February 1, 1994
When I think of “gracious”, I think of my mother’s friend Eileen, a delightful woman who loves people and relishes life. Everything about her communicates goodness, elegance, refinement, charm, style, and beauty, all synonyms of the word “gracious”.
“Grace” is the root of gracious and used to describe fluid motion, symmetry, adornment, dignity; it has a host of dictionary definitions. With that many connotations behind the word, what does the Bible mean when it talks about the grace of God?
Martin Luther challenged a medieval idea that grace was something God infused into people when they took part in Communion. After much study and the discovery of a serious textual error in a once-popular Latin Bible, he happily announced biblical grace is “the unmerited favor of God.” In other words, God is good to us even though we don’t deserve it.
Luther easily supported this meaning by recalling what the first Christians believed and by pointing to verses like Romans 3:24: “(We) are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
This man turned the world upside-down with his definition, however he admitted it was not a new idea. The early church and the Bible had always made it plain. Unfortunately, church-goers in his day were caught up with religious duties and had lost sight of the foundation for faith.
The same thing happened to the nation of Israel. God made a covenant with them and declared to them they were His people. They were supposed to express faith in Him through obedience and draw near through certain religious activities. After a time, they began to disobey God and distanced themselves from Him. They should have stopped their religious expression and repented of their sin but instead disregarded repentance. Their worship became mere ritual and God was not pleased. He said, “These draw near to me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”
Ephesians 2:8,9 explains that our relationship with God also depends on grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Salvation means forgiveness and removal of sin so we can have an intimate and personal relationship with God. Grace freely offers this relationship, not the performance of good works or religious duties. While doing good can soothe the conscience or make us look righteous in the eyes of others, God looks on the heart and sees our propensity to turn away from Him. He knows our failures yet graciously provided a way they could be forgiven.
We need grace. Without it, we either ignore God or offer Him that which is tainted, even out-and-out polluted. He has never developed relationships on the basis of our good, only on the basis of His generosity. It is somewhat ironic the above verse says we might otherwise boast about what we do when no amount of good deeds could ever cover over our sin or remove the fact of its guilt.
Grace provides the answer to our spiritual needs. Through grace, we are given faith to believe in Christ. Through Christ, we are given a relationship with God. Through the delight and joy of knowing Him, we are given a deep desire to obey Him, even to happily be involved in various religious activities. Remove grace, or replace it with a foundation of our own works and there is no relationship. At best, we are left with vain boasting and empty ritual.