What Is Grace?
For Christians grace is God’s gift of pardon. According to William Barclay the Greek word for grace was originally a military term. When an emperor came to the throne or celebrated a birthday, he would give his troops a donatirim (donation), which was a free gift that they had not earned; it was given out of the goodness of the emperor’s heart. This idea was picked up by the Christian scripture writers when they wrote about the grace of God. Grace is something that is unearned and undeserved – unmerited pardon.
Different Concepts of Grace
Grace is an important theological term in many religious traditions, but there are differing conceptions of the word:
• Most Protestant denominations claim that salvation can only be obtained by grace.
• Calvinism contends that “the elect cannot resist God’s grace to save; therefore, the elect cannot prevent themselves from being regenerated… this grace unto salvation is bestowed directly by the Holy Spirit. This means that the Holy Spirit directly and forcefully changes the heart of man, outside of any other medium, such as the Bible.” By the way, there are eight references in the New Testament to “the elect.”
• Catholicism says grace is a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures (men and angels) for their eternal salvation. Among the three fundamental ideas – sin, redemption, and grace – grace plays the part of the means, indispensable and divinely ordained, to effect the redemption from sin through Christ and to lead men to their eternal destiny in heaven. Catholics must confess their sins to a priest to be forgiven and the priesthood dispenses grace through sacraments.
• Some conservative churches teach that obedience is necessary to become a child of God; after that, one will remain in grace as long as they have a “good attitude,” even if a person continues to disobey God’s will.
• Universalism claims that grace is available to everyone. Those who accept this view believe in the ultimate triumph of divine mercy and grace: that no being ever created will be condemned or allowed to suffer forever, but God has arranged through a benevolent plan of learning and growth for all souls to attain salvation, reconciliation, restoration, and reunion with the Source of All Being.” Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…”
Wesley’s Dimensions of Grace
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught that there are three dimensions of God’s grace:
• Prevenient Grace – Wesley claimed that God’s grace is an active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift that is always available, but can be refused.
• Justifying Grace – Justification is what happens when Christians abandon all our vain attempts to justify themselves before God or to be seen as “just” in God’s eyes. The justifying grace of God points to reconciliation, pardon, and restoration. Through the work of God in Christ our sins are forgiven, and our relationship with God, which was distorted by sin, is restored. There are no hoops through which we must jump in order to be loved by God. See 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Romans 5:8
• Sanctifying Grace – Salvation is not a static, one-time event in our lives. It is the ongoing experience that transforms us into who God intends us to be; we grow and mature as we attempt to live as Jesus lived. As we pray, study, worship, and fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God. As we compassionately respond to human need, we strengthen our capacity to love our neighbors. Wesley described this dimension of God’s grace as sanctification, or holiness.
Grace in the Bible
In Christian scriptures, the Greek word Charis (Χάρις), which occurs 154 times, is translated “grace,” while in the Hebrew scriptures, the Hebrew term is Chen (חֵן).
How is grace presented in the Hebrew scriptures? The word appears more often as “gracious,” “merciful” or “mercy.” Below are a few selected verses from that illustrate the word’s usage:
• “You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.” (Psalm 45:1)
• “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 103:8
• “Let your mercy come to me, that I may live…” (Psalm 119:77)
• “…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2)
• “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
• “Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” (Jeremiah 31:2)
• “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you… O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you.” (Isaiah 18a,19)
• “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great…” (2 Samuel 24:14)
• “…you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…” (Nehemiah 9:17)
• “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end…” (Lamentations 3:22)
• “We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” (Daniel 9:18b)
The following are some selected verses to help us determine what the Christian scriptures say about grace (the Contemporary English Version of the Bible uses the phrase “God’s gift of undeserved grace” – for example, Romans 3:24 reads, “Thanks to God’s gift of undeserved grace, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins…”):
• “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 16-17)
• “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:11)
• “…he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers…” (Acts 18:27)
• “…if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)
• “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)
• “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)
• “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)
• “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)
• “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)
• “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:5-6)
• “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15)
• “But he (the Lord) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
• “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” (Galatians 1:6)
• “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)
• “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
• “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)
• “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)
• “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy… so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)
• “But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” (James 4:6)
Two Parables about Grace
Jesus told two parables that give us perhaps a better understanding of grace. The first describes how a landowner employed laborers that he found in the marketplace throughout the day. Some worked twelve hours, some six, some three and some only an hour. When the work day ended, the man paid each person a full day’s pay. The workers who had worked all day complained about the landowner’s generosity, but he argued that it was his money to do with as he wished. The ones who had worked the longest felt that they deserved the most pay. Even though they were probably justified God operates on the basis of grace, not merit, and grace is always far more than we have earned. (Matthew 20:1-6)
The other parable that illustrates God’s grace is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The son shamed his father by wasting his inheritance and by behaving immorally. When he finally came to his senses, and realized that his father’s servants were better off than he was, he determined to return home in hopes that he would be accepted back as a servant. However, his father, who had been longing for his son’s return, welcomed him with open arms and even threw a party for him. The prodigal’s older brother was offended and refused to attend the welcome-home celebration. Of course, God is like the father in the story. God extends grace that is completely out of all proportion to what is deserved or merited.
What Is Salvation?
Religious people and preachers often speak of “being saved,” “getting saved,” or “salvation,” but what does this mean? Does salvation come at death or at conversion?
Salvation, which might also be called redemption or atonement, refers to God delivering us from our sins. Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). It also seems to mean receiving eternal life – God’s life. This type of eternal life is not life after death, but how a person’s life is changed after receiving God’s gift. This type of eternal life turns us into people who care about others; it enables us to overcome our selfishness.
What Is Salvation in the Old Testament?
In the Old Testament Yahweh intervenes on behalf of his chosen people, Israel, to save and rescue them. The most important saving event was the Exodus, in which Yahweh rescued Israel from Egyptian oppression. The Hebrew concept of salvation was not spiritual or individual; it was deliverance from circumstances like the Persian defeat of Babylon which Isaiah saw as Yahweh’s salvation of Israel, but it was also deliverance from poverty, disease and any enemy of Israel. The Israelites were sinners by nature, but God made a series of covenants with them that included the promise of blessing all nations through Abraham and the redemption of Israel from every form of bondage. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “salvation is from the Jews,” meaning that the Jewish nation is supposed to be a blessing to all the nations due to their relationship with God.
The initial stage of salvation involves a change in us called conversion – a turning around. It may be sudden or dramatic, gradual or cumulative. But in either case, it’s a new beginning, a rebirth, a new life. It is a time of forgiveness, peace, joy and love. It is also a time of repentance – turning away from former behaviors that are not pleasing to God and toward actions that express God’s love. We have been taught that all a person has to do is repent of their sins and accept Jesus as their Savior, but what happens between conversion and death? The journey of a believer may contain bumps, struggles, and setbacks, but it should also be a period of growth in love for God and care for others.
What Does Christian Scripture Say about Salvation?
The following are some of the Christian scripture passages concerning the words “salvation,” “save” or “saved”:
• “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)
• “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
• “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
• “Now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:9-10)
• “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
• “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
• “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
• “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
• “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)
• “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
According to the substitutionary view of atonement, we humans have sinned so grievously that Jesus took the punishment or we owe God a debt that we cannot pay, so Jesus paid our debt by dying on the cross or he made a sacrifice of himself (like the sacrifice of a lamb during the Jewish Day of Atonement) on our behalf. Supposedly, this allowed God to remain both just (insisting on a penalty for a transgression) and loving (paying the penalty through the death of Jesus on the cross).
This tidy, legalistic scheme depicts God as thinking, judging and weighing things as though God was a human being. But it also pictures God as harsh; as a God who could only be satisfied by the death of his own son. Therefore his son had to be offered as a human sacrifice.
Between 1910 and 1915, a group of conservative Christians published a series of pamphlets under the title “The Fundamentals.” One of those five fundamentals was “The substitutionary view of the atonement that was accomplished in the death of Jesus. The affirmation of the saving power of his blood and the gift of salvation that was accomplished by his death.” To question or to deny the truth of any of these five fundamentals was an act of heresy in the fundamentalist tradition.
However, in the twenty-first century, the idea of substitutionary atonement has become questionable, at best, and grotesque, at worst. Surely a loving God did not require the shed blood of a human sacrifice as a prerequisite for our salvation. If we also deny the idea of original sin, then there was no reason for substitutionary atonement.
The Protestant Perspective on Salvation
According to Protestant Christianity, no one can merit the grace of God by performing rituals, good works, or by meditating. The unmerited grace of God forgives and brings the person back into a relationship with God. The sinful person must, however, recognize their sinful state and be willing to turn away from their sinful lifestyle; that is called repentance. After repentance the person must accept the atoning death and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; the result is salvation. The benefits of salvation include our becoming “a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The result of salvation is that our sins are forgiven, we are promised eternal life (not eternal life after death, but God’s life) and become children of God. Our responsibilities are to live our new life based on God’s intent for our lives, to help the poor and oppressed, and to spread the gospel to others. Those who refuse to accept salvation miss the benefit of knowing God in this life, and will spend eternity apart from God (hell).
The Roman Catholic View on Salvation
Catholics believe that salvation is received by virtue of the sacrament of baptism. It can be lost by mortal sin and can be regained by penance. The catechism teaches that all who die in God’s grace are assured of their eternal salvation, but if they are imperfectly purified, they must undergo purification after death to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God in heaven.
Two Different Views of Salvation
Origen Adamantius (184-253), the early Christian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early church, did not believe that we were saved by the death of Christ. The Church condemned his idea as heretical.
Two Italian reformers – Giorgio Bladrata and Faustus Socinus – did not believe that people are justified by Christ’s death but simply by their faith or trust in God. Jesus did not die to atone for our sins but was a teacher who showed and taught the way of salvation.
Can Salvation Be Lost?
According to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayers, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”
Methodists believe salvation can be lost. Salvation is not a static, one-time event in our lives. It is a personal choice or rejection that causes a person to lose salvation, but God continues to reach out to bring the person back to the way of salvation.
With reformed theology at the core of their beliefs, the Presbyterian Church USA teaches that a person who truly has been regenerated by God, will remain in salvation.
Roman Catholics believe salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are grave ones and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to commit without deliberate thought and consent. A person’s perseverance in the faith is a gift from God, but the person must accept the gift. Catholics should say to those who ask if they are saved, “As the Bible says, I am already saved (Romans 8:24, Ephesians 2:5–8), but I’m also being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15, Philippians 2:12), and I have the hope that I will be saved (Romans 5:9-10, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Like Paul I am working out my salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), with hopeful confidence in the promises of Christ” (Romans 5:2, 2 Timothy 2:11-13).
The General Council of the Assemblies of God disapproves of the unconditional security position which holds that it is impossible for a person once saved to be lost.
Southern Baptists do not believe salvation can be lost. Salvation involves the redemption of the whole person, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. If God has accepted a person in Christ and that person is sanctified by God’s Spirit, they will never stray from the state of grace.
Missouri Synod Lutherans believe salvation can be lost when a believer does not persist in the faith. Even though a true believer may fall from faith, they may be restored in the same way he or she came to faith – by repenting of his or her sin and unbelief and trusting completely in the life, death and resurrection of Christ alone for forgiveness and salvation.
What if salvation is a lifelong journey toward maturity, love, and wholeness? If this is true, Jesus would not be our savior by his sacrifice, but the one who exemplified maturity, love, and wholeness. Then Jesus’ life is what is important, not his death. He showed us how to live fully human and, if we follow his example, we can become fully human, too.