Christian Meanings: What is Grace?

Grace. It is a word that is thrown around a lot, especially in church and among Christian friends, but what is it?  What does the word “grace” mean? By the simplest definition grace is “unmerited favor” or “unconditional love.” While this is a fine definition on its own, the problem is that we still have to define the definition.

First, let’s start with “unmerited.”  To merit something means to earn it or deserve it.  A child might merit a special treat by good behavior or by doing chores.  In the Boy Scouts of America, young boys can earn “Merit Badges” by showing that they know how to do something or can explain it to others.  Boy Scouts cannot earn these badges unless they have completed the required activities, thus meriting the badge.  So “unmerited” then means to receive something that you did not earn or something that you do not deserve.  In the same way “unconditional” means that something is not limited by conditions, such as our good behavior.

So what is it that you receive that is unmerited?  According to our basic definition of grace, you receive unmerited “favor.”  Favor is something good being given to you or an act of kindness, like someone helping you.  To be favored by someone means that someone likes you or helps you.  The word “favorite” comes from the word “favored” and it means “the one you favor the most.”  To favor someone means to like or help him or her.  Grace then is getting something nice that you have not earned or deserve.  When you receive grace you are given something better than what you deserve.

So how does God show grace to us?  God shows grace to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.  When He was on the cross, Jesus took all the punishment that we deserved and placed it on Himself. On the cross, Jesus gave us the gift of a relationship with God, something that we cannot earn by ourselves nor do we deserve.  God loves His children so much that He shows them grace by Christ taking away all of the punishment that we get for disobeying God and giving us good gifts instead.

A Deeper Look

The grace of God is the most beautiful and powerful thing we will ever encounter, but it is also the most difficult concept for us to wrap our minds around. Grace pushes back against our understanding of what is fair and what people deserve. But the message of grace is one that the entire world needs to hear.

In his upcoming book, One-Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World, Tullian Tchividjian borrows a helpful definition from Paul Zahl:

Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable…. The cliché definition of grace is “unconditional love.” It is a true cliché, for it is a good description of the thing.
Let’s go a little further, though. Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called “gifts” (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold…. Grace is one-way love.[1]

This definition is packed full of rich insight and thought-provoking sentiment, and it deserves our attention as we take a closer look at it.

“Grace is being loved when you are unlovable.”

Grace is God reaching downward to a people who are constantly pushing back against Him, who are in rebellion against Him.  Scripture tells us that all people sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and that we deserve death (Rom. 6:23).  But in His lovingkindness and mercy, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us and take upon himself the punishment that we deserve.  Romans 4:24-25 says that righteousness “will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The grace of God did not come at a time when we had everything together, all of our ducks lined up in a row.  No, grace comes to us when we are broken and can offer nothing in return.  “Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness.”[2] We come to God with nothing in our hands to offer but our brokenness and sin, and He gladly takes it and gives to us new life as His child.

“Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover.” 

The lover in this grand story of grace is God himself. God lavishes His people with goodness and grace through all of Scripture, including throughout the Old Testament.  The story of Scripture is about what God has done for us, not what we have done or can do for God.  He is both the author and the main character in this great story of redemption.

Grace is the main theme that ties all of Scripture together.  It is expressed in the promises of God throughout the Bible and is embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. The entirety of Scripture tells the story of God’s grace. J. Gresham Machen wrote, “The very center and core of the whole Bible is the doctrine of the grace of God.” Every story echoes the promises of God.

Not only can we do nothing to earn God’s grace, but it is God who continues to bind our hearts to Him. In his popular hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” Robert Robinson sings of his heart’s desire to wander from the Lord who has saved him.  His prayer is that the Lord would bind his heart, and His grace would be present all the days of his life.

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for thy courts above.

In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”  Paul knows that any work that he did was ultimately not his own doing but through the grace of God.

“Grace is irrational ….It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called ‘gifts’…”

Grace pushes back against our world’s understanding and definition of what is fair. It refuses to play by our rules of reciprocity, fairness, and evenhandedness.  The world often operates on the idea of Karma.  Karma teaches that what we do will come back to us. If you are good, good things will happen to you. If you are bad, then bad things will come your way.  Grace refuses to play by these rules.

In an interview he did back in 2010, U2 lead singer Bono had this to say about grace and karma:

It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge… I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.[3]

When we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus spent time with those people whom the rest of society had cast aside as too far gone to save. He sat at the same table with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners (Matt 9:10, 11:19), dining with them and teaching them parables.  He did not reject them like the Pharisees wanted him to do (Luke 5:30) but rather came to them in truth and love.  These people knew their brokenness and sin, unlike the religious of Jesus’s day who prided themselves on not being like the men and women that Jesus spent time with. Luke 18:11 reads, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”   There is no place that grace will not go, no person that it refuses to reach down towards. It is one-way love.

Our New Life in Grace

Grace is not just the basis for our right standing with God, but all of life is grounded in grace.  Through the riches of God’s grace we receive forgiveness, and it is His grace that moves us forward in our Christian walk.  In Titus 2:11-12 Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Grace transforms our desires, behaviors, and motivations.

Grace enables and powers everything in the Christian life.  Grace is the basis for our identity in Christ (1 Cor. 15:10).  Our holiness is from the grace of God (2 Tim 1:9).  Grace gives us strength for living (2 Tim. 2:1; Heb. 13:9). Our hope of eternal life rests in the grace of God (Rom. 5:21; Eph. 2:5-8).  Our lives are no longer controlled by sin, but we now life a life of faith given to us by God’s grace. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works, but for good works (Eph. 2:8-10).

Moreover, it is by God’s grace alone that we can participate in what God is doing in the world.  Through his grace, God calls us to be a part of his mission, a part of what He is doing to bring about redemption and restoration to the world. As recipients of grace, we are privileged to serve as agents of grace. We receive grace (Acts 11:23), are encouraged to continue in grace (Acts 13:43), and are called to testify to the grace of God (Acts 20:24).  Grace empowers us to go to the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors of our days and love them with the love of Christ.  We extend grace to all people because of the grace God has shown us.

Growth in grace is not easy though. Scotty Smith puts it appropriately in his book, The Reign of Grace, writing, “Why had I assumed that growth in grace would be less painful than any other kind of growth? Heart surgery is heart surgery, any way you cut it.”[4] Grace cuts to the core of us, and it is hard.  Through the pain, we are not alone. Grace carries us; it does not leave us to fend for ourselves or tell us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  It continues to seek us out even when we reject it. It is one-way love.


[1] Tullian Tchidivjan, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. (Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2013) 32-33.
[2] Justin Holcomb, “What is Grace?”
[4] Scotty Smith, The Reign of Grace. (Nashville: Howard Books, 2003), p. 33.
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