“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith.”’ Ephesians 4:8
The word “grace” is one we use frequently in church, but what does the word mean to us? If we were asked what was meant when we talked about “God’s grace,” how would we answer?
Our word “grace” is translated from the New Testament Greek word “charis,” it is a word that means a “favour,” a “gift.” “Charis” is a gift from God; grace is something we are given, not something we have earned, not something that we deserve.
Grace can be something that is hard for us to accept. If we were asked who we think should go to heaven, and who we think should not go, we might have some very firm ideas, but when we understand grace, we see that our ideas are wrong.
In Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2, Verses 4 & 8 we read about what grace means; it means that no matter how bad we are, Christ has come to save us. In Verse 4, Paul writes, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” If we went back five hundred years ago, to the year 1517, we would find Martin Luther beginning the movement for reform in the church. Luther wanted to call Christians back to this idea of grace, he wanted to explain how we could not work our way to heaven, and we certainly could not buy our way to heaven. Saint Paul emphasises that we depend on grace, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
Grace doesn’t mean we just do what we like. If we gave someone a great gift and they showed no appreciation for it, how would we feel? What does God think of us when we are given his Son, his greatest gift to us, and we show no gratitude? Saint Paul tells us that if we are thankful for God’s grace, then we should live lives that show we are thankful. Writing in the Second Letter to Timothy, Chapter 1 Verse 8-9, Paul says, “join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.”
Perhaps we would prefer not to know what grace means, because when we begin to understand it, we see that grace should be at the centre of our lives; we see that there is nothing more important. Saint Paul says everything else is rubbish. Writing to the Philippians in Chapter 3 Verse 7-9, Paul says, “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Grace is all that matters to Saint Paul, he says he has no righteousness of his own; if Paul, the most devout and conscientious of men, has no righteousness, then how do we appear to God? Paul suggests that we need not be concerned how we appear, because of what God has done for us. In the words of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans Chapter 5 verse 8, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Grace may be the hardest word for us to accept. Certainly, I find grace the hardest Christian teaching to accept; preaching about it is one thing, living it is another. Within our Protestant tradition, and within the community in which we have grown up, there has been a very strong work ethic, the feeling that we should always be doing something. I cannot sit and do nothing, even spending time reading books or writing sermons can be stressful. I need to be out and about doing things, calling at the hospitals, knocking on doors.
But why all the frenetic activity? To earn God’s approval? God doesn’t ask for constant activity. Salvation is not something we earn. God’s promise to us rests on his grace, it does not rest on how many things we do.
Grace means that God loves us for nothing; something that is not easy for us to accept. It challenges our natural pride; it makes us think about our faults and failings. If we are not worthy of God’s love in our own right; if we haven’t earned it, if it has to be given to us for nothing; then there must be a whole lot wrong inside us. This is not an easy thought when we feel that we live upright, decent and respectable lives. Yet the question we must answer is whether or not we accept this grace, this free gift to us. We cannot earn our own salvation, it comes only by grace.
Encounters with grace can be disturbing; encounters with God can be disturbing. Do you remember when Jesus first meets with the fishermen in Saint Luke Chapter 5? They have been fishing all night and they have caught nothing and Jesus tells them to try again, so they do, and they pull in a huge catch. Saint Luke tells us, in Chapter 5 Verse 8, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'”
Grace can make us feel like Simon Peter, we can be afraid when we meet with God, afraid of what he sees in our hearts, afraid of what changes he might expect from us. We might wish that God would go away. God knows what we are like. He knows every thought and every action. He knows ever word and every deed. We cannot escape God. The only question is whether we accept him, whether we accept this free gift.
A man in the North once said to me, “Ian, there are two sorts of people in the world: there are sinners saved by grace and there are sinners.”
Which sort of person are we? God offers us grace—it is ours to receive.