“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” 1 Corinthians 1:4
What does the “grace of God” mean? What does “grace” really mean, in practical terms?
The description of grace familiar to most people comes not from the pages of the Bible, but from the words of a hymn. ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me’, wrote John Newton, the slave trader turned priest.
John Newton was not like one of those preachers who speak of their past as being full of sin and wrongdoing when everyone knows they had led very ordinary lives. Newton really was a wretch; his words were no overstatement. He had experienced the depths of human life in the slave trade: degradation, exploitation, violence, casual killing, and yet he speaks of God reaching down to him to pull him out of this darkness. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’, he wrote, reflecting a confidence in the power of God to bring him out of where he has been.
John Newton had faced death at sea, he had expected to drown, he had been lost to this world, but he was saved from death, from the dangers, toils and snares. He recognized, in the words of his hymn, that the hand of God had been present protecting him, guarding him, guiding him, long before he had even acknowledged God’s presence.
Newton found in Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Chapter 2, Verses 4-8, lines telling him that even when he was at his worst, at his lowest, at the furthest possible point from God, God was still there, that God’s grace was saving him. Saint Paul wrote, “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. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
When John Newton wrote that, “grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home,” Saint Paul would have understood what Newton was saying. 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.”
Before the beginning of time, God’s grace is there, and it will be there after the end. God’s grace is outside time. John Newton was confident of God waiting for him beyond time, “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”
God waits, not that people deserve it, not that anything they have done means they merit a place with him. 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.”
Saint Paul says he has no righteousness of his own; if Paul, the most devout and conscientious of men, has no righteousness, then how do ordinary people appear to God? John Newton knew people had no righteousness, that they deserved nothing and that they were owed nothing, yet, 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.”
Churches pride themselves on activity, on how many people attend, on how much money they raise, on having people giving large amounts. Why? To earn God’s approval? God doesn’t ask for boasting. Salvation is not something to earn. God’s promise rests on his grace, it does not rest on anything people do.
In most churches, it is very easy to lose sight of God’s grace, to feel that if only people did more or tried harder, then they would somehow be closer to God. It might say in Ephesians Chapter 2 Verse 8, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast,” but Christians are very good at boasting. The church is very caught up with ideas of numbers and success, it is not very good at grace.
Grace means that God loves people for nothing; something that is not easy to accept. It challenges natural pride; it makes people think about faults and failings. If people are not worthy of God’s love in their own right; if they haven’t earned it, if it has to be given for nothing; then there must be a whole lot wrong inside. This is not an easy thought to those who feel that they live upright, decent and respectable lives. Yet the question to answer is whether or not people accept this grace, this free gift. Salvation cannot be earned, it comes only by grace.
John Newton understood that no matter how bad he might be, God loved him for nothing.
God’s promise rests on grace.