There are certain words that we use pretty commonly as Christians. We all believe we understand these words, and we don’t often find ourselves in situations where we have to explain what they mean. These words fall into a category I call “Christian jargon”.
The definition of jargon according to Webster’s Dictionary is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group” — in other words, jargon is the use of certain words or phrases that only make sense in the context of certain groups or professions. Some of these Christian jargon words exist in the world outside the church walls, but they take on a special and distinctly separate meaning when considered in regards to Christianity; these are words or phrases like “saved”, “born again”, “redeemed”, etc.
The problem with Christian jargon is that the more these words are used and the less they are defined, the probability that their true meaning will be lost increases over time. One of these words that are perhaps used the most and understood the least is the word “grace”.
A License to Sin?
My search for the true meaning of grace began with a somewhat embarrassing epiphany: I had no idea what the word actually meant. Of course, I turned to the internet to hear a few sermons on grace to see if I could find my answer, but I wasn’t satisfied with what I heard. I realized I needed God to reveal it to me through His word. What I found in his word first was not a description of what grace is but of what it is not. Let’s look in the book of Jude.
Jude 1:3-4 (NIV)
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
We know from this passage that grace is absolutely not a “license for immorality”. In fact, it says that those who preach and believe that grace is a free justification for sinful living are “ungodly people” who “deny Jesus Christ”.
This is a concept that is clearly and powerfully enforced by the whole of scripture. Leviticus 20:26 says, “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” If you have some unwarranted mistrust of the old testament, then we can look at the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you should be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
I would hope it would go without saying that sin is bad and we shouldn’t do it, and I could legitimately drop in a hundred verses that say that very thing, but there is a growing movement in the church that believes that grace is the exemption of the penalty of sin without the need for true repentance (which is defined by a change in lifestyle).
I’m not going to fall into a pit of arguments against the false-grace movement because I believe the message of our topic today rests on higher plateaus. Although your understanding of grace may not err so far as to fall in with false grace theology, it may be possible that you still have not grasped a full understanding of God’s grace according to His word.
The Power of God
So what is grace? Well, the bible doesn’t give us a clear description of the term; rather, it uses it in a variety of contexts from which we can extract its varied meaning. Let’s look at one such instance:
Romans 3:20-24 (NKJV)
21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
So this passage tells us that we are justified by God’s grace. This means that his grace absolves our debt, which puts us in right-standing with God according to his law since we are no longer seen as transgressors but as righteous. This passage says that this grace comes to us through the redemption of Christ Jesus. This is the idea of grace we are familiar with. Let’s look at other examples:
Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
This passage tells us that this grace which absolves us of sin is a free gift, and the means by which we “open” that gift, so to speak, is by our faith. Again, this is very familiar stuff, but don’t miss the key lesson from this passage: we have access to God’s free gift of grace according to the measure of our faith.
If we do not truly believe, we cannot truly receive his grace. This is an important attribute to God’s grace because though it is described as a “free gift” not everyone can receive it. It is free in the sense that grace is not the rightly earned wage of a righteousness defined by works because our righteousness is not worthy, it is described by scripture as being like “filthy rags”. Grace can only be given to us; it cannot be earned. Now, let’s look at a peculiar attribute of grace that might seem a little foreign.
Ephesians 4:7 (NIV)
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
This is a strange passage in the context of the common understanding of grace. This passage implies that grace has substance in that Christ can “apportion” it. It’s also strange because it suggests that the substance of grace is given in unequal measures, meaning that Christ might give one person more of this “grace” substance than He would give another person. So now we know grace is in some sense tangible and measurable. What else does scripture have to say about grace?
1 Peter 4:10 (NIV)
10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.
So now the definition of grace is expanding because not only does it have substance and measure but it has various forms. What could the various forms of grace be? It becomes more clear when we understand, as we have already clarified by scripture, that grace is a gift. We know the gifts of the spirit because they are named in 1 Corinthians 12 as being wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, discernment, and so on. In fact, Paul reaffirms this connection between these gifts and the gift of grace in Romans 12,
Romans 12:6-8 (NKJV)
6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; 7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
So finally I feel we can begin to rest on a fuller understanding of the grace of God. The realization God gave me when digging through these scriptures is that grace is the manifest power of God at work in our lives. It is not only His “unmerited favor” as is commonly understood, but it is the empowerment given in proportion to our faith to accomplish the works that he has called us to. The only thing that is required to access the power of God is faith, and the amount of grace that we receive, according to scripture, is directly proportional to the amount of faith we have.
The Chain of Power
But what about those of us who feel we are lacking in our faith? Are we cut off from the power of God? How do we get more faith? Luckily for us, scripture tells us exactly how we obtain more faith in Romans 10:17 (NIV), “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Simply put, we obtain more faith by reading and hearing God’s word.
A humorous irony of scripture is that faith is also listed in 1 Corinthians as a gift of the spirit, so the more faith we have, the more grace we have; the more grace we have, the more faith we have. I know, it’s confusing to me too! I think the lesson here is that even having the kind of faith that pleases God requires the power of God. This is clever because it shows us that we can’t even take credit for the measure of our faith.
Truly we have to humble ourselves and give God the glory for everything. So let’s break this down: If I read more of God’s word, I gain more faith, which means I have more access to grace, which means I have more access to the manifest power of God to do literally anything He commands me to do, especially those things which are beyond my ability to accomplish.
That’s amazing! That includes everything from abstaining from sinfulness in my personal life to operating in the miraculous power of healing or prophesy.
Let’s See it in Action
To close out this post, I want to share a passage that had more to offer me when I better understood this idea of grace as the power of God.
John 8:2-11 (NIV)
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
This passage is so amazing! First of all, it is a shining example of how the holy spirit can give us the perfect thing to say when the enemy tries to trap us in a corner. With one line Jesus diffused the entire situation and dismantled his opponent’s attack. What is even more amazing, though, is how much Jesus really said in just this one sentence. The logical expansion of Jesus’s response to the Pharisees is, “By what authority do you condemn this woman? By the authority of the law, but you yourselves are transgressors of that law.
So in condemning her, you condemn yourself by the same law.” Jesus clearly displayed by His life that He alone was worthy to stand as the judge before all mankind because he alone lived perfectly according to the law and was found Holy by the law. Jesus, as the only one with the true authority to condemn the guilty women before him according to the law, decided instead to forgive her sins (This shows that God’s grace is a free gift which is not earned or deserved).
His last words to her may seem harsh, but so might these words to a lame man, “Pick up your mat and walk.” Yet did Jesus expect the man, of his own strength, to suddenly be able to do something he couldn’t? No. It was the power of Jesus’ grace that enabled the man to walk, just as it is the power of His grace that enabled the woman to go and leaver her life of sin.
So what is the power of grace? It is certainly not the license to sin without regard, but amazingly it is the complete opposite! It is God’s manifest power that enables us to live holy as he commanded us to, knowing that we could never do it by our own strength. I hope that this message will encourage you to read God’s word more and more every day. I pray that your faith will grow and that you will feel empowered to be a shining light in a world that is only getting darker.
If you haven’t read my last post on repentance, I would encourage you to take a look at it because it will give a greater context to this message of grace. Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, God bless!