After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11 ESV)
To our knowledge Jesus never uttered the word “grace.”
But Paul used the word “grace” often in his letters (at least 82 times). He wrote of our being saved by grace. How did he formulate such a thing? Jesus never said it – why Paul?
According to the Biblical account, the first time any disciple of Jesus Christ said the word “grace” it was Peter, quoted above, in ecumenical council, discussing what to do about the new Gentile converts … with Paul sitting right there. So we see, first, that the New Testament witness is consistent; Christianity is and has always been one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Faith because Peter, who knew Jesus and was the chief of the apostles, and Paul both used the word grace. Peter is Paul’s link to Jesus in the concept of being saved by grace.
Second, talk of grace arose to solve a practical problem created by events. What actually happened is, therefore, a key to understanding grace and thus correcting a widespread misunderstanding. We have heard, for instance, that grace is the unmerited favor of God. But that definition is an abstraction and largely misleading. That definition makes grace a function of God’s mind rather than his redemptive action in history. In the passage above Peter described God’s act in saving Gentiles, which he personally facilitated, to wit: What he witnessed at Cornelius’ house and what he experienced himself as a Jewish convert to Christ he called “grace.” This was after Paul reported what God as doing through him. So, their understanding of grace is fact-driven.
But before analyzing the salvation historical factors that provide an accurate definition of grace, third, we must critique the traditional definition of unmerited favor. The most obvious weakness of the idea of unmerited favor is that if grace is unmerited then why doesn’t everyone have grace? The Universalists, carried along by the idea of unmerited favor preach that, indeed, God does give everyone grace and so we are all saved.
To counter that notion the orthodox believer might argue that grace is offered freely but some do not “accept” it. But that does not solve the problem. The act of “accepting,” though it sounds passive, is a work that a man must do so does not fit the term “unmerited.” Logically, the Calvinists are correct that if anything is required of a man in furtherance of his own salvation one has established a work and thus merit. “Accepting” is then, and has become in many evangelical circles, a kind of legalism, with double pre-destination the only logical cure.
The less obvious weakness of “unmerited favor” lies in the second term. The question is how God distributes his blessings and favor.
To answer that question we must begin at ground level, knocking down all presumption and assuming that we know nothing of God’s will, plan, and purpose. The Bible says, for instance, that God does not show favoritism, per se, merited, unmerited, or dyed the color purple:
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35 ESV)
There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:22-23 ESV)
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:11-13 ESV)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 ESV)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11 ESV)
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (James 2:1 ESV)
From these passages we see that the Jewish idea of special election attaching to them as Jews is passé. Circumcision was the sign of a covenant that was in this very council being rejected. Along with the story of how God manifested grace to the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house Peter included a dénouement of the old Jewish covenant with which they were all familiar: God obviously was not blessing that covenant any longer because it was a continual source of frustration, pain, and anxiety. The advent of Christ and the religion that he established was vastly different. It had universal appeal and is offered to anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. It was accompanied by signs and wonders by which God testified to the Gentles being “acceptable” to him. That is, the Jews are not the special people any more. That is Peter’s principal point in his summary before the council above. God will save both Jews and Gentiles by his grace, exactly what Paul wrote several times.
Notice what Peter did *not* say in his speech above. He made no reference to the trance that he entered, the vision that he saw of a sheet let down, or the decree that God made, “Do not call unclean what I have cleansed.” This exclusion of material fact focuses our attention on what exactly he called “grace.” The vision was not the grace. The free selection of food was not the grace to which he referred. The decree was not referred to as grace. Again, what actually happened at Cornelius’ house takes grace out of the realm of speculation, theology, or even of special revelation. What he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears at a point in time and space caused him to say “grace.”
Likewise, what Paul experienced in his work among the Gentiles caused him to follow Peter in the nomenclature of “grace.”
What did they see that they called “grace?”
What did they see that they called “grace?”
They saw God act. Specifically, they saw the Holy Spirit poured out both on themselves “at first” and then upon Gentiles that believed later. Peter said in the speech above about the event at Cornelius’ house, “Giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us.” That fact alone convinced him that God made no distinction between Gentile and Jew but that all are saved by grace.
Therefore, the definition of grace is the divine activity that saves, specifically the operation of the Holy Spirit, initially and continually, to convict, convince, heal, free, deliver, empower, discipline, correct, sanctify, and lead us in Christian discipleship.
That seems to be what Paul had in mind when the Galatians were tempted to fall away:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:2-6 ESV)
Just as we find Christian “perfection” associated with the ethic of love we see in the New Testament a close association of “grace” with divine power at work to save – in the Spirit, the power of God, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit being exercised effectively. Here are a few passages on point:
And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. (Acts 4:33 ESV)
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. (Acts 6:8 ESV)
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8 ESV)
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. (1 Corinthians 3:10 ESV)
Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. (2 Corinthians 1:15 ESV)
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, (Ephesians 3:7-8 ESV)
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (Ephesians 4:7-8 and 11-12 ESV)
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10-11 ESV)
To conclude the criticism of the popular definition of grace, then, we must say that it is not favor but God acting to find those upon whom he might pour out his blessing. Jesus is described as being “full of grace,” for instance. Some experienced the power of God flowing through him for healing and deliverance. Some did not. Some listened to his word. Some did not. Some became his disciples. Some did not. The grace was the same. It was there in him the whole time. Once a woman drew upon it and Jesus didn’t even know until he felt power leave his body, asking, “Who touched me?”
Fourth, the definition of grace as divine activity makes sense not only from the passages above but also because of the shared root word in Greek: “grace” is translated from CHARIS and a variant is the word “gift,” specifically CHARISMA, that is, reference to the charismatic gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:4, 9, 28, 30, and 31). One receives grace, therefore, when he or she has been acted upon by the Spirit to be converted, or has received the Spirit for empowerment, transformation, and guidance. That is why Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Spirit, which he called “power from on high” and which Peter called the “gift” that yields “manifold grace” (Luke 24:49 and I Peter 4:10).
In this better definition of grace we see, fifth, a contrast with life under the Law of Moses. On the one hand, God had established a new covenant. The specific issue before the council was the proposition that one had to become a Jewish proselyte in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). The council decided that was not true. They *saw* by direct evidence to the contrary that God was saving people by his grace, his divine power and activity, which cleansed hearts through the Faith of Jesus Christ “apart from” Judaism, or “works of the Law.”
On the other hand, the Law of Moses prescribed rituals and behaviors that we in our own power could not do. Peter explained the weakness of the Law in his speech at the council, saying that they should not impose upon Gentiles a religion that the Jews themselves could not bear. Therefore, the early Church arrived at its policy conclusion not by academic or scholastic “debate” alone but by reports of what was happening, which they called “grace:” by his miraculous intervention God helps people enter and fulfill requirements of the new covenant that he established in Christ. With Christianity, then, there is both a new law of love (John ) and a profound change in how it is fulfilled. It is fulfilled, Paul wrote, by those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:xy).
Therefore, when we consider salvation by grace we ought not to engage in speculation about what God might have decreed about this person or that, or guess what God might think in his eternal and immutable mind. If grace is at work we can see it unfolding before our very eyes in time and space. Like Peter and Paul we can be facilitators of grace as we exercise the gifts to meet felt needs. If people either accept or reject this divine activity that will be apparent as well due to the presence or absence, respectively, of changed lives, for when grace happens hearts are cleansed by faith.
Sixth, this definition of grace makes merit almost completely irrelevant to the discussion. God as sovereign may act to save whomever he will. Paul picked up on what Peter said about “grace” and ran with it to justify his work among the Gentiles. Grace enters the Christian lexicon only because of God’s offering covenant to Gentiles as a class of believers, solving a problem of salvation history, which was the subject of the first ecumenical council recorded in Acts.
Seventh, plugging in the new definition of grace radically changes the way we do discipleship. It takes us out of our heads and into real life experience. Our theology becomes much more practical:
· Salvation becomes an on-going and continual process of being made actually righteous by the miracle-working power of God. Salvation is not a one-dimensional belief system or speculation about eternal decrees but an experience of God with beginning, middle, and end. As Peter said above we “will be” saved by grace, future tense.
· It liberates us from certain kinds of mental gymnastics that gloss over sin because by grace are hearts are changed.
· It frees us also from emotional contortions whereby we are tempted to pour the entire Biblical witness into believing the concept of “Christ’s finished work.” By grace we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV). With grace the ideas of work and law are not frightening to us because we have God’s help; our relationship with and reliance upon him are deepened by cooperating in our own salvation.
· This active definition of grace heightens the need for discerning of spirits so that we can identify what God is doing vs. what a man or demon might do. It invites us to watch for God at work and listen to him (see John 5:19 and 30).
· It encourages us to exercise gifts of the Holy Spirit in meeting felt needs with the knowledge, power, and wisdom that God provides.