Grace is not a thing

Grace is the currency of Christianity, its heart and soul. Without grace, you have a religion that demands you follow God wholeheartedly and declares that you cannot. With grace? A freely given bounty that never runs out.

Christianity is grace. What we mean by that is that the heart of the faith is that God most high freely gives salvation, not in exchange for our faith or works or devotion, but simply as a gift. It cannot be earned. It is given.

That’s the way of Jesus: everything is an extravagant gift. We do not qualify ourselves to join God’s family, nor do we pay our way after we’ve joined. From beginning to end, God does the work.

Sometimes to capture the meaning of this word we find in our New Testament we use the cheesy acronym ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense.’ That’s a pretty good summary of the world of ideas sat behind the word, but I do sometimes wish our modern Bibles translated the Greek word a little differently.

I’ve already used various forms of the word five times in the last four paragraphs. Charis, translated ‘grace’ means gift or favour.

The heart of Christianity is to believe that God gifts us with salvation—with victory—that we win battles we didn’t fight. That God works, and that even our work, vital though it is, if we dig down through the pile of causes behind our actions, is ultimately God’s work.

This is a wondrously liberating truth when we get our hands around it. It changes everything. To grasp it is to know that we are loved and that God is for us. Which he is, friends.

So, the word sounds super religious, at least in the way lots of us use it as though it were a magic talisman. I do get why we do: we’ve grasped the wonder of it and so we speak with reverence about grace, imbuing it with tones of awe.

There’s not really anything wrong with that—I rather like it if I’m honest. Wonder is infectious.

There are two possible dangers though, which we can try and head off without losing our delight in everything God has wrought for us:

Firstly, it can be confusing to outsiders. I’m not against us having specific vocabulary, if anything I’m all for it—that’s how we can speak with greater precision—and someone coming into the faith for the first time will have to learn a host of concepts. But we can make their lives easier if we use the word gift too. I wouldn’t advocate for dropping grace altogether, but talking up gift would be a good idea. Maybe even slotting it in occasionally when we read those passages out loud in our church meetings.

Secondly, we can make it sound like grace is a thing. Grace is not a thing.

I was singing a song at a conference the other day that I wasn’t familiar with—and haven’t recalled any of the lines well enough to find it and check if I’m right, unfortunately—which had a line in it about grace descending from heaven to us. Which is true enough. The gift of God comes from heaven to earth.

Something about it rang oddly to me though—I’ll try to approach this from another angle to shed some more light on it.

In my circles people often pray for ‘fresh grace’ for a person or situation, or ‘more grace.’ It can come across a bit religious, but we all know what they mean: that God would intervene to a greater extent or in a new way. They’re asking for favour. These are not bad prayers—and even if they were, I believe that God honours our bad prayers. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t listen to any of them. There are two things that are a bit awkward about the phrase though: one is that if you swap grace for gift it sounds weird in English, so it’s not ideal linguistically. Favour is less of a howler but still feels clunky. That’s a fairly picky thing to get our knickers in a twist over, mind.

The second one is the one I’d like to home in on. It makes grace sound like the Force from Star Wars. Or mana from any RPG inspired fantasy story. As though grace is a power source that our lives run on, more grace equals happy lives, or even more simply more grace equals more of God’s love.

(Which as an aside, is often amusing, more of God’s favour is just as likely to lead to more demonstrable suffering, because that’s where character comes from—as Paul spells out in Romans 5).

You can’t have more of God’s love because you already are fully loved to the fullest extent that the God of love can love—though to be fair you can grow to know more of God’s love, which is what people almost always mean when they say that.

We think the Bible suggests Grace is a thing, because Jesus was full of it (John 1), as was Stephen (Acts 6). In these instances it’s probably best to think of grace as favour, the state of being granted gifts. It’s still not a thing, it’s a statement about how God feels about them.

Grace is not a thing. How do we know? Simple enough, really: what is the gift? It’s the gift of Christ (e.g. Galatians 1, 2 Corinthians 8). Which is to say that the gift we’re given is not a thing, but a person. God himself.

Grace is not a thing, because it’s bigger than just being given a store of merit or fantastical power that we can use to live the Christian life on, we’re gifted God. God gifts us God.

That’s the story. That’s Christianity: the God who is gift gifts us God. Jesus is the gift. We get to know him.

Which is phenomenally good news.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

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