What is grace?

Grace is not just the fortuitous coalescence of circumstances that allows an individual to self-actualize in the consciousness of one’s infinite potential. Nor is grace just the abstraction of an “undeserved favor of God” objectified historically in “God’s Redemption At Christ’s Expense,” and extended experientially as the “threshold factor” of a regenerative conversion event.

Rather, grace is the dynamic free-flow of God’s activity, consistent with His character, whereby He actuates His life within His creation by His Son, Jesus Christ.

The traditional definition of grace as “an undeserved gift of God” tends to portray “grace” as an entity, a “gift”, something we can “lay hold of” or” possess.” Grace becomes something static. The “undeserved favor of God” still suffers from the same tendency, even if more abstracted.

Grace is a distinctively theistic concept, conceivable only when the distinctive separation between God and man is effectively maintained, conceivable only when the Creator God can act toward the creature man in the operative and dynamic function of the Greater acting on behalf of the lesser.

The grace of God is free and spontaneous. There is no inner necessity or external obligation to account for what God does. God acts functionally, as He does, because he is God.

Grace is divinely determinative. It is the “divine initiative” of God.

God is a self-giving self who expresses Himself in grace. Grace can never be detached from the personal presence and action of God. This is why grace cannot be adequately viewed as a separate “gift”, or a mere attitude of undeserved favor in the mind of God. Grace is not a substance or commodity. Grace is not an attitude or moral persuasion. Grace is not a power or a force. Grace is not quantitative. Grace is as complete as God Himself, and expresses the quality of Himself, His character within His creation.

The content of grace is the expressive function of Himself in His fullness. As Jesus Christ is the functionally expressive agent of God , the “Word”, the One who incarnates God, and makes visible the invisible character of God, it can be said that there is no grace apart from Jesus Christ. The self-giving of God takes place through His Son.

Grace cannot be fully defined as a static “gift” or as a static “attitude” of favor. Grace needs to be defined personally, not mechanically; qualitatively, not quantitatively; actively, functionally, dynamically, not statically. Grace is the dynamic free-flow of God’s activity of givingness, consistent with His character.

The particular event of Christ’s redemptive passion is rightfully made the focal-point of God’s grace. The redemptive expression of grace was God’s intent from before the foundation of the world, and all consequent expressions of grace are grounded in redemption. But as Joe Carson Smith notes in “Christian Standard” magazine (9,9,79),

“There is an unfortunate tendency to focus upon grace as a ‘threshold factor’ in the Christian life, limiting the concept of grace to the doctrine of conversion…..(we) tend to look upon grace as a past event in the Christian life. … Most of the New Testament passages about grace do not deal with grace as a threshold factor in salvation. Rather, God’s grace is presented as pervasive in the life of a Christian.”

There is such an historicizing and theologizing tendency in evangelical theology. Protestant theology has tended to have an event-centered concept of grace, tying grace either to the event of redemptive grace, or to the event of conversion grace. We must beware of limiting grace to an historically redemptive event or an existential event of decision-making. An event-centered concept of grace inevitably becomes a static concept of grace.

Historical understanding: Roman Catholicism taught that when a person received the redemptive grace of God in conversion grace, there was a infusion of God’s grace into man whereby man could co-operate with God’s grace in living the Christian life. Thus man could by his repentance, obedience, and partaking of the sacraments merit more “grace.” This additional grace could become the secondary basis for a better “right standing” with God. The Reformers of the Protestant Reformation rightly reacted against this progressive and quantitative concept of grace, arguing for a narrowly defined redemptive grace, that became an event-centered grace, which viewed grace primarily as the attitudinal favor of God that prompted God to send Jesus. They tried to avoid using “grace” in reference to the regenerative and sanctifying activity of God in the hearts of men, ascribing that activity to the work of the Holy Spirit. Such an event-centered “grace”, a past-tense view of grace, a “grace” for justification, but not for sanctification, has been the Protestant theological tendency to this day. American evangelicalism has tended to focus also on the conversion “decision” event of grace as well as the redemptive grace.

God’s grace is the dynamic sufficiency of God’s activity for the entirety of the Christian life. God’s grace is the basis of our identity, our standing, our behavior, our obedience, our strength, our speech, our stewardship, our reactions to the trials and sufferings of life, etc. God’s grace is the dynamic enabling for all ministerial function and for all eschatological expectation.

To say that “grace” is “the undeserved favor of God” is not wrong, per se, but it has led to static conceptions of grace.

Hans-Helmut Esser in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology points out that the Apostolic Fathers “hardened the development in the understanding of grace. Grace was institutionalized as grace for the community and for office. It became an aid for the preservation of correct teaching and the ethics of the new law.” Static.

Paul’s view of grace is comprehensive and dynamic.

T.F.Torrance writes – The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers

“Paul thinks of grace acting dynamically upon men. It is Christ acting in person. Charis is never adjectival on the lips of Paul, but always dynamic. Grace is the transcendent Christ in gracious and forgiving and enabling motion.

“Grace in the N.T. is the basic and most characteristic element of the Christian gospel. It is the breaking into the world of the ineffable love of God in a deed of absolutely decisive signification…actualized in the person of Jesus Christ …Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the N.T. believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. ..He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about dong His will. There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again. Our life is hid with Christ

“In the Apostolic Fathers grace lost its radical character. They developed a doctrine of salvation by works of righteousness, with grace introduce in an ad hoc fashion as enabling power. A Christian ethic was codified, and the charismatic life under the constraining love of Christ reduced to rules and precepts. The centre of gravity was shifted from the mainspring of the Christian life in the person of Christ Himself to the periphery of outward conformity and daily behaviour.

“In the Apostolic Fathers:

(1) grace became related to the continuance of the Christian life, rather than to the decisive motion of God’s love as the presupposition of the whole Christian life. ..Grace became an ad hoc matter, an aid to the main work of sanctification, a donum superadditum. In other words, grace was something given by God to those who worthily strive after righteousness to enable them to attain their end.

(2) Grace was now regarded as something Pneumatic. There was a change in the understanding of the Holy Spirit -separated from Christ. Grace became a phenomenon of pneumatic energy implanted in the soul-thought of sub-personally.

(3) Grace was taken under the wing of the Church in an official way,…as the depository of pneumatic grace, dispensed in sacramentalist fashion. The Church…possessed the means of grace.”

Grace is the dynamic free-flow of a self-giving God, expressing His activity consistent with His character. Such was His expression historically and redemptively in Jesus Christ. Such is His expression presently for the entirety of the function of Christian living. Such is His expression eschatologically and eternally.

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