Grace

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Divine grace is the necessary prerequisite for any and all Christian action. Unfortunately, there is much misunderstanding about what grace actually is. That is what I want us to look at today: the nature of grace, and how we can receive it.

"Grace" is an interesting word in most languages, and no less so in English. We’ve all heard the common expression: “She walked with much grace.” When used in this way, it generally contains the sense of “refinement” and “gentility” — often as an attitudinal quality that is usually considered to have been developed through education and/or training. However, if we’re speaking theologically, “grace” is a very specific and very simple thing — in Greek, the language of the New Testament, “grace” is the word: kharis which literally means “unmerited favor.” For a gift to be truly “grace,” you must have done nothing to earn that gift. No work or effort of your own can go into the gift for it to be “grace.” This is the nature of saving grace, for we can add nothing to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. Jesus paid the price, in full, for all our sins; nothing we can do can ever add to or detract from the importance of Jesus’ death for us.

God’s grace is so essential to the Christian walk that we are not wrong in saying that, without it, we lack the ability to turn to God or even to have faith in Jesus. Because human beings have fallen so far away from God’s will through our sins and self-centeredness, we are incapable of even wanting to come to God. Thanks to what is known, in classical theology, as “the Fall” of Adam, all human beings are without hope and are entirely incapable of seeking after God unless God is first acting upon our hearts. Apart from the grace of God, we are utterly lost.

Therefore, the first thing that God does is give us a measure of grace which sparks within our hearts a desire to come to Jesus. This grace is called “prevenient” Grace because it comes “before” any action of our own. Indeed, in many respects it is a kind of “appetizer” grace — it makes us hungry for God. This stage of grace also empowers and enables us to reach out to God and his offered gift of salvation. It makes it possible for us to take that essential step of saying “yes” to God.

Unlike their Calvinist brothers and sisters, Methodists believe that this initial gift of grace is given to all people, everywhere, and not just to those who will accept it. Methodists believe this based upon the following Biblical statement:

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all... (1 Timothy 2:5)

And, likewise, the statement:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.... (Titus 2:11)

In other words, Christ’s death on the cross was for all humanity, and not just those that will accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. Jesus died for the sins of all, so that all might have the opportunity to come to God. This does not mean that all are saved, however. All are given an opportunity to receive Jesus, but not all are saved. Saving grace comes to those who respond to the grace of God with faith.

Grace doesn’t end with salvation. Grace continues to mold our living through every step that we take with Jesus. Just as we cannot come to Jesus without God’s grace enabling us, so also we cannot live the life of the Disciple without the grace of God moving in and through us, empowering and transforming us more and more into the likeness of Jesus. In other words, the Christian life is begun and continued through the power and presence of the grace of God in our lives. The Christian life is “grace filled.”

Since grace is so essential for the Christian life, how does one receive it? By what means does grace come to us? These kinds of questions are part of the field of theology which is known as Sacramentology. Methodists, as well as many other Christians, believe that there are a great meany divine-ordained means of grace by which we can receive the real, saving, and empowering presence of Jesus into our lives. Two of these means are the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Through Baptism we are incorporated into the Body of Christ and given the initial grace we need to make our early steps in faith. Through Communion (also known as the Eucharist), we receive continual infusions of the presence of Jesus which enables us to continue to walk in Christ and grow in Christian love and faith. In other words, Baptism is an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which both draws us to Christ and puts us into Christ. Communion is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which empowers us to Christian living day-by-day and is often known as “Sanctifying grace.”

The other means of grace, which Protestants don’t usually identify with sacraments but which, nevertheless, have sacramental qualities, include especially: the reading of Scripture, the hearing of Scripture proclaimed, prayer, giving, service, and the fellowship of the community of faith. Each of these means of grace aids us in receiving the real presence of Jesus Christ, which moves us further on toward a ever-increasingly more pure and holy relationship with God.

© 2000 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.