In the New Testament there is an unmistakable connection between grace and power. If overlooked, this has great consequences in our understanding and experience as believers. Standard conservative evangelical theology has defined grace as God’s good intentions towards us – His desire to be patient, merciful and forgiving. Bible dictionaries frequently use the phrase ‘God’s unmerited favour’ meaning that God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s life for us and not our effort. Whilst that is certainly true, grace is so much more. In the New Testament (especially the gospel of Luke and in Paul’s writings) the word graceis used in the context of the power of God to change, to heal, to deliver, to connect and to integrate. Grace is not just God’s attitude toward us, it is God’s power for us and God’s empowering presence working in us and through us. The word ‘grace’ occurs 131 times in the New International Version of the Bible. Now if you substitute the popular definition of grace in all of these texts, it makes sense for some, but for many (including some of the most quoted and important texts) it just doesn’t fit – it never has. To equate grace simply with God’s unmerited favour is actually very misleading and we miss the true essence of God’s grace.One of the earliest references to the word grace is in Proverbs.
“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)
No one can be ‘rewarded’ with unmerited favour – that just doesn’t make sense. The word grace is also applied to Jesus:
“When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child (Jesus) grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:39-40)
We also read in John’s gospel that Jesus was,“Full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14,16). To say that the unmerited favour of God was upon Jesus is nonsense. Jesus was the only human that ever lived who actually merited God’s favour! Grace in these instances must mean something else. Let’s look at a few more passages to see if the traditional definition of grace fits.
“And now, brothers, we want you to know about the (unmerited favour) grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.”
That’s ok so far, but read on and we encounter problems again with that definition of grace:
“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of (unmerited favour) grace on your part. But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this (unmerited favour)grace of giving.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from (God’s unmerited favour) grace.” (Galatians 5:2-4)
You can’t fall away from something you did nothing to merit in the first place, so grace must mean something else here as well.
“You then, my son, be strong in the (unmerited favour) grace that is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:1).
“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s (unmerited favour) grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10).
How can we be strong in, or administer, God’s unmerited favour? We can’t. The concept of power – specifically God’s power – has to be a part of any New Testament definition of grace. A lack of understanding of this will disempower your life and the life of the Church. If you go back through those references and insert a more complete and accurate definition of grace, the empowering presence of God – they will make much so more sense. Let’s have a look:
“When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child (Jesus) grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and (the empowering presence of God) was upon him.” (Luke 2:39-40)
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of (the empowering presence of God) and truth. From the fullness of (the empowering presence of God) in Jesus we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; (the empowering presence of God) and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14,16)
That makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This will change your life if you let it sink in.
“And now, brothers, we want you to know about (the empowering presence of God) that has been given to the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of (the empowering presence of God) on your part. But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this (empowering presence of God).” (2 Corinthians 8:1-7 )
With this definition of grace one of Paul’s most debated statements will finally make sense to you:
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from (the empowering presence of God).” (Galatians 5:2-4)
“You then, my son, be strong in (the empowering presence of God) that is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:1)
“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering (the empowering presence of God) in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10 )
These, and many other Bible verses, come alive when the definition of grace includes the dimension of God’s presence and power. So now we need to understand what we mean by power! When talking about power I am not referring to the flashy, miraculous, out of the ordinary, signs-and-wonders-type power, but I’m not excluding that either. The word power, particularly in the New Testament, has a very simple, yet profound definition – it simply means the ability to do. Acts 1:8 says: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you..” That means you shall receive the ability to do things that you could not do before. Christianity is founded on the powerful WORKS, not just the WORDS of its Founder, Jesus. If you compiled a book of Jesus’ teaching alone, it would be tiny in comparison to the volumes of the world’s religions. Yet history witnesses to the fact that Jesus has had a more profound effect on humanity than any other teacher. That’s because of what He did, not just what He said.
Most Christians know more of the Bible than they ever experience personally. There is only one way to experience that reality – that is with power from God – the ability to do. How are you going to forgive your enemies? How can you look at life and all that it brings and not worry about anything as Jesus commanded? How are you going to heal the sick or cast out demons? How do you maintain the passion to love the unlovely until you drop and do it with a smile on your face? How are you going to go to the ends of the earth making disciples of all people? Certainly not in your own power! The power of the only One who ever achieved these things – the Lord Jesus Christ, will convert sermons and teaching into real, life-changing experience, as He equips His people to fulfil the ministry to which He has called them. Then we will experience the real presence and power of God in worship, preaching and in ministry. That real Church will grow as the Lord adds to our number daily those who are being saved by His grace.
Luke’s gospel is described in Acts 1:1 as the things that Jesus began to do and teach. In 1 Corinthians 2:4, Paul says that the gospel is not a matter of mere words – but it is a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. Jesus said: “If you don’t believe my words, then believe my works.“ (John 10:38). The Bible is an explanation of powerful events and dynamic experiences, not a collection of theological notions. The power of the Holy Spirit came down on the people at Pentecost and some said, “Wow – this is great – I’m hearing the gospel in my own language.” Others said, “These people are drunk.” Peter explained the power that was being displayed and those words became Scripture. What might have happened if he had preached that sermon before the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the believers? Probably not three thousand conversions!
The authentic, effective Church is one that has power as well as sound Bible teaching. Sadly, however, the Church today is more accustomed to words than works. If we can’t do any of the things we read about in the Bible, then we just talk about them. This is the cause of much of the anxiety, bitterness, harshness and criticism in the Church today. It feels guilty. The fascinating thing is that often it’s the people who are really concerned about the words who get mad at the ones who come along and start doing the works, because that points out what’s lacking. Of course I need to balance this immediately and say there are those who get carried away with the works and neglect the words too. We need to know the truth and live in the power of the truth. The balance of spirit and truth is essential. I believe the element of power has been removed from the popular definition of grace by a specific work of the enemy which is designed to rob the Church of Jesus Christ of the very power it needs to fulfil the mission of Christ. The Bible warns us about demonically inspired doctrines which will deceive people. We should heed that warning. The unmerited favour of God alone will not impact the mission of Christ. It will not heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons and release spiritual captives. To look around most of the Church in this nation, one might assume that the ministry that occurs in Jesus’ name has changed dramatically since the days of the early Church. Some even teach that this is supposed to be the case, but if all we have is a vague, innocuous feeling of God’s unmerited favour, then how could it be otherwise?
In Colossians 1:6 Paul said that the gospel was growing and bearing fruit all over the world when the believers understood God’s grace in all it’s truth. They obviously understood something about God’s grace that the Church today has largely missed. Paul’s passionate prayer in Ephesians 1, that we would experience the riches of God’s grace and His incomparably great power which is available to us who believe, is answered in the Church when we believe that this is what God wants for us as His loyal partners in the mission of Christ. Satan has nothing to fear from a Church which just believes that it is forgiven and saved by grace, but a Church that also operates in the power of God’s grace does serious damage to the enemy’s cause. Captives who have been set free have a passion to come back and rip that prison apart and set others free. The enemy knows the power of God’s grace far more than the Church does and he fears it! Let me show you an example of how the Church has been deceived by this teaching.
“The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)
This verse is usually taught as saying that God’s forgiveness, unmerited favour and mercy is boosted in some way when sin increases to cover or accommodate that increase of sin. Such teaching is dangerously wrong on two counts. Firstly, it pacifies us before the power of sin. It gives us an excuse to look upon our sin lightly and not deal with it ruthlessly through repentance. Your standing in Christ is not affected by your sin, but to say that sin does not destroy, debilitate and mess up your whole life is to deny the whole experience of human beings and the witness of Scripture. Secondly, and worse, it misleads us as to the nature of God’s true forgiveness and mercy. God’s forgiveness cannot increase. It is absolute. 1 John 2:1 says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the whole world – past, present and future, forever. The proper term for ‘God’s unmerited favour’ is not grace, it’s mercy. So reading this verse with the new definition of grace makes a lot more sense:
“The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, (the empowering presence of God) increased all the more …”
Paul says you don’t have to sit passively in the power of sin – you have the empowering presence of God within you that can extinguish the power of sin as simply as blowing out a match. Believe that and trust God for it to happen. This power of God does increase and decrease to meet personal and specific needs. God’s grace enables us to see the kingdom of God become a reality. We see the rule and reign of Christ in our midst. Jesus came, proclaiming the kingdom of God. He came in power to overcome our enemies – to set us free from Satan’s grasp – to drive back evil and remove its effects. In a word, He came to heal.He brought healing to our relationship with God and with each other. The healing power of Jesus touched us in every way – spiritually, emotionally, relationally and even physically. Being born-again is to be born into God’s immediate blood family, that includes all the resources of God. You can participate in those riches and that power – assuming you know it’s there. It’s like living all your life on a farm that is relatively worthless – until that day when a gold-mining company discovers the largest single deposit of gold in the world – right underneath your old broken down fibro house. Are you wealthy? You’d better believe it! However, you’ve been sitting on that wealth all your life and you never knew it until someone showed you. I think this is where millions of Christians are at present – living totally unaware of the infinite riches and power of God in Christ. The power of God is grace to us through the life of Jesus Christ which is credited to us, and enables us to participate in His ministry.
“But to each one of us (the empowering presence of God) has been given as Christ apportioned it.” (Ephesians 4:7)
Christ did not apportion God’s unmerited favour or mercy. He did not give some people one variety of mercy and others a different variety – He apportioned the power of God. You are given the measure of God’s empowering to do what He has called you to do. When you understand this, there are some logical conclusions that you can make when you face frustration and setbacks in your life and ministry. First of all, it might not be your job! God personally tailors or apportions His power to each of us according to our own custom-made gifts, abilities, personality and calling. It is important to hear from God for yourself – to get to know God, and get to know yourself. Be honest, stop your religious thinking and listen to God, otherwise you’ll be torn in different directions. Secondly, we need to receive all that God has apportioned to us. The problem is not just that we don’t hear from God, but that we have not participated fully in the grace that He has given us already. A child will more often than not ask for another biscuit before they’ve eaten the first one. We too often want more grace and power from God and He’s still waiting for us to use what we have! Paul said of himself:
“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 empowering presence of God) I am what I am, and his (empowering presence) in me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but (the empowering presence of God) that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
Paul participated in the power that was given to him but admits that even the desire to do that came through the power of God. We must open up to the empowering presence of God to experience and walk in the measure of grace that Christ has apportioned us. Everybody in the Church has been given gifts. They have been given grace and power from God, but because of spiritual abuse, bad teaching, just plain laziness or other reasons, many are not operating in those gifts and contributing to the kingdom of God when they could be having the adventure of their lives. Paul says: ‘I am what I am because of the grace apportioned to me by God – AND because I responded to that grace with my own hard work.’ There are great reasons for working hard: gratitude to God; a desire to have an authentic life; to help people; to be a fully alive human being experiencing all that God desires for you; to glorify God in all that you do – and there are lots more. Religious efforts are those done in our own strength. We see this more when we understand that God’s grace is God’s enabling.
“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from God’s grace – you have fallen away from (God’s empowering presence).” (Galatians 2:4)
Some use this verse to say that we can lose our salvation. That’s impossible. A gift is not a gift if it can be taken back or given back. However you certainly can fall away from the experience of your salvation. You can fall away from the empowering presence of God and effective, victorious living … and many in the Church have done just that. We will never see the fruit of the gospel until we admit to God that we have fallen away from His grace – His empowering. We need to be honest with Him and say: ‘Lord, I guess I really have never known Your empowering presence in the way You planned. I’ve been trying to minister as a Christian on my own and in my own strength. I ask You to show me a different way, the authentic way. Enable me to walk in Your grace – in Your empowering presence.’
There is a tragic tendency among Christians who were accepted and empowered by God simply by believing, to trade that experience in for law, religion and human effort. God works miracles, not because you’re a good Christian, but because you believe the gospel. Miracles are just God on the job! Empowering is not just an event, but a process. Some things will happen quickly, but usually, this is an ongoing process. Expect great things from God, long for His presence and power, but make sure the enemy doesn’t take away your patience and faith as you trust in God’s timing. James says: “You have not, because you ask not.” (James 4:2). God is waiting on us to ask Him, sincerely and persistently for things that He wants to give us. He wants a close, intimate relationship with His children. He will not treat us like plants that get fertiliser whether they ask for it or not! He’s rich and He’s very generous, and it glorifies Him to have us ask for something, so you never have to worry about imposing on God. If He didn’t withhold His own Son, then He’ll give you all the rest too.
“You know how to give good gifts to your children – how much more will the Father give to you the Holy Spirit if you keep on asking.” (that’s what it means in the Greek). (Luke 11:13)
Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Persistence in our asking is a real act of faith and very often it is persistence and determination in prayer that brings fruit. And that is what we are going to do in this Church. Just like Paul did:
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:17-19)
That’s what life is – that’s what grace gives us! The conventional definition of grace as being ‘God’s unmerited favour’ falls far short of our reality and all the experiences described in the Bible. A full understanding of grace needs to include the concept of God’s empowering, so a more complete definition of Grace is: The empowering presence of God. Grace describes God’s power in our lives, both in what He has done for us, and what He does in and through us. Without the power of God, Christianity becomes another religion based on a collection of moral teachings. You could memorise the whole Bible and still miss the heart of the Christian faith because it is a personal relationship with Jesus, and the indwelling power mediated to us by the Spirit of Jesus, that makes us real Christians. God’s grace is not raw, impersonal, spiritual power, but the presence and personality of God Himself, which enables us to be effective in His kingdom. We experience God’s empowering presence when we believe, receive and walk in His amazing grace
How then shall we live? By God’s empowering presence – and for God’s glory!