I teach regularly about grace in churches and seminary classrooms. Regardless of the setting, I always begin by asking people what words come to mind when they think about the meaning of grace. The responses I get most often look like this: forgiveness, pardon, mercy, and unmerited favor. Those are all important terms that say something about what grace is. In the Bible, the meaning of grace might be best captured by the First Letter of John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16 NIV).
If we want to know why Jesus Christ laying down his life for us is the one thing that shows us love in its purest form, then we’ll have to explore the Bible’s story of our relationship with God more deeply. But for a one-sentence statement about what God’s love is about, I’ll take that one from 1 John 3:16.
Wait—did you notice what I just did? I switched from talking about God’s grace to talking about God’s love. That happens quite a bit when we get into the biblical language about what grace is. Grace is really a word to describe how God is for us in every way. So it makes sense to talk about grace in terms of God’s love, because it is through God’s love that we find ourselves forgiven. We know grace when we receive pardon for our sin. Grace is pardon.
There’s another way to speak about grace as well. If forgiveness for sin is one part of what grace is, then the second way to understand grace is that it is God’s power for new life. In his second letter, Peter counsels us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). He’s talking about grace as a kind of power that allows us to grow spiritually so that we come to know Christ more fully.
The apostle Paul also talks about grace as a type of divine power. He says in Ephesians 4:7 that “to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (NIV). And the reason for giving this grace is to raise up mature leaders in the church, “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (Eph. 4:12 NIV). Once again, we see grace being described as a kind of power for the life of discipleship.
You may have experienced grace in both of these ways. As a child, you knew when you did something wrong that things weren’t going to feel right again until your mom or dad forgave you. While the context might change as you grow older, the need to be reconciled when something goes awry doesn’t change. Whether it is a friend, your husband or wife, or a coworker, you know that you need to be forgiven when you’ve messed up in some way. Sometimes, of course, you are the one who needs to do the forgiving!
Christians who have received new birth in Christ can often speak profoundly about the sense of being forgiven by God. When grace is given and truly received in faith, then the sense of all the burden of past sin and broken relationships is lifted. Pardon for sin—the forgiveness that can only be found in Christ Jesus—is experienced through grace in its purest form.
What about experiencing not just the pardon but also the power of grace? The way we encounter the power of God’s grace is not likely to be as momentary and sudden as it is in that first wonderful experience of forgiveness.
The power of grace is most likely to be experienced as the gentle but persistent force that nurtures our growth as disciples of Jesus. In fact, John Wesley often considered grace to be just that—the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us to help us grow spiritually.2 It is true that the Holy Spirit can work dramatically at certain points in our lives. On a day-to-day basis, though, the Spirit’s work is going to be subtler than that and nourishing to us in ways we might not always even realize. Like the effects of good sunlight, healthy soil, and ample water in a garden, the grace given through the Holy Spirit gives us what we need to grow just the right way so that we eventually bear wonderful fruit.
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