The question, “What is grace?” sounds like a catechism question. It sounds like the kind of question that demands a concise answer—one that we can memorize and teach our children and will provide us with powerful help in understanding important elements of the gospel and of the Bible’s teaching. That, after all, is what a catechism is for. But the catechism used for these purposes in my church does not have the question, “What is grace?”
So we are left with the question, “What is grace?” When we consult the standard reference work for defining the Greek word which is typically translated “grace” (a word from whose root we ultimately get “charity” in English), we find “grace” described as a “disposition” which is better than calling it a “motivation.”
The sense of “disposition” here is that God is “disposed” toward us in a certain way. Our reference work then gives us other helpful words to add to the concept of grace like “generous,” “beneficent,” “kindness,” “help,” “goodwill,” “favor” and “favorable.” This all gets us closer to answering our question of what grace is, so let’s start out with this rough draft: “Grace is God’s favorable disposition whereby he generously acts with kindness toward us.”
Testing Our Definition
Now we need to test and refine our rough definition of grace from Scripture (always). There are many places we can go to for this, especially in Paul’s writings (like Romans 5 or Titus 3), but let’s go to a particularly rich passage for grace, Eph 2:1–10.
Here in Eph 2:1–10, we find “grace” twice, vv. 5 and 8, which are nearly identical statements: “[B]y grace you have been saved.” The first occurrence in v. 5 is a kind of preview where Paul wants us to see that God’s actions toward us are particularly characterized by grace. Then we find two other emphases in the passage which are also repeated twice.
When God acted graciously toward us, we were dead in trespasses and sins (vv. 1 and 5), and even more extreme, we were “by nature children of wrath” (v. 3). In other words, we deserved wrath, but God acted graciously toward us even at the time when we were dead in sin, merely out of “his great love” (v. 4) toward us, because he is “rich in mercy.”
He expressed this grace and love toward us by making us alive and raising us up and seating us in glory with Christ (vv. 5 and 6) as a free gift by faith originating from him not from us or from our good works (vv. 8 and 9), “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).
Sometimes we hear “grace” described as “God’s unmerited favor.” But from our look at Ephesians we see that this does not go far enough. Grace is God’s favor for sinful children of wrath. It is not “unmerited” but merited by Christ for the completely undeserving, indeed, for those who deserve God’s righteous indignation and condemnation.
Christ died for us when we were “helpless” (Rom 5:6), “sinners” (Rom 5:8); we were God’s “wicked” (Rom 5:6) “enemies” (Rom 5:10) whom the Father loved and pitied, so that by his infinite, free grace he sent his own Son to die for us and to give us the lavish gift of forgiveness and justification leading to eternal life (Rom 5:15–21).
So now we are in a position to answer the question, “What is grace?” How about this: “Grace is God’s favorable disposition toward his guilt-ridden enemies whereby he generously acts with kindness and forgiveness toward us in Christ Jesus.”