marked by grace is considered lovely, elegant. We don't think of them as being marked by blemish or deformity. The graceful dancer, you're not thinking of their flaws—you're thinking of their beauty. And much of the sense of the old Greek word charis has been carried over into our English use of the word “grace,” and we don't really think about it. So, someone who's in shame and dishonor is disgraced. Someone who is favored and blessed is graced. Someone who does something beautiful and pleasant is graceful. So, you get the idea? So, first, the idea is something that brings happiness and satisfaction. Secondly, the idea is something that's beautiful.

The third idea behind this ancient word, “grace,” is that it carried with it the idea of supernatural power and help. You see, that ancient word charis was also used in ancient times in association with supernatural power or aid. In the literature of ancient Greece, charis is sometimes seen as a mystical power that can supernaturally influence the personality of man with its goodness and beauty. It was common for the ancients to think of the gods, or god, bestowing the supernatural grace upon man.

Now, fourth, the idea of grace carried with it the sense of undeserved kindness or approval or acceptance. In other words, charis carried with it the sense of an unmerited or undeserved favor or attitude of kindness. It was regarded as the active expression of unselfish aid or help. The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, defined the word in this way. He said:

“Grace was helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor that the helper may get anything, but for the sake of the person who is helped.”

Let me read that to you one more time, because I think it's very powerful. The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, not a Christian, he’s just saying what this ancient word charis meant in his day and age. He said it “was helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor that the helper may get anything, but for the sake of the person” being helped. Therefore, charis could be used in reference to an unexpected blessing or a treat, such as an unforeseen gift or benefit. The reason for giving a charis gift was always found in the giver. It wasn't found in the one who received it. So, these ideas were carried over into the New Testament understanding of grace. It was thought to be something that brought happiness and satisfaction. It was thought to be something beautiful. It was thought to carry with it the idea of supernatural power and help. And it was thought to have the sense of an undeserved kindness or approval or acceptance.

Now, when that word came over into the New Testament, it carried with it all these associations. But here is one amazing difference—the ancient Greeks knew of grace and they valued grace. But they could only think of grace being exchanged between friends. The idea that someone might show this great favor, this great beauty, this great supernatural help or undeserved kindness, the idea that they might show those things to an enemy, was completely foreign to them. They didn't think that way at all. A Greek scholar named Kenneth Wuest says this. He says:

“Grace signified in classical authors, a favor done out of spontaneous generosity of the heart without any expectation or return. Of course, this favor was always done to one's friend and never to an enemy. But when charis comes into the New Testament, it takes an infinite leap forward. For the favor God did it, Calvary was for those who hated Him.”

That's from Kenneth Wuest, writing on Romans 3. So, isn't that a beautiful idea? As a whole, the word keeps the same idea in the New Testament. It keeps the idea of joy and favor and beauty and undeserved acceptance in a supernatural help. It keeps all those associations, but it adds to it the idea of the beautiful idea that God gives His grace, not only to His friends, but even to those who have been His enemies.

Now, charis was a very popular word in the New Testament, very especially with the Apostle Paul. Virtually every letter he wrote began and ended with “grace to you” in some form or another. And Paul was so taken with the concept of grace that he even invented words from the root of that word charis. As a matter of fact, one of the words that Paul coined from that word charis was the word charismata, which we usually call “spiritual gifts.” But, actually, Paul called them “grace gifts.” But, without doubt, the word charis and the ideas behind it were essential to the gospel that the apostles preached. Again, Moffitt wrote this:

“The religion which underlies the New Testament writings is a religion of grace, or it is nothing. No grace, no gospel, that's what it comes down to when you study the classical documents of the primitive Church. Without grace, friends, Christianity is nothing now.”

This gives us sort of a basic idea of what grace is, but if you've been in Christian circles very long, you may have heard a definition that preachers and teachers like to use often regarding the grace of God. The definition is this: “Grace is God's unmerited favor.”

I think sometimes, maybe, that definition has become a cliché. But, I have to say, it's a pretty accurate and helpful starting point if you want to understand the idea of grace and come to a useful understanding of it. So, think of that phrase: “Grace being God's unmerited favor.” Just break it down.

First, we say that grace is God's. It belongs to God. Grace is an essential aspect of God's character. The reason why Jesus Christ came with the revelation of grace and truth is because Jesus simply revealed to us more perfectly than has ever been done before who God is and God Himself is a God of grace and truth. God is a God of grace and he reveals Himself as being that God of grace throughout the Scriptures. When God revealed Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, it's found in Exodus 34, it says this, that the Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth…” That's from Exodus 34:6. Now, notice this: When God proclaimed who He was to Moses, He proclaimed Himself as being a God who was gracious. Don't think that the grace of God started with Jesus. Oh, no, no, no.

The grace of God is found throughout the Old Testament. God can't reveal Himself without revealing something of His grace. As a matter of fact, God shows His grace all the time. He even shows it in judgment. Let me give you one example from the Old Testament. When the city of Jericho faced the judgment of God by the armies of Israel, God showed His grace by sending spies to offer believing Rahab, who by the way was a prostitute, a Gentile, Canaanite prostitute, God showed His grace by sending spies to offer believing Rahab a way of escape from the coming judgment. She was a Gentile prostitute, but God shows favor to the unworthy. That's what His grace does. And He does it even in the midst of a well-deserved judgment. So, when we take a look at the Bible, and, again, please hear me on this, it's not just the New Testament, but it's the Old Testament as well. It shows God to be a giving God, who gives life and love and mercy and forgiveness and healing and power and guidance and deliverance. He gives it all to people who don't really deserve these things. And the aspect of God's nature that gives to the undeserving, we can call that His grace.

Now, I want you to know that the grace of God was plenty evident in the Old Testament. But, we don't deny for a moment that it was clearly seen in the life of God the Son, Jesus Christ. That Jesus perfectly revealed the nature and the attitude of God, and therefore that's a revelation filled with grace. Jesus was the embodiment of the God the Father's personality. He completely embodied the grace of God as He walked among men. So, Jesus openly invited undeserving fellowships to connect with God and have fellowship with Him, and to do it on the basis of God's forgiveness and their own personal repentance. So, grace is a characteristic of God. It's a characteristic of God the Father, it's a characteristic of God the Son, it's a characteristic of God the Holy Spirit. It is an essential aspect of God's nature throughout the whole Bible. Grace is certainly God's unmerited favor.

Well, with three words in that definition, the first one is “God's.” The second word in our definition is “unmerited” or “undeserved.” What do we mean when we say that grace is God's unmerited or undeserved favor? Well, we say that because grace is not caused by the one who receives it. The reason for giving grace can only be found in the giver, who is God. Now, Paul says this very plainly in his letter to the Romans. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 4:4:

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”

So, in other words, when a person works, you get what you deserve. But then, later on in Romans 11:6, he says:

“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

The Apostle Paul states it very simply, but really, it's throughout the entire New Testament. Grace cannot be earned in the same way that wages are earned. If grace is earned in any way, then it isn't grace any more. Grace has absolutely nothing to do with the worthiness of the one to whom it is given. Therefore, we can say this about grace. Grace is not giving to someone because they're a good person. Grace is not giving to someone because they're trying to be good. Grace is not giving to somebody to persuade them to be good. Grace is not giving to somebody because they promise to be good. Grace is not giving someone a lot when they deserve a little. No, grace is given because every reason for the giving is in the giver, not in the receiver.

You see, grace doesn't even really care if someone deserves or not, because the reasons are in the giver. Grace doesn't tell you, “You don't deserve this.” By the way, we could say that the law tells you, “you don't deserve it,” but grace doesn't tell you that. Grace doesn’t care. Grace deals with us completely apart from the principle of deserving. By its very nature, grace doesn't look for a reason in the person who receives. And so, we understand this, that grace is unmerited, it's undeserving. And therefore, we have to stop trying to give God a reason to give us His grace. The reasons are in Him. The reasons are not in us. And so, God's giving to us is undeserved.

But then, finally, we say, “Let's remember our three-word definition.” Do you remember what it was? We said that “grace is God's unmerited or undeserved favor.” What do we mean by that? Well, we say that grace is God's because it belongs to Him. We say that grace is unmerited, we got the whole undeserved thing. But, we also say, finally, that grace is God's unmerited favor. Why? Because that tells us how God sees and how God feels about the one to whom He gives His grace. God sees that person in a favorable light. You see, in Paul's day, the word grace, again charis, the New Testament word, was used to describe the emperor of Rome’s favor, by which he would bestow gifts and kindness upon the cities and the people of the Roman empire. In other words, if you received the Roman emperor’s charis, his grace, it meant that you were held in special regard by the emperor of Rome.

To receive God's grace means that you are held in special regard by the God of the universe. This is His attitude towards the one who receives His grace. You know what it means? It means that He likes them. And we can see this more clearly by the way of contrast. Think of the word disgrace. When we are disgraced, in other words not graced, you don't enjoy favor. You are not seen in a good light. The disgraced person only knows shame and degradation. There's no honor, there's no glory, there's no approval at all in the disgraced person. Here’s the good news in Jesus Christ—the believer in Jesus is not disgraced, but graced by God. The Christian enjoys the favor and the pleasure of God and this is prompted by God's gracious, giving nature. It's not prompted by any work or ability in the one who believes.

I'll be very honest with you. This is a difficult truth for many people to accept. We may come to the point where we believe that God loves us, but we can't be convinced that He likes us. Do you understand what I'm talking about here? I mean, after all, you can probably think of people that you love, but you don't particularly like. Maybe it's someone in a family relationship and, you know, look, they’re family. You love them. You have to love them, they're family. But, they irritate you. They get on your nerves. You love them, but you don't like them. You’ve got an Uncle Charlie somewhere. And you love him as your Uncle Charlie, but you would prefer never to be in his company. But, because he's your family, you have a love for him. You send him a card and a fruitcake every Christmas, but you don’t particularly want to spend time with him.

Because we're so aware of our own imperfect devotion to God, we may think that His attitude towards us is the same. We think that He loves us because we're His family and He kind of has to love us. Yet, there's something deep in our soul that tells us, and I don't think this is a good thing in our soul, but there's something deep within us that often says that God doesn't really like us. The grace of God as given to us in His Son Jesus Christ assures us this is not true. God our Father does not love us merely out of some sense of family obligation. God doesn't find us irritating. He does not barely tolerate us. Grace tells us that He freely and openly accepts us in Jesus Christ.

When God looks at those who are in Jesus Christ, He sees beauty. It awakens joy within Him. He is pleased within Himself to look upon us. Brother, sister, believer in Jesus, you are beautiful to Him. He sees you in eyes of grace. Let me read to you a quote from a great Christian writer named Alan Redpath. He says this:

“Now, what does that word grace mean? You have often heard it defined as the unmerited favor of God. Well, that is a definition, but it is only a limited definition of the word. Now, the word has taken on many different meanings throughout the years. When this word was used in the early stages of history, it meant a desire to bring to other people goodness, health and strength, beauty and loveliness. Later, it became a little more pregnant in its meaning and began to mean the actual activity which expresses the desire to bring others goodness instead of evil, health instead of sickness, beauty instead of ugliness, glory instead of punishment.”

So, when we understand this about the grace of God, when our eyes are open to the meaning and the importance of grace, the Bible takes on new meaning for us. We understand that He sees us in terms of beauty and favor, and that God doesn't just love us out of an obligation love—He actually likes us. But, at the same time, we understand that all the reasons for that are in Him. The reasons are not in me. God doesn't think I'm beautiful because I have impressed Him so much. God looks down upon me and sees me in His grace, in terms of love and favor and beauty and acceptance. He sees it all because there's something in Him that makes Him see me that way. And, when we grab a hold of this, grace is no longer a vague, impersonal force that is somehow responsible for salvation. Grace instead describes the attitude in the approval that God extends towards me. We notice that the Bible is suddenly filled with examples of God's gracious acts and the descriptions of His attitude of grace towards the believer. And we see that the New Testament constantly speaks of the believers standing in grace and our need to continue in the grace of God.

The practical application of these New Testament doctrines of grace, it can be life-changing because God's grace is life-changing. I believe it's time for your grace experience. I believe it's time for you to get grace. Get it both in its understanding, and get it in the reception of it. My prayer for you is that God would take this brief message, use it, maybe as just a basic starting point, or an encouragement along a path that you've already started, and that you would truly, and in the fullest sense, get the grace of God.

Part 3 - What Does Living in Grace Look Like? ← Prior Section
Part 2 - Receiving Grace Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.