17 November, 2016

What Does Scripture Mean by Grace?

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Another Look at Common Grace, chapter 2]

What does Scripture mean by grace? To that we intend to devote this article.

Even a cursory study of the concept “grace” in Scripture will immediately make clear that the word has a variety of meanings, which meanings are, nevertheless, related.

Kittel4 points out that although Scripture gives to the term its own distinct meaning, nevertheless, the basic idea of the term was found in profane Greek. It meant 1) that which pleases or delights; 2) the state of being pleased; 3) that which causes pleasure to others, kindness.5 In general, therefore, it means good pleasure, favor, goodwill.6

In Hellenism, Kittel says, the term means either the demonstration of a king's favor, a gracious disposition, or thanks. He then goes on to add that the term also had the connotations of power, a connotation found also in its New Testament usage.7

He goes on to discuss the meaning and connotation of the terms in Scripture, which are חֵ֥ן (ên) from the verb חָנַן (ênan) and χάρις (kháris) in Greek. Kittel says that the noun in Hebrew refers first of all to beauty or charm, and points to several passages as illustrations. In Exodus 3:21 the Lord says: “And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians.” Here “favour” is really “grace.” This thought is repeated in Exodus 11:3 and 12:36. The same meaning is attached to the word, according to Kittel, in Psalm 84:11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.”8

In other places in the Old Testament the word refers often just to an attitude. This is especially true of such passages as speak of one finding grace in the eyes of another. An example of this is in Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”9

After pointing out that this Old Testament idea is carried over into the new, Kittel goes on to say that it is especially the New Testament which emphasizes that grace is always free. While a number of texts are quoted as support for this idea, Kittel appeals especially to Romans 3:24: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”10

Kittel’s summary statement is: “What is in view is the process whereby one who has something turns in grace to another who has nothing, nor is this just an impersonal transfer of things, but a heart-felt movement of the one who acts to the one acted upon.”11

In connection with the fact that grace is always free, Kittel makes some very sharp statements that have direct bearing on our discussion of whether Scripture uses the word “grace” as being common, i.e., towards all men.

He defines grace as the “totality of salvation,” and quotes II Corinthians 6:1 and I Corinthians 1:4 as proof. II Corinthians 6:1 reads: “We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.”12 And I Corinthians 1:4 reads: “I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ.”13

As he emphasizes this point, Kittel speaks of grace as “the power of grace [which] is displayed in its work, the overcoming of sin.” He refers to Romans 5:20 as proof: “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”14 He uses such expressions as followsall of which show the particularity of grace: “It is free election.” “It actualizes itself in the church.” “Its goal is every good work.” “It holds the believer fast in the fellowship of grace.” “It is the destruction of sin.” “χάρις [kháris]  “is the divine ‘favour’ shown in Christ.” In fact, in Colossians 3:13, grace means “to pardon.” “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye”where, in both instances that the verb “forgive” is used, the Greek uses the verb form for grace.15 So grace always belongs to salvation.

If it is argued that these Scripture passages all speak of saving grace in distinction from common grace, the obvious answer is: Saving grace is the only use of the term in God’s Word.

Hermann Cremer16 is in basic agreement with Kittel’s analysis of the term. He offers the general definition: Grace is a “kind, affectionate, pleasing nature, and an inclining disposition either in person or thing.”17 Luke 1:30; 2:40, 52; Acts 2:47; 4:33; 7:46 are referred to as texts which use the word in this sense.

He then proceeds to speak of it as God’s grace and favor which excludes merit and is not hindered by guilt, but forgives sin. Among other texts, the following are quoted as supporting this idea. Romans 5:15: “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” Galatians 2:21: “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” Ephesians 3:2: “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward.” And he concludes his discussion with the statement that grace is spontaneous favor.18

Also Cremer finds no use of the term in Scripture which can in any way be construed as applying to a grace which is common.

Following these analyses of the word “grace,” Rev. Herman Hoeksema also treats this concept extensively in his Reformed Dogmatics.19

He points out, first of all, that grace is an attribute of God.20 God, says Hoeksema, is gracious in Himself. As proof of this use of grace in Scripture, he refers to Exodus 34:6: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”; and I Peter 5:10: “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.”

Hoeksema considers this to be an important point. He argues that God never becomes outside Himself what He is not, first of all, within His own triune covenant life. He is gracious in Himself. The grace that He reveals to sinners is the grace which He is within His own being. And so, such revelations of His grace as He is pleased to show in Christ Jesus are revelations of His own perfections.

Proceeding from this starting point, Hoeksema shows, first of all, that grace is always rooted in ethical goodness.21 He quotes a number of passages to prove this. Among them are the following. Proverbs 22:11: “He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.” This is an important text in the argument, for it proves that pureness of heart and grace belong together. The one who loves pureness of heart has grace of lips. Psalm 45:2: “Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.” Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” That is, grace is administered to hearers when we speak nothing corrupt, but speak good to the use of edifying. Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”

Grace is, therefore, a beauty or excellence, a comeliness or attractiveness which is rooted in ethical perfection.

Secondly, grace is an attitude of gracefulness. In Acts 7:46, David is described as one “who found favour (or grace) before God.” The same is true of Mary as the angel assures her: “Thou hast found favour (or grace) with God” (Luke 1:30).

We must be sure that we understand this meaning of the term clearly. The idea is not so much that David or Mary were in themselves graceful in the sense that they were ethically pure and thus attractivealthough this was surely, in a sense, true. But the idea is rather that God took an attitude of favor towards them. He was favorably inclined towards them. He looked upon them with approval.

It is at this point that the two ideas come together. Grace is attractiveness which is rooted in ethical perfection; but it is also an attitude of God towards men. Now this latter can mean two things. It may mean that the one who is gracious is ethically perfect. God is gracious because He is ethically perfect.

But, quite obviously, this idea does not do justice to the texts cited above in which Scripture states that David and Mary found grace in the sight of God. The idea is here that these two are the objects of God’s attitude of favor, of approval, of delight. The idea here is, then, that God’s attitude towards them is an attitude which cannot possibly be rooted in themselves or in the kind of people they were. They were wicked and ethically impure.22

God is favorably inclined to them, therefore, because they were ethically perfect for another reason than the kind of people they actually were. They were ethically pure objectively in Christ Who died for them so that God sees them in Christ. But that great attitude of God’s favor towards them made them ethically pure.

Hence, in the third place, grace is undeserved favor. This is repeated again and again in Scripture. It is sharply contrasted with works of any kind. It is never payment of a debt. It is never earned. It is the very opposite of works. This truth is emphatically stated in Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”23 The same truth is stated in Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”24

Finally, grace is the power of salvation.25 It is itself the power whereby these blessings are actually given and become the possession of the people of God. It is that which makes the objects of God’s grace ethically perfect as He is by transforming them into saints and bestowing on them all the blessings of salvation.

It is clear how crucial the idea of ethical perfection is to the concept of grace. If it is true that ethical perfection always stands connected with grace, then it is also true that the term in Scripture cannot apply to any common attitude towards all men.

And so it is clear that the term grace in Scripture has reference only to the saving grace of God which is given through Jesus Christ to those who belong to Christ's church. Never is there the slightest hint that this grace is common, that it is shared with all alike, that all men are, in some sense, the objects of this grace. Scripture simply does not use the term in that sense at all.


4. Kittel, G., ed, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974).

5. Ibid., p. 373.

6. Ibid., p. 374.

7. Ibid., pp. 375, 376.

8. Ibid., p. 379.

9. Ibid., p. 380.

10. Ibid., p. 394.

11. Ibid., p.377.

12. This is an interesting passage. The translation of the AV might lead one to misinterpret it. The Greek reads: Συνεργοντες δ κα παρακαλομεν μ ες κενν τν χάριν το Θεο δέξασθαι.  The translation is: “But working together, we also beseech you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” The point is not that we are co-workers with God; but that we work together as ministers of God.

13. Ibid., p. 394.

14. Ibid., p. 395.

15. The Greek word is χαρςομαι (khárisomai)

16. Cremer, Hermann, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1895).

17. Ibid., p. 573.

18. Ibid., p. 574.

19. Hoeksema, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966).

20. In fact, his analysis of the term is found under the section dealing with the attributes of God.

21. Ibid., pp. 107, 108.

22. Some effort is made to get around this by the defenders of common grace by asserting that God loves the sinner, but hates his sin. The trouble with this distinction is that it is the sinner who sins. Sin is not an abstraction which hangs out in the air somewhere. Sin is the activity of a person. Not only that, but even more importantly, the sinner sins because he is a sinner. He is, in his own nature, totally depraved. He is ugly and repulsive, shot through with guilt, full of running sores. That kind of person God cannot love as a sinner.

23. The last sentence of this verse is omitted in some translations. This is a mistake. The support for the verse as we have quoted it is very strong.

24. Ibid., p. 109.

25. Ibid., p. 110.

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