The hymn entitled, "Amazing Grace," is one of the best known hymns sung by believers and unbelievers alike as it describes the beauty of God's grace.
It is interesting that it is this concept of grace in the Christian religion that captures the imagination of people when they think about Christianity, and it is this idea so beautifully captured in this song.
Not many people realize that John Newton, who wrote this song, also wrote nine additional verses to the four that are usually printed in our songbooks. John Newton's life was an embodiment of this song. When he was seven years old he lost his mother. Later, he became a sailor and eventually worked on slave ships. In a cruel irony, he himself became a slave and was sold to a black woman who treated him like an animal as revenge for those who so badly treated her own people. He was saved from this degrading life and became a minister and writer of hymns that stirred the hearts of people the world over. Shortly before his death, in 1807, he wrote,
Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be; I can truly say that I am not what I once was, a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the Apostle (Paul) and acknowledge, by the grace of God, I am what I am.
In this book I am going to try to describe this amazing grace that John Newton so powerfully felt and wrote about.
Grace is "Amazing"
There are several ways of learning what the Bible says about a subject or a word. A first step is to begin with the original meaning of the word you are studying and then examine how Jesus and the Apostles used it.
The New Testament was first written in the Greek language and so the original Greek word translated into the English word "grace" was the word CHARIS. In early Greek literature the word CHARA from which CHARIS is taken meant beautiful, lovely, attractive, charming and that which is delightful. By New Testament times, the word had come to signify joy or rejoicing. In later Latin translations the word also included the idea of gratitude.
When all these ideas are combined, our word grace refers to that which is lovely, happy and generous (as in giving or receiving a gift). Grace is not itself a thing but rather a word that describes the nature and value of something else. In normal literature it is used to describe a spirit of generosity, kindness and loveliness (e.g. he is gracious, she is graceful).
In Biblical terms the word is used to describe God's attitude and actions towards mankind. What God has done for man, from the creation of the universe to the saving of his soul, is referred to as grace, God's grace.
The word Grace is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. We find it 170 times in all and 101 times by Paul the Apostle alone, but never once by Jesus because the Bible refers to Him as the epitome of grace.
For the Law was given by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
- John 1:17
Because "grace" is at once a simple yet vast subject, there are many misunderstandings concerning it.
The Essential Meaning of Grace
Although the word grace can be used to describe God's essential character (kind, generous), God's attitude in creating the world (joyful) or how we should treat each other (mercifully), the most repeated and important idea that this word describes has to do with mankind's salvation from sin.
The basic doctrine of the Bible is the doctrine of salvation. The entire Bible has been produced in order to explain this one important idea. Of course in the process of doing this, God has also managed to describe how the world and mankind were created, how sin came into the world, how He created a special nation of people called the Jews and all other related information that tell us the story of Jesus, the early church and the eventual end of the world.
However, all of this revelation and information have been given in order to provide a backdrop and explanation for the most important thing He wanted to accomplish: saving mankind from destruction. This salvation was motivated by His grace and accomplished through His grace. This is why the Bible calls it salvation by grace.
8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
- Ephesians 2:8-9
Salvation by grace, therefore, is the essential doctrine of the Bible. It is the key idea. Salvation is what God did, grace is why and how He did it. This is why the study of grace is so important. It is the study of God's character and motivation in doing what He has done for us. When I will be using the term grace therefore, I will be referring to God's kindness, generosity and joyfulness, as well as His method of saving sinful man.
The Danger of Grace
Believe it or not, some people think grace or too much grace is dangerous. There are several reasons for this:
1. Some do not understand the idea in the first place.
They think that grace is liberty; that grace means the freedom to do what you want or that God excuses sin because of His goodness. We have a duty to reject liberalism hiding as grace but should not deny legitimate grace in the process.
2. Some prefer the "works" system.
Human pride prefers the "law." In the "law" system man can pay something or do something in order to achieve salvation. Things like living according to a high moral code, following strict ritual rules or offering personal sacrifice cost man something and feel religious but these things cannot be exchanged for forgiveness and perfection because they are themselves not perfect or enough. The grace system requires man to abandon all efforts of self salvation and this is difficult.
3. Some fear living by faith.
9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
- Philippians 3:9-11
Grace requires that we totally depend on God for righteousness, and this offer sounds too good to be true so we want to "hedge our bets" with another method. We have to accept the fact that it is grace or nothing!
6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
- Galatians 1:6-8
We need to realize that the danger in the church that Paul was writing to was not that they were going in the direction of too much grace or cheap grace, but rather letting grace go and trading it in for a more comfortable and predictable system of law (you do this, you get that).
In order to avoid these mistakes we need to go back to the Apostles' teaching to the early church about the subject of grace.
The Essential Teaching
37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" 38Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
- Acts 2:37-42
What doctrine was Luke referring to that the Apostles taught?
The person and direct teachings of Christ. The book of Acts and the epistles were not written when this was happening.
What, exactly, would they be teaching to these people?
Acts 5:28-32: the person of Christ; His teachings; the plan of salvation (God sends Christ) and the believer's response to God (repentance and baptism).
The Apostles taught that grace motivated God to save man through Jesus Christ.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
- John 3:16
We make a fundamental mistake when we begin teaching someone the gospel and we begin by teaching them church history and organization or the falseness of other religions or how to respond to the gospel (belief/repentance/confession/baptism) rather than the good news of the gospel which is the fact that we are saved by grace.
The first point I want to make about grace and salvation is this:
- We are saved through God's grace (kindness, mercy, love, generosity). This is the motivation, the nature of salvation.
- We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the method (as opposed to no salvation or salvation through works of law).
- We are saved through baptism (I Peter 3:21). This is the proper Biblical demonstration of faith (as opposed to responding by intellectual assent; crossing yourself; saying "I accept Jesus as my personal Savior"; speaking in tongues, etc.).
When it came to the Apostles' teaching concerning salvation, this is what they taught the early disciples:
Jesus taught that one was saved in all three contexts. Our study will see how these ideas are linked together.
Grace is Free
…but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.
- Romans 6:23
Paul is talking here about salvation being free, that God's grace towards us is free. What does that mean? "Grace is free?"
4Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
- Romans 4:4-5
What does Paul say about the one who works and the one who believes? He says that the one who works gets what he has earned and the one who believes receives a gift.
In the book of Romans Paul uses the term "grace" to encompass not only God's love and mercy, but also the end result of that mercy, our salvation. So when he says grace is free, in a sense he is saying that God's love and kindness towards us is free, is a gift; he is also saying that the final result of that love and mercy (our salvation) is also free, is also a gift.
There is never a problem with God's attitude or His gift. The problem always lies with man and his understanding and attitude.
One idea that causes a problem with many is the idea that God's grace is free. Here is why they have a problem:
1. Free grace implies that man is totally helpless.
If grace (God's kindness and man's ultimate salvation) is free, it means that man can do nothing to earn it (even if he wanted to).
Free grace eliminates "boot-strap" religion (pick yourself up); eliminates Christianity as a self-improvement course; takes away self-reliance (train yourself into salvation).
Free grace makes you dependent on God for everything and human pride does not like this. We do not know what it means to be totally dependent on God, and we usually do not want to learn.
2. Some fear the idea of free grace because they think it eliminates human responsibility.
You can preach all you want about the five steps of salvation and what you must do to be saved without even mentioning grace and no one will say a thing. But do not preach free grace without mentioning human responsibility and obedience or else you will be labeled as a liberal or a heretic.
Are we more concerned about what a person knows concerning baptism or what they know about grace? Preaching grace does not eliminate preaching baptism but we need to remember the role of each.
- Preaching the grace of God is the message of the gospel, it is what is good about the good news.
- Preaching baptism becomes necessary when the hearer has understood and believed the good news.
Charles Hodge says, "Tell men what God did before you tell men what they should do."
The beauty and power of the gospel is that despite our sins, God chose to be kind and merciful towards us (grace) and He arranged for us to be forgiven and receive eternal life through no merit or effort of our own (grace).
Where Does Human Responsibility fit in?
If grace is free (God's kindness and salvation), then where does repentance, baptism and faithfulness unto death fit in? If grace is free, then everyone in the world receives it and is saved, aren't they? If grace is free, why the daily struggle?
It's not what grace demands or requires. This is the way the Law speaks. The law demands and the law requires (obedience, perfect performance).
Grace does not demand; grace produces, grace gives, grace motivates and grace provokes.
The Law demands perfect obedience and produces death because it shows you that you are imperfect, that you are incapable of being perfect and that the consequence of being imperfect is death (Romans 3:20).
Grace demands nothing, requires nothing. It reveals God's awesome love in the cross of Jesus and in doing so it produces repentance, faith, obedience, joy, peace, etc.
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
- Romans 2:4
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.
- I Corinthians 15:10
Grace does not demand or require. It provokes, it produces, it creates in man all the things that lead to salvation. The things we actually do, from our initial confessing of Christ, to repentance and baptism, to the every day struggle with sin to live a Christian life is not a list of rules or works done in exchange for salvation. We do these things as a result of grace working in our hearts and minds.
LAW = HAVE TO
GRACE = WANT TO
And so, God's grace turns us from "have to" people to "want to" people (want to repent, want to be baptized, want to serve, give, do what is right, remain faithful). I become this kind of person because of grace.
The Law does not have this power, only grace, which is free, has the power to produce this in us.
So what is so good about the Good News? Because of His grace, God offers salvation and eternal life to everyone based on faith, not law or knowledge or culture. I will say it another way: God's grace makes it possible for all persons to go to heaven because they believe and not because they are perfect. As John Newton wrote long ago:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God who called me here below
Shall be forever mine.
- How do you define grace and what is another word you might use instead?
- Where do we first read about God's grace in scripture?
- What makes grace so amazing?
- Read Ephesians 2:8-9. How does this explain the relationship between grace and faith?
- Explain God's grace in the following examples from scripture and what they mean to us:
- How can a misunderstanding of grace be dangerous?
- What makes grace a difficult concept to grasp?
- Explain how grace is free but compels action on our part.
- Read I John 1:5-9. Based on this passage state your understanding of the difference between the effects of the principle of Law and the principle of Grace and give an example.
- Read the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32 and answer the following questions.
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?