The Marvelous Grace of God: What Scripture & Church History Reveal

The word grace in large type referring to the grace of God with article content in the background

Grace is generally understood as a gift: the favor or kindness one person gives to another. Grace is, therefore, generally understood to be something that is not earned or deserved. Your paycheck is not grace. Your boss is not expecting a thank-you note for it. But think about gifts: I give gifts to my wife, but not to other women. Somewhere in the concept of grace, we might need to make room for relationship.

What is grace?

So what is the grace of God? Our reflex response is God’s unmerited favor to humanity. Theologian Millard Erickson focuses on “unmerited favor” in his definition of God’s grace:

God deals with his people not on the basis of their merit or worthiness, what they deserve, but simply according to their need; in other words, he deals with them on the basis of his goodness and generosity. … Grace … means that God supplies us with undeserved favors.1

If it is grace, it must be something good and favorable and beneficial, or it is not much of a “gift.” Many students of Scripture are careful to explain that the grace of God is inseparable from God’s greatest gift: “The apostle Paul, who beyond all others is the exponent of grace in redemption, never disassociates God’s grace from God’s crucified Son. Always in his teachings the two are bound together, organically one and inseparable.” Grace is personal: the grace of God is known only in and through Jesus Christ.

If the grace of God is really of God, it should have certain characteristics. A. W. Pink describes those certain characteristics as eternal (2 Tim 1:9), free (Rom 3:24), and sovereign (Rom 5:21; Heb 4:16; Exod 33:19). If it is the grace of God, it must be something powerful and effective, or God is not much of a god.

The best place to find out about the grace of God is from what God himself says about it. While God tells us about his grace in the Bible, people don’t always agree on everything they read in Scripture. So we will also briefly consider major disputes about the grace of God that have caused division in the church.

The grace of God in Scripture

Old Testament

Christians generally head straight to the New Testament to understand the grace of God. But if the Bible is God’s book, we cannot ignore what the Old Testament teaches about this all-important topic. The Old Testament provides several foundational truths about the grace of God upon which the New Testament will expand.

The first word about the grace of God in the Bible is in Genesis 6:8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (KJV). Modern English translations replace “grace” with “favor,” as they do in most of the approximately seventy occurrences of the term in the Old Testament.

A Logos Bible Word Study on the Hebrew word hen, showing how the KJV (left) and ESV (right) render the word.
A Logos Bible Word Study on the Hebrew word hen, showing how the KJV (left) and ESV (right) render the word.

Nevertheless, the ESV retains “grace” as a rendering of hen in several key places (Esth 2:17; Ps 45:2; Jer 31:2; Zech 4:7; 12:10), suggesting that “grace” can still at least be considered a valid translation. Genesis 6:8 indicates the saving nature of God’s grace. Noah “finding grace” in the eyes of the Lord resulted in his salvation. Granted, the salvation in view is specifically temporal and not explicitly spiritual or eternal. But the foundation is laid down: the grace of God results in salvation.

Moses’s encounter with the Lord in Exodus 33–34 provides at least four more foundational truths about the grace of God. In Exodus 33, upon hearing he found favor—grace—in the Lord’s sight (33:17), Moses asks to see the glory of the Lord (33:18). The Lord replies,

I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (33:19)

In 34:6–7, the Lord makes good on his promise to Moses:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

These passages provide four more foundational truths about the grace of God:

  1. The grace of God is a central component of the glory of God. When Moses asks to see God’s glory, all that which makes God worthy of honor and praise, the Lord immediately talks about his goodness, grace, and mercy.
  2. The grace of God is something different from his mercy. The Lord lists grace and mercy as separate and distinct perfections of his character in both 33:19 and 34:6–7.
  3. God exercises his grace sovereignly. The determining factor of who receives the grace of God is the will of God (33:19).
  4. The grace of God outshines the judgment of God. While God will certainly punish the guilty and see the consequences of sin “to the third and the fourth generation” of the guilty, his grace is “abounding” even for “thousands” of generations (34:6–7).

Moses provides another foundational teaching about the grace of God at the end of Numbers 6.

The Logos Bible study app open to Numbers 6:22 in the King James Version

What is the grace of God? Is it a substance? Is it an action? An attribute? No, the grace of God is personal. God is gracious when he makes his face shine on his people. God is gracious when he lifts up his countenance upon his people. The grace of God is the blessing of God himself. The grace of God is the personal revelation of his blessing, saving, and keeping presence to his people. The grace of God is God himself present for the benefit of his people.

New Testament

The New Testament takes the Old Testament’s foundational teachings about the grace of God and focuses them on the person and work of Christ.

Jesus graciously reveals the glory of God by gloriously revealing the grace of God. Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). When we see Jesus, we see the Father (John 14:9), and we know that God is with us (Matt 1:23). God has drawn near to man in person. God reveals himself to man in Jesus Christ, his Son.

Hebrews 2:9 details the preeminent way Jesus shows the glory of the grace of God:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

What is the glory of the grace of God? The shame of the suffering of death for everyone. How great is the grace of God, and how glorious is the grace of God? On the cross Jesus reveals the measure and the glory of God’s grace.

The grace of God is God’s saving action toward man in Christ.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 5:21; 8:9)

The Lord became servant to free slaves of sin. He who was rich beyond all splendor took on poverty to give an inheritance to the destitute.

In Christ, the grace of God conquers and overwhelms that which opposes it: the sin of man. While many men die because of Adam’s sin, “the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” While the judgment of Adam’s sin brought condemnation, “the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” Even though death has reigned since Adam, “much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” The grace of God in Christ means that instead of death there is life; instead of condemnation there is justification; instead of many sinners there are many righteous. Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom 5:12–21).

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Common and saving grace

Is there grace outside Christ? The New Testament teaching about the grace of God being focused on and mediated through Christ alone led A. W. Pink to assert,

Grace is a perfection of the Divine character which is exercised only toward the elect. Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New is the grace of God ever mentioned in connection with mankind generally, still.2

If we limit ourselves to the specific term “grace of God,” Pink is technically correct. But God’s grace cannot be fully contained in that three-word phrase.

In describing the grace of God, most Bible students recognize a difference between “common” grace and “saving” grace. Every person alive experiences the “common” grace of God; it confronts saint and sinner alike. From Numbers 6, we recall that God’s grace is the revelation of his presence. In Psalm 19:1–6, the Holy Spirit declares God reveals himself to “all the earth” and “to the end of the world” (19:4). The glory of God is seen from wherever the sun rises to wherever the sun sets (19:1, 5). Paul echoes this teaching in Romans 1:18–32. Not only can all men know “about God” from creation (1:19): mankind in fact “knew God” (1:21).

Psalm 104 abundantly praises God for the glory (104:31) he shows in giving (104:11, 27, 28) all of creation existence and life (104:3–30). In Psalm 145, David meditates on the “glorious splendor” of God’s majesty (145:5). Such meditating leads to the conclusion that God’s grace, mercy, patience, and love is abounding (145:8; cf. Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5). “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (145:9). As with Exodus 33–34, the grace of God is a perfection of God’s glory. As with Psalm 104, God’s glory, and therefore grace, is extended to all of creation.

How do we reconcile the New Testament teaching that God’s grace is located in Christ with the Psalms (and Romans!) indication that God graciously provides for all creation and reveals himself to all men? We simply remember that all things were made through the Word–God and without him nothing would exist (John 1:3). Jesus created “all things”; he is the image through whom and for whom “all things” were made (Col 1:15–16). “In him,” the incarnation of God’s grace, all things hold together, consist, continue to exist (Col 1:17). Through the Son of God, the embodiment of God’s grace, the universe was made and continues to be (Heb 1:2–3).

Jesus, the center of the grace of God, brought all things into existence. Jesus, the center of the grace of God keeps all things existence.

How should man respond to God’s grace?

There is a grace available to man beyond the grace of God given in creation. In Ephesians 2:4–10, Paul reminds us twice “by grace you have been saved” (2:5, 8). This saving grace of God comes “because of the great love” God has even for those “dead” in trespasses and sin (2:4–5; cf. 2:1). This saving grace is centered “in Christ Jesus.” In Christ Jesus the dead are raised to life and exalted to heavenly life (2:5–6). In Christ Jesus the poor are immeasurably made rich in grace for ages to come (2:7). All these blessings of salvation grace come “through faith” (2:8). Even this faith to salvation is the gift of God, so all boasting and all thought of human merit is excluded (2:9).

This is the good news of the gospel of the grace of God “who saved us … not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ … who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:9–10).

In Jesus Christ, the grace of God has appeared to bring salvation for all people (Tit 2:11), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:23–25a). This grace of God in salvation—the grace of Jesus Christ himself and all his benefits—is received by faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Faith, not works—not even works of the law (Rom 3:27–28).

The believer can have confident faith in this grace and not her own works because the grace of God works!

The grace of God works by empowering the believer to live in obedience to God’s will. The one saved through faith by grace, not by works, is God’s “workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:8–10). “The grace of God” that brings salvation also teaches godly living (Tit 2:11–12). Those redeemed and purified from sin by the Savior Jesus Christ are “zealous for good works” (Tit 2:13–14). “Being justified by his grace,” believers “devote themselves to good works” (Tit 3:7–8).

3 disputes about the grace of God

Three major disputes in church history revolved around aspects of God’s grace.

1. The Pelagian controversy

From the fourth to the sixth centuries, a controversy centered around the teachings of Pelagius, a British monk, and Augustine of Hippo, a prominent theologian. Pelagius emphasized human free will and argued that individuals could attain salvation through their own efforts without the grace of God. Augustine, in response, asserted the primacy of God’s grace in the process of salvation and emphasized the fallen nature of humanity. The Councils of Carthage in 418 and Ephesus in 431 condemned Pelagianism. The Council of Orange in 529 affirmed the necessity of divine grace in the entire process of salvation.

2. The Protestant Reformation

The sixteenth century saw debates on the nature of grace and salvation. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized the doctrine of justification by faith alone, teaching that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. In the words of Luther, “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”3

The Catholic Church responded to the Reformation teachings at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). The council affirmed the role of grace in salvation but also emphasized the cooperation of human free will.

3. The Arminian controversy

This controversy arose within Reformed theology in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. Arminians, led by Jacobus Arminius, challenged certain aspects of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and emphasized the role of human free will in responding to God’s grace. Arminius and his followers taught that God’s “prevenient grace” effectually enables every man to accept or reject the call of the gospel. In addition, they taught that the grace of God provides everything man needs to continue in the faith, but does not by itself secure that continuation. The Synod of Dort (1618–1619) reaffirmed certain Calvinist doctrines while rejecting Arminian views. It was the Synod of Dort (some fifty-five years after John Calvin’s death) that formulated the “five points of Calvinism.”

For further study

Where can you go to learn more about the grace of God? Here are several suggestions:

Starting with Scripture

1. 1 Peter

While Paul may be known as the apostle of God’s grace, it was Peter who wrote an entire book about the grace of God! Peter summarizes the aim of his first epistle by saying, “I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.”

2. Paul

Paul’s treatment of grace in Romans and Galatians are central to the evergreen disputes over divine grace that plague the church.

In theology

At, or near, the root of the three great controversies about the grace of God is difference over the nature of the interaction of man’s will and God’s grace.

1. Augustine of Hippo

There is an entire volume of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works4 that rewards study. You might want to start with “On Nature and Grace,” or “On Grace and Free Will.”

2. Martin Luther

While many Protestants talk about Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the “Heidelberg Disputation” from about a year later really sets the course for the dispute with Rome and the coming Reformation. The Bondage of the Will discusses the grace of God in the context of a dispute with Erasmus.

3. John Calvin

This Reformer offers a mature statement about the division between Scripture and Rome in book 3 of his Institutes of Christian Religion.

4. Jacobus Arminius

If you are interested in the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians, you really should read Arminius himself. The best place to start is probably A Declaration of the Sentiments.

Works mentioned in this article

Christian Theology, 3rd ed.

Christian Theology, 3rd ed.

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The Sovereignty of God

The Sovereignty of God

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The Attributes of God (audio)

The Attributes of God (audio)

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Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings

Saint Augustine: Four Anti-Pelagian Writings

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The Word of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation

The Word of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation

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The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent

The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent

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Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God

Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God

Regular price: $39.99

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The Bondage of the Will

The Bondage of the Will

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Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 vols.)

Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 vols.)

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Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary

Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary

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  1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 265.
  2. Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, electronic ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1999), 66.
  3. Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 26.
  4. See in particular Answer to the Pelagians I–IV.
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Brad Kelly

Brad Kelly (MDiv) taught English in China with his wife for two years and pastored a church in Indiana for five. Currently he stays busy being a father to six children and serving as needed at Maple Grove Church in Topeka, IN.

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