Uncomfortable Grace: Understanding Grace

cropped-grace2Grace is not natural, not normal. For those of us who grew up in the church, or who have been Christians for any length of time, grace starts to lose its astounding character. It seems more common, ordinary, and natural. We throw the word around without much thought. God’s grace is simply not amazing anymore. This is in part, I believe, why we struggle with God’s grace in the midst of difficulties and sufferings. The truth is that we have lost sight of what grace really is. We need to regain an understanding of the real definition of grace to better prepare ourselves for trials.

Grace is easy enough to define. The term refers to unmerited favor. In Christian belief it refers particularly to unmerited favor God bestowed on those who actually deserve punishment. A myriad of definitions have been offered throughout the history of the church, but all fall along these same lines. B.B. Warfield defined it as “free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.” John Stott calls it “love that cares and stoops and rescues.” Jerry Bridges adds that grace is “God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against him.” Justin Holcomb defines it simply as “mercy, not merit,” and theologian John Frame states that “Grace in Scripture refers to God’s benevolence”. We could list definitions ad infinitum, but readers should note the similarity in definitions. They all circle around three key concepts: God, favor, and sinners. To help us clearly grasp God’s grace in the midst of trials it’s important that we understand these three key concepts.

“Grace is fundamentally a word about God” writes Justin Holcomb. In fact in one sense we can say that grace is really about God giving us himself. In his article for Christianity.com Holcomb quotes Michael Horton saying, “In grace, God gives nothing less than Himself. Grace, then, is not a third thing or substance mediating between God and sinners, but is Jesus Christ in redeeming action.” Grace is all about God. We get God because he freely gives himself to us. Grace is not about us getting what we really want, not about us getting out of our immediate troubles, about getting the answers to all our desires, grace is about getting God himself. Such a reality can shape our expectations profoundly in the face of trials. When we know that grace is about getting God, and when we know that this God has promised never to leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6) we can hold on to hope in difficulty.

Grace is also about the favor of God. What does it mean to have the favor of God? John Frame sheds some light. He writes:

Often in human relationships the question arises about one person’s attitude toward another: will he welcome me, be open to a request, be friend or foe? A positive attitude is called favor. (Systematic Theology, 242)

To have the favor of God means to be a friend of God, to be welcomed by him. To walk in a sweet relationship with the Lord is an astounding thing. We should not lose sight of how amazing this is! Such amazement is more clearly grasped when we consider the third key concept: sinners.

We are sinners. Regardless of how that makes us feel this is the language of Scripture and the testimony of our own hearts. We are born enemies of God, rebels deserving of wrath (Eph. 2:3). What makes grace so amazing is the undeserved nature of it. We have no rights or expectations of God’s favor and blessing. When we sit in the seat of judgment and demand that God get us out of a trial, relieve our suffering, or remove our difficulty we have loss sight of the truth of grace. We cannot demand grace, for we don’t deserve it. Grace is “mercy, not merit.” John Frame clarifies:

Weighty theological issues, however, enter the picture when God is the One who shows [grace].  Since man is fallen and cursed, any favor shown by God to him is surprising. (242).

Our fallen, cursed, sinful nature makes us objects of wrath. To receive grace is truly a surprising gift of God. We cannot demand it, nor should we expect it. We get it because of Christ and because of the great love of God. Grace is fundamentally about Him, and favor is fundamentally a surprise. Again Frame offers us a helpful summary:

God’s grace to men, then, appears in spite of man’s unrighteousness, and by God’s utterly sovereign decision (“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy”). It is legitimate, therefore…, to define God’s grace theologically as his “sovereign, unmerited favor, given to those who deserve his wrath.” (244)

In the face of suffering such a definition can still give us hope and joy. Not without struggle, mind you. This is not  naïve hope. But it is still a legitimate hope and joy in suffering (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-9).

The true definition of grace, the unnatural and uncommon nature of grace can help us in the face of trials to keep our eyes fixed on God. As we remember that we deserve hell but we receive the very presence and blessing of God we can rejoice in trials. Not because the trial is easy or simple, not because we are unrealistic about suffering, but because despite what we suffer now we get more than we ever deserved in God himself. So we can say with Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). The true definition of grace prepares us for the uncomfortable moments of life.

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