Grace is all about joy! God’s grace is how he expresses and how we experience the fullness of his joy.
John Newton, the former slave ship captain turned Christian pastor and poet, celebrated his experience of God’s grace in song. His poem, “Amazing Grace,” written in 1772 to illustrate his 1773 New Year’s Sunday sermon, has become one of the world’s most popular songs. If we look carefully at the flow of Newton’s thought, we notice that he does not consider ‘grace’ to be a synonym for ‘forgiveness’.
Newton understood the argument of Ephesians 2: 4–7 “But God … made us alive together with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the surpassing riches of his grace in useful kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This means that the grace of forgiveness makes it possible to receive from the infinite treasure chest of God’s joy even more and grander expressions of grace as useful kindnesses.
Limiting our conception of grace to its expression as forgiveness is like looking at the Grand Canyon through a paper towel tube; it keeps us from seeing and responding to the breathtaking panorama of all the joy God wishes to extend to us through Jesus. In other words, a constricted understanding of grace, constricts our appreciation of God.
The connection between the affection of joy and the activity of grace is easier to see in the Greek language used by the New Testament authors than it is in English. The word for joy (χαρά) provides the root for the word for grace (χάρις), for gift (χάρισμα), for gratitude (εὐχαριστία), and for giving thanks (εὐχαριστέω). From the extensive use of the terms for joy and grace outside of Scripture, we understand that an act is labeled “gracious” only if there is joy in the heart of the actor. It’s also true that the cause of this joy is independent of any characteristic of the recipient. Rather, the joy of gracious actors arises from their contemplation of some perceived fullness in themselves or their situation.
“Grace,” then, is the term we use to characterize every action motivated by personal joy that is aimed at bringing about a corresponding joy in someone else. This is as true of us as it is of God. Grace itself is not necessarily connected with sin. God’s act of grace in the ministry of the Son is only one of many acts of grace that flow from his eternal joy in himself. But most of his gracious actions have nothing to do with the sin in our lives. Evidently, what’s so amazing about grace is not that God acts to overcome the obstacle of our sin; how else would he act when he delights so much in all that he is? What’s amazing about grace is the vast scope of the glory of God that it opens to our view.
We sense this when we consider that God was gracious in the work of creation, and he was gracious in his dealings with Adam and Eve prior to their sin. Luke reminds us that the Father was gracious to the incarnate, sinless Son (2:40). The Father extended grace to him as the means for success in his ministry, which accords with Paul’s sense of God’s grace as the means for success in his ministry (1 Corinthians 15:10; Ephesians 3:8; Romans 12:3).
Thus, Paul affirms that all ministry gifts are acts of grace which can be extended by the recipients to the rest of the fellowship (Romans 12:6ff.; Ephesians 4:7ff.; along with Peter in 1 Peter 4:10). More importantly, however, the goal of the grace of the cross and the resurrection is that all who are united to Jesus will be able to experience the riches of God’s grace in useful kindness both now (Hebrews 4:16) and forever in the age to come (Ephesians 2:7). Once sin has been abolished, grace will continue to pour forth from God’s throne like a river.
This was the panorama of God’s grace that Newton had in view when he celebrated the grace that saved him, the grace that brought him through trials, and the prospect of a life of joy and peace in eternity, for which he expects to continue praising God after ten thousand years.
… Next week we’ll continue thinking together as we explore how best to respond to grace.