(August 29, 2017) Dr Jim McClure noted theologian, continues his series on selected Greek words…
‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.’
These are familiar and well-loved words from the hymn written by John Newton. What else did Newton say about grace in that hymn? He wrote,
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed. …
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.’
A transforming life-changing experience
Newton knew what he was talking about. As a young man he was the ruthless and brutal captain of a slave ship. But one night he discovered the reality of God, experienced his grace and was transformed from a cruel slave-ship captain into a preacher of the good news about Jesus Christ. Grace had made a dynamic impact on his life.
I believe that Newton understood something about the grace of God that we today largely fail to grasp. We are confused about the meanings of the words love, mercy and grace in relation to the gospel. We tend to think they all mean the same basic thing; but love leads to our acceptance by God, mercy leads to our forgiveness by God, and grace, I believe, leads to a life-changing experience through God.
The Greek word for ‘grace’ is ‘charis.’ In Classical Greek the word charis had a wide application; it was associated with people, activities, good fortune, and power granted by the gods.
In the Septuagint charis was used to translate the Hebrew word ‘chen.’ At the heart of the word ‘chen’ is the sense of a caring attitude, or delight, or approval. In the Old Testament ‘chen,’ is translated by the KJV about 40 times as ‘favour’ and about 40 times as ‘grace.’
The KJV, which dominated the English speaking world for almost 400 years, had already equated ‘grace’ and ‘favour’ as far as the Old Testament was concerned and related them to the Hebrew word that meant ‘kindness.’
But in truth, the Old Testament does not have a direct equivalent to the word ‘charis.’ That is not to say that there is no evidence of grace in the Old Testament – there is. However it is in the New Testament that we discover a significant emphasis on grace and the word ‘charis’ (which is found 156 times in 147 verses, translated in the KJV by the word ‘grace’ 131 times in 122 verses and in the NIV 123 times in 115 verses).
‘Charis’ is one of those words, such as agape and koinonia, which the church embraced and, in a sense, made its own by putting its particular stamp on them and by infusing a richer meaning into them.
The word charis saturates the New Testament. But what does it really mean? Webster’s dictionary defines it as ‘good-will or favour’ and then adds that it is ‘Divine love and protection given to humankind by God.’
‘Grace’ is much more than ‘God’s unmerited favour’
Many people will readily quote the definition they have most frequently heard – ‘Grace is the unmerited favour of God.’ It is usually quoted with such confidence as if that definition came directly from the pages of scripture. But that is not the case.
- There is some merit in this definition; it affirms that God is the source of grace.
- It also picks up the idea of something that is freely given by God.
- But it is a definition that diminishes the word’s rich and profound meaning and substitutes it with a partial truth, wonderful though that truth may be.
There is a kind of passive implication in the definition that ‘grace is the unmerited favour of God.’ But when we encounter it in the New Testament, we discover that grace refers to something that is reciprocal, dynamic and life-changing.
In reality grace refers not just to that which brings us forgiveness, but also to something that has an energetic effect on our lives and has the capability to radically change us.
I would like to give another definition of what charis really means… but the word ‘grace’ will avoid being tied to any pithy, one-dimensional description. Perhaps Paul was making that point when he wrote in Ephesians 2:7 ‘… he [God] might show the incomparable (Greek: huperballonta from the verb meaning ‘to throw beyond’ or ‘to overshoot’) riches of his grace …’
If God’s grace is incomparable, it will ‘overshoot’ all attempts to tie it down to a precise definition. Nevertheless it will not resist attempts to understand it better! (See my book Grace Revisited for a more extensive exposition of the word).
1. Grace is precious
In John 1:14, 16 and 17 we find the word charis is used by the apostle. Right at the beginning of his gospel he focuses our thoughts on is the fact that the grace of God is related to Jesus Christ and says that Jesus is ‘full of charis.’
He then says, ‘From the fullness of his charis we have all received.’ And then, ‘charis and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ John is saying in effect, ‘Let’s turn the spotlight on this thing called grace before we go any further.’
Paul refers to grace at least twice in every letter. At the beginning of his letters he writes ‘Grace to you’ and at the end he writes, ‘grace be with you.’
His letters are a kind of ‘grace’ sandwich with grace at the beginning, the end – and also in between! Grace was important theme in Paul’s teaching. The NIV translates Romans 5:17 as ‘God’s abundant (the Greek word here means ‘superabundant’) provision of grace.’
The apostle knew what it meant to live by the grace of God. For all Christians it is an indispensable requirement for living. We shall never effectively live the Christian life unless we live it by the grace of God because that is what enables us to be and to do that to which he has called us.
When Paul and Silas set out on their missionary tour, they were commended by the church to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:40). This does not mean that the people in their church gathered around and said, ‘Well, Paul and Silas, we hope that God is going to be kind to you and show favour to you.’ Rather they were commending Paul and Silas to this superabundant gift from God as they set out to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in a pagan and hostile world.
2. Grace is powerful
When Paul and Silas set out to evangelise the pagan world of the first century, they needed to be energised; they needed to have the resources of God’s power flowing through them rather than just knowing that God was looking kindly on them. Did the early church commend Paul and Silas to the undeserved favour of God? That does not really make sense in that context.
Also, in Luke 2:40 about Jesus that, ‘…the child grew and became strong. He was filled with wisdom and the charis of God was on him.’ Does that mean that the ‘undeserved favour of God’ was on Jesus? That does not make sense either – if anyone deserved the favour of God it was Jesus. So the word grace must mean something totally different from ‘God’s undeserved favour.’ John 1:14 says, ‘He was full of charis.’ Full of God’s undeserved favour? Surely not!
Paul urged people to allow the grace of God to work in their lives – really to lay hold of the grace of God, to live in the grace of God and to express their Christian faith through the grace of God – because he knew that unless they depended on it, lived in it and expressed it in their actions, then their lives were going to be lived on the basis of self-effort.
In 1Corinthains 15:10 Paul wrote, ‘By the charis of God I am what I am and this charis to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them, yet not I but the charis of God that was with me.’
In that the New Testament the words ‘grace’ and ‘power’ are sometimes used in the same passage as if the one word is interpreting the other.
- Acts 4:33 says, ‘With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and much grace was on them.’
- Acts 6:8 states that ‘Stephen was a man full of God’s grace and power’ … and because of that great wonders and miraculous signs were performed through him.
- Acts 11:23 says, ‘Peter saw evidence of the grace of God.’ The evidence that Peter actually saw was that of the working of miracles because of the presence of the grace of God. Grace and power are indeed related to each other.
- Acts 14:3 says, ‘The Lord confirmed the message of grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.’
- In Ephesians 3:7 Paul states, ‘I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.’
3. Grace in penetrating
God’s grace must not just be considered as a bubble in which we live. It is more like an arrowhead that penetrates us! But it needs to keep on penetrating; it needs to go ever deeper into us individually, and through us it also needs to penetrate into the world. It is not just God’s gift to us but God’s gift through us.
This is what John was saying in chapter 1 of his gospel. In talking about Jesus’ coming into the world he was saying that, in a most unique way, the charis of God was coming into the world because the world needed it. The world still needs it and can discover its reality if it is seen in and through us.
Grace is not just about my salvation and my reconciliation with God and my blessings – its scope is very much wider. Those who have received his grace and who are living in it need to authenticate its reality in the world by combining these three things together – the life we live, the words we speak and the works we do. Grace to be and grace to do through God’s equipping presence in our lives.
In allowing God’s charis to work in and through us, the gospel will penetrate into the lives of those who are not Christians.
4. Grace is provision in abundance
We have previously noticed that Romans 5:17 speaks about the superabundant provision of God’s grace.’
In other words Paul was saying that God’s grace is always present when we need it and there is always more than enough for our needs.
In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul refers to a suffering in his life which he called ‘thorn in the flesh.’ We do not know what that may have been, but he prayed three times about it and the only answer God gave him was, ‘My charis is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in your weakness’ (v 9).
In the same way God provides his grace for our needs. God did not take away Paul’s ‘thorn,’ but he gave him the ability to endure it.
In Future Grace, John Piper wrote: ‘The grace for endurance is not primarily looking back to bye-gone grace, it is looking forward to the next moment’s and the next month’s arrival of the power of grace to do for us what we absolutely despair of doing for ourselves.’
Taking grace seriously means not just resting in God’s mercy but utilising the provision of his empowering!
(Dr Jim McClure continues this subject next month).
Jim McClure is author of several books and Bible study series. In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship.
Normally $35, this classic is currently offered free by Dr Jim in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and MOBI versions. Link: firstname.lastname@example.org