Grace – So Much More Than Unmerited Favor

Written by on March 28, 2021

New Covenant Grace is the Empowering Presence of God

Ask Christian believers what the definition of grace is, most will reply that it is the “unmerited favor” of God toward believers granting them forgiveness, mercy, and eternal life. Let’s ask the next few questions. Is that it? Does God’s “unmerited favor” save you by itself? Should we add anything to it to “balance” it, or strengthen it? 

If you have a “unmerited favor” definition of grace, you are more than likely going to say that grace, by itself, is insufficient or needs balancing with Law.

Dr. Gordon Fee says that “adding anything to Grace, cancels Grace.”(from “Galatians in a Week.” Regent College Lecture series) Quite a statement, and quite true.

The coming of Jesus, and the coming of His Holy Spirit heralded the arrival of the Kingdom of God and time of the New Covenant. Pentecost (Acts 2) marked a significant transition time when believers were gifted and empowered with the Presence of Jesus (Holy Spirit) and could do the works of Jesus because they carried His full authority.

Jesus ushered in a brand new era. It was a time that He Himself was the King in charge, and He replaced the rulership of Moses. Grace replaced Law (Galatians 2-5), a very important transition point.

John, introducing Jesus, makes a very clear statement contrasting the work and ministry of Jesus versus that of Moses.

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given (Grace upon Grace). For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

John 1:14-17

Toward a Definition of Grace – Freedom to be Empowered

Is it possible that our traditional definition of grace weakens our understanding of grace? Is “unmerited favor” an insufficient definition? I am not saying that “unmerited favor” is a wrong or a bad definition of grace, but is that definition sufficient or strong enough to capture what Grace means in Holy Spirit governed New Covenant era of the Kingdom? Has Grace been given its full authority considering that we now live empowered by the Person of the Holy Spirit?

Read this helpful quote from Geoffrey Bromiley, the editor of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

"Grace is a renewing power as well as the free gift of pardon and acceptance. Grace present within the life of the Church is shown in the Church’s overflow of generosity toward others 
 (2 Cor. 8). In Tit. 2:11–13, Paul speaks of grace disciplining life unto sobriety, righteousness, and piety. Paul seems to be speaking of the power of grace within him when he says that what he is, he is by the grace of God... The promise that grace would be sufficient for him in his personal distress is probably also a promise of inner power through grace (2 Cor. 12:9). Grace is sometimes personified. Paul speaks of grace reigning through righteousness (Rom. 5:20ff) It should be noted that he speaks of sin in the same way. Grace and sin, then, become the dominant powers of the new age and of the old age respectively. The grace-sin conflict is the same as the Spirit-flesh conflict (cf. Rom. 8:5–8). Grace and Spirit, then, stand for the dominant power of the new age. In this connection it may be mentioned that the Spirit gives grace-gifts (charísmata), which are, in effect, grace-powers. The one Spirit gives differing grace-gifts to individuals. (1 Cor. 7:7; 1 Cor. 12).
In Rom. 12:6, Paul speaks of gifts differing “according to the grace given us.” But charísmata (grace-powers) and pneumátika (spirit-powers) are the same. (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1 and 1 Cor. 12:14; 1 Tim. 4:14). This suggests that Paul makes no sharp distinction between grace and the Spirit as the source of personal power in the Christian age.”

- Geoffrey Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia p550

Let’s have a fresh look at defining Grace.

I would suggest that the traditional definition, “unmerited favor”, is derived from the Old Testament (old covenant) view of Grace. An appropriate definition as those living in the Old Covenant were not Spirit-filled believers except for prophets, priests or kings. Jesus’ death and resurrection paved the way for the Holy Spirit to come, and when He did, at Pentecost, He brought in a brand new constitution for the people of God. No longer were they to be governed by Law (Moses), but by Jesus Himself. They were also an empowered people who had a brand new relationship with God. The Grace environment had changed from just mercy to including the empowering presence of God.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at a few Bible texts that include the word “grace”, and let’s substitute the word with the phrase “unmerited favor.” Let’s see what difference it makes to the meaning of the text.

Surely He scorns the scornful, But gives unmerited favor to the humble.
– Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6 (NKJV)

This verse now implies that “unmerited favor” can be “earned” by being humble. Nonsense!

“And the child (Jesus) grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the unmerited favor of God was on him.”
– Luke 2:40 (NIV)

What? This verse does not make sense. Jesus was not full of “unmerited favor.”

1-2 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the unmerited favor that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity…
5-7 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of unmerited favor on your part. But since you excel in everything —in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this unmerited favor of giving.
8-9 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the unmerited favor of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
– 2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 5-7,8-9 (NIV)

Again, inserting “unmerited favor” instead of “grace”  prevents the verses from making complete sense.

“You then, my son, be strong in the unmerited favor that is in Christ Jesus.”
– 2 Timothy 2:1 (NIV)

As stated previously, Jesus does not have “unmerited favor.” He was the only One Who merited favor. He was the perfectly sinless Son of God. Changing the language here totally destroys the meaning of the verse.

“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the unmerited favor of God he might taste death for everyone.”
– Hebrews 2:9 (NIV)

Jesus tastes death because of the “unmerited favor” of God!! The sense of the verse is destroyed. Who would want that kind of “unmerited favor”?

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s unmerited favor in its various forms.” – 1 Peter 4:10 (NIV)

So we use our power gifts of the Spirit to serve others as stewards of God’s unmerited favor in its various forms! Again it does not make sense at all.

“The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, unmerited favor increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also unmerited favor might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 5:20-21 (NIV)

Grace is a word that should rich and robust with POWER! It is God’s empowering presence that saves, sanctifies and transforms! But, over time, the concept of power has almost been removed from it. Wrongly defining “Grace” as “unmerited favor” alone disempowers and paralyzes the church.

It's Time for a "Power Upgrade"

Let’s have a look at the texts again, this time substituting the word “grace” with the words “God’s empowering presence” or equivalent. Notice how the verses come to life with Holy Spirit presence and power.

“Surely He scorns the scornful, But gives God’s empowering Presence to the humble.”
– Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6 (NKJV)

This verse makes sense now and it presents exactly the kind of Grace I need.

“And the child (Jesus) grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the empowering Presence of God was on him.” – Luke 2:40 (NIV)

Changing the language from “unmerited favor” to “the empowering presence of God” radically changes this verse from describing a weak Jesus to a God empowered Jesus. Just the kind of Jesus we all need.

1-2And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the empowering Presence that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity…
5-7And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of God’s empowering Presence on your part. But since you excel in everything —in faith, in speech, on knowledges, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this empowering Presence of giving.
8-9I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the empowering Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 (NIV)

Again, these verses are radically transformed from very passive, almost nonsensical understanding to a more robust and proactive stance on generosity.

“You then, my son, be strong in the empowering Presence that is in Christ Jesus.” – 2 Timothy 2:1 (NIV)

Changing this verse makes Grace stand out as the energizing work of God.

“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the empowering Presence of God he might taste death for everyone.” – Hebrews 2:9 (NIV)

There is no way that the unmerited favor of God led Jesus to His death. Only God’s empowering presence could help Jesus fulfill His mission on the cross.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s empowering Presence in its various forms.” – 1 Peter 4:10 (NIV)

This verse now makes sense. God gives gifts of ministry through the Holy Spirit. It makes sense that we are encouraged to be faithful stewards of His empowering presence.

“You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from God’s empowering Presence. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” – Galatians 5:4-5

It’s difficult to imagine how, by trying to be righteous by keeping the Law, one might “fall away” from unmerited favor. It becomes a very serious matter if one can fall away from “God’s empowering presence” by following Old Covenant Law. It explains why there are so many powerless churches when they advocate pursuing a righteousness by Law.

“From the fullness of his empowering presence we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace (God’s empowering presence) and truth came through Jesus Christ.” – John 1:16-17

We can see now, hopefully, that removing the concept of power from Grace causes us to miss the importance, and also the efficacy, of Grace to bring about righteousness and transformation. We actually to have the empowering presence of God to enable us to actively participate in fruitful righteousness.

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And Grace (God’s empowering Presence) was so powerfully at work in them all…” – Acts 4:33 (NIV)

Seeing this verse, and all of our endeavours in the Kingdom, in light of “grace” being “God’s empowering presence” makes the verse leap alive with meaning and power. Grace is the context in which we evangelize and minister in the Name of Jesus. Great news indeed!

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