The Bible meaning of “grace”

Jan 17, 2013

The term grace is used in several different ways in Scripture. It was in very common usage in classical, secular Greek and many of these meanings are found carried over into the Scriptures. We will give examples shortly. Back then, just as today in our common parlance, there were a variety of meanings for the word “grace.

For example, we say grace before a meal or we ask someone to grace us with their company. Yet that means something quite different from when we speak of how the ballerina glided across the stage with such poise and grace. Or how superbly the violinist played the grace notes in Mozart’s violin concerto. None of those meanings is synonymous, though, with the meaning of grace for the race in the New Testament.

The grace for the race is the kind of grace whose meaning was developed primarily in the writings of Paul. Paul took some of the common secular meanings of grace (which is the Greek word charis, pronounced khar’-ece) and he welded them together and elevated it into a peculiarly Christian concept.

And it is that uniquely Pauline meaning of grace upon which we wish to focus in these next several essays. This is the grace which is very simply defined as the unmerited favor of God. We will expand on that later, but going back to Paul as the inventor of this peculiarly Christian word.

One might wonder, “Well, what gives with Paul here? Who does he think he is…to invent new uses for words?” And of course, some Higher Critics and liberal theologians promote the idea that Paul is the real inventor of the religion called Christianity; and some say that he perverted the true religion brought by Jesus, and on and on. They criticize Paul ad nauseam.

In discussing the subject of grace, they might accurately point out that the Greek word for grace is not found at all in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and rarely in the gospels and epistles of John.

In fact, they would continue, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but even in Luke’s gospel, there were only four times when Jesus mentioned the idea of grace and when he did, it carried the common, secular meaning of thanks or gratitude, not the very specialized meaning that Paul gave it. So it was Paul who really formulated much of the theology of Christianity, not Jesus himself, the anti-Paul gang would accuse.

And I would say, “that is correct.” So who does Paul think he is? Well, he himself admits he was the chief of sinners, but he also confesses that he was saved by the grace of God, as Paul himself denotes that term grace.

Furthermore, we must understand that Paul was a chosen instrument of God to be the scholar who had the academic background to set forth the fine points of the theology of the Christian faith. Now to the liberal critics we say, you either believe that God commissioned him or you don’t.

But before you pull out your scissors to excise Paul’s writings from the NT, just remember that Paul was accepted as a genuine apostle by the other eleven, so that those criticisms of Paul being some sort of usurper who hijacked the new religion and bent it to his own purposes, that type of criticism is engaging in the most ludicrous folly.

After all, in speaking of Jesus using charis only in the secular Greek sense of gratitude, that is only logical because he could not have used it in the sense that Paul later came to attach to it, because it was Jesus’ very own death and resurrection which gave the special Pauline meaning to the word grace. Let me give you one passage where Jesus uses the word charis.

Luke 6: 31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

We all recognize that verse as the Golden Rule.

32 For if ye love them which love you, what thank [charis – reward, benefit] have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.

33 And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same

It is clear that Jesus’ use of the word charis there is far removed from meaning “the unmerited favor of God,” but now to repeat the point: that is only logical because Jesus could not have used it in the sense that Paul later came to attach to it, because it was Jesus’ very own death and resurrection which gave the special Pauline meaning to the word grace.

Grace, in the Pauline sense, is virtually a summary of the Christian gospel. As Paul says in Acts 20:24, it is “a gospel of grace.” Grace is practically a synonym for salvation. Therefore, the death and resurrection of Jesus are the sine qua non [the “that not without which”] of the gospel and of salvation. In other words, without the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is no gospel and there is no salvation. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace.

Before we zero in on the Pauline theology of grace, however, let us take a look at the other meanings of grace in the Bible. (To be continued.)

Category: Teaching