What Grace Really Means

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Misinformation in some cases has become the standard view of God and the Bible. Last week I posted “Our Deeds Are Not Filthy Rags” (see it here). A related misconception is that God could care less about the quality of your character and deeds, but only wants to give undeserved favor to everyone. Grace. “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” You don’t deserve anything good, since you are so bad. You get good things anyway because God simply ignores justice and dispenses forgiveness, blessing, and eternal salvation to all who pass a short doctrinal test about Jesus. And the test is multiple choice, so you can do it pretty easily.

The truth is far more profound. But before we get to the benevolence of God, we should be clear what the words usually translated “grace” really mean.

The word often means favor. And favor can be deserved or undeserved. Of course you can say no one completely deserves any kindness from God, but good people return kindness for kindness. And can God be anything less than good? He shows favor to his children who love and serve him. Even a not so good person does the same.

Other times the word means God’s benevolence. This is the meaning that has caught so many people’s attention. God gives things out of pure benevolence, to people who realize that the gift exceeds the worthiness of the recipient. My wife shows me grace by loving me in spite of my faults. But notice that this meaning of grace is not the same as “I am a worthless worm having never done anything right or good and my wife’s love for me is completely inexplicable.”

In other places, English Bibles will use “grace” where “mercy” or “acceptance” might be a better translation. The word grace tends to be overused in translations, in my opinion, and its meaning is wrongly understood by many readers of English Bibles.

But lest I be misunderstood, there is a profound truth behind the theological notion of grace. It is the benevolence of God. And it is a belief shared by Judaism and Christianity. God does give people undeserved favor. And we never completely deserve the benevolence of God. But before I express that profound truth in more detail, let’s look at examples in the Bible of the misuse of the word grace.

The ESV translation rarely uses the word grace in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word that could be rendered grace is chein (חֵן pronounced khein, with a soft k sound — the letters chet and nun). It’s general meaning is favor as in “Noah found favor” and “the Lord was with Joseph and gave him favor” and so on.

In the New Testament, the ESV uses grace 116 times. The apostles were giving testimony about Yeshua and “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). “Grace to you and peace,” is a common formula in the letters of the New Testament. “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace,” says Paul in Romans 4:16. He refers to “this grace in which we stand” in 5:2. Paul wants people to receive “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” in Yeshua (5:17). You may notice that so far some of these examples do seem to mean “the undeserved kindness of God.” That is true. But already we can see that Acts 4:33 might be better rendered “great favor was upon them all” and that “grace and peace” might mean “may you have divine favor and peace.” Sometimes the best translation might be favor and other times it might be kindness.

Instead of “grace,” why not render the Greek word charis (pronounced kah-rees) in some contexts by a less-religiously-charged word such as “kindness”? “”That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on kindness.” “This divine kindness in which we stand.” “The abundance of kindness and the free gift of righteousness.”

You see, when people see the word grace, many have been taught to associate with a certain “works are worthless” theology. In case you are unaware, Paul’s sayings about works have to do with a major issue in his time that has little to do with religious experience today. People thought you had to be Jewish to be kosher to God. Paul’s audience largely consisted of non-Jews who had attended synagogue and who believed to really get close to God they should convert and become Jewish. Paul’s anti-works rhetoric is about saying “if you think you have to become Jewish to be loved by God, you insult God and dishonor Jesus who died for you.”

Paul has plenty of positive things to say about works (deeds of lovingkindness and acts of obedience to God’s commands). When he says something negative about works, he tends to mean “seeking God’s favor in ways that dishonor the love and kindness of God, as if you can do something that forces God to accept you.” But he says plenty of positive things about works. “He will render to each one according to his works.” “To those who, by patience in well-doing, seek for glory . . . he will give eternal life.” “There will be . . . glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good.” And Paul hundreds of times charges his readers to go out and do good works, to love and visit and show hospitality. And he commands his readers not to sin. And in Ephesians 2:10, right after hearing about how it is all by “grace” (God’s kindness), we read, “We are . . . created in Messiah Yeshua for good works.”

If seeing the word grace in a New Testament verse draws up for you a “works are worthless; just believe some facts about Christ” theology, then you may want to develop the habit of substituting words like “favor” or “kindness” in verses of the English Bible where grace is used.

And another thing people are often told about grace (the notion of God’s undeserved favor upon his children, gifts he gives out of sheer benevolence) is that Judaism does not believe in it. Christianity is thought of as the Jesus-not-works-of-legalism religion and Judaism is the working-to-earn-their-own-salvation religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Christians ought to look to Judaism to learn how to un-learn the bad grace theology that is commonly preached in pulpits across America. Jewish writings tend to give a balanced approach to practical holiness within a theology of divine kindness. Therefore, especially at the High Holidays, we pray, “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and hear us, for we have no good deeds.”

But while we recognize divine kindness and undeserved gifts from God, we do not misunderstand how a love relationship works. In some senses of the word kindness is reciprocated. With our friends, spouses, children, we show love and receive acts of love in return. This is not legalism. We can say both “I received back what I gave to them” and also “I am undeservedly blessed to have their love.”

All the more so this is true with God. Being necessarily perfect, we can imagine how our childish struggles with selfishness must appear to him. Yet he is kind to take even small acts of goodness and willingness to change on our part as worthy of his affection.