Grace is one of the most powerful and evocative words in Christian lingo, but if you ask Christians to define it properly most of them will scratch their heads. Very likely, they’ll try to use it in a sentence. In my experience, three types of use emerge.
The first (and most evangelical) is to speak of grace as forgiveness. We see this in prayers that begin with the words, “Our Gracious Heavenly Father;” we see it when people claim, “If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s present when others reflect that “there but for the grace of God go I.” In each of these phrases, grace means something like forgiveness. We pray to the God who is forgiving, we acknowledge that if it weren’t for forgiveness we wouldn’t be here, and we claim that without the experience of forgiveness we might be a lot more rotten. Grace is forgiveness.
The second (and most Catholic) is to speak of grace as a state of sinlessness. We use grace this way when we hear about someone being “in a state of grace.” Mary, addressed by Gabriel, is called “full of grace,” and Catholic theology typically interprets this to mean that she possessed a special sinless state (which made it possible for her to carry the Christ child). Formally, sacramental theology holds that the performance of the sacraments (eucharist, baptism, etc.) are visible signs of invisible grace. The performance of baptism removes the stain of original sin (restoring the infant to a state of grace); the regular performance of the eucharist restores the person to union with Christ and the state of grace that is consonant with that union. Grace is sinlessness.
A third (and more universal) way to speak of grace is to evoke a kind of goodness, generosity, elegance, or noblesse. Perhaps you’ve heard someone exclaim, after experiencing some unexpected good, “Well, that’s a grace!” Or perhaps you’ve seen an excellent dancer and remarked, “What grace!” You may have heard someone describe another person as a gracious host, or a house as a gracious house. The word ‘grace’ in each case evokes this sense. Interestingly, the word noblesse originally referred to nobility from a foreign country—in this respect, the grace of Christian persons is the representation of their foreign (heavenly) manners and sensibilities. Such a person embodies a goodness, a generosity, and an elegance that is otherworldly, therefore gracious.
There is enough variety between these three conceptions of grace to suggest that none of the three captures the essential heart of whatever ‘grace’ means. Sinlessness, forgiveness, and noblesse are similar, but not the same thing. So, what definition of grace gets at the heart of grace, without excluding these other interpretations?
A classic, Protestant, Sunday School definition of grace can be found in the following acronym: Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. I must admit that I’ve always found this definition somehow lacking. First of all, it is difficult to conceive. What are the riches? Are they all at Christ’s expense? Was no grace possible before Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead? It also seems conceptually cumbersome to plug it into scripture that utilizes the word grace. Consider the opening prayer: “Our [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] Heavenly Father.” This now seems strange and redundant. Or, to speak of a host, “He’s a very [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] host.” This seems to render excessively theological the duties of hospitality. The most sensible exchange, perhaps ironically for Protestants, would be Gabriel’s: “Hail Mary, full of [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense].” On this reading Mary, somehow, receives the merits of salvation prior to Christ’s death and resurrection.
A friend of mine alerted me to another common definition of grace—this time in contrast to mercy. It goes like this:
–> Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.
–> Grace is getting something we don’t deserve.
To a degree, this is fair enough—on account of God’s mercy, humans in Christ are not punished for their sins. On account of God’s grace, humans in Christ receive an unmerited salvation. (Grace as “unmerited favour” is another classic definition of the term.) But I want to observe that these definitions rely quite heavily on their situation within a law court. Mercy and Grace are given tactile meaning by means of their interpretation with exclusive respect to sin and forgiveness. Is there no grace where there is no sin? If graciousness is an attribute of God, does our lack of sin limit His capacity to express that attribute? If mercy is an attribute of God, does it depend on sinners—on human failure—to activate? The law court appears to rely too heavily on a temporary human state to provide a suitable basis for our definition of grace (and of mercy as well).
In the New Testament, of course, the word we translate grace is charis, and its definition is ‘favour’—and yet it is favour in a very specific sense of social exchange. In the patronage system of the ancient world, to receive the favour of a superior often meant the reception of a gift, in exchange for which the recipient would render service. The link between the two concepts is further enshrined in the relationship between the words “charis” and “charismata”—the first is favour, the second is the explicit gifts given in favour (explicitly in the New Testament, the gifts of the Spirit). We still retain a semblance of these meanings when we remember that the Latin translation of charis becomes gratis, from which we derive our words grace, gratitude (thankfulness for a gift), gratuity (a gift given in exchange for service), and gratuitous (a gift exceeding what is required or expected). Gifts, and gift giving, in relationships with obligations, are at the heart of the meaning of the word grace. In view of this, a passage such as Ephesians 2:8 may take on some interesting nuance: “For by grace (charis) you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift (doron) of God.” God, in patron relationship with His people, offers them favour in the form of a specific gift. We get salvation, God gets something in return.
I am convinced that the primary frame for understanding the nature of grace is not the law court, but covenant. John Levenson has written compellingly in his book The Love of God about the nature of Hebrew (and ancient near eastern) covenants, how they make explicit the terms and conditions of relationship between suzerain lord and vassal. The Lord offers certain benefits to the vassal—protection, companionship, financial benefits, and in exchange it is quite common for the vassal to promise love in return. In a covenant context, God offers His people gifts (charis, charismata), and the people offer God love and service in return.
This situation seems to make a great deal of sense out of the New Testament account of God’s grace and the human response to that grace. God, in Christ, has established a new covenant with the people of the earth. God will be our God, and we will be His people. He, showing the favour of a liege lord to His people, gifts us with forgiveness (so that we can stay in His presence), with his Spirit (so that we can be equipped for His service), with new hearts (so that we can fulfill the covenant stipulations), and He effects all of this through the gift of Himself through the Son (Who makes all this possible). In a covenant frame, grace is the favour and gifting of God which, being received by His covenant people, demands a response of covenant love and obedience.
Grace, then, is favours/gifts from God which demand love and obedience. It follows that all things have the potential to be grace, if they are received rightly. Life itself, as a gift from God, is a grace the acknowledgement of which demands new love and obedience. Every instantiation of beauty, received as grace, is an apprehension of something which demands love and obedience. And, if we are to take Job as our guide, in an astonishing way every experience of horror—so received as if from God—can also be interpreted as a demand for love and obedience (“Shall we accept good from His hand, and not ill?” Job 2:10). Furthermore, a covenant frame for grace can contain all of our common understandings of grace—within the covenant, of course forgiveness is a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); sinlessness is also a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); and noblesse is a mode of grace (the witness of which also demands our love, obedience, and imitation).
Fuzzy definitions make fuzzy Christians. A good definition of grace should equip us to better fulfill our obligations as recipients of God’s favours. And, if we believe that all of life is a gift, then to live rightly in response to it is to embody the very nature of grace—covenant people receiving gifts and returning love, obedience, and gratitude.