A Simple Definition of Grace? Yeah, About That…
We know grace is amazing, but what exactly is it? For starters, the Greek word translated “grace” is charis (it helps that the two words sound alike, doesn’t it?). Before Christians picked up charis and connected it to the gospel, the word was useful for describing the patron-client relationship (we’ll get to that in a second) as well as for an everyday greeting—which is why it wouldn’t have been strange to receive a letter from Paul starting with, “Grace and peace to you” (1 Cor. 1:3).
The patron-client relationship was “the basic building block of Greco-Roman society.” If you weren’t one of the few wealthy people, it was important to attach yourself to a wealthy “patron” in order to make it financially. In return for the material well-being that the patron would provide, the “client” would serve his patron and show him public honor whenever the opportunity arose.
Charis refers to the favorable attitude that the patron would show the client, as well as to the gifts and other provisions the patron would give. Charis could also refer to the gratitude the client would give the patron in return. Interestingly, another term for what the client owed the patron was pistis (the Bible word for “faith/faithfulness,” “trust,” or “loyalty/allegiance”). Let that sink in: You would receive charis and respond with pistis.
It should be clear by now that charis could mean various things even before the New Testament picked up the term.
This shouldn’t feel too strange, as it’s not uncommon for many of our English words to take on various meanings too. Whereas the word “bard” basically just means one thing (a singing poet), the word “board” can mean all sorts of interrelated but distinct things: a flat surface (later expanded to mean a table), a group of people in charge (who sit around a table), meals (e.g., room and board, such as you would eat around a table). In this way, charis functions more like “board” than “bard.”
In the New Testament, charis sometimes means something more concrete (like a gift given or a favor bestowed), and other times describes more of a general reality (as in God’s favor or grace toward us). Even when charis is clearly referring to God’s grace, it can be difficult to nail down a single definition. It can be helpful to think of grace in terms of both 1) favor that God shows and 2) gifts that he gives, but there’s a lot more to charis than an easy definition or simple twofold categorization.
Even the traditional go-to definition of grace as “unmerited favor” doesn’t always work. As Matthew Bates explains, in the ancient world, charis was often given because it was merited, and even though the New Testament spells out that God’s grace is not merited by our works (e.g., Eph. 2:8-10), there are times in the New Testament when God’s grace is dependent on something we do (for example, in James 4:6, grace is given to the humble).
So, in lieu of a simple definition of grace, I’m going to try to describe it according to the ways we relate to it.
If I could introduce a grammar word (don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to diagram any sentences), I’d like to look at grace through the lens of prepositions. Remember prepositions? Prepositions are words like “to,” “around,” “above,” “between,” etc. We’re going to look at prepositions because these are the words that show relationship between two things. The fruit is in the bowl. The shingles are on the roof. The movie is about a dog.
Using prepositions, I’d like to explain eight ways that grace relates to us. Grace connects with us in these eight relationships.
There may be more, but here are eight ways grace interacts with us:
- To us. Grace is a gift, and gifts are given to people. As Paul wrote, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is “given to each of us” (Rom. 12:6). It is because God has given his grace to us that we are able to respond in faith and be saved. (Interestingly, in the Greco-Roman world, when a gift of charis was given, it was expected that the beneficiary would give a return gift—otherwise it was a sign that the person had rejected the gift. Christians respond to God’s gift of grace with the return gift of faith/allegiance.)
- Around us. When we receive God’s grace through faith, we live in grace. It’s the new home we inhabit. It is through Jesus that “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Rom. 5:2). We who are saved “live in the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6). Now adopted into God’s family, we are surrounded by grace.
- Above us. Although we once lived in slavery to sin, we have a new master: grace. As such, “You are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Grace reigns over us: “Just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life” (Rom. 5:21).
- Under us. God’s grace is the sure foundation we count on. We lean all our dependence on it. We rely “not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace” (2 Cor. 1:12). Praise God that his grace always proves sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9). It won’t crumple under us as we stand fast in it (1 Peter 5:12).
- Before us. God’s grace is ever before us. Hebrews pictures God’s throne as a throne of grace which we can always approach in times of struggle. As we approach, we can have complete confidence that we will receive grace there: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
- With/within us. God’s grace is with his people (Gal. 6:18). His grace strengthens us (Heb. 3:9). It can fill us (Acts 6:8), and we can grow in it (2 Peter 3:18). God’s grace works within us in power to expand God’s kingdom (Acts 4:33).
- From us. God’s grace was never meant to flow into us and stay put as if we were stagnant pools with no outlet. God’s grace motivates us to pass grace onto others (Col. 3:13). Grace calls us to live a holy life (2 Tim. 1:9). Grace mobilizes us for ministry (Rom. 1:5; 12:6). As Paul put it, “His grace to me was not without effect” (1 Cor. 15:10).
- After us. There is a sense in which grace comes after us as a relentless pursuer. Grace was after Paul even as he hated Jesus and persecuted the faith. He describes how grace transformed his identity: “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:9-10). Grace is always on the pursuit: Paul calls it “the grace that is reaching more and more people” (2 Cor. 4:15).
I may not be able to define grace perfectly, but I’m grateful that God’s grace defines me.
With Paul, I can say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” In addition to defining me, God’s grace also drenches me. As John 1:16 puts it, “Out of [Jesus’] fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” The ESV calls it “grace upon grace.” Waves and waves of grace from every direction. And somehow there’s even more on its way:
“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6-7).
 Mark E. Moore, Core 52: A Fifteen-Minute Daily Guide to Build Your Bible IQ in a Year (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2019), 39.
 D.A. deSilva, “Patronage,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
 Matthew Bates, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 128.
 Bates, Gospel Allegiance, 146.