Rebuilding the Foundations
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In evangelical churches, grace is often confused with mercy. The result is a very poor understanding of the real power of God's favor.
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Here is a biblical explanation of grace:
The grace of God that saves all men appeared, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and the worldly lusts, we should live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age, awaiting the blessed hope and glorious appearing of the glory of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us in order to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a prized people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14
Paul is telling us here that grace actively teaches us to live holy. Grace is provided by Jesus' selfless sacrifice, so that we would know how to live "sensibly, righteously, and godly." It is the power behind our redemption from all lawlessness, and it is the reason that his prized people are zealous for good works.
Grace breaks the power of sin (Rom. 6:14). Grace gives us the power to stand (Rom. 5:2). The free gift of grace mentioned in Ephesians 2:8-9 is the power to do the good works mentioned in Ephesians 2:10.
Grace is also the power behind our spiritual gifts (1 Pet. 4:10-11).
After I show people these verses, they often ask if grace is the same as the power of the Spirit. Well, yes and no.
Simply put, grace means favor. I had a friend once who was the niece of the dictator of a small South American Country. Because she was a niece, she had the favor of the dictator. As it turns out, she did not want his favor because she knew eventually he would be violently overthrown. She fled to another country.
Had she stayed, though, she would have been ensured a good income and a good house. She would have had favorable treatment in legal matters and a certain amount of social honor because of her last name. The dictator's favor would have been manifested in many ways.
We are in the favor of God so we reap much more benefit than any earthly ruler could offer. We are living in a foreign land, the countries of this earth, so along with the powerful and protective grace of God we become the enemy of God's enemy, the devil and his messengers (or angels). We do not fear him, though, because "greater is he who is in us that he who is in the world" (1 Jn. 4:4)
Our faith has put us in the favor of God, or perhaps we could say that faith put us in the "good graces" of God. Everything that we get because of our faith in Jesus is thus rightly termed "grace."
Thus when people say that grace sounds a lot like the work of the Holy Spirit in us, the reason is that the work of the Holy Spirit is part of grace. Mercy is a part of grace, but it is not grace. Everything that God does for us qualifies as grace because grace is simply favor, and the grace of God is thus divine favor. God gives a lot of things because we have believed that Jesus is the Christ and Son of God.
Thus, grace teaches us, as we read in Titus 2:11-12, but grace is not a person. It is the Holy Spirit who is our Teacher, but we have his teaching because we have the favor of God.
This misconception is possibly the most damaging mistake in Evangelical Theology. If not it is right behind and related to "going to heaven by faith alone." We are born again and equipped for our journey through this life by faith alone, but one day we will face a judgment that is according to works, and we will not have a "free pass" that day unless we have acted on the grace given to us in Christ. Ephesians 5:3-7 is excellent proof of that truth, but there are dozens of other verses that say the same thing (e.g., Rom. 8:12-13; Gal. 6:8-9; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).
Sexual immorality and all uncleanness or greed, let it not be being named among you, as is fitting for saints; nor indecency, foolish talking, or smutty talking; these are inappropriate. It is better to give thanks. For you are knowing this, that every sexually immoral, unclean, or greed person—who is an idolater—has no inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God. Let none of you be deceived with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God is coming on the sons of disobedience. (Eph. 5:3-7)
My experience in evangelical circles is that a good, strong word, something that convicts the heart of believers, is often answered with, "Remember, brother, we are saved by grace."
I want to answer, "Yes I know we are saved by grace. That is why I am exhorting you like this. Those who do not have grace are slaves to sin, but you are not. Instead, you have grace teaching you from the inside to deny ungodliness and worldly lust (Tit. 2:11-12), and sin has no power over you (Rom. 6:14)."
People act as though I am forgetting grace or forgetting that we need the power of the Holy Spirit to obey. Instead, I am remembering that we need the power of the Spirit, I am believing that they have the power of the Spirit, and so I am exhorting them to do what grace exhorts them to do: deny ungodliness and worldly lust. The fact that they think grace exempts them from feeling convicted or from putting any effort into obeying the exhortation indicates that they are the ones who do not understand the grace of God or the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jude, the Lord's brother, warns us not to turn the grace of God into a license for loose living (Jude 4). I know good Christians who are confident they would never use grace as an excuse for sin, but when they are exhorted to go further than comfortable status as an American Christian, they excuse themselves using grace. They may not be turning grace into a license for loose living, but they are turning grace into an license for not cleansing themselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1).
If you have not read Sure Foundation, you should read that before anything else on this site. This page on grace and the "Sure Foundation" page are important foundations for the rest of this site. If you have read it, I recommend going to the categorized articles page.