(This blog will be offline for a couple of weeks while I travel. Please enjoy these posts from the archives. Feel free to comment or ask questions. I will be able to respond when I return.)
I have studied grace for over 30 years, particularly asking the same question for the last 15, and I still ask. I have studied several answers, most of them the standard ones, but the concept of grace is always bigger.
The best I have come up with is that grace is what God does. Putting it another way, grace is the activity of God’s love. The concept of “unmerited favor” is one I accept, but grace is more than just favor. We need and appreciate the favor of God, but it may not be appropriate to say that God shows favor to everyone. He does show a certain grace to everyone. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” “God is not willing that any should perish.” “God so loved the world that He gave…” Over and over we read of the love of God for all people and the fact that God acts on that love in some way toward all.
I have come to understand that this activity is, in fact, grace. Thus, there is grace shown in the giving of the Law and grace shown even in God’s wrath against sin. The Law was a gift of God’s love and, unless we are willing to disagree that God’s fundamental motivation is love, even His final judgment against sin and those who choose to remain in sin is somehow an expression of His love. I would say that this is grace.
I would never leave grace in a negative sense, however. God’s love is a desire to live in relationship with His people. His activity of love always has that as a primary goal. It may seem negative for Him to judge or punish, but the only motivation is love. This is why I am left with the idea that anything God does out of love is grace. He seeks to draw us into a relationship with Him.