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Years ago I learned a little acronym that was supposed to help me understand the meaning of grace: “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” I suppose there is truth in the phrase, but it doesn’t really clarify this thing called grace.
Later I learned another definition of grace: “The desire and ability to do God’s will.” I have to confess that I never really understood how that related to grace at all, in spite of the fact that it is a popular definition.
I have read books that proclaim grace to be the equivalent of forgiveness or mercy. They suggest that a lack of grace is inappropriate for a Christian on the basis of the forgiveness that has been offered to us.
In common usage, grace is often connected to kindness. Grace becomes “graciousness.” To communicate grace is to be nice to people, especially when they aren’t particularly nice to you. Again, this falls short of the scriptural teaching on grace.
There are theological books written on grace, of course. Some of them are written to support Calvinism and others to support Arminianism. Both sides use grace as evidence that the other is wrong and there is some truth to what both proclaim. But is that enough to communicate the grace of God?
Perhaps the problem is that every definition of grace will fall short somehow. I suspect that the real definition of grace is quite personal and subjective. It has to do with how your own life has been touched by the Lord. In fact, I have come to believe that the reason it is hard to define grace is because grace is a Person. I believe that Jesus is God’s grace… but how do I define Jesus?
To define a person with words is a frustrating exercise. You could speak of physical features or character. You could philosophize about essence and spirit. You could talk about accomplishments or habits. Yet the definition of the person would still be lacking. How much more is this true as we talk about the grace of God in the Person of Jesus?
You see, grace is everything God wants to give to us or do for us and He does it in and through the Person of Jesus. Love is the foundation of grace, and grace is the activity of love. God’s love becomes grace as He reaches out to our need and fulfills in us everything we need to live in joyful relationship with Him.
There is only one way to fully communicate the grace of God and that is to bring people to Jesus. As they enter into relationship with Him, they learn the meaning of grace. And, yes, they will find forgiveness and acceptance and kindness and all the parts of grace in Him. They will also find life, and life–as the Scripture says–more abundant. This is life unlike the common life of humankind. This is the abundant life of Jesus functioning in and through us.
Grace is so much more because Jesus is so much more. Paul hints at this in Ephesians 1 as he says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” ( Eph. 1:3 NKJV) What do we find in Jesus? “Every spiritual blessing!” It is all in Him.
That’s why grace is set against law in the Scriptures. Law was given to point out our inability to measure up to the holiness of God and motivate us to look to Him. When we use law and rules to try to accomplish holiness for ourselves, we fail to access the grace of God in Jesus. If He is our life (Col. 3:4) and our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption (1 Cor. 1:30), then we cannot accomplish these things ourselves and we have nothing of ourselves for which we may boast. (1 Cor 1:31)
Grace is what God does. When He works in us, that’s grace. When He works through us, that’s grace. When He works for us, that’s grace. That’s why we say that every part of the Christian life is lived by grace.
Grace–fully loaded–is the simple declaration of our total and eternal dependence on the Lord who loves us. Jesus told us that we could do nothing apart from Him. The wonderful teaching of the Vine and the branches in John 15 speaks to us of our relationship with Him. We draw all that is life from Him. Growth, success, health, the ability to bear fruit, and all the rest come from the vine to the branches. Redemption, sanctification, eternal life, and all spiritual things come from Jesus to us.
Now here’s where we want to be careful and discerning. There are many believers who will take this truth, that we can do nothing apart from Christ, and continue to teach a performance/works/Law based spirituality. They say that because of Christ now they are able to do these things. In other words, they are Christians and, because of that, they can never be apart from Christ. Therefore, they think they enjoy the message of grace while still trying to serve in their own strength.
For them, becoming a Christian is like painting yourself blue. Now that you are blue, you are blue whenever you do things. Since you are blue, you are different from the rest of the world. It is your responsibility to go out and live a life that is better than the rest of the world to show them the benefit of being blue and to deserve your own blueness. But the question is just how being blue makes any real difference in your life. Christians who try to live the Christian life in their own strength fail to enjoy the power and activity of Jesus.
What we are saying is that Christ is our strength and wisdom and energy. We have none of these things that are not His. It is His righteousness that allows us to stand before the Father. It is His victory that overcomes sin in our lives. It is His holiness that separates us from the world. How foolish it would be to try to add something of my own to His holiness! Instead, I trust in Him… and all these things are mine.
Grace–fully loaded–is the whole message of what God does for, in, and through us. How do I live the Christian life? In Christ! Where do I find hope for the future? In Christ! What is my assurance that my sins are forgiven forever? The fact that I am in Christ!
Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of "Grace for the Heart," a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com.