Words mean things. Mathematicians have numbers. Physicists and engineers have formulas. Writers and teachers have words. If the numbers don’t mean the same thing from one point to the next, the mathematicians have no way to do their work. The same is true for the formulas and those who depend on them. But words seem to fluctuate in meaning all the time. It depends on who’s talking.
So, when I use words like “grace,” I try to be careful. I try to stick with a simple definition. Grace, in my vocabulary, means the activity of God on our behalf. Sometimes I say it is the activity of God’s love, or even more simply, what God does.
But I almost never use the word to mean an act of kindness between people. The reason for that is twofold: First, we have no clear examples of that use in Scripture. If I am going to let my use of the word be guided by Scripture, I will use “grace” only in reference to what God gives us. There is no call that I can find for me to “give grace” to others. And, second, not being careful to use correct words causes misunderstandings and compromises our communication.
Now I understand that I am going against the flow a little here. It has become popular to use the word “grace” in human relationships. We hope that the boss will have grace toward an employee. We speak of “giving a little grace” when someone wrongs us. We say that she is a “woman of grace” even though she doesn’t know Jesus. And we try to be “gracious” toward others.
But there are other words for these uses. Yes, they might fit with certain inflections of the Hebrew or Greek words usually translated as “grace,” but there are more precise words for us to use. We actually hope that the employee will find “favor” in the boss’s sight. We give “mercy” to the one who hurts us. She may be a lady of “poise” or “charm,” rather than grace. And we are called to “love” one another.
The unfortunate effect of using minor variants as applications of a word is that the primary meaning becomes forgotten or compromised. Over the years the idea of “grace” has become diluted by references to human relationship or institutionalized by obscure and complicated doctrinal uses. But there is an amazing concept taught by Scripture that is breaking into the hearts of God’s people. We need what we cannot find in ourselves or receive from other people. We need the grace of God.
Let’s love people and forgive them and show kindness toward them and grant them mercy. And let’s be compassionate and gentle and considerate and patient. But let us also understand that grace is a gift from God to us because He loves us. Grace is the power and activity of God on our behalf. Grace is a big word because the One who gives it is big.
There’s a passage in Acts that illustrates the size of this simple word:
And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Acts 4:33 (NKJV)
What was this “grace” that was upon them? Was it love? Yes! Was it mercy? Yes! Was it patience, or kindness, or forgiveness, or charm, or excitement, or favor, or something else? Yes, yes, and yes! God poured out His Holy Spirit upon the people and gave them great grace. It flowed from Him through them to each other in a variety of ways. But it came from Him. His power. His love. His grace.
It is always His grace.