I really started thinking about grace one summer, around nine years ago, when I was visiting my sister outside Montreal. She said that she had heard the term used in church for years but realized she didn’t think she really understood it. I had been doing some theology courses and she asked me what I knew about it. I shared the little bit I knew about the grace of God as shown in the forgiveness of sins, but it felt a bit lame, lifeless somehow. A seed had been planted. Since then we have both watched out for books and articles on grace. One of the first books I read was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.
When dealing with a concept such as grace, people often start with the word itself. I was surprised that when I Googled for definitions of grace the first seven definitions were secular; it wasn’t until the eighth definition that God was connected with the word. Of course, from my egocentric view of the world, it is hard for me to imagine why the people writing these dictionaries didn’t understand that without God’s grace the other meanings might not exist and certainly wouldn’t be as powerfully positive.
As a noun, grace is defined as; elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action; a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment; favour or good will; a manifestation of favour; mercy/clemency/pardon; favour in granting a delay or temporary immunity; an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable granted to the debtor before a law suit can be brought.
When I look in my five volume Bible dictionary, the entry for grace is ten columns long. I will spare you the details. Theologically, grace is defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them; a virtue or excellence of divine origin.
For most people, even those who are not Christians, the first thing they are likely to think of when asked about grace would say that it is the thing you say before you eat a meal. This was definition 10 in the dictionary listing. The next most familiar references may be the many idioms in English. We think of ‘falling from grace’ when we have done something wrong or disappointed someone; of having grace to do something like hold the door open for someone; of being in someone’s good graces; of doing things with bad grace making it clear even as we comply with a request that it is against our will; and the very familiar idiom, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”
In an article entitled “Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship”, Steven W. Manskar says of grace. “Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love and acceptance freely given to all. This grace is incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This grace is free, but it is not cheap. It comes to us at great cost to God: the suffering and death of God’s Son on a Roman cross. We must always remember and be reminded that the grace God gives is a costly grace.”
We read a story of grace in Luke 10:25-37. A familiar story in which we usually focus on the fact that a Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus once again, and that we are to love everyone, not just those who are the same as we are, but there was grace. The poor beaten up naked man lying in the ditch did nothing whatever to deserve anyone’s help. We don’t even hear that he cried out, presumably he was little able to do that as he was left “half-dead”.
The first two people who walked by were religious men a priest and a Levite. We read that they went by on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were afraid of being seen with this naked man, afraid that he might indeed be dead and would cause them to be unclean, or perhaps they were just busy and distracted and didn’t want to take the time. Imagine them muttering to themselves as they continued on their ways, “there but by the grace of God go I.” They may have been thinking about grace, but did not carry it through beyond themselves to their neighbour.
This Samaritan man, who by rights should not even have been seen talking to a Jew, covered his body, cleaned his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. He cared for him until morning and then, without promises of being paid back, he arranged for his care at the inn until he recovered, even if it ended up costing him more than he had already given, which according to one source was enough money to pay for a month’s stay at an inn at the time. This story illustrates grace; unmerited, unconditional love, free but not cheap.
Amos 7:7-17 seems, on the surface, to present a view of God who was vengeful, the antithesis to grace. In this passage God sent his prophet Amos to bring a message of doom. When the king attempted to make Amos stop doing what God had told him to do, the message became even worse. Having already allowed for intercession on their behalf, God said this time that he would not pass over Israel again. They would have to pay for abandoning the faith and practice of their ancestors. The judgement declared was focused on three places; the high places where they had been worshipping false gods, the sanctuaries where they were no longer worshiping, and the house of the king whose line was to be destroyed by the sword.
During a discussion about what makes Christianity unique, at a British conference on comparative religion, C.S. Lewis summed it up, “Oh that’s easy. It’s grace.” It is in Christianity alone that we find the love of God poured out for us freely without merit.
So, what is grace? After 69 pages Yancey “…attempts something like a definition of grace in relation to God. Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more-no amount of spiritual callisthenics and renunciation, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”
Defining grace may be very difficult, but experiencing grace, if we are open to awareness of it, is not. John Newton, a reformed slave captain, certainly knew what grace was in his life. He knew just how low he had gone, and knew the feeling of being lifted out of that dark place and being given a new start. He did not write a definition of grace, but he wrote of his experience in the now famous and well-loved hymn with which we began our worship today;
Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.
Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”. Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.