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What is the Grace of God?

by David A. DePra



     If you are a Christian, you most likely know that you are saved “by grace.”  Very few people will try to argue with Ephesians 2:   “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”  But once we read this passage, and agree that we are indeed “saved by grace through faith,” things often begin to break down.  For while there is rarely a question in the mind of a Christian as to what the Bible says -- we need only read it -- there  is often a question over what the Bible MEANS by what it says.


     Such is the case here in Ephesians.  If we simply read these words of Paul, we will see that we are saved solely by the grace of God.  But we must embrace His grace by our faith.  And if we do, it will result in the good works which God has ordained that we should do.  The progression is clear:  Salvation is BY grace, THROUGH faith, UNTO good works.  Try to put these in any other order and you do not have Biblical Christianity.  But many of us do, in fact, put them in the wrong order.   Or we leave one or more of these elements OUT.


     For example, those who walk in legalism are really saying that it is “by good works, through our faith, unto God’s grace.”   Good works, for a legalist, is where things must begin.  That will earn God’s favor, or grace.  Of course, no person who is in the bondage of legalism will ever tell you that outright.  They may not even have a doctrine which states it.  And I have never met anyone who is walking in legalism who actually believes we saved by good works.  No.  But inside of their mind, the way things work is that they try to maintain God’s grace and favor, indeed, maintain their salvation, by good works.  In effect, to a legalist, these good works RESULT in God’s grace.


       But that isn’t what God says.  According to the apostle Paul, God’s grace results in good works.   Completely the opposite of what legalism suggests.  

     Those who practice license do things another way.  They accept that all things are “by grace through faith“ – at least as a true doctrine.  But then they simply leave off the “good works.”  But once I do that, then even “by grace through faith” must be wrongly redefined.  For real grace embraced with a living faith will always bear the fruitage of good works.  Always.  So if I do not have the good works, I have a dead faith.  I’ve never embraced or seen the real grace of God in Jesus Christ.


     Yet there are even deeper problems which the church has had in understanding the grace of God.  Many Christians do not practice legalism or license.  But neither do they walk in the grace of God either.  They are caught in-between, in some sort of spiritual wasteland.  They know that it is by God’s grace that we are saved, and must walk.  But to them, grace is not real.  It is just a concept.  Just a doctrine.


      This brings us to a problem which has existed in the church for two-thousand years:  Not being able to see the distinction between doctrine, and the reality of which the doctrine speaks.  It is one thing to read Ephesians 2:8-10, and the many other passages which speak of the grace of God.  But it is quite another to actually embrace the grace of God, by faith, in a way that transforms my life.


Experiencing Grace


     So what is the solution to this problem?  How can you and I begin to experience the grace of God and become transformed?  How do we make the leap from “doctrinal faith” to “real faith?”  Where do we begin?  


     The good news is that it is not up to us to begin.  By definition, you and I cannot “begin” anything.  That is precisely the first thing we must see in order to experience God’s grace.  God’s grace means that He takes the initiative to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.   And the truth is, everything necessary for us to enter into the reality of God’s grace has been finished in Jesus Christ.


     Right here is where the problem is:  We do not believe it is finished.  Most of us still think that there is something for us to DO in order to enter into the grace of God.  No, we might not say this out loud.  We would never build a case for it from scripture.  But somehow, deep inside of us, we just don’t function as if God has done a finished work in Christ.  And many of us don’t even know why.  We don’t even know what we are missing.


     So where does that leave US?  It leaves us needing to “do” only one thing:  Believe.   We have to believe it is finished.  We have to believe that God’s grace, rather than something we will receive “someday,” is something which God has before us right now, finished forever.


     So what is “grace?”  It is not a force God “zaps” us with, nor, as some legalists are teaching, is grace “the will and power to keep God’s law.”  NO.


     Actually, the definition of grace as "the will and power to keep God's law" is the opposite of what grace really is.  God gives grace because we can't keep His law.  Grace is God's love and favor upon us despite our sin and failures.  To say that grace is "the power and will to keep the law" undermines the very essence of grace.  It is suggesting that there is really NO such thing as UNmerited favor.  Instead, grace becomes THE power and will to MERIT God's favor -- by our law-keeping! Furthermore, if grace were the power to keep God's law, we should expect to experience MUCH law-keeping as a Christian saved by grace.  Are you and I actually deluded into thinking that we are able to keep God's law?  (Read I Jn. 1:8)


     This is nonsense.  Think.  If grace is the "power to keep God's law," and we are "saved by grace," then we are saved by what? -- the power to keep God's law!  What could be more opposite of the Truth?


     The fact is, we really cannot divorce “grace” from God Himself.  Grace isn’t a separate "thing" given, anymore than the love of God is a separate force or thing from God Himself.  “Grace” is the nature of God.  The things God does “by His grace” are done by Him simply because it is His nature to do them.  In effect, when God "gives us grace" He is bestowing upon us, from His Person, His acceptance and favor, and love in Jesus Christ.  


     Often we will use phrases like, “the forgiveness of God,” and “the grace of God,” and “the love of God.”  Good phrases, to be sure.  But “the forgiveness of God” exists only because God IS a forgiving God.  The grace of God exists because God IS a gracious God.  And the love of God exists because God IS a loving God.  In short, God IS forgiveness, grace, and love personified.  All of these terms are merely expressions of God's character and attitude towards us.


     If you did me wrong, and I said to you, "I intend to be gracious to you; give grace to you; or forgive you," would you expect that I was going to hand an object to you?  No.  Would you expect that I was going to somehow empower you to do right the next time?  No.  You would recognize that despite your failure and sin, that I was going to forgive you.  I was going to BE to you -- behave towards you -- in a way which was not based on what you had done -- but based on ME.


     So it is with God.  God gives grace because God IS, to us, grace personified.  In effect, when God "gives grace" God gives Himself.  Grace is expressive of His attitude towards us -- all justified and worked out through Jesus Christ.


     As James said, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”   God doesn’t  merely “decide” to forgive, love, or give His grace.  He IS those things.  He is where they come from and find definition.


     So what is "the grace of God?"  The grace of God is God's attitude of  forgiving, accepting, and redeeming us -- to the complete disregard of the fact we have nothing in us to merit it.  He does this because He IS an accepting, forgiving, redeeming God.  We need only believe and embrace Him through His Son Jesus Christ -- for God will not force Himself upon us.


Nothing to Earn


     Now we are ready to see a little more about what grace means for us.  First, it means that we do not NEED to earn or maintain God’s love.  But secondly, it means we CANNOT earn or maintain God’s love.  And thirdly, it means we MUST NOT try to earn or maintain God’s love.  We have to see this.  God doesn’t merely tell us, “You don’t need to earn anything from Me.”  No.  He says, “You cannot earn anything from Me.”  And then He adds, “You must not try to earn anything from Me.”  God knows that if we do try to earn from Him, we are not believing.  We are, in fact, walking in unbelief.


     Now notice where all of this leads us:  To the fact that we have nothing we can offer God.  Indeed, to the fact that we ARE nothing before God.  Easy words.  But how many of us have really come to the place where we know it is the Truth?  To where we are so convinced that we are nothing before God, that we have stopped trying to do for ourselves what God has already done in Christ?


      The shocking news is, unless we have actually come to that place – by experience – we may agree with the doctrine of grace, and even rejoice in it.  But we won’t do much living in it.  The only way to live and walk by the grace of God is to be brought to the place where we see the Truth that we are nothing and God is everything.  Then, and only then, will we value and embrace the grace of God.


     There is a term we might use for this condition of seeing that we are nothing and that Jesus is everything.  Jesus used the term “poor in spirit.”  Perhaps a clearer term today would be “spiritual bankruptcy.”  Spiritual bankruptcy is a condition where I see I do not have what I need, and see that I have no way of getting it -- if left to myself, that is.  It is a condition that I don’t merely arrive at once, or move in and out of.  It is a permanent condition of dependence and reliance on God which will transform me forever.


     Unless I am brought down into the condition of spiritual bankruptcy, I will not value the grace of God.  I will not.  It does not matter how well I know the doctrine.  It does not matter how much I want the experience.  Those are just the beginning.  I have to actually come to the end of myself.  I have to see that I do not have what I need, and that I have no way of getting it.


     It is vital that we see this.  Unless I am spiritually bankrupt, I will stop short of God’s grace.  Why?  Because I still think I have something to offer God!  I’m not yet “bankrupt!”  I still think I have assets.


     The formula is clear:  The more I value what I have to offer God, the less I will value His grace.   But the less I know I have to offer God, the more I will value and embrace His grace.


     It works the same in the physical world.  If you have a million dollars in the bank, and I walk up to you and offer you a twenty dollar bill, as a free gift, it will mean very little to you.  But if you are totally bankrupt, without a penny to your name, and I offer you the twenty, you will value it greatly.


     So what we see in this Truth is very simple.  God must deplete and reduce us into a condition of spiritual bankruptcy.  THEN we will be convinced that it is ALL by His grace.  Then we will finally be willing to simply receive what He has longed to give us.


     But how does God cause us to become spiritually bankrupt?  God has only one way of bringing us into the reality of His grace:  The Cross.  God will use the Cross to bring us down into spiritual bankruptcy.


     God will make us bankrupt spiritually by convicting us of our need for Jesus by the power of His Holy Spirit.  He will use His holy law to prove to us that we cannot obey Him.  He will probe and dig deep in us to expose our motives, our unbelief, and our self-will.  He will manipulate circumstances, allow trials, and bring lessons to us, all with the intent of making us reliant and dependent upon Him.  God Himself will bankrupt us.


     Our responsibility is to believe and trust Him.  To surrender to Him.  To “present our bodies, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable (sane) service.”  (Rom. 12:1)


     Notice, however, what this really means.  It means that when God brings the Cross to bear upon us, our job is simply to yield to Him.  It is NOT up to us to pick our Cross and try to crucify ourselves.  We cannot.  The moment we have pounded the first nail into our left hand, we are left with no way to nail our right hand.  Self-crucifixion is not only inadequate, but in the final analysis, it is sin.  It is of the flesh, and not the Spirit.


     We will embrace the grace of God by faith ONLY if we see we are dead sinners with no hope of helping ourselves.  We cannot, indeed, will not do so any other way.  We must be convicted of sin in a way that is so deep that we will never recover the strength of our religious flesh.  We must repent of sin and cast ourselves upon the finished work of Jesus Christ.


     When is the last time you heard THIS message?  It is THE gospel. 

Walking In Grace

      As we have seen, most every Christian will agree that we are “saved by grace.”  Even the most diehard legalist will say that.  In fact, those who are walking in the deepest and darkest legalism are those who preach salvation by grace the most.  Somehow, there is a release to doing that.  It makes them feel better.


     But salvation is only the start.  Once I am saved by grace, I am not done with grace.  I must spend the rest of my life walking in the grace of God through Jesus Christ.


     Now, actually, embracing the grace of God for salvation, and then walking in grace, were never intended by God to be separate things.  No.  They are ONE thing.  When I am saved, I actually ENTER into the grace of God.  And I’m supposed to be His grace forever.


     Paul said this to the Colossians.  He said, “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk you in Him.”  (Col. 2:6)  So again, we are not done with grace once we are saved, any more than we are done with faith.  As we received Christ “by grace through faith,” we are to walk in Him.  That means “unto good works,” yes, but it means a life which is more and more reliant upon what God has done for us, and less and less reliant upon what we have to offer Him.


     Paul wrote the same thing to the Galatians.  He said, “This only would I learn of you, did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2-3)


     This tendency for Christians to embrace the grace of God by faith – for salvation – only to later try to live the Christian live by works, is common.  Much of the New Testament addresses it.  Whole epistles are focused on it.


     This problem is, in fact, so important, that it could probably be said that if the church would see the Truth on this one thing, most of the other problems would likewise be solved.  For once we see that our works can earn us nothing before God, and that despite our works, Jesus has finished the Redemption of God for us, every heresy based in legalism falls.  Religion gives way to reality.  And back to the center comes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – where it should be.


     So why is it so hard for us to see the Truth of God’s grace?  The main reason we have already stated:  You CANNOT see it unless you are spiritually bankrupt.  And that is something that most Christians try to avoid like the plague.


     Some Christians think that if you preach the unconditional forgiveness of God, and tell people that God is no longer judging them based on their works, that they will go out and start sinning.  Well, you don’t need to worry about that.  You never stopped sinning.


     Anyone who thinks that this message of grace will lead to license and sin is missing the point.  NOT seeing this message of grace leads to sin.  It leads to the sin of unbelief and self-righteousness.


     The Truth of God’s grace – if I really see it – will never motivate me to sin.  It will motivate me to repent.


     Grace is not license.  It is responsibility.  I cannot see the grace of God until I see I am a helpless sinner.  And a helpless sinner desires two things:  To be delivered from sin.  And to obey God.  This never leads to license.


     The only way to see grace, and then embrace grace, is to do it as a repentant sinner.  This means that I no longer want to sin.  Thus, grace will never lead to license.  For how can someone want to sin and not want to sin at the same time?


     The grace of God is the basis of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God has sent His Son and He has finished a redemptive work for us -- to the complete disregard of our merits for it.  He beckons us only to believe and embrace Jesus.  If we will embrace the grace of God in Jesus Christ by faith, it will translate into a new life filled with good works.


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