“Amazing Grace” is one of the most well-known songs in the English-speaking world. This 18th-century hymn is a staple of funerals and church services, has been part of the soundtrack of many movies and television shows, and has been recorded by thousands of artists. Its message resonates deeply with people who follow Jesus and with the wider culture. But what exactly is “grace”?
Grace is the promise that you stand forgiven before God if you know Jesus personally. For those who don’t follow Jesus, a desire for grace speaks to a hope that, if God exists, He’s kind, merciful and compassionate.
But what does it mean that God is gracious? How does it work? How do we receive or experience this amazing grace?
When Christians talk about God’s grace, they’re referring to the ways God deals with all of the human race. God shows favor toward the unfavorable, acceptance to the unacceptable, kindness to the undeserving and blessings to the unworthy.
When theologians speak of God’s grace, they’re talking about the extension of mercy and favor toward those who don’t deserve it — to those who instead deserve punishment.
In the New Testament, John — one of the men who followed Jesus most closely during His ministry on earth — says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8, New International Version). Mercy and grace are facets of love. Since God is love, you should expect to see God defined by graciousness — and in fact, He is. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, God displays consistent, unmerited favor.
Moses was a man whom God chose to lead Israel out of slavery, as described in the Bible’s Old Testament. God also gave Moses the law that Israel was supposed to follow, which helped them to understand right from wrong. The Bible says God spoke to Moses as one would speak to a friend (Exodus 33:11). In one exchange with Moses, God defined Himself by His grace.
Note that when the Bible uses the all-caps “LORD,” it is standing in for God’s name, Yahweh (sometimes spelled YHWH because Ancient Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament is written, does not have vowels). God’s name is not normally printed in English translations of the Bible. In this passage, God is literally telling Moses His name and describing Himself.
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed His name, the LORD. And He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:5–7, NIV)
God said this to Moses after the people of Israel had broken God’s law in a very bad way. God wants Moses to understand that He is gracious and compassionate, and those characteristics are witnessed in the fact that He is:
But immediately after this, God also says that He doesn't leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:7). He even says that the punishment for guilt spans generations. This introduces a dilemma that we must understand when we talk about God’s grace: Because God is good, He wants to do good to the people He created. But because He is good, He must also oppose evil — including evil people.
As the Bible teaches elsewhere, there is really no person who isn’t somehow corrupted by what the Bible calls sin (Romans 3:23). Sin makes us all do and think things that are evil so that God would be right to punish rather than reward us.
It might seem difficult to harmonize the idea of God’s mercy and His judgment. But is God’s justice incompatible with His compassion? Not at all!
Many years after Moses, the prophet Ezekiel wanted to warn Israel and neighboring nations about God’s judgment. But throughout his prophecy, he echoes the same cry:
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23, NIV)
For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:32, NIV)
Say to them, "As surely as I live, declares the LORD God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked should turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11, NIV)
God’s justice and mercy would be irreconcilable if punishing evildoers brought Him pleasure. But it doesn’t. Over and over, Ezekiel tells Israel it brings God no joy to punish their disobedience but that punishment is coming.
Our God is just. To completely ignore injustice would undermine His righteousness. Can you imagine a ruler whose kindness got in the way of keeping order? His subjects would take advantage of his gentleness. There is thus a tension between God’s righteous justice and His grace that He carries into all His interactions with human beings.
Throughout Scripture, God begs His people to repent before calamity befalls them:
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. (Jeremiah 18:7–8, NIV)
Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done. (Jeremiah 26:3, NIV)
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened. (Jonah 3:10, NIV)
When you look closely at how hard God worked to convince Israel to turn away from sin and avoid the consequences of their behavior, you see God’s grace at work. In fact, many of the Old Testament books are accounts of the prophets, whose job was to warn God’s people that they were on a collision course because of the repercussions of their behavior. In His mercy and grace, God worked overtime to coax Israel onto the right path.
The Gospels are the four books of the Bible — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — that describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The word “gospel” comes from a Greek word meaning “good news.” The Gospels tell us about God’s resolution to this grace-justice tension. In the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, God showed grace while exercising judgment against humanity’s sins.
The opening of John’s gospel tells us, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NIV). “The Word” is Jesus, who is the Son of God and is Himself God. In Jesus, God became a human being to live with us and, ultimately, to take the punishment of sin in our place.
John tells us, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, NIV). When Christ died on the cross, He made it possible for God to forgive sin in a way that the law alone does not allow. Because Jesus took the punishment that we deserve, God can punish sin and give grace to sinners.
Paul, a leader in the early church who wrote much of the Bible’s New Testament, explains it this way:
No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:20–24, NIV)
The law could only highlight how far people had fallen. It set a standard that people could only aspire to but never truly achieve. But God gives the grace of forgiveness to those who trust in Christ and His work on the cross and enter into a relationship with Him. As Paul says, this justification is a free gift of grace paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice. This is the most important gift that God has given us — the “amazing grace” that the song celebrates.
People tend to think of God’s grace as being merely forgiveness. This is His greatest gift but not His only one. Grace is an unmerited gift from God in any form. Paul rightly recognizes that every gift you receive from God is grace — even the abilities and strengths you seem to possess naturally.
Paul wrote a letter to a church in a city called Ephesus, in the region known today as Turkey, telling them God has given everyone specific gifts for the purpose of building up other people. He uses an interesting turn of phrase: “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4:7, NIV).
Peter, another one of Jesus’ close followers and a companion of John, echoes this sentiment in one of the letters he wrote: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, NIV).
Stewardship is the recognition that God is the ultimate owner of everything under the sun, and people are His managers. When you recognize God’s ownership and use His blessings to serve others, you become a steward of God’s grace. This beautiful phrase demonstrates how God shows grace to others.
As proclaimers of the message that Jesus died to forgive sins — what is often called “the good news” or “the gospel” — people who follow Jesus are stewards of God’s grace. When you share the good news, you distribute the grace God has entrusted you with. The same is true of everything you’ve received from God: money, possessions, talents, kindness, mercy, love and so on.
This means that you are not simply called to receive God’s grace. What you receive from God you share, and this is a critical way that others experience God’s mercies in their lives.
Peter also writes, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and forever! Amen” (1 Peter 3:18, NIV).
What does it mean to grow in grace?
The New Testament writers are united around the idea that every good thing you experience is a gift from God. James, Jesus’ biological brother and another important leader of the early church, writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17, NIV). Those gifts aren’t limited to the tangible things you receive. You see God’s unmerited favor in the natural wonders of sunshine, newborn babies and friendship. All the goodness you experience comes directly from God’s hands.
One essential gift of grace is our ability to mature as Christians. In one of His final teaching opportunities before He went to the cross, Jesus explained to the disciples how to progress in the Christian life:
I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in Me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.”(John 15:1–8, NIV)
It’s vital that you recognize that even as you grow in your relationship with God, it is God who is doing the work. Your maturity is God’s gift of grace and requires that you remain connected to the source, Jesus. If you are receiving nutrients from the vine, God’s power is at work in you, making you more like Jesus.
To grow in grace is to maintain a posture that doesn’t hinder God’s work. You do this by putting Jesus first, by striving to be faithful and obedient and by fighting sin — avoiding it, and seeking God’s forgiveness when you do not.
Jesus teaches us that God doesn’t hoard good. He doesn’t hoard His grace or give it out to a limited number of special people. In fact, that’s one of the things that drove Jesus’ critics, the Pharisees, crazy and set them against Jesus. They thought grace was just for the people who can follow all the rules. It’s not!
God demonstrates a desire for everyone to experience His goodness. This includes “bad people.” In Jesus’ time, the so-called “bad people” were tax collectors, sinners, Samaritans, and Gentiles. But Jesus welcomed these people and forgave them. Jesus puts God’s grace on display to humankind.
It’s God’s grace that equips you. It’s God’s grace that holds you. It’s God’s grace that grants you a relationship with Him and eternal life with Him.
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