It is a widely used (and abused) biblical word. What does it really mean?
Let’s begin with formal definitions, as a foundation. No more guesswork and twisting the word beyond recognition to suit our own purpose and lifestyle.
Let’s begin with the Old Testament.
It was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic).
Mounce in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words teaches us about the Hebrew words.
The Hebrew noun ḥen (pronounced khain) “describes that which is favorable or gracious, especially the favorable disposition of one person to another” (p. 302). God is disposed to be gracious to every person, but will the person repent and receive it?
In Hebrew, ḥen corresponds to charis in the LXX (see below, in the NT section) (DNTT, p. 602). The LXX stands for seventy, after (supposedly) seventy scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the third-to-first century BC.
So let’s look at ḥen more closely.
ḥen “seldom denotes the activity of God, but when it does, it is mostly in the sense of God’s undeserved gift by election” (DNTT, p. 602). Noah was chosen by grace (Gen. 6:8). God showed his mercy in the context of judgment–and mercy and grace are allies. Moses reminded the LORD of his gift or electing Israel when he was almost going to abandon them and start over (Exod. 33:12-13a). (DNTT, p. 602).
God shows favor to the weaker person: Ruth was weaker than Boaz (Ruth 2:2. 10. 13). Joseph was weaker than the Egyptians (Gen. 47:25). Jacob was weaker than Esau (Gen. 32:5). In these cases, the stronger one showed ḥen to the weaker. God did the same in his special interventions, in supplying ḥen to the weak (Gen. 39:21; Exod. 3:21; 11:3; 12:36). (DNTT, p. 602).
And so it is with us. We are weak, and we need his ḥen to save and sustain us.
The verb in Hebrew is ḥanan (pronounced khanan) and means to be gracious, “to show mercy favor, be gracious” (Mounce, p. 302). God is full of mercy and grace and calls out to humanity to receive salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ.
BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Let’s see what it says.
It is charis (pronounced khah-ris)
(1). “A winning quality or attractiveness that invites a favorable reaction, graciousness, attractiveness, charm, winsomeness” (Luke 4:22; Col. 4:6).
(2). “A beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care / help, goodwill (Luke 2:40; Ac 11:2; 14:26; Ro 3:24 compare 5:15a, 20 following; 6:1; 11:5; 6abc; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:6 following; 2:5, 7, 8; 2 Thess. 1:12; 2:16; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 2:11; Heb. 2:9; 4:16a; Ro 4:4, 16; beneficence or favor of Christ: Ac 15:11; Rom 5:15b; 2 Cor 8:9; 1 Tim 1:14).
(3). “Practical application of goodwill, (a sign of a favor, gracious deed / gift, benediction” (Acts 24:17; 25:9). “On the part of God or Christ, the context will show whether the emphasis is upon the possession of divine favor as a source of blessing for the believer or upon a store of favor that is dispensed or a favored status (i.e. standing in God’s favor) that is brought about or a gracious deed wrought by God in Christ or a gracious work that grows from more and more … God is called the God of all grace 1 Pet. 5:10, God, who is noted for any conceivable benefit or favor”… “Those who belong to him receive the fullness of his grace” …
(4). “Exceptional effect produced by generosity, favor” (2 Cor 8:1; 9:14) … The grace of God “manifests itself in various charismata” [gifts] Rom. 12:6; Eph. 4:7; 1 Pet. 4:10. In some context is is hardly able to be distinguished from power (dynamis) (2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Cor. 15:10c 2 Pet. 3:18). Stephen is said to be full of grace and power (Acts 6:8).
(5). “Response to generosity or beneficence, thanks, gratitude”; mostly we are grateful to God or Christ (2 Tim. 1:3; 1 Tim. 1:12), but sometimes one expresses gratitude to a human (Phlm 7).
Mounce says charis is: “the acceptance of and goodness toward those who cannot earn or do not deserve such gain” (p. 303).
It is charitaō (pronounced khah-ree-tah-oh), and BDAG says it means: “to cause to be a recipient of a benefit, bestow favor on, favor highly, bless (Eph. 1:6; Luke 1:28).
It is charizomai (pronounced kha-ree-zo-my), and BDAG says it means:
(1). “To give freely as a favor, give graciously (a common term in honorific documents lauding officials and civic-minded persons for their beneficence.” In other words, ancient documents use the verb to praise someone’s generosity. IN the NT, this praise applies to God (Rom. 8:32; Phil. 2:9; Gal. 3:18; 1 Cor. 2:12; Phil. 1:29). One specific example of God’s grace to the unsaved in a storm: God has granted (the verb) everyone sailing with you (Acts 27:24).
(2). “To cancel a sum of money that is owed, cancel” (Luke 7:42). This transitions to the next definition.
(3). “To show oneself gracious by forgiving wrongdoing, forgive, pardon” (Col. 2:13; 2 Cor 2:10a; 12:13; Eph. 4:32ab; Eph. 4:32ab; Col. 3:13ab).
Though the word charis does not appear in Matthew and Mark, it appears in Luke’s Gospel eight times, and in John four times.
Nonetheless, Jesus’ overall teaching and ministry activities reflect the message of grace: “God’s condescension to the weak, poor, hopeless, and lost (Matt. 11:5, 28-30; Mk. 10:26-27; Lk. 15). Immeasurable remission of debt (Matt. 18:21-34), gracious reward in God’s kingdom (20:1-6), and pardon leading to a new life (Lk. 7:36-50; 13:6-8; 19:9-10) are central themes in his ministry” (DNTT, p. 602). So the deep truths of grace are found everywhere in his teaching and healing, even if the specific noun charis is not everywhere. Even the Sermon on the Mount assumes grace behind it, which enables one to enter his kingdom and then sustains him to go deeper into the righteousness of God.
In Luke’s Gospel, charis means “reward on the last day, payment for something taken as a matter of course (6:32-34; 17:9); thus, it has a meaning almost opposite of its usual meaning. In 4:22, the ‘gracious words’ seem to include astonishing rhetorical force of Jesus’ words, his authority, the boldness of his claims, and the content of his teaching” DNTT, p. 602). For Mary’s life, charis means the the “favor and acceptability of Mary or the child Jesus before God (1:30; 2:40) and other people (2:52). So Gabriel calls her “highly favored” (1:28). This does not mean Mary is over any and all other humans in her essence–she was a human; a similar wording is used of Stephen (Acts 6:8). Instead, Mary has a unique role in human history (DNTT, p. 602).
In John’s Gospel, his four uses of the noun charis were perhaps influenced by Paul’s thought on it, for John strongly contrasts charis and law (1:17). Truth is one of John’s favorite concepts, and in 1:14, 17, John links truth with charis (see Exod. 34:6). The event of Christ–his coming to earth and ministry–is linked with grace, because it is poured out to overflowing and reveals the glory of God (1:16) (DNTT, p. 602).
Quick Theological Definition
Let’s get into a little theology and saving grace, which takes us into Paul’s writings.
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology on saving grace: “Saving grace refers to the reconciliation of sinners accomplished in and through Christ as well as the consequences of this reconciliation in believers’ lives (2 Cor. 5:18)” (p. 357). In plain English, God wants us to be reconciled to him or brought in union with his Son, and then through this reconciliation, we can be reconciled with each other in God’s new family, the church.
Grace and Faith and Salvation
How do grace and faith relate to salvation? Charismatic and Presbyterian theologian J. Rodman Williams explains:
Let us recall Paul’s previous words that “they are justified by his grace as a gift.” Hence, grace is the basis, the source, the origin of our new life. But it is received by faith; thus faith is the means, the channel, the instrument. In Ephesians, Paul puts it very simply: “By grace you have been saved by faith” (2:8). … This does not mean that faith is the source or the condition. It is rather the agent or the means by which justification [God’s declaration of righteousness] comes to man. If it is said to be “through faith,” the emphasis lies on faith as the instrument or channel. The basic idea is that there is no justification without faith in Christ. And behind that faith stands the grace of God in Jesus Christ. For, says Paul, “it is by faith that it might be in accordance with grace (Rom. 4:16 …). Thus harmonious and vital is the relationship between grace and faith! (Renewal Theology, vol. 2, p. 72)
So grace is the source and ground of our new life in Christ’s offer of salvation, and our faith is the channel or instrument by which we receive his grace and salvation.
Does Grace Empower Us to Live Righteously?
Saving grace comes first; then sustaining grace comes second, though it’s the same grace. (The difference is more logical than sequential.)
Saving grace places us in union with Christ and God then declares us righteous. That comes first. The same grace sustains us to maintain union with Christ. Call it sustaining or maintaining grace. That comes second. It is the sustaining / maintaining grace that enables us to live righteously and holy. Then, add into our lives the power of the Spirit, and he also helps us live righteously and holy.
Now let’s see how the other writings in the NT answers the question of living righteously by his grace.
Charis can even mean the empowerment to work miracles because it “denotes the power that flows from God or the exalted Christ and that accompanies the activity of the apostles, giving success to their mission (Acts 6:8; 11:23; 14:26; 15:40; 18:27)” (DNTT, p. 602). If by God’s grace we can work miracles, we can live internally and behaviorally righteously and holy.
In Paul’s writings, “grace is not given to let us go on sinning (Rom. 6:1). It does not owe its origin to sin, nor can it be manipulated by us. It is a new reality: a dominion established once and for all by Jesus Christ. Its ground is the new righteousness of Christ and its goal is eternal life (Rom. 15:21)” (DNTT, p. 603).
In Rom. 6:12-23, the Christian–the recipient of grace–has died to self and sin and no longer lives under the power of sin (DNTT, p. 602).
In Peter’s epistle, “Grace also permits the endurance of undeserved suffering to be understood as approved by God” (1 Pet. 2:19-20; cf. 5:10). (DNTT, p. 604). If we can endure unjust suffering, we can endure to live righteously.
Further, “In 2 Pet. 3:18, the author paradoxically exhorts [urges] us to grow in grace, in contrast to falling from our own firm position (cg. Gal. 5:4 with 1 Cor. 12:31). (DNTT, p. 604). Growth in grace is possible, but so is falling away. Remain firm in your union with Christ, and by his Spirit living in you and by his grace, you can remain in union with God’s Son. Then your security in his salvation is assured.
In many texts in the epistle to the Hebrews, the author is concerned with cheap charis. “To abuse the spiritual gift [of charis] by one’s way of life is worse than transgressing the Mosaic law (10:29) … But firmness of heart remains … a gift of God and not a result of keeping special regulations (13:9)” (DNTT, p. 604). So sustaining grace–to live holy and righteously–comes from God, not our effort to keep OT regulations.
The danger of falling away occurs in Jas. 4:6-7.
6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but shows [literally gives] favor [charis] to the humble.” [Prov. 3:34]
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas. 4:6-7)
After receiving saving grace and God declaring us righteous, we can grow in more grace for righteous living. Our disposition (humbleness and submissiveness) can determine how much grace for righteous living we receive. The more humility, the more grace; the more grace, the more growth; the more growth, the more we maintain union with Christ; the deeper this union, the less likely we are to fall away.
“Jude 4 warns against the misuse of grace to satisfy our own passions, a danger Paul had already repulsed in Rom. 6:1” (DNTT, p. 604).
To sum up, we can, by God’s grace, be empowered with the miracles of God, be grounded in Christ’s righteousness, die to sin and self, live righteously, no longer be under the power of sin, endure unjust suffering, not transgress the law of Moses, be firm of heart, and not misuse grace to satisfy our own desires.
But when we fail in any of those things, his grace and love will restore us.
I take the warnings in Scripture not to drift away seriously; they are not empty or imaginary. It really is possible to walk away. The potential can become actual (the potential to fall away can turn into actually falling away). However, I also believe that God works very hard to prevent it and to woo us back to him when we do.
What do the Scriptures say?
Now let’s look into only a few Scriptures on grace, as it applies to our life.
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)
God’s throne is full of grace, as if to say that his throne is built on it. We can confidently approach his throne in our prayer life and our entire life by being in union with Christ:
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:16)
How do I come to know God more deeply?
Those verses 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.
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. But don’t resist. It’s time so surrender to him and his Son.
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. God reaches out to you, no matter what you do. The good news is that even when human parents are dysfunctional, God never is. God will show grace and love and favor even in the worst cases—especially in those cases.