For some odd reason beyond my ken grace seems rather easy to misunderstood, either by softening it into bald forms of tolerance or overcooking it with a dark side. Listening to people makes me think that “grace” means God is love and God is loving and “God is just so incredibly nice” or something like “God has given us such a nice world and home and clothing.” That is, “grace” means good things, which is only partly right. Frederick Buechner tilts in this direction when he says a “good sleep is grace and so are good dreams.” “The smell of rain is grace.” Surely sleep and dreams and the smell of rain are good things, but I doubt Paul would see his favorite term in Buechner’s sentences. What we see here is “common” grace and what Paul seemed to have in mind was the “uncommon” grace of God.
But here’s another misunderstanding of grace, one that seems to emerge from the wrath of God more than the love of God. Some are proud of their theology of grace but talk about grace in negative tones, almost as if they want to make sure no one gets the wrong idea. Ironically, that overcooking of grace often enough also leads us astray. Here are a few typical definitions of grace that focus on the negative side of grace, don’t press beyond it, and I would also say these represent the common perception of the meaning of grace among evangelicals today:
B.B. Warfield: “Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.”
Jerry Bridges: ““[Grace] is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against Him.”
Paul Zahl: “Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it.”
Wayne Grudem: “God’s ‘grace’ means his ‘unmerited favor’.” Or in another location “God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.”
Notice in each of these definitions the focus on the targets of grace, described in each in almost entirely negative categories: ill-deserving, rebellion, does not deserve, and deserve only punishment. In other words, grace is perceived as the undeserved goodness of God. These definitions lack what the former were mostly focused on (God’s love) and the former lack what these focus on (God’s uncommon grace). Since the second group is so focused on biblical faith — look at those names — I wonder why there is not here a comprehensive sketch of grace, such as one finds in Justin Holcomb’s new book on grace called On the Grace of God.
Justin gets it exactly right when he opens with this: “Grace changes everything.” And not just our status or position before God. Grace changes everything. In fact, grace a tells a full story, the full story of redemption, the full story of the gospel, and the first set of ideas didn’t tell any of that story while the second tells us only a fraction of the story. Justin’s book tells that whole story, though I think he does tend to focus a bit on grace as undeserved mercy. His chps are about “gratuitous and undomesticated” and “why we need grace: sin, suffering, and violence” (here he expands normal treatments), “God’s redeeming grace in the OT” and “in the NT” and then he captures the big idea of grace when his last chapter is about “grace all the way.”
Justin’s book is one of the finest books I’ve seen on grace because it not only quotes a wide range of authors but also perceives grace in the expanded, comprehensive sense of the Bible, even if (as I said) he tends to focus on the sinful targets of grace. Grace both devastates and re-creates. Justin has a list on pp. 96-98 that shows how comprehensive grace is, why we need to see it as God’s transforming power and not just undeserved mercy. The question I would ask Justin is this one: If you wrote the whole book in light of that list what would happen to the chp titles? Would we get some more? His list includes our identity, standing, behavior, living, holiness, strength for living, way of speaking, serving, sufficiency, respond to suffering, participation in God’s mission, our future and our hope. Mercy me, my o my, it’s all grace.
Why is giving money called “grace”? Why are spiritual gifts called “grace”? Why does Paul see his calling to the gentiles to be “grace”? Why is it “grace upon grace”? Here’s why: grace is not just undeserved mercy; grace is the transforming power of God that takes us where we are (sinners, suffering, violent) and takes us where God wants us to be (kingdom realities).
Rom. 1:5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.
Rom. 1:7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Rom. 3:24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Rom. 4:4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
Rom. 4:16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.
Rom. 5:2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.
Rom. 5:15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
Rom. 5:17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Rom. 5:20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rom. 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Rom. 6:14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Rom. 6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!
Rom. 6:17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.
Rom. 7:25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lor
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Rom. 11:5 So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
Rom. 12:3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Rom. 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;
Rom. 15:15 Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me
Rom. 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
1Cor. 1:3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1Cor. 1:4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
1Cor. 3:10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.
1Cor. 10:30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
1Cor. 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
1Cor. 15:57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1Cor. 16:3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.
1Cor. 16:23 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
2Cor. 1:2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Cor. 1:12 Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.2Cor. 1:15 Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice.
2Cor. 2:14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.
2Cor. 4:15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
2Cor. 6:1 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.
2Cor. 8:1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.
2Cor. 8:4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.
2Cor. 8:6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you —see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
2Cor. 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2Cor. 8:16 Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you.
2Cor. 8:19 What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help.
2Cor. 9:8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
2Cor. 9:14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
2Cor. 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2Cor. 13:14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Gal. 1:3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
Gal. 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—
Gal. 1:15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased
Gal. 2:9 James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.
Gal. 2:21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Gal. 5:4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Gal. 6:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
Eph. 1:2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Eph. 1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace
Eph. 2:5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Eph. 2:7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
Eph. 3:2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you,
Eph. 3:7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ,
Eph. 4:7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
Eph. 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Eph. 6:24 Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.
Phil. 1:2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Phil. 1:7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.
Phil. 4:23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Col. 1:2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
Col. 1:6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.
Col. 3:16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Col. 4:6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Col. 4:18 I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
1Th. 1:1 Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.
1Th. 5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
2Th. 1:2 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Th. 1:12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Th. 2:16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope,
2Th. 3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
1Tim. 1:2 To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
1Tim. 1:12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.
1Tim. 1:14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
1Tim. 6:21 which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith. Grace be with you all.
2Tim. 1:2 To Timothy, my dear son
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
2Tim. 1:3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.
2Tim. 1:9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,
2Tim. 2:1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
2Tim. 4:22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all.
Titus 1:4 To Titus, my true son in our common faith:
Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.
Titus 3:7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:15 Everyone with me sends you greetings. Greet those who love us in the faith.
Grace be with you all.
Philem. 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philem. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Rom. 8:32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
1Cor. 2:12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.
2Cor. 2:7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
2Cor. 2:10 Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake,
2Cor. 12:13 How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!
Gal. 3:18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
Eph. 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Phil. 1:29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him,
Phil. 2:9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
Col. 2:13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,
Col. 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Philem. 22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Rom. 1:11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—
Rom. 5:15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.
Rom. 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Rom. 11:29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Rom. 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;
1Cor. 1:7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
1Cor. 7:7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
1Cor. 12:4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.
1Cor. 12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,
1Cor. 12:28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.
1Cor. 12:30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
2Cor. 1:11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
1Tim. 4:14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
2Tim. 1:6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.