An Overview of Grace

‘Grace’ could easily be seen as one of those doctrines every child from a Christian home ought to know from Kindergarten. Whether it be through the acronym God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense, or just the plain and often repeated ‘God’s unmerited favour’, it would be easy to check it off as ‘learnt’ and just move on. If that is the case, then we should think again. Like many of Bible words that underpin and define great Bible truths, the apparent simplicity of ‘grace’ belies its depth and richness.

This guided tour of the key facets of this doctrine that lies at the heart of the gospel is not merely meant to open up new horizons for those who have not gone much further than the above, but also as a refreshing reminder to others who have.

Grace and Favour

Grace as the undeserved favour of God is undoubtedly the best place to start as we explore the dimensions of what it entails. Just as a person can only truly begin to grasp what ‘love’ is when they have been loved, so too with grace. To try and understand it merely through clinical etymology and definition, will fall far short of appreciating it in the full depth and wonder of what it means. It is hardly surprising that ‘Amazing Grace, the most popular hymn in the history of Christian hymnody, was penned by a man who knew it from the receiving end.

The most obvious use of this sense of ‘grace’ is in Ephesians where Paul captures the sheer wonder of redemption with the words, ‘…it is by grace you have been saved’ (2.5,8). Having set the gravity of what we are and deserve by nature over against what we become in Christ ‘grace’ is salvation’s only possible explanation. The favour God bestows in it does not merely lift us out of the depths, but up to the highest heights – restored to fellowship with him. Paul knew that in his own experience and he never tired of declaring it to be true for every Christian.

Grace that Empowers

It follows from what the apostle has been saying about the extreme nature of grace as the only antidote to the extreme nature of the human condition that when a person experiences this grace, it must make a visible impact on their life. The new life we have in Christ becomes visible in the new live we live for him.

What we were powerless to do prior to our salvation we are empowered to do through our newfound life in the Saviour. That is why Paul rightly emphasises the fact salvation is ‘not by works’ (2.9); but, in the very next breath says we are ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works’ (2.10). The very same grace through which we receive God’s saving favour empowers us in Christ to do what would otherwise have been impossible.

Grace for Service

Two chapters later in Ephesians we encounter the grace word again, this time used with another sense. Speaking to those who belong to the church the body of Christ, he says, ‘but to each one of us grace has been given as Christ has apportioned it’ (2.7). Given what the apostle has said earlier this inevitably raises a question over what he means here. Is he suggesting that grace is experienced by degrees? If that were so it would contradict what he has said already.

John Stott addresses this apparent anomaly in his commentary on Ephesians. He rightly points to the controlling context of this passage that relates to gifts and service in the life of the church: the people God calls into leadership and the goal of their ministry among his people (4.11-13). Stott helpfully points out that the aspect of grace in view here is ‘serving grace’. That is, particular gifts God gives to particular individuals, that the Holy Spirit enables us to use those gifts and also that such gifts and enabling are not given in equal measure to every Christian. Paul’s point is simple: every member of the church must recognise their gifting and play their part so that the body may be built up (4.14-16).

Grace that Teaches Us

One of the great mistakes we often make in trying to establish a theology of grace is to construe it in a way that encourages passivity on our part as its recipients. Although that is true in a person’s initial experience of grace, as seen under the first heading, it is not true in the outworking of grace in the Christian life.

That is clearly implied in what we have just seen in relation to gifts and service where Paul issues an unmistakable call to action. But comes out even more strikingly in what Paul says to Titus.

Having issued a series of exhortations to older and younger men and women and to slaves of both sexes, he says,

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Tit 2.11-13)

The word translated ‘appeared’ gives us the English ‘epiphany’ and, given its repetition in relation to Christ’s return, almost certainly points to his incarnation as the ultimate ‘epiphany of grace’. That is why he can then say that ‘it [grace] teaches us…’ (2.12). Through his word and by his example our Lord instructs us in a way that rightly calls for our response.

Character Grace

Paul is not the only apostle to speak of grace. Peter frequently refers to it. He does so in all the senses already mentioned in relation to Paul, but he adds other nuances as well.

He speaks of what John Piper describes as ‘future grace’ when he says, ‘set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (1Pe 1.13). But he also refers to ‘grace’ as Christian character into which we must continually grow: ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. To him be the glory now and forever’ (2Pe 3.18).

In other words, the grace that so fully characterises the Lord himself is the template of the kind of grace-filled character by which his people will be universally recognised. And that leads into the final thought on this little tour.

The Embodiment of Grace

As Sinclair Ferguson has pointed out in numerous places, there is a real temptation for Christians to turn ‘grace’ into a commodity: something to be dispensed by God, or accessed by his people when they are running on empty. But to do so is to miss the greatest thing of all about it. ‘Grace’ in its most glorious sense is embodied in the incarnate Christ.

None of the benefits of grace – those mentioned above or those mentioned elsewhere in Scripture – can be ours apart from Christ. If we do not have him, we can neither know nor experience any of the graces bound up with him. That is why Jesus could tell Nicodemus – who had spent so much of his life steeped in the Bible, earnestly pursuing holiness – he could not even ‘see’ let alone ‘enter’ God’s Kingdom if he had not been ‘born from above’. To know Christ, therefore, is to experience and enjoy God’s grace in all its fullness.

That is why John Newton could rightly end his famous hymn with the words,

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun,

    We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we’d first begun



Mark Johnston