Nijay K. Gupta
Language of grace is sprinkled throughout Christian culture. I remember the Christian band Newsboys singing that grace is “getting what you don’t deserve.” Also, the Sunday school acronym I learned years ago still sticks with me: GRACE is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Both definitions convey the idea that grace is God’s free gift to those who believe.
Paul would certainly agree with the concept that God’s grace cannot be earned (Eph 2:8–9). But I think he would be disappointed to know that many understand his use of “grace” to mean only a “free gift of salvation”—the spiritual equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card. Paul also had other meanings in mind.
If we study 1–2 Thessalonians, we’ll notice that each letter begins and ends with words of grace from Paul.
“Grace and peace to you” (1 Thess 1:1). “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 1:2). “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Thess 5:28). “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you” (2 Thess 3:18).
Paul tends to use “grace” language to bookend his letters—it’s the bread of the theological sandwich he sends to the churches he established. Certainly “grace” is one of Paul’s favorite words. But today, we tend to define and understand Paul’s use of the word “grace,” the Greek word χάρις (charis), in a way that is, well, small. Exploring how Paul uses the term charis will help us understand its use in 1–2 Thessalonians and throughout his other letters.
When Paul uses charis, he communicates God’s gift to believers, but that gift is not only the reward of “heaven” or “forgiveness.” The essence of charis, for Paul, can be summarized in three ideas: God’s presence, calling and power. Together, these three concepts convey Paul’s definition of being saved by grace: Salvation is not only about a place—heaven—but about our relationship with God, moving from estrangement and hostility toward reconciliation and adoration. The salvation we will find in heaven is an experience of the full presence of God, available only through His charis.
The grace of God’s presence.
In Romans 5:1–2, Paul states that Christ opened a way for believers to have peace with God; the charis of God grants believers unhindered access to Him through our mediator, Jesus Christ. Paul’s distinctive language—Christians “stand in grace”—describes this relationship as if it were located in the very presence of God (Rom 5:2). For Paul, peace flows from the joy of being near the living God through the work of Christ.
The grace of God’s calling.
God freely gives His charis, but that does not mean believers are free to live however we choose. God’s gift comes with a calling. Paul referred to his own charis-calling on numerous occasions.
“[God] set me apart from birth and called me by his grace” (Gal 1:15).
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation” (1 Cor 3:10).
“I have written more boldly to you on some points so as to remind you, because of the grace given to me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (Rom 15:15–16).
“You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (Eph 3:2).
Paul applies this idea to all believers: Each Christian has a charis-calling. He chastises the Galatians, for example, for “quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ” and turning instead to a false teaching (Gal 1:6). On the other hand, he commends the churches of Macedonia, who were given the “grace of God” to sacrificially give money to help others (2 Cor 8:1).
Such examples illustrate that God does not give grace simply to save us, but to transform us from self-destructive sinners to believers—whole and refashioned to fulfill our God-given purposes according to His calling.
The grace of God’s power.
To follow God’s charis-calling, we must embrace the power of God to bring about His will in the world through us. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul refers to the persecution believers are experiencing and his hope that they will stand firm in faith:
“To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 1:11–12 NRSV).
The Thessalonian believers would ultimately live in a manner worthy of God’s calling and glorify Him by God’s grace. Paul portrays the rich and relational dynamics of charis as so much more than “forgiveness of sins” or “heaven.”
Paul himself was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people)—a task accompanied by opposition and suffering (see Acts 9:16). When the persecution came to a boiling point (possibly the “thorn in the flesh” Paul refers to in 2 Cor 12:7), he prayed for this problem to go away. Instead, God answered, “My charis is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
God-given charis is the means by which we are to live out our callings in the world. In Romans, Paul refers to various spiritual gifts (charismata) given to us through God’s charis. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells believers in that city how much he thanks God for the grace that was given to them—specifically, how they were made rich with knowledge and did not lack any spiritual gift (1 Cor 1:4–7). Charis is a gift, but one that comes with great responsibility.
Understanding the depth and richness of God’s charis as described by Paul should invigorate our faith and help us dwell on those “grace” passages we tend to gloss over. Don’t let your grace be small. Study the revitalizing, relational charis language of Paul’s letters that calls us to live through God’s gracious gift of His presence, calling and power through Jesus Christ.
Biblical references are from New English Translation (NET).