GRACE is a word that is used in many different ways. Throughout
the Bible and the history of Christianity, there are two central
aspects of the word which dominate. We might distinguish between
them by calling one use general, and the other specific.
The first use tells us something about the nature of God in
Christian teaching, a nature that is defined by self-giving love.
The grace of God, in scripture, is over and over again the
lovingkindness of God towards those whom he has chosen to favour.
This is seen in his relentless mercy towards his errant children,
and his unfailing love in the face of the faithless and loveless
behaviour of those whom he has created.
In this sense, the word "grace" describes what God is like, and
what God is like is self-giving love. To say this, however, is not
to suggest that it is merely an attribute or a description. Love is
not an attribute of God in the way that speed is an attribute of
cheetahs. Love is what God is, something active and dynamic, and so
grace is never simply a characteristic.
The second basic use of the word "grace" is closely related to
the first. In fact, it cannot properly be separated from it, since
it is an extension of the loving mercy of God which the first use
of "grace" describes.
The second idea here is that "grace" can be used to describe a
particular gift of God that enables human beings to do and be
things that, left to themselves, they seem hardly able to do and
We human beings are good at many things, but we are also capable
of things that we are not good at achieving. A simple example is
loving. Anyone who knows what it is to love can recognise in
themselves an ability to be rather extraordinary, to give of
oneself without condition or concern for anything other than the
well- being and happiness of the object of our love. But the very
awareness of our ability to love is also an awareness of our
failure to do so most of the time.
Christianity teaches that this distance - we might call it the
gap between our human reality and our divine potential - is bridged
by the grace of God. In other words, it is overcome by the loving
mercy that is God's self-giving love, and by the particular gifts
to live in accordance with God's will that characterise the
Christian's relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
We can, and should, go further with this second use of the word
grace. The distinctive teaching of the New Testament and of the
Christian tradition is that the means by which God lifts us beyond
ourselves is not an object or a "power". (By "power", here I mean
an identifiable quality that allows a person to do something
previously impossible, along the lines of the effect that eating a
tin of spinach has on Popeye the Sailor Man).
It is the gift whereby God unites human beings with his own
life. Grace is the word we use to describe God's infinite love
worked out in human beings by drawing those human beings into the
perfect fellowship of the Trinity, the eternal selfless love of
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So, for St Paul, those who are saved by grace through faith are
those who are "in Christ", members of the Body of Christ, united
with the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. To receive
the grace of God is to be invited into God's own self.
The Revd Peter Groves is Vicar of St Mary Magdalen's,
This is an edited extract from Grace: The cruciform love of God
(Canterbury Press, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70);