For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast – Eph. 2:8-9
God, Who is our Creator and Sovereign Lord, expects and requires many things of us. It is His just right, as our Creator and Sovereign Lord, to expect and require these things of us. First and foremost, He expects us to have faith in Him, to believe what He tells us and to trust Him. It is reasonable and right, that He who is true and does not lie, should expect this of us. Secondly, He expects us to love Him with all of our hearts. This is how He loves us, and it is to His love that we owe every blessing we have ever enjoyed in our lives, those lives, and our very existence. That we should love Him in return is only right. Thirdly, He expects us to obey His commandments. He created us and the world in which we live, He owns us, He is the Master, it is His right to be obeyed. The commandments He gives us are not like the laws of a human tyrant who uses his power for his own gain at the expense of those he rules. The commandments He gives us are few and simple, and are necessary for our own good. He commands us not to murder each other, not to steal each other’s property, not to cheat on our own spouses or with other people’s spouses, not to tell lies about each other, and not to sit around wishing we had what our neighbor has.
Do we meet God’s expectations and requirements?
Sadly, we do not. We have difficulty taking Him at His word, we disbelieve what He says and do not trust Him to take care of us, thinking that we must look out for ourselves rather than rely upon Him. We do evil to each other and then we blame Him for the pain and suffering we have inflicted upon ourselves. We do not love Him wholeheartedly but neglect Him, ignore Him, and think evil of Him. We break His commandments in our hearts and minds, and all too often in our words and deeds as well. In short, we sin.
As sinners, rebels who have rejected His authority and flaunted His laws, God rightly demands that we repent, i.e., that we abandon our bad attitudes, change our mind, turn from our sins to God, bend our knees and necks in submission to His authority, mend our evil ways, making restitution where we have harmed others, humble ourselves, confessing rather than hiding our sins, and meekly ask Him for forgiveness. The repentance God demands from us is a complete repentance, repentance from all our sins not just the ones we consider to be big, serious, or major, repentance from our entire attitude of sinful rebellion. The repentance God requires of us is sincere and true repentance in our hearts, not just a public show of tears. It is to be a repentance of contrition, sorrow for our sinfulness, and not just a repentance of attrition, sorrow for its consequences.
Do we repent completely in this wholehearted and sincere manner?
Alas, our repentance too falls far short of that which the God we have offended is perfectly just in demanding from us who crave His pardon and forgiveness.
If we do not trust God the way we should, if we do not love Him with the love He deserves, if we break His laws rather than obey His commandments and then offer Him what is at best a partial repentance, is there any hope for us who stand under His judgement all our lives and will one day be called before Him to give a final account of everything we have ever thought, said or done?
If we had to depend upon our own efforts to please God then clearly there would be no hope for us. Thankfully, we do not have to depend upon our own efforts. God, the Gospel message declares, has given us a gift, the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. God gave His Son to be our Saviour.
A savior is a person who rescues someone else from a difficulty, hardship, or peril from which they cannot extricate themselves. Imagine you are out on a river in a boat and the boat flips over. You are unable to swim, have neglected to put on your life-saving apparatus, and before you think to grab a hold of it the boat is carried away by the current. Your situation looks hopeless but a man on the bank of the river had seen all this happen and jumps in and swims towards you. He grabs a hold of you, swims to shore, and pulls you out of the water. Had it not been for this man you would have drowned and so he could be rightly called your saviour.
God gave us Jesus to be our Saviour from a peril far worse than drowning. He gave us Jesus to save us from the worst peril possible, our own sinfulness which separates us from God and places us under His condemnation now and for all eternity. It was not by His teachings that Jesus saved us, although He was also our Teacher, because even the best of us falls short of the righteousness contained in His teachings. It was not by His example that Jesus saved us, for none of us lives up to His example. It is by His death that He saved us. Christ’s death was an event could have been our ultimate condemnation. Human beings, blessed with the presence of God’s Son come down from heaven and incarnate as a man, took Him and murdered Him in a brutally cruel manner, by nailing Him to a wooden cross. God, however, used Christ’s crucifixion to accomplish our salvation. It was to die on the cross, that Jesus had come down from heaven in the first place. God placed the sins of the whole world upon Jesus as He hung upon the cross, and Jesus willingly bore those sins for our sake. By doing so, He became the one true sacrifice, the sacrifice which effectively took away the sins of the world. God raised Jesus from the dead, and He ascended into heaven where He is our High Priest, continually pleading the merits of His once-and-for-all sacrifice on our behalf, effectively securing for us pardon for sins, reconciliation with God, justification in the eyes of God, and everlasting life. All of these things are promised to all who believe in Jesus Christ, i.e., who trust Him as the Saviour God has given.
It is in Jesus that we are to trust and it is in Jesus that our hope is to be found.
The New Testament makes it absolutely clear that the salvation which Christ obtained for us by dying for us on the cross is a gift. It comes to us freely in Christ and not in return for our feeble efforts to please God. Our efforts to please God are to be a response of love to the God who has given us this great salvation, not an attempt to pay Him back or earn it. There is a word that is used in the New Testament to express the manner in which God freely gives us salvation. That word is “grace”.
Grace is one of the most important words in the New Testament. St. Paul repeatedly writes that salvation is by grace. What does this word grace mean?
The word that is translated “grace” in the New Testament is the Greek word charis. This is the word from which our English word “charismatic” is derived. The idea of giving or a gift is very much present in this word as in its Greek root. Charismatic, when the word is used in a theological context, points to the concept of spiritual gifts such as those mentioned by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. In everyday English when we speak of a leader as being “charismatic” or possessing “charisma” we mean that he has the gift of being able to persuade people to follow him.
A dictionary entry for the word charis in Greek would be very similar to an entry for grace in English. The range of meanings of the two words is very similar and they have been used for synonyms for a very long time because our word grace comes from the Latin word which was used as the equivalent of charis. We often use the word grace in English, to refer to the way a ballet dancer or figure skater seems to generate visual beauty through her movements. One of the meanings of charis was very similar to this. It had the meaning of “that which causes pleasure or delight”, which was its primary meaning in the earliest Greek literature that has come down to us. Thus Homer frequently used the word charis to depict beauty, charm, strength and similar traits which made Achilles and his other heroes attractive. (1)
This is obviously not the meaning that St. Paul intended to convey in the New Testament when he used the word charis to describe the way in which we are saved. Another meaning of charis, as old as the first and which came to be the more usual meaning in later Greek literature, was that of “a kindly disposition towards others” or “favour”, particularly when that favour was expressed in the giving of gifts. A person upon whom a ruler looked kindly and granted permission to be in his presence would be said to be in the ruler’s grace or favour, and it was the word charis that would be used to express this. Charis could refer to the disposition of favour itself, and it could also refer to the gifts given out of that favour, and to the attitude of gratitude or thankfulness on the part of the person who received the gift. (2)
This is the way in which charis is used in passages about salvation in the New Testament. St. Paul uses it, however, in a more limited sense than in earlier Greek literature. Charis, in the sense of the favour of the gods or of human rulers, was a familiar concept to the Greeks but it was not necessarily connected with the idea of being unmerited or undeserved. In fact if one of the Olympian gods or a human king bestowed his charis upon someone, it was usually because that person possessed a quality such as beauty or courage which the god or king admired, i.e., the other kind of charis.
St. Paul and the other New Testament writers limited the meaning of charis to favour which is undeserved or unmerited in his epistles by creating a contrast between charis on the one hand and law and works on the other and by connecting charis with the ideas of love and mercy.
In several epistles St. Paul writes about the contrast between “law” and “grace”, but it is in his epistle to the Church in Rome that he sets forth the contrast in a systematic manner. “Law” refers both to the Mosaic Law, the Covenant God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai and especially the commandments contained in that covenant, and the principle of law. The principle of law is that the law-giving authority issues the rules which those under the law are expected to obey and are held accountable to, that those who obey the rules are considered to be righteous, and those who disobey are judged to be unrighteous and are punished for their trespasses. Works are the efforts of those under a law to meet its requirements.
St. Paul made it clear in his epistle to the Roman church, that law and works cannot make a person righteous in the eyes of God. In the second chapter of Romans, he demonstrated that no one lives up to the standard by which God holds him accountable. The Jews, who received the Law from God, did not live up to it, the Gentiles who did not receive the Law from God, but are held accountable by the law of their conscience, fall short of that law as well. Thus, both Jew and Gentile alike, can only be condemned by the law which is over them and by their works. This indictment of Jew and Gentile proceeds into the third chapter of Romans where it culminates in the declaration that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (v. 23)
St. Paul then went on immediately to say “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. The word translated “freely” is the word dorean, an adverb formed from the Greek word for gift. By using this word with charis in this verse, St. Paul places emphasis upon the fact that the favour of God, by which He has given Christ to redeem us, is freely given and comes from the goodness of God’s heart and not in response to any merit in us.
A few verses after this, in the fourth chapter of Romans, the incompatibility of works and grace is declared:
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (vv. 4-5)
In other words, if the state of being justified, of being righteous in the eyes of God, is something which we receive as the result of our works, it is a reward for our behaviour. Grace would have nothing to do with it, because our justification would be our just due under the law. God would owe it to us. Justification in the eyes of God does not come to us in this way. It is freely given in Jesus Christ to all who believe in Him as their Savior.
The other way in which the fact that God’s grace or favour is given freely and not merited or deserved can be seen in the New Testament is in the way the idea of grace is connected with the ideas of love and mercy.
St. John writes frequently about God’s love. In his Gospel he records Jesus saying “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”. In this most famous of Biblical verses, God’s love is identified as the reason that God gave us His Son. This means that God’s love is the source of His grace. Now the word love can often mean a feeling of affection that arises in one’s heart because of the attractive qualities of the object of one’s love. This is not the case with the love of God. In his first epistle, St. John wrote that “God is love”, i.e., that love is the very essence of His nature. God’s love arises out of His own good nature and not out of some love-worthy quality in us. The word St. John uses for love in the verses cited is agape, a word which was already distinct from other loves such as philia and eros, but which took on a special meaning in the teachings of Jesus, the writings of the New Testament, and the early church. It refers to a kind of goodness of heart in which one is concerned for the well-being of others and willing to give of oneself to see to their well-being.
To Titus, St. Paul wrote “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Tit. 3:5). Mercy or pity, refers to compassion for those who are in need and suffering, and acts taken out of that compassion to alleviate the suffering and meet the need.
God’s grace, love, and mercy are three different aspects of the goodness of God, which compels Him to bestow good gifts upon sinners who do not deserve it, including the gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Who took our sins upon Himself, that we might be reconciled to God and justified in His sight.
God’s grace is not an excuse for us to forget about pleasing God by trusting Him, loving Him, obeying Him, and repenting of our sins. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Rom. 6:1-2) Our hope and our faith are not to rest, however, in our efforts to please God (3), but in God Himself, in His grace, and in the gift of a Saviour He has given us in His grace, our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1) In Greek mythology, there was a trio of goddesses who were calles the Charites – the Graces. Each of these was a personification of something which was the cause of pleasure or delight. Thalia personified abundance, Euphrosyne personified joy, and Aglaea personified beauty. Note however, that the things they personified were also considered to be divine gifts. The ideas of charis/grace as “that which causes delight or pleasure” and charis/grace as “gift-giving favour” were never entirely separate from each other.
(2) When we refer to the act of thanking God before a meal as “saying grace” we are echoing the use of charis as gratitude.
(3) The word grace, as I explained in the text of this essay, can refer both to the act of giving and to the gift given. The gift of God that saves us in the sense of reconciling us to God, pardoning our sins, and making us righteous in His eyes, is Jesus Christ our Saviour. God has also given, to those who believe in Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit by Whom we are united with Christ, partaking through our baptismal union with Him in His death and resurrection life, and with other believers in the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit indwells our hearts and empowers us to live the new life. All of this is part of grace as well. Our faith and our hope of everlasting life and justification must rest in Jesus Christ, what He has done for us on the cross, and His gospel promises. It is Christ and His sacrifice that made it possible for the transforming and sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
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