But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Corinthians 15.10.
For once this morning’s reading is not random. I deliberately chose it so that I could think and write about “grace” today; and the reason I want to do that is because of something Barack Obama said in his inauguration speech yesterday — “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” What does it mean to have “God’s grace upon us”? What is “grace”?
For generations, children in Sunday School were taught that grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense and while that is catchy and clever it does not really define grace in a way that consistently makes sense if it is applied to the great “grace” texts in the New Testament such as the one I have chosen for this morning’s reading. But neither does the definition of grace that is almost universally accepted in the Western church — “the unmerited favour of God freely shown to humankind”.
Take the first mention of grace in the New Testament: John 1.14 where Jesus is described as “full of grace.” Did Jesus really not merit or deserve the favour of God that filled him? And what about Galatians 5.4? If grace is God’s unmerited and undeserved favour, how can people “fall away from grace” by anything they do or don’t do? No … “the unmerited favour of God freely shown to humankind” is more a definition of mercy than it is of grace. But if that is so, how is grace properly to be defined?
It seems to me that the clue is in something that Paul told the Corinthians that God had said to him: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'” (2 Corinthians 12.9). Any definition of grace that doesn’t mention the power of God is, it seems to me, inadequate; and indeed I think of grace as being “the empowering presence of God’s redemptive love” in human lives. Thus Jesus was full of grace because he was full of the empowering presence of God’s redemptive love. And, of course, one can indeed fall from grace that is so defined … one can take oneself out of the empowering presence of God.
This idea of empowerment comes through time and time again when Paul writes about grace. “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it” (1 Corinthians 3.10). “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9.8). But it is on the texts about salvation that (for me) this alternative definition of grace sheds new light. Take Ephesians 2.8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In other words, “For by the empowering presence of God’s redemptive love in your lives you have been saved through faith etc …” Now add to that Romans 11.6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” In other words, the empowering presence of the redemptive love of God ceases to be an empowering saving presence once I turn from it and start trying to obtain salvation under my own steam.
This post has already become far too long, but I must conclude by saying that nothing I have said here would be at all surprising to the Eastern church. The idea of grace as the empowering presence of God is widespread in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, but I was introduced to it many years ago now by a great Bible teacher called Dr Ken Blue from San Diego. He once told me this: “Any definition of grace must include the aspect of power — not just vague or abstract spiritual power: it is power that flows out of the character of God … Grace is God’s personal, powerful involvement in our lives.” John Ortberg has put it even more succinctly: “Grace is God doing in and for us what we cannot do for ourselves.”
May God’s grace indeed be upon us.