Essay / Theology

What is Grace?

What is grace? A word used so indiscriminately in casual conversation, and often enough in theological exposition, can threaten to lose all significance. Here is a simple, but comprehensive definition: Grace is the effective presence of the triune God to pardon and empower.

Let’s unpack that a bit. First, grace is effective presence. That is, grace is not a “thing” capable of being abstracted from the personal presence of God. It is less a measurable quality than it is the presence of God to and among his people. And this is an effective presence; it does something. God does not come to his people aimlessly or anemically, but comes to redeem, sanctify and perfect them.

Second, grace is the effective presence of the triune God. A properly theological account of God’s grace (as opposed to, though not entirely divorced from, an account of the grace of a ballerina) broadcasts the subject of grace. Nor is this “god” in general, but the triune God of Christian confession, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is this God who is for us, with us and in us in the church. 2 Corinthians closes with a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” This is not to restrict grace to a gift of Christ apart from the Father and the Spirit, for grace is the gift of the triune God. We might paraphrase the benediction by putting it thus: The loving Father gave his Son to the world that by his death and resurrection we might be brought into the fellowship that the Spirit cultivates between Father and Son. Grace is present when and where the Spirit brings Father and Son to us and us to Father and Son. And that “when” and “where” are the church.

Finally, grace is the effective presence of the triune God to pardon and empower. Both of these verbs are vital here. The end of pardon is empowerment; the origin of empowerment is pardon. This suggests both the profound brokenness and disorder of sinful humanity as well as God’s faithfulness to his creation such that redemption is creation’s restoration and vindication. It would do no good to empower sinful humanity; that would only be to abet the further corruption of God’s good creation. But if God merely pardoned without providing the empowerment needed to live faithfully before him in the world, the church would be left resourceless. Thus we can say: “Grace neither destroys, nor merely perfects nature; rather, grace perfects nature through a disruptive event which must be classified as mortification and vivification.” (R. Michael Allen)

[For more on this, see the forthcoming book written with David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010).]
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