Every profession, hobby, art, science, and “in-group” has its own vocabulary or jargon, including special meanings to ordinary words. A lawyer’s tort is not the same a chef’s torte or a restaurateur’s tortilla. “Shaft” may mean something quite different to a miner, an engineer, or to someone who has just been fired!
A clear understanding of any important topic is based on an exact knowledge of the precise meaning of major terms.
Our organization is called the “Grace Evangelical Society.” Society is a generally understood term, and Evangelical has become a widely used (and misused) word for conservative, generally Protestant. Christian people and views. But what does the Grace in our name mean? A sermon title I once saw was “Grace Is Not a Blue-eyed Blonde.” Well, actually sometimes it is! Parents who name their daughter Grace are stressing the objective meaning of the word: graciousness, loveliness, kindness. Similarly, when we speak of a “grace period” in paying bills, rent, or insurance premiums, it means we won’t be “zapped” if we don’t quite make the exact date requested. When a Hispanic girl says, “Muchas gracias” (“many thanks”), she is using a Spanish word derived from the same Latin word from which we get the English word grace (gratia). During the great 16th century Reformation in Europe, one of the battle cries of the Reformers, speaking of salvation, was “sola gratia,” “by grace alone.”
A French Canadian boxer might use a “francophone” derivative when he threatens an opponent with his left hook, his “coup de grace” (“blow of mercy,” lit).
These are all popular and, I trust, helpful, everyday uses of grace, but as Bible Christians, our main interest is in the use of grace in the Word of God.
In the English OT, we find the word grace very seldom (Gen 6:8 is a well-known example: “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”), but the concept of grace is prominent. For example, God’s gracious treatment of the Ninevites, Israel’s cruel enemies, was not appreciated by the less-than-merciful prophet, Jonah! And why did God give the vile Canaanites 400 years to repent? Grace. Personally, I think the widely used Hebrew word hesed (rhymes with blessed) is often close to charis in meaning. Common translations are “lovingkindness, ” “mercy,” “loyal love,” and occasionally “grace.”
In the NT the lovely Greek word charis (also used in English as a girl’s name-Karis or Charis) is very common.
Sometimes it has everyday meanings as in our illustrations.
G. Abbott-Smith’s classic lexicon refers to the more theological meanings as subjective “on the part of the giver, grace, graciousness, kindness, goodwill, favour ” (p. 479). In the NT, when referring to God it means “divine favour, grace, with emphasis on its freeness and universality: Luke 1:30, Acts 14:26, Rom 1:7,1 Cor 1:3, and others” (ibid). (GES supporters should appreciate this definition!) When charis refers to the response of a receiver, it means thanks or gratitude.
All in all, a charming and beautiful word, couldn’t we say?
Its first NT occurrence is in Luke 1:30 where the mother of our Lord is greeted by Gabriel as having “found favor with God.” In the same account (1:28) occurs the first of only two NT usages of the related verb (charitoo), where Mary is said to be “highly favored” (passive participle; she is not the source of grace as the Latin gratia plena-“full of grace”-could imply). The other NT usage is about all believers being “accepted” or “graced” in the Beloved (Eph 1:6).
Between Luke and Revelation there are many doctrinal uses of charis. These include such important concepts as “being justified freely by His grace” (Rom 3:24), “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14), “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9), “saved by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8), and many more.
So central is grace to NT Christianity that it became the apostolic greeting to the saints. The original recipients of the epistles (and we, their spiritual descendants) are greeted by “grace to you” in Rom 1:7,1 Cor 1:3, 2 Cor 1:2, Gal 1:3, Eph 1:2, and so on.
Of course, it is possible to say “grace to you” and really mean “grace highly diluted with works, law, and human tradition to you.”
We who believe in charis must be always vigilant to communicate God’s grace unencumbered with our additions, dilutions, and contradictions. Otherwise grace is no longer grace. It has lost its graciousness and power, not to mention its charm.
The English hymnwriter Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) put it well:
Grace! ’tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to the ear;
Heav’n with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.
Saved by grace alone!
This is all my plea;
Jesus died for all mankind,
And Jesus died for me.