The Context of Grace
The announcement of salvation coincides with the message, “Your God reigns” (Isa 52:7). Christians recognize that salvation comes by the grace of God through faith (Eph 2:8-10). With this comes the recognition of God’s authority to offer grace. Grace is meaningful because the One who offers that grace reigns. Only one with the power to heal can offer to heal.
We typically think of grace as “unmerited favor,” but we should think of more than this. Think of grace, not just as unmerited favor, but as unmerited service. When Jesus washed the disciples' feet (John 13), He served them. Peter tried to refuse it but was quickly rebuked for it. “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” Jesus told him (v. 8).
If we will not let Jesus serve us by cleansing us, then we have no part with Him. If we refuse the grace of His service, we are unclean. We remain in our sins. We cannot reject His service and accept His grace. They go together, and we deserve neither. The nature of salvation is that we are relinquish ourselves to God by having Him cleanse us. This is His service. This is His grace. Think of grace, then, as service. We don't deserve to be cleansed, but refusing to let Him wash us is the height of our arrogance and the depth of our downfall.
Grace also needs to be seen against the backdrop of the ancient world. In the ancient world, relationships were often built on the ideas of patronage and friendship. The wealthy were often known as “benefactors” (e.g., Luke 22:25, “And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.”). David deSilva points out that this was a culture in which…
“there was a clearly articulated code that guided the noble exchange of graces. It was within this world that Jesus’ message took shape and throughout this world that the good news of God’s favor was proclaimed. Not all relationships fell under this heading of ‘grace relationships,’ since there were many ‘contractual’ relationships (e.g., between tenants and landlord, merchants, and the like) in which the return for goods, services or privileges was spelled out in advance and not left to goodwill.” (deSilva, David A.. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity. InterVarsity Press, p. 121.)
The significance of this in that time was that when grace was given, the recipient was under obligation to respond graciously as much as is possible; it would be shameful not to respond gratefully to the offer of a grace by a benefactor. Grace required reciprocation, not in order to earn the grace, but in order to show gratefulness. It was only proper to be thankful and respond appropriately. It would have been a great shame to think that one could receive a gift by grace and not respond in kind to the best of one’s abilities. In that culture, then, we find the concept of God’s grace toward sinners.
By virtue of the fact that God has given us life, breath, and all things (Acts 14:17; 17:24-28), we are under obligation to God. Refusing to respond gratefully to God is the height of insult and shame. This is why we read in passages like Romans 1:20-21 that failing to give God thanks leads to futile thinking and darkened understanding. We have spurned God’s grace in this world, and this can only lead to terrible consequences.
Even so, God has, once again, offered grace through Christ. But this is not offered only to those who are decent people. This is offered to His enemies (Rom 5:6-11). This is offered not just to ingrates, but to those who have actively pursued hostility toward God. “God’s selection of his enemies as beneficiaries of his most costly gift is one area in which God’s favor truly stands out” (deSilva, 129).
The generosity and grace of God exceeds all known limits. The offer of Christ for our sins is really beyond our ability to fully grasp. What this means is that the only proper response is our trust in Him and submission to His will. Grace is much more than unmerited favor. It is favor offered when we were enemies. How can we turn our backs to this?
I believe in grace because I believe in God. If there is no God, then grace is an illusion trumped up by accidental minds. Grace would be devoid of meaning; it would have no part in our existence. We would be what we are (if at all) due to brute material determinism, happenstance, and dumb luck. This is all we would have, and whatever we have would not be a matter of fairness or unfairness; it wouldn't be a matter of what we deserve or don't deserve. We would merely be subjects of an unthinking, non-intelligent natural order that cares nothing for justice, mercy, compassion, fairness, love, or any other virtue. It would just be what it is by the brute force of matter. What makes grace and mercy tenable is the existence of God. And I believe in grace because I believe in God.
What shall we do about the grace God offers us?