A few weeks ago, one of the teachers at the church I attend via Zoom said, “We stand and fall by our definitions”. That struck me and I wrote it down. I have been thinking how true that statement is. While conducting my study on The Fruit of the Spirit, I realized my belief in the meaning of a word also meant I brought that preconceived idea to scripture. Of course I knew what patience was, what peace was, what joy was, etc. because I understood the definitions of all these words. I had barely begun my study before I realized how incorrect that assumption was: I didn’t really know what these words meant at all.
I have been meaning to look at the meaning of the Grace of God because I came across a statement while studying The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy. I was looking up joy in The Dictionary of New Testament Theology and read this: “Also to be noted is the etymological connection with charis (grace) which has not always been clearly distinguished in meaning from chara.”1 In a brief review: Joy in the Greek is chara (G5479). It comes from the root word chairo (G5463) which is a primary verb meaning “to be cheerful”. I did make a note of the connection but, as I was studying joy and not grace, I didn’t pursue it further.
A little time passed and then, while watching one of his teachings, I heard Malcolm Smith say that grace and joy shared a root word. My attention was caught. I remembered the statement I’d read and how I meant to take a further look at grace. And then I got busy with other studies and it went onto a back burner. Then I saw a post on Instagram which brought the statement, “we stand and fall by our definitions” back to the forefront of my mind. The Post was by Dictionary.com and said, “True or False? Grace means having moral, not physical, strength”. I had to read that a few times because I had not ever defined grace as strength: moral or physical. My answer would thus be “false” but I realized I wasn’t certain. I had intended to look up the meaning of grace but had gotten sidetracked. I would be sidetracked no longer. I got to work.
The church world I’ve been part of has defined grace for me as “unmerited favor” and I’ve never questioned that. Perhaps I should have done because, as I read through the scriptures listed under Grace in the Strong’s Concordance while substituting “unmerited favor”, I find the scriptures cease to make sense. I could not come boldly before the throne of “unmerited favor” nor does it make sense that, in doing so, I would find the “unmerited favor” to help in time of need (Hebrews. 4:16). It does not make sense that His “unmerited favor” would be sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9) nor does it make sense that, in describing Jesus, Luke’s Gospel would say “the unmerited favor of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40). How can Paul say he does not frustrate the “unmerited favor” of God (Galatians 2:21) or tell the Galatians they have fallen from “unmerited favor” (Galatians 5:4)?
As an interesting experiment (because Dictionary.com might know something I do not), I read through the list using “strength”. That didn’t make much sense either although I did find the idea of strength in some of the scriptures. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul does say, “according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power” (Ephesians 3:7) and he does tell Timothy to, “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). So then my answer to Dictionary.com’s mini quiz is no longer unequivocally “false” but then neither is my answer “true”. We stand and fall by our definitions. That being so, what does grace really mean?
My trusty New World Dictionary gives me quite an extensive definition. I won’t share the entire entry for the sake of space but I find grace defined as: pleasing quality, favor, thanks, to lift up the voice in praise, an attractive quality, a sense of what is right or proper, thoughtfulness toward others, good will, mercy, clemency, etc. Under definition number 10 I do find “the unmerited love and favor of God toward man”.2
The Strong’s Concordance doesn’t necessarily disagree with the dictionary but I do not find any definition of unmerited favor, or strength for that matter. The Strong’s Concordance entry for charis (G5485) is: from 5463; graciousness (as gratifying) of manner or act (abstr. Or concr,; lit., fig., or spiritual; espec. the divine influence upon the heart and its reflection in the life; incl. gratitude), acceptable, benefit, favor, gift, grace (-cious), joy, liberality, pleasure, thank (-s, worthy)”.3 I repeat, there is nothing here to suggest grace means “unmerited favor”. And, it is interesting to note grace does come from the root word chairo (G5463) which is a primary verb meaning “to be cheerful”. Grace and Joy are related to each other. These two words are not interchangeable but, because they are members of the same word family, they have a common feature, pattern, or meaning.4 This is definitely a time to Selah: pause and calmly think of that!
What conclusion do I draw? I go back to the list of scriptures in the concordance and read them again, this time plugging in Strong’s definition, especially the words “the divine influence upon the heart and its reflection in the life”. I thrill at Paul’s greeting in his letters. “Grace be to you and peace from God…” I read through the scriptures and know that I am just beginning to understand the Grace of God. I read through the scriptures and am reminded of Ezekiel 36 verses 25-27: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.” This is what I see as the Grace of God. It is a revelation of His heart. It is summed up in Jesus Christ. It is His free gift to me in His Spirit. It is God keeping the promise He made in Ezekiel. The Grace of God is Him keeping all His promises. He has His own joy and that too He freely gives to me.
Is it unmerited? Of course. I can’t begin to fathom the heart of God much less begin to think I deserved any of His gifts. But then, He keeps His promises because of who He is, not because of anything I could ever do or not do. All I can do is say, “Yes. Thank you. I receive it. Hallelujah! Amen.”
Unless noted otherwise, scriptures are quoted from the New King James Version of the Holy Bible, Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1982
- Brown, Colin, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1986, Joy, Page 356
- Guralnik, David B., Webster’s New World Dictionary of The American Language, William Collins+World Publishing Company, Cleveland-New York, 1974
- Strong, James, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 1990
- “Word Family”, What is a Word Family? | Word Families | Examples (twinkl.com)