There’s an old hymn that’s been mulling around in my brain lately. Its theme is the grace of God. Something a little bit Christian-ese, something underappreciated. One of the most powerful, supernatural, and amazing works of God on our behalf. Yet something we seldom think about.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,“Grace Greater Than Our Sins,” Julia H. Johnston
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
What is grace?
Grace is a word that has many meanings in modern English. Consequently its significant role in salvation, redemption, forgiveness and sanctification is often minimized. We use phrases like “saying grace” over our meals or “grace period” for a loan. Grace often refers to forgiveness or to someone’s kind demeanor. And if we assume that this is the extent of the word’s meaning when we’re referring to God’s grace, we miss out on some incredible redeeming power made available to Christians by the work of the cross.
The doctrine of grace stands at the center of the Bible. It is the theme that connects every book and the thread that winds through every verse. In the original Old Testament language, grace comes from a word meaning “lovingkindness,” which is often used to describe the Lord’s character. God’s grace flows from the essence of his being: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, ESV).
In the New Testament, grace is translated from a term meaning “divine favor,” “goodwill,” “that which gives joy,” and “that which is a free gift.” Grace is the undeserved gift of God. The greatest of God’s gifts of grace is His Son, Jesus Christ.Mary Fairchild1
The Grace of God watered down
We can say things like, “There’s grace for that,” and what we mean is that God will let our failure slide. He’ll just brush that under the rug. That’s not at all what God’s grace is about.
The simplest definition often applied to the word grace is “unmerited favor.” And although this is a good and true definition, we can see there’s a little more to it than that. I like this explanation from John Piper. “Now, that does not mean you have to give up that simple definition of undeserved favor. That’s true. That’s a good definition. It just means that the word also embraces the encouraging truth …that this favor overflows in powerful, practical helpfulness from God in your daily life where you most need it. That help is also called grace because it’s free and it’s undeserved.”3
Even the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary recognizes that grace is more than a nod of acquiescence to shameful behavior. Its first definition of grace reads, “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”2
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.” Titus 2:11
Could it be any clearer than this verse from Titus 2?
How does this divine, supernatural assistance get watered down to merely mean forgiveness?
Grace, past or future
To answer my own question, I think the answer lies in our recognition of sinfulness.
If we hear that grace is “unmerited favor”, and we feel like we are good people, then the grace of God seems to be a free pass to have future sins forgiven by playing our “unmerited favor” card. If however, we are being destroyed by our wrong choices, we see clearly that “unmerited favor” is not something we deserve. It is instead a rescue that we had barely dared to dream. In the second instance, we have become disillusioned to the seduction of sin, and only want to escape its clutch. It no longer appeals to us.
And so I think the secret to understanding the amazing gift of God’s grace is found in whether we intend to apply this “unmerited favor” to our past or to our future. How desperately do we feel our need of it in the present?
“To fully understand grace, we need to consider who we were without Christ and who we become with Christ.” 4
Simon and a “Sinner”
In the book of Luke (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus visits the home of Simon the Pharisee. As the dinner guests are eating, a weeping woman comes in. She shocks everyone as she breaks a precious alabaster jar of perfume, crying over Jesus’ feet, wiping away the tears and dirt with her hair and pouring out her perfume on them.
Simon sits appalled and smugly judges our Savior’s ignorance of the levity of her sins.
Jesus knows his thoughts and asks Simon, through parable, what these actions prove. And the conclusion is that he who is forgiven much loves much, he who is forgiven little loves little. The level of loving response is relative to the level forgiven. And Jesus surprises us further by insisting that this is the same as saying he who loves much is forgiven much and he who loves little is forgiven little.
Grace Greater Than All My Sin
While Simon is fully aware of the woman’s great sinfulness, he is blind to his own. The truth is that Simon is just as a great a sinner. He is just as much indebted in the grand balance of things. Compared to the woman he may look good. But the measuring stick is not the woman’s holiness but God’s absolute standards. And this standard applies also to you and I. Our sins may be visible, or they may be hidden, but they are great enough to ruin us. We, and Simon, could be forgiven much if we admitted that there was much to forgive. But because Simon sees himself with little need of forgiveness, he loves little. He loves enough to invite Jesus to dinner, but not enough to honor him with the dignity of washed feet.
And that’s why I’m struck by the lyrics of this hymn, “grace that is greater than all my sin.” How great is my sin? The more I recognize sin’s magnitude, the more amplified the power of God’s grace. And consequently, the greater the appreciation and love that I feel.
In light of all this the promise of Romans 8:35, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, becomes a more powerful promise.
Grace should never cease to amaze us. God has an absolute, pure, holy standard of justice. That’s why we cling with all our might to the merit of Jesus Christ. He alone has the merit to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, and He gives it freely to us. We haven’t merited it. There’s nothing in us that elicits the Lord’s favor that leads to our justification. It’s pure grace.R.C. Sproul 5
- Fairchild, Mary, “25 Verses About Grace,” Learn Religions (blog), January 8, 2021. https://www.learnreligions.com/bible-verses-about-grace-5094133
- “Grace” Meriam-Webster.com https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace
- Piper, John, “What is Grace,” Ask Pastor John, Desiring God (audio interview transcript), May 8, 2020. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-grace
- “What is the definition of grace,” Got Questions. Your questions. Biblical Answers. (blog), https://www.gotquestions.org/definition-of-grace.html
- Sproul, R.C., “What Is Grace?” Ligonier, November 19, 2021. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-grace