Whatever a person understands scripture to teach about grace has enormous repercussions on Christian teaching and practice. Differing definitions of grace have led to whole new theologies of grace. Some perspectives might align better with scripture’s intended message than others.
Typically today, grace is defined as “unmerited favor.” However, even this phraseology promotes ambiguity and diverse practices because opinions differ over what qualifies as constituting “unmerited.” Thus the heart of the matter revolves around grasping when merit is absent, so that the gift can truly be given as grace.
Merit Definition #1: Any human activity (or even volition)
According to this perspective, any human activity or initiative establishes merit and thus can be regarded as an attempt to establish one’s own righteousness. Therefore, in order for salvation to be by grace, humanity must be depraved and wholly incapable of choosing to serve God. This understanding of merit might also be combined with some version of the second or third definition.
Merit Definition #2: Compliance to a standard/ obedience
Any effort to conform to a standard or to obey commands constitutes merit and could establish a basis for one’s own righteousness. Hence, grace is understood as liberating a person from the need to comply with biblical commands and forms. Grace and the “works of the law” are understood as being mutually exclusive, with “works of the law” representing all law-principles.
Merit Definition #3: Fulfilling the Law’s prescriptions
Merit entails receiving a result commensurate with one’s performance in obeying the Law of Moses. Thus grace frees people from the need to fulfill the “works of the Law” in order to be regarded as righteous. Accordingly, to obediently rely upon Christ and to beseech God for a clean conscience do not constitute merit, since these activities do not establish one’s own righteousness. Grace and the “works of the Law” are two different systems, with the latter referring to the Law of Moses.
Since grace is understood to be unmerited favor, these different definitions of merit establish different notions about what constitutes grace. People might use the same biblical language, but fundamentally be communicating very different ideas.
So what? What difference does it make how grace is defined?
At first glance, some of these definitions might appear similar. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the roots of different tree species absorb the same nutrients and those nutrients rise upward through the truck but eventually erupt as different types of fruit, so too the same word infused with various definitions create differing frameworks empowering diverse practices and doctrines.
For example, if a church embraces the first definition of grace then Paul will be interpreted as teaching that every human action or even the ability to decide falls within works, which do not save. It is by grace therefore that God chooses to empower someone to respond with faith.
In contrast to this, a different church’s understanding of grace might lead them to interpret Paul as informing us that Christians are liberated from the need to conform to New Testament teachings and practices. As a result such a church becomes empowered to discover new ways to engage its culture. What the biblical author might have communicated about worship, church organization, marriage or any other topic is no longer normative.
This view tends to regard the motive for obedience as an effort to justify oneself as righteous. With the banner “grace covers it” and the dismissive weapon, “that’s legalistic,” every undesirable normative barrier can be eliminated.
Still yet, another church might perceive Paul as teaching that grace means Jesus has provided us with a salvation we do not deserve. Such unmerited favor would not release us from the need to obey or to conform to the New Testament’s messages and practices. What scripture presents as normative remains prescriptive for God’s people.
Within those holding to this perspective, motivation for obedience could vary. Some might erroneously view their conformity to the new covenant’s teachings as providing their own righteousness. Others might identify Christ as being their only source of righteousness. In this case their motive for being obedient could be an expression of their love for God and their desire to live worthily of who God has made them to be.
How can we know what constitutes merit and hence what grace is?
The starting place for such a study is how can we determine what is true? Some people might suggest look within yourself; what does grace mean to you? Others might point at God’s word asking, does scripture reveal what God wanted us to understand? Because people might offer various answers for how to identify what is true, should we throw up our hands in despair? Not at all!
Here are just a few initial suggestions for discovering a reliable path forward.
• How something makes me feel, does not determine its truthfulness. Sometimes what is true can make us feel sad, while at other times it might fill us with joy. Just because an idea provides a sense of relief, not does mean it is true.
• More than internal consistency is needed. Some ideas known to be false are also internally consistent. Therefore just because an idea is not self-contradicting does not prove its truthfulness.
• Value an author-centered understanding of scripture, not a reader-centered one. If God led certain ones to write a message that he wanted us to understand, we need to seek that originally intended message. We should not be asking, “what does this mean to me?” since our interpretations will be colored by our experiences and culture.
Can we understand what Paul communicated when he used the word grace? I believe so. It starts with a reliable method for interpreting scripture.
Next in series – The Gravity of Grace: Proof Texts (2)