“Grace” and other words derived from it are common to the vocabulary of all of us. For example, Grace is a popular girl’s name; indeed it’s the name of my firstborn grandchild. If you recite a short prayer at your dinner table before eating, that’s called “saying grace”. If you’re an elegant person, others will say you’re “graceful”. If we ever sing the British national anthem, the first line goes “God save our gracious Queen”. And have you heard the expression “there but for the grace of God go I”? We might say that when something unfortunate has happened to someone else and we realise it could easily have happened to us. And then, of course, there’s “disgrace” and “disgraceful”, something so utterly shameful and dishonourable we don’t wish to discuss it.
In a religious sense, however, grace means something else. It’s a word that appears 123 times in the Bible. Only six of these are in the Old Testament; and most of the other 117 are in the letters of St Paul & St Peter. We heard it used in its religious sense in our two scripture readings this morning, in John 1 and Romans 5.
Interestingly, ‘grace’ is not a word Jesus seems to have used himself; and it appears only three times in the Gospels, all three in John and only in John. Matthew, Mark & Luke don’t use the word at all.
The religious or theological meaning of grace is “the unearnt favour or love of God”; that is, it refers to the love which God bestows on humans even though they’ve done nothing to warrant it. ‘Undeserved merit’ is another way of saying it.
Grace is a word that comes into English a roundabout way. We get it from the mediaeval French grace, meaning ‘pardon’, ‘mercy’ and ‘virtue’. The French took it from Latin gratia, meaning ‘favour’, ‘esteem’, ‘regard’ and ‘good will’. And in Latin it was the translation of the Greek word (charisma) meaning ‘favour’, ‘pleasing’ and ‘agreeable’.
Whatever the derivation, we must ask why, if grace is so important in Christian theology, it was not a word and an idea that Jesus ever referred to. Part of what follows in this sermon will try to answer that question.
Paul is the great prophet of grace. He expounds upon its idea of ‘the unmerited favour of God’ in most of his letters — in Romans, Corinthians, Galations, Ephesians, Philippians, Collossians, Thessalonians, Titus, Philemon & Hebrews. We heard some of his ideas about grace in the second reading, from Romans 5.
Before we consider Romans, however, let’s look at John 1, where you’ll find the only Gospel references to grace. Though John doesn’t actually say so, the scene is the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. John doesn’t wish to baptise Jesus because that means symbolically washing away a person’s sins; and Jesus is sinless. In trying to explain to the onlookers who Jesus is, the Baptist says that Jesus has come from God; and through him humankind has received “grace upon grace”.
Because of our human wickedness we don’t deserve God’s favour, the Baptist was saying, but Jesus brings it to us despite that. To make his point clearer, John tells his audience that God had given them the Jewish people their law, which had been delivered to them through Moses. Grace, however, didn’t come with the law. It came to them through Jesus; and that was the truth of the matter.
Paul’s frequent teaching about grace is rather more complicated than that. It’s at the centre of his complex, difficult-to-understand ideas relating to sin, repentance and forgiveness. In his various Epistles, the letters I named earlier, Paul presents a series of ten propositions, which proceed as follows:
- First, our human sinfulness separates us from God.
- Second, that places us in a wrong relationship with God.
- Third, if we sincerely repent of our wrongdoing, we can be ‘justified’ with God.
- Fourth, that is we can be brought back into a right relationship with God.
- Fifth, the key is faith in Jesus, or trust in his ability to rescue us from our sin.
- Sixth, repentance and faith call forth grace, God’s willingness to accept us even though we don’t deserve it and have done nothing to earn it.
- Seventh, through the working of grace, if we are truly repentant and have faith in Jesus, God will forgive us our sins; and our relationship with God will begin anew.
- Eighth, God’s grace is bestowed freely and abundantly on those who have faith.
- Ninth, the death of Jesus on the cross was proof of God’s grace: God was prepared to allow God’s Son to suffer crucifixion to demonstrate that God’s love for humankind is unlimited.
- Tenth, those who repent and are forgiven through grace will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, both in this life and the life to come.
In Romans 5, as we heard in our scripture reading, Paul says it like this:
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God
He goes on to say that many people “surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” The free gift of grace is abundant and it’s freely available to all who sincerely desire it.
Theologians have been arguing about the meaning and working of grace ever since Paul wrote about it in his numerous Epistles. The various branches of the Christian church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, have all developed their own teachings on grace; and even within these branches the disagreement between denominations has been severe. For example, Calvinist denominations like the Presbyterians have emphasised the point that without grace humans are utterly depraved and lost to God. Lutherans and Methodists, by contrast, take a different approach, arguing that the Gospels and the sacraments of the church will lead Christians to grace if they’re sincere in their repentance.
Our Uniting Church places grace at the centre of its teaching. The Basis of Union, the Uniting Church’s statement of belief, proclaims that “the whole work of humans’ salvation is effected by the sovereign grace of God alone”. Interpreting that rather freely, I’d say it means that if we’re ever going to enjoy a right relationship with God we’ll be wholly dependent on God’s willingness to accept our sincere repentance and wish to be reconciled with Godself.
For those who experience grace personally, it is enormously liberating. People who feel God’s grace know they have been released from a dreadful burden of guilt. How it feels is summed up in John Newton’s great hymn, which we’ll sing later. “Amazing grace,” Newton wrote, “saved a wretch like me”. He points out he “was lost but now [is] found, was blind, but now [can] see”. The grace Newton experienced was “precious”. As soon as he started trusting Jesus and believing that Jesus alone could free him from the burden of knowing what evil he had done, he felt the relief of knowing that God forgave him. And since then grace has brought him safely “through many dangers, toils and snares” and will eventually “lead [him] home” into the presence of Christ.
But if grace is an important part of the Christian experience, why didn’t Jesus talk about it himself; and why does only the Gospel of John mention it?
The second question first; and a historical explanation. John seems to have been written in the period AD 80 to 90, fifty to sixty years after Jesus’s earthly life, whereas Paul’s Epistles date from thirty years earlier, in the 50s and 60s within living memory of the crucifixion. By the time John, the last-written among the Gospels, was produced, Paul’s teachings were probably well-known and Christians everywhere would have become familiar with the idea of grace. They would have accepted Paul’s idea that through trusting in Jesus and being truly penitent they could be reconciled with God — through no action of their own but because God had freely bestowed his grace upon them.
But why did Jesus himself never seem to mention the word grace? I can’t answer that question; and in researching this sermon I couldn’t find that anyone else has answered the riddle. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.
Jesus came to proclaim a message that his audiences found difficult to understand — that he was God’s Son and that the way into God’s Kingdom was through repentance and belief in his, Jesus the Christ’s, redemptive power. To explain himself, Jesus spoke through metaphors and in parables. And he performed many miracles. But even his closest friends, his disciples, often did not understand. If, by analogy, he said he was the good shepherd, they didn’t realise he was referring to the trusting relationship between him and his followers; instead they thought he was talking literally about sheep getting lost straying across the countryside. Eventually he decided that the only way to convince them of the truth about himself was to accept death on the cross and rise from the dead within three days. That would be proof that he was God’s Son, that he had God’s power.
With such an audience, Jesus, I’d guess, knew it would be pointless for him to overload them with abstruse theology. Notions like “redemptive grace” and “justification through faith” came later — after theologians had reflected on what Jesus had said and done, and had tried to work out what it all meant. Perhaps Jesus also knew already that Apostles like the Gospel writers and Paul would eventually elaborate on his life, work, death and resurrection, explaining its significance to subsequent generations.
But where does that leave us, 2000 years later? Does grace exist for us? And, if so, where do we find it; and how do we go about obtaining it?
Again, I have no ready answers; but I do know that if we really want Jesus to be a part of our lives, we’ll repent, admit to God and to ourselves that without Jesus in our lives, we really are sheep gone astray. We’ll then experience the grace that John Newton wrote about in his famous hymn. We’ll feel that no matter how unworthy, ignorant and unlovely we are as individuals, trusting Jesus will lead us into more satisfying lives than those we’ve previously lived.
But there’s a catch here. It’s what the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘costly grace’. Costly grace? If it’s free, how can it be costly? Before the Nazis killed Bonhoeffer near the end of World War 2, he taught that “grace is costly because it compels a person to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him”. In other words, although grace is free it imposes obligations on the believer. You become a Jesus follower, which is a hard act to play, particularly in a secular, hedonistic, unbelieving world.
As we accept the free gift of grace, other changes will occur in our lives. We’ll take seriously Jesus’s teaching that we must love one another as he has always loved us. We’ll accept the reality that discipleship, following Jesus, involves committing our lives to our faith and endeavouring to spread it through whatever means are best suited to us. We will love our neighbours as ourselves. We will seek to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the prisoner, uplift the downtrodden and bring the marginalised into acceptance by God and by the rest of our society.
How you will do that will be best known to you and the Christ in your life. There’s no shortage of opportunities; and if you’re sincere in your faith, Jesus will make known to you which particular deeds and projects are those he wishes you to engage in.
Let us now pray that we may be given God’s grace so that we may accomplish what God intends for each of us:
Gracious God, you never grow weary of speaking to our poor hearts. Grant us grace that today we may hear your voice in our hearts. You know our weaknesses and failings, and you know that without your help we can accomplish little. Grant us, therefore, the help of your grace according to our particular needs this day. Enable us to see the mission you will set before us in the daily routines of our lives. Teach us to bear patiently the suffering or failure that may come to us; and may we always be reassured in knowing that you bestow your grace abundantly upon us. Amen.
Based on: John 1:14–18; and Romans 5:1–5, 15–17.
Written by Ian Willis
Dr Ian Willis is a long-term lay preacher at TUC.
Ian has a deep commitment to prayer and regularly gives his time to pray with preachers and worship leaders before worship services each Sunday.
Ian is also a writer and historian.More from Ian Willis