We are so often told that grace is defined as “divine, unmerited favour” and this has almost become the catch cry of so many – that we don’t deserve grace, and it is from God, and it is his favour bestowed on us. None of this is necessarily wrong, but it is not really complete either.
The Greek word translated as grace is the same word we get our words Charisma. Charismatic comes from it, and it is sometimes translated as gift or giftedness. We talk about someone being graceful and it carries the feeling of being beautiful in either form or function.
The word itself carries the idea of a gift. As with any translation of a word, the word itself only carries the concept, and the context in which we find it determines the precise meaning. For example, we use the word love in a lot of ways. I love my wife. I love coffee. I love my dog. I love my bible. Each of those words love implies something different though. I don’t love coffee in the same way as I love my wife. I don’t love my dog in the same way I love coffee. And I don’t love coffee in the same way I love my bible. We recognize the different uses of the word by their context.
The word for grace, when translated as grace, means a gift from a superior to a lesser. To show grace is different to showing mercy. Mercy means that you have the ability to bring a judgement of some kind and that you choose not to. If you owe me money, and I show you mercy, I choose not to impose the judgement that says you must pay me (either now or perhaps at all). Nor is grace forgiveness. If I forgive the debt, then I do away with it.
Grace, by contrast, makes up the difference between the superior and the lesser. If you owe me money and I show you grace, what it means is that I myself pay the debt that you owe – I make up the difference between what you have and what I am owed. You cannot show grace if you are not in the position of superiority. Literally, grace is ‘to make up the difference’ between the position of the superior and the position of the inferior.
My favourite image of grace is that of a father and a young child. No father says to his one year old “little Jonny, you need to come up here so we can talk.” He gets down on the floor – down on the level of the infant, so that they can communicate and he does so in the language of the infant.
And this is what God does for us in Jesus. We (the inferior) could not reach him, so he (the superior) reaches down to us. He makes up the difference between us and him so that we can know him. We receive both his mercy – that he chooses not to impose the penalty for our sins – and his forgiveness – that he does away with them – but his grace is what allows us to know him.
There was a divide between us and God, and God reaches over it.