THE FACTS OF LIFE -  GRACE

Whenever I approach the subject of "God's grace", I invariably feel a sense of wonder and awe at the extraordinary concepts it embodies.  In fact, there are subtleties of meaning only a Greek speaker from the New Testament era could fully appreciate.  Without doubt, it will be worth our time to take a closer look at this notion to enrich our future studies.   The Greek word for grace is χάρις (charis) and is used over 130 times in the New Testament.  The Hebrew equivalent of grace, "khane", appears in the Old Testament where it is translated "to find favor".   Interestingly enough, in almost all O.T. references, it is used interactively between human beings.  One exception to this, however, is found in Genesis 6:5 where Noah receiving favor in the eyes of God, an event which culminated in the building of the ark and the salvation of mankind. 

I mention this here only to point out the context in which these historical events occurred.   You'll recall, of course, that God had become angry and grieved the extreme wickedness of mankind.  The general degradation of the earth's population had become so pervasively perverse that God's righteousness could stand it no more.  But it is precisely this extreme condition which introduces one of the chief characteristics of grace: its undeservedness.  By Noah's day, mankind had become the absolute antipathy of God's holiness and, in such a state, clearly merited destruction.  Justice called for satisfaction, law demanded punishment and righteousness required condemnation.  Yet God did just the opposite by unexpectedly providing a means of salvation by grace.   In previous studies I've referred to this divine proclivity as the "glory principle" and we find it expressed time and time again throughout Scripture.  Here's the way it works. 

THE GLORY PRINCIPLE:   Although mankind was "made in God's image", the Edenic disobedience provided our primogenitors with the one thing for which they were not created: a conscience!  On the divine drawing board, Adam and Eve were designed to be unaccountably imperfect.  Since they were not made capable of being inherently righteous, they were, by nature, designed to be fallible.   But the original design also called for innocence of mind such that, although they were expected to fall short of God's standard of conduct, it didn't matter.  They were incapable of doing wrong because they knew no wrong... except one: procuring the one thing they were not intended to have, a conscience.  This design "mismatch", for lack of a better word, gave mankind the knowledge of good but not the ability to do it.  Thus, degradation was inevitable and by the time Noah was born, it had reached an all time low.  And, that was exactly the backdrop needed to demonstrate the contrasting height of God's goodness. 

Glory, like many things, shines brightest in darkness.  So, in that blackest hour of man's decadence, when God's divine retribution was certain, the unexpected happened yet again.  God provided an unanticipated act through which His holiness was satisfied, mankind was saved and His grace brought glory to His name.   Under those dark, foreboding clouds of rain, God did not wield a bright sword of justice on all, rather He painted the clearing skies with His rainbow of promise all because Noah's faith found grace, unmerited favor, in God's eyes and we, today, exist because of it.  Just as in the Garden of Eden, when God did the unexpected and graciously reserved mankind's punishment for the last Adam, and just as He saved mankind from the just punishment of the flood by honoring Noah's faith through grace (Hebrews 11:7), He likewise demonstrated His amazing grace to us through His undeserved provision of eternal life.(Romans 5:15).  Indeed, for as sin abounded, God's grace did much more abound (Romans 5:20)  to the praise of the Glory of His Grace. (Ephesians 1:6).

GRACE UNDERSTOOD:   But, man's salvation by grace is only the beginning of an ongoing "grace based relationship" with the Heavenly Father.  Grace doesn't stop with the gift of salvation.  In fact, it's only the beginning of all the benefits afforded the child of God throughout this life and into eternity.  Grace, properly understood, is the instrument through which God's power is continuously bestowed on the believer to carry out God's Will daily.  If you recall, this was what the Apostle Paul cited as the sole source of those phenomenal gifts and capabilities he used in service to God.  He unhesitatingly declared, "I labored more abundantly than anyone else... yet not I, but the grace of God within me." I Corinthians 15:10.    This is Paul's acknowledgement that all the fervor, power, zeal and success in his ministry was due to the proper understanding of God's Grace. 

But, although it is used frequently in Scripture, the concept of grace is often poorly understood in Christian theology.  In contrast to its recurrent use in the Bible, the word "grace" is seldom used in conversations today.  This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the deeper meaning of grace has grown increasingly foreign to our cultural values.  That being said, it's especially important that we establish a clear definition of the word before moving on in our studies.  To keep things simple at this point, let's think of grace simply as "unmerited favor".

GRACE DEFINED:  As with many words in the Bible, the traditional Greek concept of grace was enriched by its use in holy Scripture.  The underlying connotation of the word is that of a favor or gift from one person to another.  But, it also carries an overtone of condescension in which the favor is given to another of inferior status and, therefore, is undeserved.  In Scripture, the element of undeservedness is emphasized, and for good reason.  By demonstrating that the recipient did nothing to deserve the gift nor is he capable of reciprocating in kind, the generosity of the giver becomes paramount.  In other words, the graciousness of the act glorifies the giver as one who is unusually generous, admirable and good.  This is the connotation found the above phrase "to the praise of the glory of His grace". Ephesians 1:6.

Now, let's go a bit deeper into this notion of "undeservedness" and find that the inability to reciprocate also engenders, at a psychological level, a desire to give something back.  Barring a pathological attitude of entitlement,  average folks feel indebted to and grateful toward a benefactor who spontaneously gives them a valuable gift.   Notice above, that I made an exception to this rule of reciprocity by citing the example of "entitlement".  There are times in which recipients of special favors actually believe that they deserve it.  This attitude of "entitlement" completely negates the biblical concept of grace by: 1) failing to acknowledge that the gift is undeserved, thus elevating the egotistical recipient to a status superior to that of the giver and 2) it also indicates that the recipient failed to learn from the example set by such an act of undeserved generosity.   This "entitlement attitude" is frequently seen in spoiled children and egocentric adults, who grow up believing that the world owes them something for nothing.  This, in essence, is grace misunderstood and stands in start contrast to the Apostle Paul's correct perception of its deeper meaning.

Now, just for a moment, let's make this study more personal.   I'm sure that you have, at some point in your life, had an experience in which you unexpectedly receive a valuable gift with no means of reciprocating at the time.  What thoughts went thoughts your head?  What did you feel? (*3)   Well, among other reactions, you may have felt a need to reciprocate in kind or, at the very least, demonstrate your sincere appreciation and gratitude. 

Now, let's look at the subject of God's grace in your life when you received His gracious gift of salvation.  Do you remember what you thought about God's grace back then?  How does it compare with what you now know about grace?   If you've grown in grace and knowledge of Christ, as indeed you should, can you now echo Paul's words: "Today, by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace taught me this lesson... I worked harder than everyone else, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me." (I Corinthians 15:10).  With this simple statement, Paul demonstrates what God's grace looks like in the lives of believers today when they correctly understand the true meaning of God's grace.

GRACE PRACTICED:

Admittedly, many people have trouble grasping the practical aspect of God's grace at work in our lives today.  So let's look as a few of the basic facts about grace:  First and foremost, it's important for us to realize that God's Grace is ongoing.  It didn't stop with salvation but continue to be, moment by moment, the channel through which God favors us.  What does that mean?   As such, grace becomes the channel through which all of God's blessing, empowerment, help, guidance, wisdom, strength or anything else we might need for life and Godliness.  (I Peter 1:2-3).   Secondly, keep in mind that we can't wear it out, there's no end to it and it isn't ours because of some special thing we did to deserve it.  God's grace is limitless, therefore you can never ask God for too much.  Receiving favor from God everyday of our lives depends on His goodness, not ours.  Thirdly, it's a favor you don't deserve so feel free to ask whatever you want in accord with His Will.  So right now, I'm going to ask you to start putting this truth into practice. Over the next hour, start acting like the Holy Spirit is a person inside you, standing ready to give you what ever you need for life and Godliness, just like the verse says.  If you don't know what you need, then ask Him to show you in Scripture, through another believer, through a sermon or in prayer.  It's His job to pray for you and He will do it as a favor to you.  Romans 8:26-27.  Remember, God's Grace is generic in promise but specific in provision so ask Him specifically for what He knows you need and then thank Him for it.

GRACE MISUNDERSTOOD:   Unfortunately, since the concept of grace is so foreign to the natural human mind, it is often misunderstood.  This was certainly the case for some members of the church at Rome in the Apostle Paul's day.  When we read chapters 5 and 6 of Paul's epistle to the Romans, we'll find an remarkably  insightful explanation of the relationship between law and grace.   Paul concludes chapter 5 with the words:"  The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.  But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 5:20-21.  These are two of the most insightful verses we'll find on this topic and I'd urge you to drop down to the footnote section and read my comments before moving on. (*4) 

After having read and understood the import of those verses, any true believer would embrace God's amazing grace with humility, because we don't deserve it, and gratitude, because it brings salvation from the power and penalty of sin.  Tragically, to the religious crowd of Paul's day, these verses carried a more sinister, self serving message.  Some of the more opportunistic professing Christians reasoned that, if by sinning, God's grace abounds toward us, then we may confidently increase God's grace by sinning more and more each day.  Granted, that argument may sound logical on the surface, but it reflect a total perversion of the meaning and purpose of grace.  Rightly so, Paul forcefully answers this depraved rationale by declaring emphatically: "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  God forbid!  Absolutely not!"  Romans 6:1-2   This fallacious reasoning, born of the natural man's calloused desire to sin without penalty, is the epitome of grace misunderstood.

GRACE DESPISED:  One of the most chilling indictments to be found in the entire Bible is one related to God's grace.  The book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers who were in danger of rejecting the Gospel and falling back into the law and commandments for salvation.  The writer patiently and eloquently points out to them that the law and commandments could never give them the salvation they` were seeking, for the law only brought the awareness of sin, not redemption from it. Hebrews 10:4.  Therefore, if they rejected the "lamb of God" as their savior, there would be "no sacrifice left for sins, only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. " Hebrews 10:26-27.   What could someone possible do to merit such scathing words of condemnation?  Here's the terrifying answer: any who have "trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace" Hebrews 10:29.  Here, once again, we can clearly see the value God places on His patient favor toward mankind.  To despise, ignore or denigrate the marvelous gift of God's salvation, by the death of His son, is an act inevitably punishable by eternal separation from the gracious Giver.   Thankfully, the writer is using hypothetical language when he describes this frightening scenario.  He was not, in fact, directly accusing the true believers of falling away from the faith.  In fact, he ends the chapter with a bright word of assurance to his readers.  Confident in their professed faith in the "Lamb of God", he writes: "Now, we do not belong to those who turn back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved." Hebrews 10:39.

UNGRACIOUS ME:   But grace can be misunderstood in less obvious, but more insidious, ways too.  Early on in my career as a Christian counselor, I discovered a number of key issues that repeatedly surfaced in therapy.   One of them had to do with a misconception of God's grace in the Christian's life today.  Some believers, especially those raised in a strict Christian environment, carry infantile misconceptions of religious concepts into adulthood and, in consequence, suffer needlessly from fear, anxiety and guilt.  It is true that issues of sin, guilt, punishment and grace are all related in Christian theology but they are sometimes linked inappropriately and bring grave emotional disturbance to overly sensitive believers.  For example, I've often seen sincere believers overcome with what they call "feelings of guilt" (*1) because of some behaviors or thoughts deemed sinful.  In their minds, sin must be punished in some manner so that justice may be served.  From early childhood they believe that they are safer in a just world kept in balance when punishment is meted out to the offender.  It's much like the uneasiness experienced by some when only lone shoe drops and they can't relax until they hear the other one hit the floor too.  This may sound a bit silly, but that's the nature of a neurotic behavior.

Even in the face of clear Scriptural teaching on the subject, there are some conscience sensitive Christians who believe that, when over taken in a particular sin, just asking forgiveness time and time again is too easy.  In spite of their sincere struggle to overcome sin, they continue to feel guilty, thinking they are getting "off the hook" with a simple ten second prayer for forgiveness.  What's the result?  Since someone has to pay, they hurt themselves with remorse, anxiety, fear and depression all rolled into one self defeating and ineffective punishment.... and then, after they have suffered for a while, the world is just once more!   More than once, I've heard these troubled folks say, "but I don't deserve to be forgiving!"  My usual reply is: "Of course you don't deserve it, you dummy, that's why it's called grace.  It is an unmerited favor, an undeserved gift, unwarranted provision which means you don't deserve to be forgiven.  For, if you deserved it, you would deprive God of displaying His goodness and glory!  He forgives you not because you are good, but because He is good.

Once again, I'm sorely tempted to spend some time on this subject but I don't want to get too far afield of our topic.  I will, however, just comment in passing that emotional disorders involving depression, anger, remorse (*2) and "guilt" derive from a misunderstanding of what the Scriptures tell us about grace.  First of all, I hasten to agree with the fact that sin, all our sin, those habits and thoughts displeasing to God, do demand punishment.  But, thank God, that punishment was already paid for over 2,000 years ago on a rugged cross in a far away land.  Jesus paid that price for your sin and mine, past, present and future so who are you to doubt that with your actions?   In counseling, I usually point out to these dear believers that it would be extremely rude, condescending and ungracious of them to snub their nose at a precious gift offered to them out of love.  Yet, that's exactly what they're doing when they insult their Heavenly Father by rejecting His gracious promise of forgiveness, purchased by so dear a price at Calvary.  Of course, even after learning to accept God's forgiveness for daily sin and experiencing the joy it brings, there's still the underlying problem of overcoming the sin which occasioned guilt in the first place... but more about that in the study on "The Great Put-on".

GRACE BE UNTO YOU:   We see this phrase "grace be unto you" used time and time again as a salutation in New Testament epistles.   But have you ever stopped and realized that the very same grace of Paul's day is, in fact, extended to you on a daily basis today?  In fact, all those special gifts (favors) Paul lists in I Corinthians 12, were given by the Holy Spirit to each and every believer in the church at Corinth.   In fact, the very Greek word for "gift", "χάρισμα", (charisma), is a derivation of the word "grace" xris (charis).   Thus we can think of grace as an "favor endowment", something undeserved by you and freely given by the Holy Spirit.  Moreover, whether your know it or not, you have been given a special gift by the Holy Spirit for the edification of other believers.

Practical homework:  Read I Corinthians 12:4-11 and see if you can get an idea of what your spiritual gift might be.  Whatever it might be, it is indispensable for the health and growth of the Body of Crist.  Somewhere, someone needs your ministry for growth and spiritual health.  Next time you get together with another believer in whom you have confidence, ask what he or she things might be your ministry gift.

FOOTNOTES:

1.  You may have noticed that I put the above phrase "feeling of guilt" in quotes.  This was done to point out that "guilt", as referenced in Scripture, is not an emotion or feeling.  It is, rather, a legal state of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.  Emotions, or feelings, are independent of a guilty verdict.  A guilty person may be happy, sad, depressed or apathetic and it doesn't change his legal state, he is still guilty.  What are generally considered to be "feeling of guilt" are, in fact, a blend of anger, depression, sadness, loss, confusion, remorse, etc.

2. Remorse is another of often misunderstood words which demand clarification if we are to better understand Scripture.  Remorse, in contrast to repentance, is the recognition of a past act which can not be undone, resulting in a sad, depressive emotional state devoid of hope.   Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition of a past wrong act for which the individual is responsible, feels regret and asks for forgiveness.  An integral part of "repentance" is a change of heart, viewing his offense was wrong and, following forgiveness, does a 180 degree turnaround and determines to avoid repeating it in the future.  The key to these two similar terms is the time element: remorse is stuck in the past with not no hope for the future.  Repentance looks to the past for a lesson to be learned and then turns around to move into a future free of that offense.

3. Notice the order in which the words "thoughts" and "feeling" are presented.  With rare exceptions, thoughts (cognition) preceed feelings (emotional arousal)  Emotinal arousal is seldom spontaneously generated apart from some cognitive process which went on before. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule but, in general, emotions are natural responses to some thought that previously passes through our minds.  This simple fact affords a powerful tool to moderate or control emotions through cognition.  (see II Corinthians 10:5-6)

4. Law and Grace: Romans 5:20-21.  "The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.  But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 5:20-21.   As you read those two verses over carefully, several key facts emerge: 1) the O.T. law was given, not to save people through obedience to the commandments, but to show the failure of those who attempt it.  In fact, the more a person's knowledge about the law increased, the more they saw sin in their daily lives.  However, contrary to human thinking, God's grace included the element of "limitlessness" so that as sin increased, so did the availability of God's grace.  The more the sin, the greater God's grace.