We use the word “grace” in a number of different ways. To be in someone’s “good graces.” “There but by the grace of God go I.” “Saved by grace through faith” (that’s quoting Paul). And we define grace in many ways: love, forgiveness, help, acceptance and mercy. All of these different understandings make it challenging to discuss and analyze the concept of grace.
In Old Testament times, the Hebrew root of the word translated as grace was “favor.” If you received God’s grace, you received God’s favor or God’s help.But you only received God’s grace if you were one of God’s elect. There were certain requirements of faith and action which were to be met in order for God to bestow grace upon you. Following the many laws required by Jewish tradition was really the key.
In New Testament times, Jesus constantly tried to move people beyond the rigid, confining words of the law. He argued that they may have followed the letter of the law, but they had forgotten the spirit of the law which is love. This was a hot topic when it came to salvation. Some ardent Jewish-Christians insisted that one must follow the letter of the Jewish law, in addition to being baptized and recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, in order to be saved. Paul, Peter and others, argued that people were “saved by grace through faith.” The intent was to put the emphasis back on God’s gift of love, but conservatives and evangelicals have turned this into another instance of meeting a requirement to get to heaven. They would say that you have to accept God’s grace, which will manifest itself in faith and then you will be saved.
I have issues with this whole concept of not accepting God’s grace. That seems to make us bigger than God. It suggests that we have the final word. Haven’t you ever had your kid yell at you and say, “I hate you”? And you responded that it was fine if they wanted to hate you, you loved them anyway. God’s love for us is not affected by anything we say or do. In my humble opinion, God has the trump card in this play.
In seminary I was taught that grace is God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Marcus Borg talks about radical grace ad God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone. And Philip Gulley defines grace as God’s unfailing commitment to love. Unconditional means that any statement including an “if” in it is no longer unconditional. God’s grace is for you… if you accept it… if you go to the right church… if you believe the right thing… if you got the right baptism… if you are not gay… if you asked forgiveness. That is conditional, which is not the essence of God’s love and grace.
The best definition I’ve heard lately is from the book Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership which defines grace as “a direct personal experience with the power and love of the Divine.” Yes! I love the use of the word “power.” Experiencing God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance is powerful because it can be transformative in our lives. Why is it transformative, you want to know? Because when we know we are loved no matter what, we can stop worrying about messing up and start living into our authentic selves. We can risk and question and search without fear of God withdrawing grace.
Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, sums it up beautifully. He says, “Taking the God of love and justice and the God of grace seriously has immediate implications for the Christian message… it’s about seeing what is already true – that God loves us already – and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”
Let me conclude by drawing a few pieces together. If we put our reframing of “salvation” as “healing and wholeness” together with this discussion of grace, then the formula of “saved by grace” now becomes “healing and being made whole through a direct personal experience with the power and love of the Divine.” That makes sense.