Few songs are more recognizable to Christians than “Amazing Grace.” It is a fixture in many worship services and funerals. But what exactly is grace, and why is it so amazing? Sadly, some Christians struggle to answer those questions. All they seem to know about grace is that it is something they can fall from. Therefore, it is important that we study this precious biblical concept.
Christianity is a religion of grace. Our God is “the God of grace” (1 Peter 5:10), His throne is “the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), His Spirit is “the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29), His word is “the word of grace” (Acts 20:32) and His Son is “full of grace” (John 1:14). Furthermore, grace saves (Ephesians 2:8), calls (2 Timothy 1:9), justifies (Titus 3:7), trains (Titus 2:12), strengthens (Hebrews 13:9), etc. We stand in grace (1 Peter 5:12).
Amazing Grace: WHAT?
“Grace” is unmerited favor or undeserved blessing. It comes from the Greek word charis, and is often used in the New Testament of the favor God bestows on sinners through Jesus Christ. Perhaps the biblical concept of grace can be summed up as “not receiving what we deserve and not deserving what we receive.”
By grace, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He made a way of salvation through Christ (Romans 3:24-25; John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10). This is what makes grace so amazing! God’s goodness toward us was not based on any goodness we had done or would do in the future. He acted freely and without expectation of receiving anything of equitable value in return. It was unearned kindness!
Before we can truly appreciate grace, we must come to grips with the depth of our sins. Our sins separate us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2). Paul said that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This means that each of us deserve eternal separation from God in hell. It is the appropriate “payoff” (NET). Yet God graciously made provisions to rid us of the horrifying clutches of sin and save us from such misery (Romans 5:8).
Amazing Grace: HOW?
Though salvation is by grace, it is not by grace alone. Paul said that we are saved “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is God’s part; faith is man’s part. If salvation were by grace alone, then all would be saved since “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). Yet we know that not all will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14). Hence, grace is appropriated conditionally.
There are many examples of grace being appropriated conditionally in Scripture. For instance, Noah was saved from the flood by grace when he built the ark (Genesis 6), the Israelites were healed of snakebite by grace when they looked at the bronze serpent (Numbers 21), the Israelites conquered Jericho by grace when they marched around the walls (Joshua 6), Naaman was healed of leprosy by grace when he dipped in the Jordan (2 Kings 5), and the Jews on Pentecost were forgiven of their sins by grace when they repented and were baptized (Acts 2). In each of these cases, a lack of human cooperation would have thwarted God’s grace.
The household of Cornelius heard, believed, repented, and were baptized (Acts 15:7; 11:18; 10:48). Then Peter said they were saved by grace (Acts 15:11). The same is true with the Ephesians. They heard, believed, repented, and were baptized (Ephesians 1:13; Acts 20:31; 19:5). Then Paul said they were saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). Thus we see that salvation by grace involves an obedient faith on the part of man.
Amazing Grace: WHO?
By grace, Jesus died “for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). He tasted death “for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). He is the propitiation “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This means that all can benefit from what God has done through Christ. None are beyond reach! Perhaps this is best seen in the life of Paul. He said to King Agrippa,
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:9-11).
Yet he was later saved. If Paul could receive grace when judgment was long overdue, anyone can (1 Timothy 1:16)!
Another example is much more recent. Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life terms for the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 males between 1978 and 1991. Some of the murders involved cannibalism. Yet he learned the truth and was baptized into Christ shortly before he was beaten to death on November 28, 1994. Below is an excerpt from Roy Ratcliff, the preacher who did the baptism:
“Nearly everyone raises the question about Jeff's sincerity. But I was there, and these questioners weren't…I cannot know the condition of another person's heart unless I listen to his or her words. I listened to Jeff's words, and I watched his eyes and his body language. I listened to the tone of his voice and observed his mannerisms, and I am convinced that he was totally sincere in his desire…Jeff had nothing to gain in this life by being baptized; he had everything to gain in the next life. He was baptized for the same reason anyone else is baptized. In the light of the Bible, he surveyed his life and concluded that he needed to be saved.”
If Paul was the “foremost” sinner of the first century (1 Timothy 1:15), Jeffrey Dahmer was certainly among the “foremost” sinners of the twentieth century. However, neither man was beyond the scope of God’s grace!
David once declared, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the sons of man that you care for him” (Psalm 8:3-4)? It is truly amazing to know that God is interested in us, as weak and wretched as we are, and that He cared enough to send His Son into the world to die as a sacrifice for sin. Who then are we to arbitrarily choose who is and is not “worthy” of such grace? If God extended His grace to all who will accept it, shouldn’t we do the same?
Perversions of Grace
Grace is a wonderful concept. It is the one word that sums up the theme of salvation given to us by God through Christ. However, there are those who pervert the truth about grace. Below are a few examples.
(1) Grace as a license to sin. This idea was apparently being promoted by false teachers in the early church. Jude speaks of those who “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (v. 4). However, grace trains us to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). We must live in obedience to the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).
(2) Grace saves all. Some teach that grace will eventually result in the salvation of everyone. Universalists embrace this idea. However, grace must be coupled with faith to produce salvation (Ephesians 2:8). Not all will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14).
(3) Once in grace, always in grace. Some teach that a saved person cannot fall from grace. Calvinists embrace this idea. However, grace can be received “in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). It is possible to fall from grace (Galatians 5:4; Hebrews 3:12; 4:11).
(4) Treasury of Merit. Some teach that the good works of the saints can be transferred to the account of others, both living and dead. Catholics embrace this idea. However, nowhere does the Bible teach that God will extend grace by transferring the “merits” of one person to another.
It is impossible for man to save himself. He cannot work long enough, hard enough, or good enough to remove the guilt of sin and earn a home in heaven. He must rely on God’s grace. Though grace is a gift that is available to all, it is not accepted by all. If you have not experienced the “amazing grace” of God, you can do it through an obedient faith (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 10:9-10).