Practicality: “Grace” means favour, not forgiveness, and not kindness. We have God's favour when we are faithful to Him. “Grace” does not mean we can live wilfully sinful lives and expect God to be pleased with us, nor does it mean we can expect God to be pleased with us if we do not selflessly serve Him by loving others. Rather, God favours people whose quality of heart is like Christ’s – that of selfless service to God and love for others.
Grace is often said to be central to the Gospel. Many years of hearing Christians speak about grace has given me some insight into how most Christians think of it. Here, I will explain my understanding of the typical view, but I will try and peel back the layers of Christian jargon and catch-phrases to hopefully show the real nature and implications of “grace” as many Christians think of it.
If one thing is clear, it is that many people don’t have a clear idea of what Biblical “grace” actually is. Many see it as the forgiveness of sins that God ‘graciously’ gives us. Another idea is that it is God’s gracious bestowal of blessings on us, to make our lives more enjoyable. Still others would see God’s grace in the fact that He sent Jesus to “die for our sins”. Occasionally I hear that when we “open our hearts” to God He “works in us” to make us more like Christ “by His grace” – making “grace” a process or magical force synonymous with the idea that the Holy Spirit moulds and shapes those who accept Jesus into His likeness. Occasionally, we hear whispers that grace may be something we are to give others.
Common to all of these are a few interesting themes. Firstly, this “grace” is completely undeserved and unmerited, in that there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. This idea is very close to suggesting it is also unconditional, like it is a ‘free gift’ that we simply have to ‘receive’. Second, this idea of “grace” is perhaps described quite accurately by words like “kindness” and “acceptance” (dare I say even, “tolerance”). Finally, it is portrayed as something bestowed the ‘receiver’ not because of anything the ‘receiver’ has done, but rather the emphasis is that it is what the ‘giver’ of the grace does. It is almost like this “grace” can be passed around like a shoebox full of money – all you have to do is take it.
Are these ideas of grace are what the New Testament writers had in mind? Such ideas don’t seem to line up with the conclusions of my own study into this word, and think these ideas about grace not only dull the true and quite powerful meaning of grace in the Bible, but can also lead to conclusions that are simply unbiblical.
After reading through hundreds of verses where “charis” occurs in the greek NT and LXX, I am convinced that it means ‘favour’, and there are very few verses where this idea does not make perfect sense. We need to slightly expand the idea of favour to capture “charis”, though, because it is also used in the sense of “thanks”. In the Greek, though, both “favour” and “thanks” were described by this Greek word, and we get our two words from slightly different applications of the same idea. Now, “charis” is used in quite a distinctly different way to “aleos”, which means mercy or kindness. “Aleos” has the meaning most people associate with “charis”, but they are used in very different contexts and I am convinced they have quite different meanings. I could not find a use of “aleos” in the LXX which did not refer to a kind action or merciful deed. In contrast, “charis” is generally used without reference to any action, which could be expected if it simply means ‘favour’.
So how does such an idea fit with the gospel? To me, it means the gospel is not one of ‘cheap grace’, but describes how to have God’s favour. This is the good news – that tells us how we can have God’s favour. Now let me make it clear that God is merciful and kind, and cares for those who do not have his favour, as numerous verses describe. Christ himself told us to ‘love our enemies’, and then points to God as an exemplar of this, by caring for even wicked and sinful people who are against Him. But this does not mean God is please with them or that they have His favour. So this is quite a scary thought, that God not only is displeased with people who act against Him and His ways, but that they have quite literally “fallen from grace”. The more this idea has been mulling in my head, the more I notice verses where God states quite clearly that the wicked do not have his favour. Such verses strike quite a discord with the catch-cry of modern evangelism to this largely wicked and selfish generation that “God loves you”.
How do we gain God’s favour then? I believe the Bible clearly states it is by being faithful to Him and His commands – the type of “faith” I talked about in the first post in this series. Being faithful requires not merely warm fuzzy thinking, but actions that reflect our devotion to Him. Let me take the parable of the three servants who were given 5, 2, and 1 talents to explain (see Mat 25:14-46). The master gave his servants 5, 2, and 1 ‘talents’ respectively, which apparently was some amount of money. The ones with 5 and 2 both used them to make more money, thus being faithful to their master. The one with only 1 talent hid it and did not even make interest in the bank on it, thus being unfaithful to his master. The master was equally pleased with both the first and the second servant, but rebuked the unfaithful servant. The point is that the master’s favour was given not on how much money they had made, but rather whether they were fully devoted to serving the master in what they were doing – with all that they have been given.
Likewise, God’s favour is not given to us because of how much good we do or how little we sin, but rather whether we are serving Him completely and selflessly – not giving him merely a fraction of our devotion. Indeed, we serve him by not sinning and instead doing good, but I think it is the quality of our hearts and not the quantity of our actions that God favours. Of course, though, quality service to God will result in some quantity of good action. But we must not merely look at someone who is doing “more good” than another and think they are “more favoured”, for what matters is that they are selfless and living their lives to love God and others. The amount of good that people do is dependent not only on their heart, but also their spiritual maturity. I think God looks at a child who loves selflessly but can do little for others with more favour than an adult who could do much but hardly raises a finger to care for others.
So perhaps the most unbiblical misunderstanding is that in His “grace”, God overlooks the quality of our hearts and gives favour to people who mostly serve themselves rather than Him. This “grace” is understood as God’s toleration of our willful sin. Such an idea mistakes “charis” for “aleos”, and leads to the unbiblical conclusion that God has “favour” on the wicked and sinful. God giving favour to those who have a sinful heart and serve themselves instead of Him is the reverse of what Jesus described in the above parable. But do not misunderstand me – God is merciful and forgiving, look at David for example. We do make mistakes. But these are all our sins should be – mistakes. We cannot willingly and continually do something we know God is against and call it a ‘mistake’ – such action is willful disobedience. God looks upon our mistakes with mercy and compassion if we are faithful to Him – for faithful people have his favour - but the idea of God giving favour to people who are unfaithful to Him seems to go against Biblical teaching.
Sadly, the result of decades of Christians believing a doctrine of “cheap grace”, instead of a pure, righteous, Holy, faithful and Christ-like church it has become one full of tolerance and compromise. Gone are the days of discipline, now we are in “grace”. Even though the Bible clearly states Christians should have nothing to do with sin, we water these commands down with “grace”. The emphasis is no longer on the quality of our hearts, but on the quantity of people in our churches.
Not only does cheap grace sweep under the carpet God’s commands to not sin, but people also use it to hide His commands about what we should be doing. This sort of “grace” is given to those who do nothing. “We needn’t worry if we aren’t caring for others,” people think, “because we’ve got God’s grace so He loves us anyway – isn’t that amazing?” It would amaze me, because that’s not the God I know! The God I know cares for people and tells us to do the same, and in the Bible when people are selfish and uncaring God certainly doesn’t like it. The servant who did nothing with the one talent given him was harshly rebuked in Jesus’ parable, not given “grace”. Later in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that if we do not do the good God has commanded of us, we will be rebuked just like that servant. Not only has “cheap grace” made a church of compromise, but it has also made one full of apathy towards doing the good that God calls it to do.
Rather than quoting and explaining all the many verses I pondered over to reach my conclusions, I will end with just one short quote of Romans 5:1-2, which I have translated from the Greek into meaningful English as best I can. I will be happy to share my thoughts on other verses you may comment on.
“Therefore, we are righteous because of our faithfulness; and we have peace with God because of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of Christ we also have had access by faithfulness into this favour in which we stand, and we rejoice because of the hope of being praised by God.”