Moses was a man who truly longed to know God. We have heard him cry out to God earnestly, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” (Exodus 33:18) That heartfelt longing led to an exciting encounter with the Lord. It was early the next morning when he cut two new tablets of stone to replace the ones he had broken in anger; then, tablets in hand and all alone, he climbed Mount Sinai and waited.
Scripture says, “And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth’” (Exodus 34:5-6). Moses did not see God’s face on that occasion, but God did assume some visible form which allowed His seeking servant a limited glimpse of His radiant glory, a privilege afforded very few people in all of human history. What God revealed about Himself on such an extraordinary occasion is extremely important. The second thing He claimed about Himself in that list of His attributes was that He is gracious.
What do you think about when you hear the word grace? Maybe you conjure up the mental image of a charming hostess with good taste and a pleasant personality, gliding around the room with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Or possibly you think of a person who is kind and courteous, agreeable, easy to get along with. Or you may envision somebody who has great tact and diplomacy in dealing with other people. Gracious could mean any of those things when applied to human beings. But how do you picture God who says He is gracious? What do you think came to Moses’ mind when God made that statement on Mount Sinai that day?
God was explaining to Moses exactly what He is like, the essence of His being, and He used a word derived from a root which means “to bend or stoop.” It expresses His willingness to reach down with affection to people who can never deserve it, and to do good things freely and unconditionally for people who can make no claim to His favor. He is even willing to forgive guilty people their sins and deliver them from the punishment they deserve when they are totally unworthy of such kindness. He mentions that specific aspect of His graciousness in the next verse: “who forgives iniquity, transgressing, and sin” (Exodus 34:7). More amazing still is that He loves to give these rich benefits to undeserving people without demanding any compensation in return. True grace is both unearnable and unrepayable.
The New Testament establishes the same truth about God. Peter called Him “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). All grace! That means He has an inexhaustible supply of good gifts which are adequate for every conceivable need and which are available to all who will receive them, regardless of their performance. The New Testament word for grace originally referred to something attractive and charming that brings delight and pleasure, but it soon came to have the same connotation as its Old Testament equivalent, that of showing kindness and goodwill to the undeserving. Our God loves to give. He gives freely, without obligation and without ulterior motives. He does not need to give. He does not give to get something in return. He is totally self-sufficient so He does not need anything from anybody. He gives simply for the joy and happiness of the ones who receive His benefits.
Grace is a difficult concept for us to understand because it is so unlike the way we human beings operate. Our most magnanimous acts are often colored by some selfish motive. Several years ago my wife cracked a bone in her wrist and was required to wear a cast to protect it. Naturally I volunteered to do some of the household chores for her. As I prepared to wash the dishes one evening, she nudged me away from the sink and said, “I’ll do them tonight. I just bought a large rubber glove to fit over my cast so I won’t get it wet.” When I protested, she said, “But there’s no reason for you to wash them now.” My reply was, “I don’t need a reason. I just want to wash them for you because I love you.”
Had my motives been absolutely pure, that would have been a great illustration of grace, but I’m afraid they were not entirely untainted. For one thing, I was looking for an illustration of grace to use in the following Sunday’s sermon and I thought my answer would be just the thing. Secondly, I didn’t want to put up with the taunts of my friends: “You let your wife wash the dishes with a broken arm!?” Very seldom are our gracious deeds perfectly pure. If it is nothing more than to project our image as a gracious person, which image may be very important to us, we usually have some additional intent in mind.
God made us to glorify Himself, so He is pleased when we fulfill His purpose for our creation. Furthermore, He wants the whole universe to see the glory of His grace. Yet His aim in giving us good things is not to get anything for Himself. He gives because we desperately need what He has to offer. Our external well-being depends on it.
One of the first things we learn about the eternal Word who became flesh and dwelled among us is that He is full of grace (John 1:14). His ministry was marked by favor freely extended to guilty and undeserving people, to people whose best efforts were still not enough to make them worthy of His kindness. We could expect nothing less from a God who is full to overflowing with an innate fondness for giving, for showing kindness to those who have no merit in themselves. That is the way He is.
The way God is always affects the way He acts, so His grace causes Him to seek undeserving subjects to whom He can give and toward whom He can act graciously. He does not have to look very far to find them. His world is filled with sinful rebels who have turned their backs on Him, resisted His will, defied His authority, and deserve nothing from Him but eternal punishment.
The nation Israel was among them. But Moses understood the implications of God’s grace: “And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, ‘If now I have found favor [literally, grace] in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession’” (Exodus 34:8-9). He is saying, “God, if you really are a God of grace, then be with us even though we are a stubborn and sinful people. Let us be your own special possession even though we deserve to be cast off and destroyed.” He was asking his gracious God to act in a gracious manner. And He did.
How can He afford to do that? How can a holy God freely forgive people who deserve to be condemned? We need to remember that none of God’s attributes operates in isolation. All are beautifully interwoven and intertwined so that He acts in the totality of His being. His holiness does not operate apart from His love. When the unconditional love of a holy God is expressed toward worthless, undeserving sinners, that is grace. Grace is the bridge between God’s holiness and His love. It allows a holy God to act in loving ways toward guilty people.
God’s grace is expressed in numerous ways, foremost of which is in securing our salvation. It was grace that allowed Him to relinquish Heaven’s riches and enter earth’s history in poverty to provide hopeless sinners with the riches of eternal salvation. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). It was grace that led Him to Calvary, where He offered Himself as a sacrifice in our place and where He shed His life’s blood so that we might be forgiven of sin’s guilt and delivered from sin’s penalty. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
It is God’s grace that makes salvation available to every sinful person: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). It is His grace that applies salvation to the hearts and lives of those who believe. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is His grace which will someday usher us into glory: “Through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). It is all of His unmerited favor.
These concepts are not very popular among most people today, if indeed they are even understood. In order to grasp the reality of God’s grace we must first understand the reality of our own sinfulness. If we are convinced that in spite of the little vices which we all have, we are basically good people deserving of God’s favor, then we shall see no need for His grace. If we believe that God is obligated to let us enter Heaven because we have tried to keep His laws and done the best we can, then grace is totally unnecessary. The whole concept will appear absurd. But if we accept God’s assessment of our lives—that we are unrighteous, deceitful, desperately wicked, guilty, condemned sinners, incapable of measuring up to God’s standard and unworthy of His acceptance—then a deep appreciation for His grace will begin to dawn on our sin-dulled minds. We will get to know the God of all grace.
We learn a valuable lesson about grace from observing God’s gracious actions toward us in salvation. Just as the root meaning of the New Testament word involves joy and pleasantness, so we notice that God’s grace has an uncanny way of transforming the unpleasant into the pleasant. He takes an unbeliever, chained to his wretchedness and sin and bound for the bitterness of an eternal hell, freely gives him the lovely garments of Christ’s righteousness, then assures him of Heaven’s glory and beauty. What a transformation! That is God’s grace for salvation.
Then He continues to act toward us in grace. Not only does He bring delight to our drab existence by giving us the gift of eternal life, but He keeps on giving us good things to meet our needs and brighten our lives. For example, He gives us the resources to build us up and set us apart more fully to Himself, progressively replacing the ugliness of our daily sin with the attractiveness of holy living. That was Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). That is grace for sanctification.
Sanctification is not slavishly submitting in the energy of the flesh to somebody’s man-made list of do’s and don’ts in order to enhance our own reputation or earn points with God. It is laying hold of God’s gracious assistance to become more like Christ for His glory and praise. Grace delivers us from bondage to laws and frees us to enjoy God in an enriching and satisfying relationship. We will be motivated to please Him from within rather than pressured from without. We delight in pleasing someone who never stops giving good things to us.
God also provides grace for Christian service. We have a tendency to get carried away with our own abilities, and we begin to think that God is rather fortunate to have us on His team to do His work. We may feel that He is obligated to prosper us when we do serve Him. Those attitudes often lead to failure. The Apostle Paul admitted without shame that he was unworthy to serve Christ: “I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power” (Ephesians 3:7; cf. also 2 Corinthians 8:1-2).
We do not deserve to have the pleasure of serving the eternal God, but He has bestowed that privilege on us by His grace. We serve Him not to obtain His favor, but because we already have it. Any success we may enjoy will be the gift of His grace. He freely gives us the abilities and strength we need to serve Him. He transforms our feeble, bungling, embarrassing, unpleasant efforts into an effective, satisfying, and rewarding ministry that brings glory to Him. It is all part of His gracious actions toward us.
Then there is also grace for suffering. Most of our suffering is simply the result of living in a sinful world. Some of it is the result of our own foolish and sinful choices. In either case, God certainly has no obligation to help us through it. But He does. When the Apostle Paul faced a painful, physical disability, the God of all grace was there to meet him. “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God’s grace can transform the unpleasantness of suffering into the pleasantness of knowing Christ’s power.
His grace is available for every need. Peter described it as “manifold grace” (1 Peter 4:10). The word “manifold” was used in secular Greek to mean “many-colored.” That is an interesting concept to consider. For every shade of human need God has a matching shade of divine grace. If we are blue with despondency, God’s grace is sufficient to cheer us. If we are yellow with fear, God’s grace is sufficient to encourage us. Whether we are enjoying the golden joys of good health and success, or encountering the blackness of pain or failure, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us. When temptations assail us, such as the tendency to be red with anger or green with envy, God’s grace is sufficient to resist them. His many colored grace is sufficient for every color of need.
So He invites us to come boldly to His throne of grace, the reservoir of His never-ending supply, and there find grace to help, whatever our need might be (Hebrews 4:16). His grace is available for the taking. As the Apostle John put it, “For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He just keeps pouring it on, filling the believer’s life with grace, piling one gracious provision on top of another, transforming one unpleasant circumstance after another into joy and delight.
Getting to know the God of all grace and becoming the receptacles into which He keeps pouring His grace will obviously have an effect on our lives. We are going to become more like Him, more gracious, giving people, people with true charisma. We are all familiar with that term. It comes from the Greek word for grace. When we hear it we usually visualize someone with the personal magnetism of leadership, someone who excites loyalty and enthusiasm. But we misunderstand charisma as God views it.
We may be like the little boy in the cartoon who was surrounded by a group of admiring girls. Off to the side, two jealous little friends were evaluating the situation. One said to the other, “He hasn’t got charisma. He’s just got a bag of jelly beans.” The world has a poor imitation of the real thing, a mere bag of jelly beans. True charisma is grace, and only the believer who is enjoying the reality of God’s grace in his life can exemplify it. We gain true charisma as God transforms us from the unpleasant people we were into the pleasing image of His Son. And that will affect some surprising areas of our lives.
For one thing, it will put a song in our hearts: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness [literally, grace] in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). To know that our eternal salvation depends not on us, but on the grace of God, keeps us singing all day long. To have divine assistance for sanctification, service, and suffering keeps us singing when others have long since stopped. To believe that our gracious God is working every detail of our lives together for good can keep us singing in the darkest hour of affliction.
Paul and Silas knew about that. They sat in a Philippian jail cell, beaten and bleeding, wracked with pain, and locked firmly in stocks, yet they were singing praises to God (Acts 16:25). Incredible? Not for someone who has gotten to know the God of all grace. His grace can transform the most miserable of circumstances into an opportunity for rejoicing. I talked recently to a man who was defrauded in a business investment. He faced the possibility of losing everything he owned including his home—a total of nearly two million dollars in assets. He said, “I have more peace and more joy than I’ve ever known. Those material things for which I once lived don’t own me anymore. God’s grace really is sufficient.” The experience of God’s grace in our hearts gives us true joy.
God’s grace will also affect our speech. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). The word grace is rich with meaning, and in this context most all of it seems to be applicable. It is easy to let harsh, cutting, critical, complaining, and gossiping words come tumbling out of our mouths. But God wants our words to be saturated with grace, not sugarcoated and sickeningly sweet, but genuinely attractive, kind, considerate, pleasing, favorable, beneficial, and thankful. All of that is involved in grace. That is true charisma.
God wants His grace to govern our speech always. Do not miss that! Courtesy and kindness are especially important when speaking to unbelievers (cf. Colossians 4:5), but a good dose of God’s grace will affect everything we say to everyone in our lives—our wives, our husbands, our children, our parents, our friends, even those who do not seem to like us very much. It may even help us bridge the gulf that may exist between us.
Many of us are quick to speak brusquely to people who displease us or offend us. We usually feel justified in accusing them, blaming them, criticizing them, or expressing anger toward them. Knowing the God of all grace, whose attitude toward us is never affected by our performance, will help us act kindly and speak graciously even to people who have wronged us. God’s grace operating through us will minister grace to them (Ephesians 4:29), and will transform the unpleasantness of tension and friction into the pleasantness of harmony and fellowship.
God’s grace also will help us know when not to talk. Peter writes, “For this finds favor [literally, for this is grace], if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). It is an evidence of God’s grace in our lives when we are willing to suffer for doing what is right without arguing or retaliating. “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” Again, literally, this is grace with God (1 Peter 2:20). God’s grace at work in us allows us to control our tongues, to return good for evil, and so it can transform an explosive situation into one that gives glory to God.
Most of us would be willing to admit that we could use a great deal more of God’s grace. We understand that there is a never-ending supply and that it is available for the taking. We know that receiving it does not depend on how well we have performed or whether we deserve it. But some of us are still not sure how to get it. Solomon made an interesting comment in Proverbs that both Peter and James quoted in their Epistles: “But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE” (James 4:6). The humble are those who see themselves as God sees them and are willing to admit their needs. If we do not see any need for change in our lives, then obviously we will not be open to receiving God’s grace. The flow of grace begins when we admit our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our failures, and our sins—when we acknowledge our needs.
But there is a second step. We hear much in ecclesiastical circles about the means of grace, that is, the way God ministers grace to our lives. Scripture clearly defines only one means, and that is faith. We see it in several passages. “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). “We have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2).
Whether it is grace for salvation, grace for sanctification, grace for service, grace for suffering, grace to keep us singing, grace to govern our speech, or grace for any other need, we experience it by believing God, believing that we need His grace, that He has enough available to help us, that He is willing to share it with us, and that it will be adequate to transform our burdens into blessings. When we truly believe, all that remains is to open our hearts to the God of all grace and receive what He has to offer. “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
List some of the evidences of God’s grace in your life, some of the things He has done for you which you know you did not deserve, and thank Him for them.
Now list some of the areas of your life where you need to lay hold of His grace, some areas in need of change, and ask Him in faith to help you make those changes.