If you would have asked me when I was a Christian teenager two decades ago about God's grace, I could have easily explained it. I might have told you about the acronym "God's Riches at Christ's Expense," or maybe I would've explained the idea of "unmerited favor." I may have outlined some of the theological squabbles about grace and salvation among various Christian traditions. And I definitely would have quoted Ephesians 2:8–9 to make sure you understood that it's free.
But now, decades later with some life under my belt, I've learned grace is bigger, deeper, and more expansive than a simplified acronym or a theological transaction. Grace is much more and does much more than I was able to understand in my youth. And I'm certain that decades into the future—when I've walked through more joys and heartaches and hopes and fears—my experience of grace will be even richer.
Understanding the God of grace
In Scripture, "grace" draws together several key biblical concepts. In the Old Testament, it's the "favor" God shows (hen in Hebrew); it's being merciful and compassionate (hanan); it's steadfast love (hesed). In the New Testament, the Greek word charis builds upon these concepts to communicate the favor of God understood, particularly, through the lens of the forgiveness and redemption we find in Jesus' death and resurrection.
But understanding grace is about more than dissecting biblical terms; it's an understanding we gain as we grow in intimacy with our God of grace. When God revealed himself to Moses, God described himself this way: "Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin" (Exodus 34:6–7). God is just, righteous, and holy—but grace is also central to his character. It's in God's DNA—at the very core of God's being. And as we journey through life with this God of compassion, mercy, unfailing love, and forgiveness, we experience his grace . . . and it changes us.
1. Grace forgives us.
In one of Scripture's most shocking stories, God paints a picture of just how big his grace is. During the eighth century b.c. when God's people were embracing a culture of idolatry, corruption, and injustice, God chose Hosea to be his prophet and speak truth to his people. But God asked Hosea to go way beyond mere words. He called Hosea to also tell the story of grace with his life: God told Hosea to marry a prostitute.
Hosea's wife Gomer did just what you'd expect. She cheated on Hosea, she deserted him, she broke his heart over and over—but he was still supposed to love her and be faithful to her. Their marriage symbolized God's faithfulness to unfaithful Israel . . . and it also reflects us, doesn't it? Ouch! It hurts to be brutally honest and see ourselves in Gomer. But it illustrates the extent of God's forgiving love for us.
God, in his grace, can forgive whatever you've done. No sin is too big for the redemptive power of the Cross. No burden of guilt is too heavy for Christ to carry. No broken vow can ever tear asunder God's love for you. Even your deepest, darkest secret is known to the God who sees you (Genesis 16:13). "For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard," Paul reminds us in Romans. "Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty of our sins" (Romans 3:23–24).
When we squarely face this truth—the whole lot of our very own sins, the great "big" heavy ones as well as the "small" pestering ones—divinely dealt with on the Cross, it leaves us in awe. We are truly—eternally—forgiven!
2. Grace convicts us.
In one unnamed woman's moment of deepest humiliation in the Gospel of John, facing public judgment and stoning, Jesus spoke these words: "Where are your accusers? Didn't even one of them condemn you?"
When she answered "no," he—the only one without sin, the only one who could have thrown a deadly stone—said, "Neither do I. Go and sin no more" (John 8:10–11).
Sin and guilt condemn us. They throw accusing stones. They label us by our failings. They burden us with punishment. They lock us up in a prison of hopelessness. But the grace of God does not condemn, it convicts—and there's a crucial difference.
Conviction offers us a different response to sin, as I describe in my devotional study Surrender Your Guilt:
Jesus, in his grace, saw a different life for this woman. He saw a future where everyone else just saw her past. He saw freedom where everyone else—perhaps even the woman—just saw sin's shackles. He saw the life-changing power of conviction in place of the soul-wearying burden of condemnation. Jesus unshackled her from the past and empowered her to live a brand new life!
Jesus' interaction with the woman caught in adultery is a powerful picture of the truth Paul described: "Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is Christ Jesus our Lord. . . . [T]here is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus" (Romans 7:24–25; 8:1; emphasis added).
Jesus didn't say to her, "You're fine. Just ignore those judgmental Pharisees and keep on with your way of life." No, he clearly acknowledged her sin while also giving her a vision for a different future. God's grace forgives us, but it also offers us the painful gift of conviction: naming our sin, helping us to see it clearly, but offering us a new way of being.
3. Grace costs us.
The grace of God is free (Ephesians 2:8–9), but it is not a "freebie." It's not some great BOGO deal, or a bonus we enjoy like a free sample vanilla latte. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in The Cost of Discipleship: "What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us."
Grace came at the price of the Cross. This "free" gift cost the brutal, agonizing death of Christ, suffered for you and for me. Bonhoeffer lamented the cheapening of grace he observed in the church in which people seemed to relish the idea of God's forgiveness while neglecting their need for repentance and contrition.
The sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7 reminds us that grace is no trivial blessing. With tears, perfume, and great love she knelt before our Lord in an act of intimacy and devotion. In response to the scathing indignation of his host Simon and the other pious onlookers, Jesus told a convicting story of profound forgiveness inspiring devoted love. Of the woman, Jesus said, "her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love" (Luke 7:47).
She got it. Deep down, she understood the costly depth of God's forgiveness in her life, and she responded with action: with love, devotion, and worship. Similarly, when we really "get" God's grace—when we face the depth of our sin and when we look upon Christ's suffering love on the Cross—we begin to see that grace demands a response from us. It cost God much . . . and it costs us too. It costs us our will, our self-centeredness, our willy-nilly way of life. It asks us for deep love, for devotion, for obedience, for discipleship. As Bonhoeffer explained, "Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him."
4. Grace empowers us.
Many of us are really good at quoting Ephesians 2:8–9, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it." And what beauty and truth there is in these verses that tell us that grace is a free gift from God. Thank you, Jesus!
But we tend to stop at verse 9. We cut Paul short where he, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wasn't yet done. If you look at the context of the passage, Paul had more to say. In fact, the idea of grace and salvation he describes in verses 8 and 9 drives toward and culminates in verse 10: "For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." Grace isn't just about what we are saved from or our future eternal destination; it's also about who God has created us to be and what God has purposed us to do in the here and now.
We are God's masterpiece—his "handiwork" and his "workmanship."This is the Greek word poema from which we derive our English word poem. Handcrafted by God, we're made to participate in working God's good in this world! As the NIV renders it, we're "created in Christ Jesus to do good works." These aren't "brownie-point good works"—Paul already told us clearly that we don't earn our salvation. These are poema-good-works. This is joining with God in doing what he made us to do.
As we learn to more fully receive and embrace the grace of God in our lives, we're enabled to live in the confidence that comes from God's love and the freedom that comes from God's forgiveness. In dignity, joy, and strength, we can go out into the world created anew, embodying God's agape love, and sharing his grace. We learn to put our talents, passions, and spiritual gifts into grace's employ, relying the strength of the Holy Spirit to embody actions that reflect God's character of love, justice, truth, and mercy.
5. Grace sustains us.
Despite all these amazing truths about grace, for many of us, fully embracing God's profound love and complete forgiveness isn't as easy as it sounds. "One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God's forgiveness," reflected Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son. "There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning. . . . Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing."
We miss out on the full richness of God's big grace if we pressure ourselves to strive harder and harder, by our own strength, to live the "perfect Christian life" (all the while secretly feeling like guilty failures). Instead, Scripture urges us to embrace the grace-drenched, God-dependent life. "We creatures, we jolly beggars, give glory to God by our dependence," writes Phillip Yancey in What's So Amazing About Grace. "Our wounds and defects are the very fissures through which grace might pass."
It's here, in ongoing utter reliance upon God and his forgiveness, that we experience the powerful, life-changing work of grace. "[W]e all make many mistakes," James 3:2 reminds us, and it's a truth we each experience daily. But, thanks be to God, we find this miraculous hope for each day: "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
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Kelli B. Trujillois an author, editor, and Midwest mom of three. Her newest book is Surrender Your Guilt (Wesleyan Publishing House). Join her in conversation at KelliTrujillo.comand follow her on Twitter @kbtrujillo.