Here are three popular definitions for grace:
God’s unmerited favor.
God giving us what we do not deserve.
God’s riches at Christ’s expense.
These all show that the source of grace is God, not us. God’s most significant gift of grace is His Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Jesus must remain exclusively central in order for the Reformation phrase grace alone to make sense. God’s justifying grace cannot be paid for, worked for, bargained for, or added to. It is His gift, offered freely to whosoever will: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11).
The term sola gratia, or “grace alone,” was important to the Reformers because of the perception that grace was decidedly not alone in the Roman church. The Reformers recovered the biblical testimony regarding the sole initiative and sufficiency of God’s act in Christ. One of the New Testament’s fullest, and most memorable, descriptions of God’s grace in Christ is found in Ephesians:
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (2:4-8).
Ephesians 2 explains God’s great grace in Christ Jesus with the help of three other close synonyms: love, mercy, and kindness. Grace alone is our recognition of God’s action and initiative alone to save and transform us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (v. 10). It’s all about grace because it’s all about God.
In the Old Testament the word favor is another translation of the Hebrew word for grace. Sometimes God is the one extending grace, and sometimes the verse is about grace extended from one person to another. It’s notable, though, that all of the occurrences of the word gracious are about God. A few favorites are . . .
And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth . . . (Exodus 34:6).
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy (Psalm 103:8).
And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil (Jonah 4:2).
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s grace — His undeserved mercy, kindness, and loving favor toward His people — was seen and celebrated again and again. But this key attribute of God’s character, with its saving and transforming work, would be completely known, and for all the world to see, only in God’s Son, Jesus.
When the Word was made flesh in Jesus Christ, God’s graciousness was expressed fully:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him (John 1:14-18).
John summarizes who Jesus is in His very person with two words: grace and truth. It follows that grace and truth were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, in word and in deed.
In Luke 7 a centurion’s servant is critically ill. He sends the Jewish elders to Jesus for help. The elders urge Jesus to heal the servant because the centurion “was worthy . . . he hath built us a synagogue” (vv. 4, 5). But on the way there, the centurion sends a message asking Jesus to simply say the word, and his servant will be healed. Jesus commends the centurion for such great faith
(v. 9). It’s the great grace of God, not the worthiness of the centurion, that resulted in the servant’s miraculous healing.
The cross of Christ demonstrates the grace and truth of God most completely. This is the length to which God’s love will go. The saving, transforming effect of this grace alone is seen especially in the life of Paul. He gives credit to God’s grace for changing him from a Christian hater to a Christian laborer:
For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me (1 Corinthians 15:9, 10).
Paul and the centurion were not unique. Each of us wasted years violating God’s grace. All people of Adam’s race need the gift of God’s wonderful grace: “For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Romans 5:15).
What is true of grace alone with God in the Old Testament and with Jesus in the New Testament is true for all times because graciousness is God’s eternal nature: “Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work” (2 Thessalonians 2:16, 17).
The saving “everlasting consolation” Paul speaks of, that stretches out before us into eternity, that transforms the Christian in “every good word and work,” is likely related to John’s curious words about Jesus’ gift for us all: “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16). Other translations read “grace upon grace” (NASB, et al.).
Meditate on the statement “grace for grace.” Prayerfully think about what it means for us. Remember the first life-changing work of God’s grace in your life. Recall when the old, old story became your story. Jesus took your sins upon Himself and died for them, and a great exchange took place: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
First, we are favored with that wonderful saving grace. Then, our Lord continues with us, transforming us by His workmanship and good favor, giving one blessing upon another. This is grace upon grace, and it lasts into eternity with Him in His kingdom.
What amazing grace!
From the moment we believed on Jesus, God’s great grace has continued to bless us. We awaken from each night’s sleep because of His grace. We travel safely to our destinations and back home again because of His grace. We serve His church and minister to others, we speak and write because of His grace. Every breath we take, every step we walk, every task we do is because of His grace. His promise of eternal life with Him is because of His great grace. We rejoice that the Word, full of grace and truth, was made flesh and dwelt with us. His grace is the only way. It is by His grace alone.
This truth should impact our lives. It should change the way we think, speak, and act. Our response of faith to God’s great grace leads to more grace — grace upon grace: His work of saving and transforming us. So be alert to God’s favor in your life. Be aware of Him as the source of grace, and be quick to thank Him for it. Make it a habit, because the more you look for His grace, the more of His grace you’ll find.