The word grace is part of every Christian's vocabulary, yet for many the subject is confusing. Let's let God's Word give us a clear understanding.
Few people — even professing Christians! — really understand what grace is. And rather than searching the Bible for God's teaching on the subject, they get bogged down in debate over whether grace does away with God's law. Is grace, as many assume, merely unmerited pardon for sin — or is it much more? Why do we need grace, if we do? Does grace abrogate the need to keep God's commandments? We need to know! Let's go to the Bible and let God's Word answer.
Grace in the New Testament
The New Testament Greek word translated "grace" is charis. Charis was a widely used word in the first century; its primary meaning is "that which gives pleasure or delight." But, like the English word grace, charis held a variety of associated meanings not dealing with the grace of God toward man. Before we see what God's grace is, let's first look at these other uses. Luke, in describing Jesus' childhood development, wrote, "And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:40). In other words, God was well pleased with Jesus Christ. Obviously, charis is not used to mean unmerited pardon for sin in this case, since Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15, II Corinthians 5:21). In the book of Acts, Luke uses charis to express kindness, favor or goodwill toward another. God gave Joseph "favor [charis] and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt" (Acts 7:10). Also, the Church was given favor, or charis, with the people around Jerusalem (Acts 2:46-47). Charis can also express thankfulness. Paul said, "But thanks [charis] be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Corinthians 15:57). Finally, charis can be used to denote a gift or favor done as an act of goodwill: "Then the high priest and the chief men of the Jews informed him [Festus] against Paul; and they petitioned him, asking a favor [charis] against him, that he would summon him to Jerusalem — while they lay in ambush along the road to kill him" (Acts 25:2-3).
Charis was used by the Greek world in all the above senses. But the New Testament writers applied this word in a new sense to describe what God is doing for humanity. They realized that God's plan of salvation is so kind, so merciful, so unmerited and so thankworthy that it is the ultimate charis! God's purpose is to reproduce Himself. Those whom God calls (John 6:44) are given the chance to repent and accept Jesus Christ's sacrifice. Then, upon being baptized, they are given God's Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), which enables them to develop godly character and ultimately be born into the very Family of God (I John 3:1-2). Charis is an all-encompassing word for this whole process of conversion that is being accomplished by God's power.
Why grace is necessary
Why is grace essential to salvation (Ephesians 2:8)? And why are all efforts to earn salvation futile (verse 9)? There are two reasons. First, "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23) — sin being the transgression of God's law (I John 3:4) — and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We have all earned the death penalty. And just as any government today realizes, the violation of law cannot go unpunished, or anarchy would ensue. No, a penalty must be paid, regardless of how sorry the criminal is or how good he promises to be in the future. Similarly, our regret and subsequent good behavior can never pay the penalty for sin, because the penalty is death. And God's laws are enforced. God does not compromise with sin by allowing a way of life that leads to unhappiness, misery and death to go unpunished. The penalty for our sins must be paid. Second, not only have we sinned, but man by himself is incapable of overcoming sin. Paul said in Romans 8:7, "The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." Our best efforts are futile unless God gives us the help we need. God's grace toward us begins when God begins calling us. Unless God opens our minds, we cannot understand His purpose (John 6:44). Paul commented, "God... called me through His grace" (Galatians 1:15). The very fact that you can understand the truths of God as revealed in the Bible is because of God's grace. But being called is just the beginning of grace. The process of conversion requires more than understanding. It requires change, or repentance. We must freely choose to obey God — and unless God shows us what to repent of and the importance of obeying Him, we cannot repent. "The goodness of God leads you to repentance," Paul explained in Romans 2:4. But being sorry for sinning, and changing, is not enough. So God's grace continues with Jesus Christ's sacrifice: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation [an atoning sacrifice] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness" (Romans 3:23-25). Jesus Christ paid the penalty of sin, which is death, in our stead. Christ's sacrifice is the supreme expression of divine grace. It is totally unmerited (Romans 5:6-8). Christ's sacrifice frees us from the penalty of breaking God's law. But it does not do away with the law! Think: Would God now allow the violation of laws that necessitated the death of His own Son? Of course not. Grace does not nullify God's law. Rather, grace is necessary because God's law is eternally binding. As Paul explained: "Shall we continue in sin [the transgression of God's law — I John 3:4] that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2) Continuing in sin would mock Jesus Christ's supreme sacrifice.
Unmerited but not unconditional
Here is where many misunderstand. Grace is unmerited but it is not unconditional. There are two conditions: repentance and faith (Mark 1:5, Acts 2:38). Although we can never earn salvation, God does set certain requirements for receiving His grace. Let's understand. Once God, by His grace, reveals to us the need to repent and humbly accept Jesus Christ's sacrifice as payment for our sins, we must do our part. We must voluntarily yield ourselves to God, admitting where we have been wrong, and make the necessary changes. Then we must be baptized as an outward expression of our repentance and faith (Romans 6:3-6). Don't misunderstand — God's grace is free and unmerited, but if we refuse to change our lives — to obey God — He is under no obligation to bestow His grace upon us. God will not allow Christ's sacrifice and His grace to be taken lightly. The process continues. Peter tells us we must now "grow in grace" (II Peter 3:18, Authorized Version). Grace is unmerited pardon for sin, but it is much more. For if grace were merely the unmerited forgiveness of sin, how could we grow in grace except by sinning more? No, we must, while coming under God's grace, overcome sin. If you are truly under God's grace, you will be striving diligently to obey God's commandments. Paul said: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11-14). We are to develop godly character by growing and overcoming in order that we can ultimately be born into the very Family of God. But we cannot do this alone (Matthew 19:25-26). We need God's Spirit. And His Spirit, by His grace toward us, is a gift (Acts 10:45, 11:17). God's Spirit gives us the power we need to develop character. But we must work at it. Paul said, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (I Corinthians 15:10). To grow in grace is to overcome sin through coupling God's Spirit with our own efforts. Without God's help, overcoming sin would be impossible. Finally, after we have developed godly character through God's Spirit, one final act of grace is bestowed upon us — eternal life! We deserved death, but will receive life eternal. As Paul said, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). The world is deceived into believing in a shallow, limited concept of God's grace. True grace is more than the forgiveness of sin; it is the total process of salvation. Peter summed it up beautifully: "But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.... I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God in which you stand" (I Peter 5:10-12).