Gracious literally means “full of grace.” God cannot stop being gracious and showing us favor. It is in his very nature and being.
This attribute or perfection of God is communicable or “shareable” or “transferrable” to us because we are made in his image, and we can experience his grace; then we share it with others.
Let’s define the term.
What do theologians say?
Mounce in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words teaches us about the Hebrew and Greek words. The Hebrew noun ḥen (pronounced khen) “describes that which is favorable or gracious, especially the favorable disposition of one person to another” (p. 302).
The Greek noun is charis (pronounced khah-rees)—“the acceptance of and goodness toward those who cannot earn or do not deserve such gain” (p. 303). The verb in Hebrew is ḥanan (pronounced khanan) and means to be gracious, “to show mercy favor, be gracious” (ibid.). In Greek grace can be a verb, and it means the same thing.
Now let’s see how theologians unpack and define the terms.
Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof defines it simply:
The Bible generally uses the word to denote the unmerited goodness or love of God to those who have forfeited it and are by nature under a sentence of condemnation. The grace of God is the source of all spiritual blessings that are bestowed upon sinners (p. 71, emphasis original)
Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams reminds of the conditions in the Old Covenant:
“[H]ighlights that aspect of God’s love that refers to His self-giving regardless of merit. Accordingly, it points up the way wherein God in His love has gone beyond the revelation of the law to Moses to bring salvation in Jesus Christ … The law given through Moses, for all its moral majesty in setting forth God’s will for His people, was not kept by Israel. Israel did not have a “heart for it; they continually disobeyed and finally went into captivity.” (vol. 1, p. 66)
Williams goes on to say that the grace comes through Jesus Christ.
Millard Erickson writes:
Grace is another attribute that is part of the manifold of God’s love. By this we mean that God deals with his people not on the basis of their merit or worthiness, what they deserve, but simply according to their need; in other words, he deals with them on the basis of his goodness and generosity (p. 265)
Reformed theologian John M. Frame reminds us of the covenant aspect of grace: “If God’s grace is not based in human merit, what is the reason for it?” … It is “based in his decision to save men from sin by way of covenants, by making promises and fulfilling them. This is the basic shape of God’s historical drama” (Systematic, p. 244).
Quick definition comes from Berkhof’s wonderful definition:
This attribute or perfection of God means that he gladly shows his unmerited goodness or love to those who have forfeited it and are by nature under a sentence of condemnation.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
Even when someone is in a moral or literal prison, the Lord can still favor him and deliver him out of his troubles. He did this to Joseph:
20 … But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. (Gen. 39:20)
Grace enabled Moses to ask for pardon for the people of Israel. God answered his prayers and offered a covenant to the people, by his grace and favor, not because they deserved or earned it:
8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 9 “O Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes,” he said, “then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” 10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. (Exod. 34:8-10)
Favor or grace surrounds us like a shield:
12 For surely, O Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield. (Ps. 5:12, ratsōn or “favor”)
Yes, God shows momentary anger in both the Old and New Covenants, but in the New, he does not show it to his people except by law enforcement (Rom. 13:4-5). In this Old he showed it to his people, but only for a moment:
5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. (Ps. 30:5)
These verses reveal God’s heart. He yearns to show his people grace and favor:
18 Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! 19 O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. (Is. 30:18-19)
We can shout grace at problems and challenges. Speaking grace is important.
6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 7 Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zech. 4:6-7)
In the New Covenant, we experience God’s grace and favor through Christ. He has inaugurated a covenant of grace, not law-keeping to achieve righteousness:
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:22-24)
God’s grace and love and mercy are connected:
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 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 not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:4-9)
The Spirit is called the Spirit of grace, thus matching the other two members of the Triunity:
… ““the Spirit of grace”…. (Heb. 10:29)
How do I come to know God more deeply?
Those verse go deep and are rich.
God created humans, and they went astray; therefore he is reaching out to them even when they slap his hand away. His love and grace motivate him to act—it is in his nature, in his very being to love and pour grace and favor on his creation. God can never stop being gracious. He will always show it to people—until final judgment. Then he will have to separated from them because they resisted his grace.
Yes, God loves everyone, but they do not love him back. Humans have enough free will—another gracious gift of God—to resist his grace and calling on their lives. So does God send people to hell? Only technically, but in effect they can send themselves to hell by denying and avoiding him and his grace. They want separation? They got their wish.
Let’s end on a positive note.
God yearns to be gracious to you and bestow his favor on you. You don’t deserve them, but he wants to offer them to you. He created you, and he takes responsibility for you, much like parents take responsibility to care for their child. They reach to him no matter what he does. God reaches out to you, no matter what you do. The good news is that God is never dysfunctional, even when parents are. God will show grace and love and favor even in those cases—especially in those cases.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Gracious