For years I have avoided using the perfectly good word grace. It’s not just a cliché in some religious circles, it’s also a catch-all for a thousand undefined and sketchy notions about why we are somehow excused in our laziness and moral laxity.
I am all in favor of the true notion of grace and as aware as anyone that it is the only way I stand.
I’d like to think this little essay might help recapture the idea of grace for some who read it, and for myself most of all. It is too good an idea to throw away due to misuse.
Grace gets used as an excuse for many things, thrown into a sentence with unspoken parameters and presuppositions. If we were to spell out what many religious people mean when they throw the word grace around, we might get some sentences like the following:
It’s alright that we give the Old Testament short shrift because we are under grace.
Don’t tell me I need to be involved with the poor and widows and orphans; grace, man.
He has never shown any sign at all of following Jesus, but he is a Christian by grace.
You’re disappointed at my (laziness/laxity)? Have a little grace! (I deserve it).
I think she is a little too busy with her religion; like she doesn’t understand grace.
Most people don’t really know what grace is. By grace, I mean the Biblical term in its full range of meaning. Even in English usage some people have no idea what grace is. The non-religious definitions in Merriam-Webster are interesting:
A temporary respite (as from the payment of a debt).
Approval, acceptance (in his good graces).
Fitness or proportion of line or expression.
Ease of movement.
In my early days in a church, I learned the following definition, which has theological merit, but is completely inaccurate as a definition of grace:
I trust you figured out that the first letters of those five words spell grace.
What does grace mean in terms of its Biblical usage? The first thing to say about this may come as a surprise: grace in the Bible refers to favor, both the earned and the unearned kind.
For example, the word for grace in Hebrew is khen. It is used in sentences such as:
Esther found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, Esther 2:17.
Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord, Genesis 6:8.
This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name, Exodus 33:17.
In none of these usages does grace mean “unearned favor.” Esther was not chosen by king Ahasuerus for no reason, nor were Noah and Moses favored randomly. In the Hebrew Bible, perhaps the greatest example of grace as unearned favor is about election, God’s choosing Israel as his people without condition: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (Exod. 6:7).
Neither in the New Testament does grace always mean unearned favor. The Greek word is charis, favor or grace. As Yeshua grew up, we read that he “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
It is a myth of the casual and unexamined use of the word grace that only unearned favor matters. In the Bible, both earned and unearned favor with God matters. Hear that again, because I’ve read in many books and heard many speakers where the idea of earning God’s favor is denounced.
I say thank God for unearned favor, free grace, by which I stand before him who is holy. Yet I also admire and want to live up to the call of discipleship and following our Messiah and our God, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, of whom it was said: “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). I want to have the extraordinary favor of Cornelius whose prayer was heard BECAUSE of his faithfulness and deeds: “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (Acts 1o:2).
Even the idea of earned favor with God inspires me. Yet, I do confess, in spite of all the misuses and fraudulent squandering of the word grace in religious language, that I am moved to speechless bliss by the thought of unearned favor.
“Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand,” says Paul (Rom. 5:2). “He gives more grace . . . [God] gives grace to the humble,” says James (4:6).
Like Israel, chosen by the grace of God, by his unearned favor, we too stand without merit. In fact, earned favor with God is grace also, since he has no need to be impressed by things like almsgiving or helping widows and orphans. In his goodness, these things would happen without question, as we will find out in the World to Come, when we understand perfect righteousness. Yet we are able to earn favor by following and serving because he gives favor easily and has mercy readily.
So, I think I will again use the word grace, though my life straddles two worlds, Jewish and Christian. And grace is more a word in one of those worlds than the other. I can’t remember a time I’ve heard the word grace used in a religious sense in Jewish conversation. Judaism is not unaware of the concept of grace. We sing about it in the Avinu Malkeinu (“no good deeds do I bring”). We mention the concept often in our liturgy (“who brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for his Name’s sake, with love”). Still, the word grace just does not flow naturally from Jewish lips. But this should be a leading example of Messianic Judaism bringing something new and paradigm changing into Judaism.
I do not nullify the grace of God. Rain grace on me, Lord of the World, and on all who ask for it.