Grace is Bigger Than We Think

[Note: I recently had a chance to contribute to a project with some friends from the Campus Ministries of Asbury University. Here's my contribution on the topic of grace.]

“By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” 
– St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:10, NIV)

“Stir the spark of grace now within you, and God will give you more grace.” 
–John Wesley

“Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.” 
–Dallas Willard

Grace is Bigger Than We Think

    Many Christians rightly understand that grace is indispensable in our lives, as much as the right kind of fuel is essential to a working vehicle. Grace is indeed that essential, since the scriptures insist from beginning to end that every good gift from God is precisely that–a gift, which we could never possibly deserve. However, instead of cruising down the open highway and having enough gas in the tank to deal with whatever obstacles may come along, many of us have experienced the Christian life more as one with an occasional spurt while more often staring at a “Low Fuel” light, feeling like our motor could have nothing left at any moment. 

    Grace is the fuel we are made to run on as Christians, and learning to live the kind of life Jesus invites us to as his followers is about learning to cooperate with grace. Unfortunately, though, we often misunderstand (or, perhaps, under-understand) what grace is, and we therefore end up putting a diluted fuel in the tank. Then, we’re left unable to explain why our car quit on us before finishing the trip.

    In the minds of many of us, grace has been diluted to one thing: through Christ, God offers me forgiveness even though I really don’t deserve it. Even though that is true, immensely important, and an exceedingly gracious thing of God to do, forgiveness is not the totality of grace. If we consider the words of Paul above, or any number of other passages about grace, we’ll see that to substitute the word “forgiveness” for “grace” in those texts is to make them nonsensical. When we look at what Paul and the others said about grace, we have to conclude that they were describing something bigger than forgiveness. If grace equals an undeserved offer of pardon, what could Paul have possibly meant by saying, “I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me”? Grace wasn’t just Paul’s means of forgiveness–it was his fuel.

    If grace isn’t just about forgiveness, what is it? For a bigger conception of grace, consider this description from Dallas Willard: “Grace is God’s action in our lives to bring about what we do not deserve and cannot accomplish on our own.” Grace is unquestionably God’s gift to us, and there are innumerable ways that God works in addition to his merciful offer of forgiveness–namely, that he offers us life to the full as we learn to live in the ways of his kingdom. In other words, grace is about God’s help, and our part in the Christian life is to ever open ourselves to it more completely.

    The difference this makes in how Christians arrange our daily lives is immense. If–in my mind–grace is only about forgiveness, then the best I can do with Peter’s instruction to “grow in grace” would be to accept that I’m forgiven and then, perhaps, spend the rest of my life trying to avoid doing the kinds of that would necessitate more forgiveness. On the other hand, if I understand grace as God’s help, drawing each of us more fully into Jesus’ kind of life, then I can arrange my life around cooperation with grace.

    To switch metaphors for a moment, I like to think of it like this: my character without God is like an old house where no one has lived for decades, all boarded up and dark on the inside. The house is pretty useless without light; it was intended to be lit up. Its structure is still sound, but for whatever reason, no one lives there and so all of the windows and doors have been boarded up and no light has been allowed in.

    God's grace is like the sunlight that is all around the house. It has been there every day, available to penetrate the house's darkness, but blocked out because there is no life in the house and barriers have been built up to keep out intruders, animals, rocks from the neighborhood boys, and also consequentially, the light.

    If my character is the darkened house and God's grace is the light that empowers life in that house, then these spiritual disciplines or means of grace are the windows which, if unboarded, will be the channels through which God's light comes into my darkened house. Reflection on Scripture opens one window and those first rays of light instantly overpower the darkness. Then rest opens another, then fasting, then prayer, then confession, then communion, then service, and eventually, God's light so fills that house that the darkness has been driven out from every room, and it is again a house suitable for life.

    Maybe it would be better to speak of the disciplines as being the act of unboarding the windows rather than being the windows themselves, for these means of grace are necessarily things that we do–they are the effort we put into the process. God's grace is always available and it's around long before we realize it, and we are not passive in the process of its coming into our lives to heal all of the formerly sin-sickened places in our world and replace them with Jesus’ abundant, thriving life.

    Perhaps we could combine the two metaphors and say that grace is fuel for abundant life. It is given to us freely and in abundance, and we find that we are built to flourish when we cooperate with it. 

Relevant Passages:

  • Luke 2:40,52 (Note that grace and favor are two translations of the same term, charis)
  • John 1:14-17
  • Acts 4:32-35
  • 2 Peter 3:18
  • 1 Corinthians 15:9-10

Questions for Reflection:

  • Do these ideas about grace match your thinking about it?
  • What are things you would like to do to open yourself to God’s grace today? 
  • Is there a weekly or monthly grace-conducive habit you would like to pursue?
  • Think of someone in your life that lives more dependently on grace than you’ve learned to do so far. Is there a way you could spend some time with them?
  • Are there habits or relationships that are cutting off the flow of grace into your life? How can you remedy them?