This month, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we are looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation. This week we are exploring the principle of Grace Alone.
Grace can be one of those words that Christians use a lot without really being sure about what it actually means. It has a rich depth of meaning and nuances which can it difficult to define. However, in Romans 5:15-17, for example, Paul uses the Greek word for ‘grace’ (charis) with two words for ‘gift’ (charisma and dorea). This leads me to think of grace as a gift which God freely gives to us.
We can understand God’s grace in both narrower and broader ways. As I grew up in the church I understood God’s grace pretty much as the forgiveness of sins so we can go to heaven when we die. Romans 5:15-19 broadens this understanding of grace to include righteousness (God making everything that is wrong in us right again) and living in triumph over sin and death (v17 NLT). Paul goes on to write that God’s grace also gives us a new and right relationship with God which we can live in new ways (v18). So God’s grace gives us more than a place in heaven when we die. God’s grace gives us a new life to live now in right relationships and in freedom.
Paul goes on in Romans 8:32 to explain that God’s grace is even broader when he writes, ‘Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?’ (NLT). The word he uses for ‘give’ here is again from the Greek word charis. By using this word Paul points us to see that every good thing we have is a gift of grace from God. Luther picked this up in his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism when he wrote that God gives us everything we need for life in this world ‘only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserve it.’
More than being a doctrine to be debated, this understanding of grace is something we can live every day. It can be so easy for us to become discontent with what we have, and to want more, or newer, or better things or relationships. However, imagine what life could be like if we saw every good thing we have as a grace-filled gift from a God who loves us. This becomes the hope and goal of the teaching of Grace Alone. It is about finding contentment and joy every day of our lives, giving thanks to God for all the good things he gives us as he provides us with everything we need for life in this world and in the next.
However, every gift comes at a price. I can’t just go into a shop and expect them to give me something for free because I want to give it away as a gift. I still need to pay for the gift if I am going to give it as an act of grace to another person. This is why the cross of Jesus is crucial to our understanding of God’s grace. For God to give us all these gifts, someone had to pay for them. That is one way we can think of what Jesus did for us on the cross. When we looked at Scripture Alone, we saw that the central story of the Bible is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect life, his innocent death, and his victory over death in his resurrection, God shows us grace by giving us forgiveness, a new relationship with him, a place in his family, and every good thing we need. Jesus paid for it all by dying on the cross, so we can receive God’s goodness as a totally free gift.
For people who believe in God’s grace to us in Jesus, then, we are called to extend God’s grace to others by living in grace-filled ways with the people around us. If we understand grace as God giving to us, then living as grace-filled people means that what we give to others is more important that what we get from them. This is significant for us as a church which is called to be continually re-forming because I often hear ‘getting’ language in the church – either what we want to ‘get’ from people or what we want to ‘get’ people to do for us. The language of ‘getting’ is not the language of grace. As people who see Grace Alone as one of our foundational teachings, it is vital that we embody the grace of God in our relationships and in our community of faith by looking to how we can be agents of God’s grace to the people around us, both inside and outside of our church. That means using language of giving rather than getting, looking more to what we can give that what we can get. To be a grace-giving church means passing God’s grace on to others, no matter what the cost, especially those whom we think deserve it the least and need it the most, like the people Jesus ate with in Matthew 9:9-13.
Over the years, I have learned that the Reformation teaching of Grace Alone means much more than we are forgiven so we get to go to heaven when we die. It is a whole new way of viewing ourselves, our relationships, our possessions, our church, and the people around us. Grace Alone means that every good thing we have is a free gift from a God who loves us and has given his only Son to die for us. As people who receive this grace from God, the Holy Spirit wants to continually be re-forming us so that we can participate with God in his mission to extend his grace to everyone.
More to think about:
- If someone asked you what ‘grace’ means, how would you explain it to that person? How do you understand ‘grace’?
- What do you think of understanding grace as giving? How does that compare with your understanding of grace? Does it help you understand grace better or make it more difficult?
- Do you think it would be easy or difficult for you to think of everything you have as a gift from a grace-filled and loving God? How might thinking that way change the way you see the things & relationships you have? How might it change the way you see God?
- Every gift still comes at a price. What is your reaction to the idea that God willingly gave the most precious thing he had, his only Son, in order to show you grace? What are your thoughts about Jesus’ willingness to give his life on the cross for you so you can experience grace from God?
- Who is someone you know who needs grace from you? What can you do for that person to extend God’s grace to her/him?