On the Meaning of “Grace”

On the Meaning of “Grace” April 14, 2004

One of the issues currently being debated in the Reformed churches is the meaning of “grace.” Some have argued that the word should be restricted to specifically redemptive gifts and favors, which means that the word properly describes only God’s saving favor and gifts toward sinners. To say that Adam was a recipient of “grace” is thus a misuse of the term, and this is seen by some as a threat to the gospel.

I must confess I have a hard time making sense of some of these criticisms. How can saying “all we have from God is a gift of grace” be seen as a threat to the gospel of grace? The best sense I can make of it is that this kind of extension of “grace” language is a threat to theological paradigms that rest on a firm nature/grace scheme, in which some realm of life is seen as somehow outside the realm where grace operates.

In any case, I believe there is abundant biblical warrant for this more extensive use of “grace” terminology. Below I offer some exegetical points on Psalm 136 as a contribution to this discussion.

The whole Psalm is governed by the exhortation to thanksgiving in verse 1-3, which is repeated more succinctly in the final verse (v. 26). The intervening Psalm specifies the God of God to whom we give thanks by relating a number of Yahweh?s acts (usually linked back to the beginning with relative clauses, ?to Him who?E. The hemistiches that do not begin with a relative clause are appositional to the relative clauses (e.g., ?to Him who made great lights . . . [that is] the sun to rule by day . . . [and] the moon and stars to rule by night,?Evv. 7-9; cf. also vv 17-22, 23-24). After each hemistich that identifies an act of God, the rationale for praise is given in the antiphonal refrain: ?for (ki) His lovingkindness is everlasting.?E

Thus, the exhortation to give thanks is implicit throughout the Psalm. We are to give thanks to Yahweh, that is, the One who does great wonders, the One who made the world, the One who brought Israel from Egypt, the One who gave Israel her land, and so on. Further, the form of the Psalm thus indicates that the specific acts mentioned are expressions of God?s eternal lovingkindness. The structure is:

Give thanks to Yahweh
That is, to Him who does great wonders
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

Yahweh?s act of smiting the firstborn of Egypt shows His lovingkindness (v 10), as does His division of the Red Sea (v. 13), and His provision for Israel in the wilderness (v. 16), and so on. Each of the specific ?mighty acts?Eare expressions of God?s lovingkindess. I trust that this point will not be particularly controversial.

The second concern is to define the meaning of ?lovingkindness?E( hesed ). This is a subject of not a little debate. It has been suggested that the word is best expressed by ?covenant loyalty,?Esince it often expresses Yahweh?s particular favor toward Israel, a favor often showed toward Israel in the face of sin and rebellion (e.g., Num 14:19). Thus, hesed is used in several Psalms as a basis for forgiveness and salvation:

Save me because of Thy lovingkindess (Ps 6:4).
Save me in Thy lovingkindness (Ps 31:17).
Rise up, be our help; and redeem us for the sake of Thy lovingkindness (Ps 44:26).
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness (Ps 51:1).
Save me according to thy lovingkindess (PS 109:26).

In these Psalms, the Psalmist is asking for God to act out of His hesed in order to redeem and save him. Yahweh?s hesed is expressed soteriologically, and in Psalm 51:1 at least the plea for salvation includes a plea for forgiveness of sins. Hesed , in short, is one of several Hebrew words that might fit TE Kohl?s definition of grace: It is God?s loving favor toward the unlovely, toward sinners.

R. Laird Harris gives further support for this in commenting on the use of hesed in Exodus 34:6-7:

The text of Ex 34:6-7 is fuller and more solemn [than Exodus 20], coming as it does after the great apostasy. It was a tender revelation of God?s self to Moses. Sakenfled is right here ?that forgiveness must always have been latent [at least!] in the theological usage of hesed ?Eeven before the exile . . . . The association with divine mercy is surely patent in the words and in the context of the occasion of the apostasy. The word rahum with its overtones of mother love, and hannun ?grace?Ecombined with the phrase ?slow to anger?Eall emphasize the character of God who is love. He is great in hesed and ?emet . . . . He keeps hesed for thousands which is immediately related to forgiveness of sin. That all this simply says that God keeps His oath seems trivial. The oath is kept because it is the loving God who speaks the truth.

Harris concludes that hesed sometimes includes the connotations of hannun in certain contexts:

it is by no means clear that hesed necessarily involves a covenant or means fidelity to a covenant . . . . It is a kind of love, including mercy, hannun , when the object is in a pitiful state.

John Frame, further, points out the variety of English translations of the word, and how it was worked into the LXX and the NT:

“The Hebrew term hesed is difficult to translate into English. The usual renderings have included ?mercy?E(KJV), ?lovingkindness?E(ASV), and ?steadfast love?E(RSV. The NIV uses ?kindness?Eand ?love?Ein various contexts. In Exodus 34:6, the KJV translates it as ?goodness.?E The Septuagint translates it as eleos , ?mercy,?Ewhich enters the New Testament in passages employing the hesed concept. Eleos , however, also seems to be used in a more general sense, like our English word mercy: ?God?s goodness toward those who are in misery. I have often felt that ?loyalty?Eand ?faithfulness?Eare sometimes good translations for hesed , although those terms overlap considerably with ?emeth and emunah , which are often found together with hesed .”

The connection with eleos is revealing. That word is used to describe God?s action in sending the Christ to fulfill His covenant and save His people from their enemies (Lk 1:72); to express the saving mercy God has shown to the Gentiles (Rom 15:9); in benedictions upon the Israel of God (Gal 6:16); to describe God?s rich mercy that leads to our being raised from death in sin to be alive with Christ (Eph 2:4); to describe what we seek as we draw near to the throne of grace in time of need (Heb 4:16). In a few quotations from the OT, eleos stands in the place of hesed . In respond to Pharisaical criticism of Jesus?Emeals with tax gatherers and sinners, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6: ?I desire mercy and not sacrifice?E(Mat 9:13). Hosea uses hesed , while Jesus uses eleos . In the context, Jesus has drawn an analogy between His ministry and the ministry of a physician among the sick (Mat 9:12). Jesus shows the compassion of a physician toward his helpless patients. He is among the tax gatherers and sinners out of compassion for their suffering, and He comes as the physician to relieve them of suffering. And this compassion is explained as an expression of hesed / eleos . Clearly, this Greek word often used to translate hesed continues to carry the connotations of saving, redemptive mercy toward the undeserving.

When we turn back to Psalm 136, we find that this rich word that can carry the connotation of ?redemptive mercy?Eis used in several different ways within the Psalm. Throughout verses 10-24, the Psalmist celebrates Yahweh?s mercy toward Israel. Hesed here might carry the connotation of covenant loyalty, since God is acting in according with His promises and commitments to Israel. And hesed also carries the connotation of redemptive mercy. Having seen the sufferings of Israel in Egypt (Ex 2:23-25), Yahweh smote the firstborn, brought Israel through the Red Sea, gave them a land, and has continued to remember ?us in our low estate?E(v. 23). Yet, within the same Psalm, we are exhorted to celebrate the hesed of God expressed in the creation of the world: Spreading out the heavens by wisdom, establishing the earth above the waters, making the sun, moon and stars are all expressions of God?s hesed. And at the end of the Psalm, God?s hesed is expressed in the fact that He gives food to all flesh (v. 25). Clearly, in these verses, the word does not have redemptive connotations, and in verses 5-9 does not include any connotation of mercy toward the undeserving or unfortunate. Exactly what it means in these verses is harder to determine, but I do not believe I have to specify the meaning to make my points.

In sum, the Psalmist has no qualms at all about using ?grace?Ewords to describe creation and providence. Within the same Psalm, he says that God?s grace is expressed in His redemptive acts, in His acts of creation, and in His providential provisions for all living things. Creation is an act of hesed , and the food on my table every day manifests the hesed of God.

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