What Is Grace? Beyond the Basic Definition

woman on beach at sunset contemplates grace

John 1:16 reads, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” But what IS grace?

The briefest definition of grace is “favor,” specifically “unmerited favor from God.” Put another way, it’s receiving what we don’t deserve. 

The Lexham Bible Dictionary (download it free) gives us a longer definition of grace: 

GRACE (חֶסֶד, chesed; “grace, mercy, steadfast love, compassion”; חֵן, chen; “grace, graciousness, kindness”; χάρις, charis; “grace, favor, graciousness, goodwill”). Gracious or merciful behavior of a more powerful person toward another. Displayed by the Lord toward humankind and by people towards each other in the Old Testament. Used to describe God or Christ in their merciful character or actions toward humankind in the New Testament. Spiritual gifts are described as “graces.” A literary device used at the beginning or end of many New Testament letters.1

In The Grace of God, Tony Evans defines grace as “the inexhaustible supply of God’s goodness whereby He does for us what we could never do for ourselves.”2

Later in the book, he covers another important aspect: 

Grace is cultivated and grows by relationship, not by rules or endless spiritual calisthenics. This is true because grace is not just a doctrine but a person (see John 1:16; Titus 2:11–12). The deeper our relationship with Christ, the greater the experience of grace and therefore the greater the spiritual growth.3

God gives grace freely, and as early church father John Chrysostom wrote, God’s grace is limitless: “This is the nature of God’s grace. It has no end, it knows no bound.”4

It’s also something Christians must rely on each day. 

D. L. Moody said, “A man can no more take in a supply of grace for the future than he can eat enough today to last him for the next six months, or take sufficient air into his lungs at once to sustain life for a week to come. We must draw upon God’s boundless stores of grace from day to day, as we need it.”5

We must draw upon God's boundless stores of grace from day to day, as we need it.

Key Bible verses about grace

For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.—Psalm 30:5

Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.—Proverbs 3:34

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.—John 1:16–17

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, 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. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.—Romans 5:16–21 

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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.—Ephesians 2:4–9

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These Bible verses on grace were found in seconds using the free Logos Bible app for desktop, web, or mobile. To read these and 170+ more, open to the Factbook feature inside the desktop app and type in “grace,” select “God’s Grace,” then click on “Open 182 passages.”

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Books about grace 

What Grace Is: Meditations on the Mercy of Our God

What Grace Is: Meditations on the Mercy of Our God

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All of Grace

All of Grace

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The Grace of God

The Grace of God

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The Grace of God

The Grace of God

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God's Grace Shining Through Law

God’s Grace Shining Through Law

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Paul and the Power of Grace

Paul and the Power of Grace

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In the Grip of Grace

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The Promises of Grace: Living in the Grip of God’s Love

The Promises of Grace: Living in the Grip of God’s Love

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Holiness by Grace: Delighting in the Joy That Is Our Strength

Holiness by Grace: Delighting in the Joy That Is Our Strength

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Grace in the Old Testament

Grace shows up over and over throughout the Bible, though many Christians naturally think of the New Testament when we think grace. Yet abundant grace began in the garden of Eden. Craig Evans explains more in his book What Grace Is.

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When we speak of “grace” we usually think of divine mercy—the unmerited love and favor that God shows humans. Of course, that is very important, and it is, in fact, God’s grace toward humans that provides the template for human grace—in attitudes and in actions—toward humans. But there is a bit more to grace than that. 

The theme of God’s grace runs throughout the sacred library we call the Bible. We often speak of redemption or of God’s redemptive work on behalf of fallen humanity. Redemptive work exists because God is a God of grace. No matter how badly or how often humans fail and “fall short of the glory of God” (that is, God’s righteous standard), as Paul puts it in his letter to the Christians of Rome (Rom 3:23), God reaches out and invites humans to return to him. 

When we think of grace we usually think of the New Testament. We tend to think of law and judgment when it comes to the Old Testament and grace and forgiveness when it comes to the New Testament. Of course, that is a distortion, for there is plenty of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament. 

But it is not hard to see why grace is thought of as a New Testament theme. The word “grace” (charis) and its cognate “gift” (charisma) occur more than 160 times in the Greek New Testament. The word “grace” occurs many times in Luke, John, and Acts (though curiously not once in Matthew or Mark). John famously remarks in his prologue that the “Word became flesh” and was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But it is Paul with whom the word “grace” becomes closely associated—in the book of Acts and in his letters. In the introduction of his letter to the Romans Paul says it is through the risen Messiah that “we have received grace and apostleship” (Rom 1:5). Perhaps Paul’s best known articulation of grace is found in the letter to the Ephesians, where the apostle sums up a very important dimension of the gospel: 

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph 2:8–9) 

This understanding of grace, as we shall see, is deeply rooted in the Scriptures of Israel. We see grace in the fall of Adam and Eve. Although they have disobeyed God and have ruined paradise for themselves, God clothes them and offers them hope. They may eventually die, for that is a consequence of sin, but they will have children; the human race will continue (Gen 3). They are given a second chance. Indeed, even in the oracle pronounced against the tempter, “he shall bruise your head” (Gen 3:15), many interpreters down through the centuries—both Jewish and Christian—believe we have our first prophecy of a coming Redeemer and Savior. It is subtle, to be sure, but the passage was understood to hint at the coming of the Messiah who, though bruised by the cruel cross, would fatally bruise the head of Satan the tempter. Paul himself seems to allude to this understanding at the end of his letter to the Romans. He assures his readers “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). (In a later chapter I will say a little more about the fall of humanity and God’s response.) 

God’s grace is again revealed in response to the wickedness of humanity in the early chapters of Genesis. Cain murders his brother Abel (Gen 4), and from then on, murder and violence characterize human behavior. Very little grace can be found on the earth during these dark days. Human sin becomes so great we are told that “the Lord was sorry that he made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6). 

This is an astonishing statement, especially when we recall that at every stage of creation God reviewed what he had made and pronounced it “good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). When the work of creation was finished and “God saw everything that he had made,” he saw that “it was very good” (1:31, italics added but the original Hebrew may have intended emphasis). And yet, a few generations later, the human race had become so evil God regretted that he had made humanity. “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground,” God said (6:7). This is hard to imagine, for of all the creatures that God had made only humans had been made “in the image of God” (1:26, 27; 9:6). Rather than being a cause of joy, humans had become a cause of grief and regret. It is hard to imagine that humans could do something that “grieved [God] to his heart” (6:6); and yet we did. 

But God did not wipe out humanity. He had a change of heart. Why? It was because of a man named Noah, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation,” a man who “walked with God” (6:9). God decided not to end the human race because “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). Humanity would get a second chance. We will talk more about Noah soon. 

What the RSV translates as “favor” is the Hebrew word ḥēn, which could also be translated “grace.” In fact, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses the word charis, which usually is translated as “grace.” This is the first time the word ḥēn (“grace”) appears in the Bible. And it is a game-changer. Had Noah found no grace in the eyes of the Lord, the human race may have come to an end. It is interesting to note in passing that the next time the word ḥēn (“grace”) appears in the Bible it is in reference to Abraham (Gen 18:3), the man through whom God’s redemptive work takes a major step forward. As did Noah many generations before, so Abraham found grace in God’s sight and so was blessed with a son—the beginning of a special covenant people from whom the Savior of the world would someday spring.6

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To explore how grace is a gift, forgiveness, mercy, and more, pick up What Grace Is.

  1. A. Boyd Luter, “Grace,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  2. Tony Evans, The Grace of God (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2004), 20.
  3. Evans, Grace of God, 34–35.
  4. Adapted from John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom,” quoted in Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Early Church, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).
  5. Adapted from Dwight L. Moody, Anecdotes, Incidents, and Illustrations, quoted in Ritzema and Vince, 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Modern Church.
  6. Craig A. Evans, What Grace Is: Meditations on the Mercy of Our God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), 1–6.
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