Most, if not all, Christians know the song “Amazing Grace,” which explains that divine grace is amazing because God is able to save broken, sinful people. Bible scholars and theologians describe God’s grace as blazing, extraordinaire, living, surprising, astonishing, glorious, sacrificial, redemptive, or blistering. Such adjectives characterize God’s precious gift to humanity from various angles but do not do justice to its complexity and depth because no one term can adequately express its profound significance.
The word grace is rich with nuances and connotations because God’s grace is pregnant with a vast array of meanings. The apostle Paul speaks about “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (ESV, NABRE, NRSV, RSV) expressed in God’s kindness toward humans (Eph. 2:7). Translators render the Greek expression hyperballon (a present particle of the verb hyperballo) as “immeasurable” in a variety of ways: “the exceeding riches of His grace” (KJV, NKJV, ASV, YLT), “the greatness of his grace” (CEB), “the surpassing riches of His grace” (NASB), “the incomparable riches of his grace” (NIV), or “the incredible wealth of his grace” (NLT).1
During His earthly ministry, Christ embodied God’s grace (John 1:14, 17). The Holy Spirit is the Dispenser of divine grace. Called “the Spirit of grace” (Zech. 12:10; Heb. 10:29), He “takes the ‘grace of Christ’ and confers it on us.”2 Significantly, the term grace occurs in the Bible for the first time in the biblical account of the Flood. Noah found grace in God’s eyes (Gen. 6:8) amid God’s judgment upon the sinful world.
The term grace (Hebrew chen, signifying “favor, kindness, charity, elegance, acceptance, benevolent action, goodness, charm, beauty, loveliness”) derives from the root chanan, “to have mercy, be gracious, graciously provide, take pity on, show compassion, long for, inclined towards, or stoop in kindness to another person.” The equivalent to chen is the Greek term charis. An unmerited gift or favor, God’s grace is an expression of His love toward humanity. Grace has been defined as “God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment” because they are sinners.3 “It is God’s free, sovereign, undeserved favour or love to man, in his state of sin and guilt, which manifests itself in the forgiveness of sin and deliverance from its penalty.”4
Always surprising and often shocking, God’s grace disturbs and may even offend some people because we want things we deserve and work for. Yet when accepted, grace takes our breath away, and we stand before the God of grace (1 Pet. 5:10) in awe, for He always bestows it in abundance. Paul explains that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20, ESV).
God loves everyone without exception (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8), died for all (Titus 2:11), and wants to save all (1 Tim. 2:3, 4). Sustaining life in general, what we call common or universal grace, needs to be differentiated from special grace.5 But grace has many additional aspects for specific purposes. He freely gives people whatever they need. Let us unlock some of grace’s multifaceted roles.
Essence of grace
God cares for the physical life of our world and its inhabitants by universal, or common, grace. God’s love is universal, for He is good to everyone: “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9, ESV). In His generosity, Jesus confirms that God provides the basic blessings of life to everyone even though they are wicked (Matt. 5:45–48). Daniel said to Belshazzar: “ ‘You did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways’ ” (Dan. 5:23). The apostle Paul underlines that our breath and movement are in God’s hands (Acts 17:25, 28). God shows His mercy and gives gifts to all, not only to believers. Each person experiences basic divine blessings (James 1:17). Theologians have recognized different aspects of common grace besides God maintaining humanity’s physical life, such as restraining His wrath; limiting evil; and illuminating people with truth, goodness, and power (Ps. 117:1, 2; John 1:9; Rom. 1:19–21). Common grace can be described as “every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”6
However, when we consider spiritual existence, we need to move beyond God’s general beneficence and recognize that without Him and a conversion experience, “we are dead in our transgressions and sin” (Eph. 2:1–3). How can we live a spiritually abundant life (John 10:10)? That is possible only by God’s special intervention on our behalf. Here we begin to explore the first flavor of what we can call God’s special grace. The apostle Paul uses the divine “but” to contrast the change: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4, 5). We become truly alive only when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. This divine “but” changes everything and brings the bright future perspective of eternal life.
A spiritually dead person is not sensitive to any of God’s promptings. It requires God’s grace in collaboration with the work of the Holy Spirit and His Word to respond to His leading (Ezek. 36:26, 27; 37:11–14; John 1:13; 3:5; 16:7–11; 1 Pet. 1:23). Let us unfold this special grace process by examining how grace enables a person to become fully spiritually alive.
Prevenient grace comes before salvation. The English word prevenient derives from the Latin praevenire, meaning “come before, preceding, anticipating, expectant.” Such grace enables a spiritually dead person to hear God’s voice and respond positively to His call of love. What we cannot do for ourselves, God does for us gratis. Jesus states: “ ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ ” (John 12:32). God leads us to respond properly to His desire to save everyone (Gen. 3:9; Rom. 5:8; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9). Paul explains it most eloquently: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13, ESV). All of Heaven works to help humans find the right path to salvation. God sends holy angels to serve people as they receive salvation (Heb 1:14). God’s grace grips our entire spiritual life.
Prevenient grace is a universal benefit of Jesus’ atoning ministry. In this sense, all “common grace is a subset of prevenient grace.”7 God does everything possible to bring people to Himself (Isa. 45:22; 1 Tim. 2:4). However, they can harden their hearts and refuse to accept the gift of salvation (Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26, 27, 29).
Without Christ, we are not only dead but also slaves to sin and unable to follow God. However, with the preaching of the gospel comes power to every person to respond to the words of salvation (John 5:24; Rom. 10:17; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23). It enables our will to respond either positively or negatively to God’s prevenient grace. Sinners do not have free will without prevenient grace. “With the God-empowered choice restored through prevenient grace, the sinner’s role in salvation is to allow or reject the gracious gifts of God’s saving operations on behalf of each and every sinner, empowering the saved sinner to will and act in accordance with God’s law in response to God’s love.”8 The Holy Spirit awakens our conscience to receive forgiveness.
Saving grace emerges when we embrace prevenient grace. Prevenient grace leads people to accept God’s saving or justifying grace when they do not resist or reject it. Because we can stubbornly say no to God (Ps. 81:12; Isa. 48:4; Jer. 5:23; 7:24), Scripture encourages, “ ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’ ” (Heb. 3:7, 8; 3:15; 4:7; cf. Ps. 95:8; Prov. 28:14; Eph. 4:18, 30). Jesus proclaimed: “ ‘ “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” ’ ” (Rev. 3:20, ESV). Salvific grace is amazing grace because it can save broken people, and it is blazing grace because it springs from the assurance that Jesus loves everyone.
Enabling grace results when we accept God’s Word and do not resist His Holy Spirit. New life, spiritual revival, then blossoms within us, and we work and do things for Christ and others because we are compelled to do it by His enabling grace, Word, and Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–28; 37:4–10, 14; Zech. 4:6; Rom. 8:11; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23).
If we do good works, we have nothing to boast about (Jer. 9:23, 24; 1 Cor. 1:29–31) because God has already prepared them in advance for us to walk in them (Eph. 2:10). Only the Holy Spirit enables us to act in harmony with His will. Christ intercedes for us as the only and all-powerful Intercessor to save us completely and enable us to do His will (Rom. 8:34; 12:1, 2; 1 Tim. 2:5; Titus 2:11–14; Heb. 7:25). Thus, obedience is only possible for the redeemed as God empowers them for it (Ezek. 11:19, 20; 36:27). God’s grace forgives, saves, heals, liberates, and sustains the redeemed.
Transforming grace changes believers’ lives, including their thinking, emotions, goals, motivations, desires, imagination, direction, service, and lifestyle. What is humanly impossible for us, God can do, for He makes us into new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Our behavior displays the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Paul speaks about God’s transforming power in Romans 12:1, 2 and
2 Corinthians 3:18. Christ’s followers become loving and lovable, trusting and trustworthy, changed into God’s image with a new self (Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9, 10). Grace completely alters our life, providing new orientations, attitudes, and values.
Empowering grace equips believers for effective service and witnessing for God. The Holy Spirit endows them with spiritual gifts to perform God’s work, to serve and minister to people. Such grace is a divine enabling (1 Cor. 12:4–11, 27–31; Eph. 4:7–16).
Sustaining grace keeps us in a vital relationship with Christ (1 John 2:24, 27). Thus, as we stay connected with Christ and persevere in our walk with Him, we constantly grow in His grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18).
Triumphant grace is the aspect of divine grace that works miracles in our lives, triumphs in everyday struggles over selfishness and self-centeredness, and enables us to focus on the needs of others. It gives victory over addictions, overcomes wickedness day by day (2 Cor. 3:18), and culminates in bringing believers to their eternal home (John 14:1–3). What God started for us, in us, and through us, He will bring to the final victory at His second coming. Paul emphatically states: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). As the Victor, Christ can keep us from falling: “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 24, 25).
Choice of grace
From this study, it is evident that Seventh-day Adventists do not accept the notion of irresistible grace9 because one can choose to reject or fall from grace. While God’s grace is inexhaustible and irrepressible, God does not force His grace on anyone. The nature of grace is voluntary and free. We can refuse it, deny it, and betray it. Believers do not earn or deserve God’s grace but receive it gratefully.
God’s grace is the all-present, all-comprehensive Christian experience of our human existence in our sinful world. “Grace appears in the benediction, the blessings of God. The apostolic greetings (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3, etc.) and benedictions (Rom. 16:20, 24; 1 Cor. 16:23; and esp. 2 Cor. 13:14) always emphasize grace. . . . So all the blessings of God come to us by God’s sovereign grace. Without his grace we are nothing. By grace comes forgiveness of our sins, the power to do good works, and the ability to serve the people of God.”10
The apostle Paul explains the practical results of accepting God’s grace: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11–13). And the message of the book of Revelation begins and ends with an emphasis on grace (Rev. 1:4; 22:21).
Growth of grace
Key biblical texts underline the significance and benefits of the grace that comes from Jesus Christ: “For you know the grace 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 Cor. 8:9). As we have seen, divine grace has different facets. We have noted these various functions but have stressed that they all belong to God’s singular, unique grace.
Paul exhorts: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). The apostle Peter’s declaration should be our daily experience with God: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen”
(2 Pet. 3:18).
- Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture is from the New International Version.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 426.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 239.
- Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 427.
- Berkhof, 435.
- John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1977), 96. On common grace, see especially Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 432–446; and Gruden, Systematic Theology, 803–815.
- John W. Reeve, “Grace: A Brief History,” in Salvation: Contours of Adventist Soteriology, ed. Martin F. Hanna, Darius W. Jankiewicz, and John W. Reeve (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018), 280.
- Reeve, “Grace,” 286.
- The term irresistible grace is a favorite phrase in Calvinism and is part of the TULIP acronym (total depravity; unconditional election; limited atonement; irresistible grace; and perseverance of the saints). The Bible does not teach that it is impossible for the elect to reject or fall from God’s grace nor does it teach the concept of “once saved always saved” (e.g., John 3:36; 2 Cor. 6:1; Gal. 1:6; 5:4; 2 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 10:29; 12:15; 2 Pet. 1:10; 1 John 2:2–5; Jude 4).
- John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 246.