Defining Grace

double rainbows at my backyard

I stumble over grace. It’s a pretty word. I like how it rolls off my tongue in a sweet, feather-light way. But, defining grace – well, that’s complicated. It trips me up, so this week I went searching for answers.

Grace means so many things it makes my head spin. A ballet dancer, for instance, moves with grace. There is a grace period for paying bills. People say grace before meals. Someone behaving politely or with goodwill is said to show grace. You may honor or grace someone with your presence. People of royal descent are sometimes addressed as “His Grace, the Duke of XYZ”.

So no wonder, when it comes to understanding God’s grace we might need a little clarity. According to Christian belief, grace means the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). Yeah, did you catch all that?! What a mouthful. Let’s break it down…

Free and unmerited means that grace is not something we earn or deserve; it is offered unconditionally. We do not have to meet a “good deed quota” to receive grace. Donating things to goodwill, baking someone cookies, or reading extra bedtime stories will not buy us more grace.

Favor of God refers to his acceptance of us offered regardless of our daily rights and wrongs. God’s favor is doled out in the same amount to you, me, addicts, crooks, beggars, and the person who drives you crazy.

Manifested in the salvation of sinners means God shows his favor through an invitation for eternal life. The Bible teaches that this invitation was written by Jesus when he willingly died on the cross for our sins.

The bestowal of blessings is another way God shows his favor. He bestows or presents us with loving and merciful gifts. Blessings may come through family, friends, talents, healing, or forgiveness to name a few.

In researching grace’s definition, I found many authors and pastors use an acronym to provide understanding: GRACE = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That simplifies the definition, but it does not make receiving this enormous gift any easier.

Truth is, although God offers grace to every person, many of us do not readily accept it. We tell ourselves:

  • Grace is not meant for me. (False)

Our inner critics, and critics in the outside world harp on us with messages like: “you’re undeserving”, “you’re not good enough”, “you’re a real mess”, or “you’re just too far gone”. We start to see God’s favor as something meant for other people who have not made as many mistakes as we have.

But, that’s simply not Biblically true. Time and time again, Jesus makes this clear in the Bible by befriending people others say are unworthy – those who have committed murder, adultery, robbery, prostitution, and deception. He blesses them with forgiveness and healing. He leads and inspires them to turn their lives around (to repent). And, he reminds those who think they are righteous not to rank their sins against those of others. God’s grace gives every person another chance to be used for his good purposes. 

When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Mark 2:17 New Living Translation (NLT)

  • Grace is free, so I already have it. (False)

We do not have to earn grace, but we must willingly receive it through faith and obedience. A good description of receiving grace is found in the story of Noah (Genesis 6:8, the first mention of “grace” in the Bible).

In this story, Noah found favor from God because he was actively looking for it. He faithfully asked God for direction and sought a response. God blessed him with knowledge about the coming judgement and instructions for beginning anew. Noah then served as a steward of God’s grace by obediently carrying out his instructions. Grace will bless us and save us when we seek God out and have faith in his plans, not our own.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16 New International Version (NIV)

  • Grace is my ticket to heaven; I don’t need to think about it right now. (False)

Life is distracting and it can keep us from recognizing the source of our blessings. Because our society is so driven by recognition, we seamlessly shift from praising God to praising ourselves. Then, we start to see grace as something off in the distance–set aside as a gift from God to be received when we die.

God’s grace is in the here and now. Evidence of God’s favor surrounds us every day in the lives of our family and friends, and in the midst of our own busy schedules. Grace calls us to slow down, appreciate what we have, and remember how far we’ve come. Getting to know God now, eases our worry about the future.

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 2 Peter 1:2 (NIV)

Picture God standing on a street corner trying to hand out brochures about grace. “It’s free,” he gently speaks, “because I love you so much. Please receive it.” Over and over, he repeats this request.

Can you see all the people passing him by? Their heads are down. They have problems, destinations. They think it’s strange this man is professing his love for them. They didn’t do anything to deserve it. They don’t know him…well, maybe… there is something familiar about him.

What if after passing, someone hesitates and turns around? What if she jogs nonchalantly back and takes that brochure? She reads it and ponders it, as she continues on. Her walk changes, notably full of hope and joy. Stores of love and mercy line her path. A wind whispers promises of an everlasting life. She feels something has changed; it’s subtle, but big. With certain wonder, her gaze travels from the brochure to the sky. She will no longer stumble over grace. She knows right where to find it.

Prayer for the Week:

Dear God,

Thank you for helping me understand the meaning of grace. The magnitude of this gift is overwhelming – all the goodness in this world and the promise of eternal life, offered unconditionally because of Christ’s sacrifice. Help me learn to readily accept and embrace this gift. Teach me to recognize my value through your eyes. Lead me in faith and obedience to follow your instruction for my life. And, open my eyes to your grace that surrounds me each day. In Jesus’ Name, Amen

My Favorite Irish Blessing for You:

May flowers always line your path and sunshine light your day.
May songbirds serenade you every step along the way.
May a rainbow run beside you in a sky that’s always blue.
And may happiness fill your heart each day your whole life through.

-Author Unknown

Listen To:

Matt Redman’s beautiful song “Your Grace Finds Me” right here.