Most Christian Bible commentators define the word "grace" as "God's unmerited favor." Thus, when Paul says we are saved by grace, Christians generally understand this to mean that God forgives us of all our sins and saves us in the kingdom of God, not because we've done anything to deserve being forgiven or saved but simply as a favor or a gift that God bestows upon us out the goodness and kindness of His heart.
However this is not exactly what Paul meant when he wrote these words. To understand the message Paul taught the early Christians, we first have to have a correct understanding of the word "grace."
The word "grace" as found in the New Testament comes from the Greek word "Charis." Strong's concordance defines this word as: "that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: 2) good will, loving-kindness, favor." The English dictionary defines "grace" as "divine love… a disposition to be generous and helpful." The scriptures also talk about God being "gracious" (1 Peter 2:3), and the dictionary defines this word as, "the act of showing kindness and warm courtesy, to be of a merciful and compassionate nature."
The scriptural definition for this word is found in Nehemiah 9:5 which reads: "thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them (the Israelites) not." This is the sense in which the Bible tells us that "Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. (Gen. 6:8), as did Moses (Ex. 33:13). We also read that in the days of "Hazael king of Syria [when he] oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. And the LORD was gracious unto them (Israel), and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast he them from his presence as yet. (2 Kings 13:22-23)
In these examples God shows His grace to men by being ready to pardon them of their sins, showing them great mercy, compassion, and kindness in a gracious way. Also, he does not forsake them or cast them out and is slow to show anger towards them.
However, in the Bible we also read that when Jacob tried to mend his relationship with his brother Esau, he sent messengers ahead of him saying "I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and women servants: and I have sent to tell my lord [Esau], that I may find grace in thy sight." (Gen. 32:3-5). After becoming a slave servant "Joseph found grace in his (Potipher's) sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. (Gen. 39:4) Ruth said to Boaz "Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?" (Ruth 2:10)
In each of these examples, we find that mortal men can also show grace (i.e., love, compassion, kindness, mercy, and slowness to anger) to one other. And the apostle Paul was very much aware of this when he said that we should be "singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16) meaning that when we sing to the Lord we should do so with a heart that is full of love, kindness, and gratitude to God.
But Paul further counseled the saints to "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. (Ephesians 4:29) and "Let your speech be always with grace." (Col. 4:6) In other words, when we speak with one another we should do so in a gracious way so that those who hear us feel our love, compassion, mercy, and kindness toward them.
Paul also told the Philippians, "Ye all are partakers of my grace." (Philip. 1:7), meaning they were treated with love, compassion, mercy and kindness by Paul. At the beginning of many of his letters, Paul opens by saying "grace be unto you." In this sense, he is expressing his love towards those whom he is writing.
In all of these instances we see that although the word "grace" has the same meaning it can be used in different ways for different circumstances. Therefore, the question we need to ask ourselves is: In what way is Paul using the term "the grace of God" when it comes to salvation?
The apostle John wrote, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) We could accurately restate this scripture as saying, "Because of God's grace for us as sinners He sent His Son to earth to die for our sins. Those who believe on Him will not perish spiritually but will inherit eternal life. Those who don't accept His atoning sacrifice will forever remain spiritually dead."
From this statement we learn that God not only loves all of mankind, regardless of their spiritual condition, but that He has shown us great love, mercy, compassion, and kindness by sending His Son to die for our sins. Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Since Jesus willingly laid down his life to atone for our sins He has also demonstrated His great love and compassion (i.e., grace) for us as well. That is why it is also through "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ [that] we shall be saved" (Acts 15:11).
Thus, the Bible teaches that the atoning sacrifice of Christ came about because of the love, compassion, and mercy (i.e., grace) that both God, the Father, and Jesus Christ have for us. And it is in this sense that Paul speaks about the relationship between "grace" and "salvation." In other words, when Paul talks about how we are "saved by grace" he is saying that we are saved because of the atonement of Christ which was given to us as an act of love (i.e., grace) by God.
Although Paul clearly explains this concept in the fifth chapter of Romans, many people overlook this connection because of the way Paul phrased his words. Therefore, it might be helpful if we restate this chapter in clearer language. Beginning in verse 5 he writes, "the love of God which was manifested in the atonement of Christ, has been spread abroad through the Holy Ghost who has given us this knowledge in our hearts. (6) When we didn't have the strength to save ourselves, Christ died for us, the ungodly. (8)God showed His love towards us while we were still sinners by sending Christ to die for us. (9)Therefore, it is because of His blood that He shed on the cross that we can be saved from the wrath of God.
"(10) Because of our sins, we found ourselves separated from God, but now, because of the death of His Son, we can be reconciled to God and be saved because of His life which He gave as a ransom for our sins. (11) And not only that but we can also have joy in being with God and we can receive that joy because we are willing to receive and accept the atonement of Jesus Christ.
"(12) Just as sin entered the world because of what one man did and brought death upon all men. (15) In the same way, the free gift of Christ's atoning death does the same thing only in reverse. Just as what one man did caused many people to die, so likewise the grace of God that was show to us through the atonement of Christ, which is a free gift, allows what one man did to affected many others. (17) For if by what one man did that caused death to reign on the earth, those who are willing to receive and accept the abundance of God's grace in sending His Son to die for our sins, shall reign in eternal life. This atonement is a gift of righteousness from Jesus Christ.
"(18) Therefore, because of the sin of one man, the judgment of condemnation came upon all men. Even so, by the one free gift of Christ's righteous atonement all men can be found not guilty before the bar of justice and receive eternal life. (19) For because of one man's disobedience we were all made sinners, so, in the same way, because of the obedience of one man we can all be made righteous.
(20) The more we break the law of God, the more we sin. But the more we sin the greater the atonement of Christ becomes to us. And the reason is because the more we sin the more it shows how much love, compassion, mercy, and kindness God has in forgiving us of our sins. (21) Just as sin brought death upon us, God's love of sending His only begotten Son to die allows us to enter into eternal life. This is made possible because of the righteous atonement of Jesus Christ our Lord."
In these verses whenever Paul talks about "the grace of God" and the "free gift" of God he is always referring to the death of Christ. And throughout many of his other letters when Paul repeatedly talks about the "grace of God" and the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," in every instance his meaning is the same. Paul wrote, "I determined not to know any thing among you, [except] Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul gloried "in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14) because without it there could be no salvation. That is what he says the grace of God is all about
As we look at other verses of the Bible we see Paul expressing this same message. He said his ministry was "to testify [about] the gospel [which is all about] the grace of God" (i.e., the atonement) (Acts 20:24) and that we are freely justified because of the grace of God which came to us "through the redemption (i.e., atonement) that [was made by] Jesus Christ." (Romans 3:24).
He further explained that if God showed His love (i.e., sending His Son to die for our sins) because of something we did, then this couldn't be considered an act of grace on His part because it would have been something He was required to do for us. (Romans 11:6) But Christ did not die on the cross because of anything we did to deserve Him giving up His life for our sins. He didn't die because He was obligated to save us. This was not a debt that God owed us (Romans 4:4). Jesus died simply because of His great love, or grace for us. This is why Paul refers to the atonement of Christ as God's "free gift" to man.
In nearly all cases where Paul uses the phrase "grace of God" or "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" we can correctly substitute the word "atonement." Consider these passages of scripture: "I thank my God always for the atonement which was given you by Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 1:4) "I beseech you also that you receive not the atonement of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:12). "I do not frustrate the atonement of Christ because if righteousness came by living the law then Christ's death was for nothing." (Galatians 2:21) "For is because of the atonement of Christ that we are saved through our faith in Jesus: it (the atonement) is a gift of God" (Ephesians 2:7).
In speaking about Jesus Christ and His atonement the apostle Peter explained that all the prophets "prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: when [they] testified beforehand [concerning] the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow." (1 Peter 1:10,11). Here, Peter expressly states that it is the suffering of Christ which is the grace of God, which all the prophets testified should come.
When Jesus was eight days old his parents took him to the temple to be presented to the Lord. In the temple that day was a devout and just man named Simeon who had been promised by the Holy Ghost that he would not die until he had seen the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. When he saw the infant Jesus "then took he up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation." (Luke 2:25-30)
When Simeon saw the baby Jesus, he testified that he saw, with his own eyes, God's gift of salvation to the world. Later, both John and Paul declared that God's act of grace was sending Jesus Christ to the earth to die for our sins. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that Jesus is God's gift of salvation and He came into the world to die for our sins. It is the atonement that is God's gift of grace to mankind.
The atonement is universal. It applies to everyone. No one is excluded from receiving this gift. Therefore, since Jesus died for the sins of all mankind, and if we say that salvation is God's free gift to us, then no one could be denied eternal life. But no Christian believes that. All of them teach that despite Christ's atonement, those who do not accept Jesus as their Savior will not be saved. Therefore, it is clear that the death of Christ alone is not sufficient to save us. And since we can't become saved without accepting Jesus then it is obvious that salvation itself cannot be free.
In fact, nowhere in the Bible does it say salvation is a gift. Instead, it teaches that God's gift to us is Christ's atoning sacrifice. And it is this gift that God has freely given us, not because of anything we've done to deserve it but because God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son to die sp that all who believe on Him can have eternal life.
That is what God's grace is all about and this is why Paul said we are saved by the grace of God.
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