Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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God’s Grace

Herman Hoeksema


As the Holy One, God is gracious. The term grace as it occurs in Holy Writ has many different connotations. Its basic notion, from which all the other meanings may readily be derived, is that of gracefulness, pleasantness or attractiveness. The Hebrew word חֵ֥ן (ḥên—grace) is derived from the verb חָנַן (ḥênan), which means “to incline” and, in piel [a Hebrew "tense"], signifies “to make fair, pleasant, gracious.” The noun occurs in Proverbs 22:11: “He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.”

This passage is significant because grace here evidently has the meaning of pleasantness. The man of a pure heart speaks pleasant words; his speech is graceful so that for its sake the king delights to have him around and to commune with him. But the passage also informs us that this pleasantness and gracefulness of speech is not a superficial beauty, not the pleasantness of flattery, but the attractiveness and gracefulness of ethical goodness and purity. The “grace of his lips” has its roots in pureness of heart. An ethically pure speech is truly graceful. Similarly in Psalm 45:2: “Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee forever.” Here, too, “grace” is used to denote attractiveness and beauty of speech that is rooted in ethical goodness. In Proverbs 31:30, the word is employed to denote the outward gracefulness and beauty of bodily form, which is said to be vain in itself.

The Greek word corresponding to the Hebrew חֵ֥ן (ḥên) is χάρις (kháris—grace). It is derived from χαίρείν (khairein), which means “to rejoice, to be glad.” Accordingly, grace denotes that which affords joy and delight: charm, loveliness, gracefulness, and pleasantness. Of the Lord, we read that all bore Him witness and wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth (Luke 4:22), by which is meant that the speech of the Lord was remarkably pleasant and that He was a charming speaker.

In Colossians 4:6, the apostle admonishes believers that their speech must always be with grace, seasoned with salt, in order that they may know how they ought to answer every man. Their conversation must be characterized by the gracefulness of ethical purity and sanctification. Similarly, in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” Speech that gives grace to the hearers, that is pleasant and attractive to them, here stands opposed to “corrupt communication,” from which it is evident once more that grace denotes a beauty that is rooted in ethical soundness and purity.

The apostle Peter writes: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (1 Pet. 2:20). The Greek for that last expression is τοῦτο χάρις παρὰ Θεῷ (this is grace toward God). The meaning is that suffering for righteousness sake is beautiful and pleasant in the eyes of the Lord. Both in the Old and New Testaments, therefore, grace denotes the attribute or virtue of beauty, pleasantness, charm, and more especially the charm and beauty that is rooted in true goodness, the expression of ethical perfection. Only what is truly good is beautiful. All that is corrupt must be condemned as ugly and repulsive. Only in the world of sin, by the sinful perception and judgment of a corrupt heart, can the ethically corrupt be considered attractive and pleasant.

In close connection with this objective significance of the word “grace,” it is used in Scripture in the subjective sense to denote an attitude of grace or pleasantness, a graceful disposition, a friendly inclination of the heart that one may reveal toward another. This is undoubtedly the meaning of the word in the frequently occurring phrase: “to find grace in the eyes of [someone].” One who finds grace in the eyes of another, usually of a superior, reads in his eyes that he is favorably or graciously disposed towards him, looks upon him with favor.

In the same sense of gracious disposition, grace is used in Luke 1:30, where Gabriel addresses the mother of the Lord: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour [grace] with God.” God is favorably inclined, graciously disposed, toward Mary. The expression is used similarly in Acts 7:46, where Stephen declares that David found favor, or grace, before God and desired to build a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. In Acts 14:26 we read: “And thence [Paul and Barnabas] sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled.” Also in Romans 5:15, the word has the meaning of gracious disposition: “Much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” Objectively, then, the word “grace” denotes beauty or gracefulness; subjectively, it denotes a gracious disposition or favorable attitude toward someone.

Therefore, it is easy how the meaning of “grace” most familiar to the mind of the believer—that of undeserved, or forfeited—is derived. Grace in this sense has essentially the same significance as the favorable disposition discussed above, but with emphasis on its undeserved or gratuitous character. The word still has the meaning of friendly, favorable, or gracious disposition, the attitude of grace which God assumes toward His people, but now the freedom and sovereignty of the grace of God appear and are emphasized by the state and condition of the objects of His grace and the subjects who receive and experience this favor of God.

Grace is always sovereign and free. Always it has its basis only in God. But the freedom and independence of this grace are revealed more clearly when the recipient of that grace is in himself a sinner who has forfeited every claim to the favor of God and deserves only His wrath and displeasure.

Hence, the word of God uses the term “grace” as opposed to debt, obligation or work. When anything is out of works or according to works, it is not out of grace or according to grace; when it is out of grace, it cannot be out of works: “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Rom. 4:4). The wage earner does not receive a token of his employer’s gracious disposition when he is paid his wages. The payment of wages is out of debt.

In contrast, we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). In our justification we have a revelation of the free and sovereign gracious disposition of God toward us. Hence, if it is “by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise, grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace, otherwise, work is no more work” (Rom. 11:6). We have redemption through the blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, not according to works, which would be impossible, but according to the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7). In this sense, then, grace is such a favorable disposition or friendly attitude of God that is revealed even to those who are wholly undeserving in themselves, yea, who have wholly forfeited His kindness and favor and are worthy of death and damnation.

Hence, the word “grace” in Scripture denotes the power of God whereby the sinner is actually saved and delivered from the bondage of sin and corruption and made pleasant in the sight of God. Grace is the operation of God’s friendly disposition upon and in its objects, as well as the implication of all the spiritual blessings and virtues that are thus bestowed upon the objects of God’s favor.

Important in this connection is the passage in 1 Peter 5:10, where the term “grace” is used in its all-comprehensive sense: “But the God of all grace, who hath called us into His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” God is the God of all grace.

This text implies that God is gracious in Himself: He is the all-gracious God. Further, it means that He is the source and author of all grace: wherever you may find grace, it is the grace of God. Finally, it implies that He is the sole and only author of grace: apart from Him there is no grace. He works it, and He bestows it as a manifestation of His own gracefulness.

This connotation of grace as a power and a blessing of salvation the word has also in the apostolic benedictions: “Grace be to you” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2) and, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:24; 1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 13:14), which can only mean that God in His grace, through Christ, may graciously work in and upon the church, may bestow His grace upon believers, and may make them partakers of all the blessings of grace and salvation. When God is graciously inclined toward men, He blesses them, and the content of that blessing is His grace, even as when He is displeased and unfavorably inclined to men, He curses, and the result is misery and death. Thus the word is very often employed in Scripture. It is by grace that we are saved (Eph. 2:8). The apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” evidently meaning that the power of God’s grace has made him what he is. Grace, in 1 Peter 1:13, refers to all the blessings of salvation that are to be showered upon the church in the day of Christ: “Hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Thus it can be understood that the word “grace” in Scripture also has the meaning of thanks. Where we read in our English Bible, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17), the original has literally, “But grace be to God ...” When the apostle exclaims in Romans 7:25, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” the Greek has, “Grace be to God.” The original of the well-known doxology of 1 Corinthians 15:57 is, “Grace be to God, who giveth us the victory ...” The same expression can be found in other passages (2 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 9:15; 2 Tim. 1:3). The meaning is most probably that grace is ascribed to God by those who are the objects of and who have experienced the power of His grace, in order that He may receive the praise as the God of all grace.

Scripture emphasizes everywhere that God is gracious. He is the God of all grace, the all-gracious God. He is gracious in Himself apart from any relation to the creature. Also here we must remember that God is the independent, the self-existent, the self-sufficient one. He is not in need of the creature. He does not become richer through the existence of the creature. In and through the creature He only reveals Himself and glorifies Himself in His riches, that also the creature may glorify Him. Thus all the virtues of God are in Him independently and absolutely.

This also applies to the virtue of grace. God is eternally a God of all grace. He “is” grace. Graciousness is an attribute or perfection of His very being. Grace belongs to God’s holy name. Thus on the mount, “the Lord passed by before [Moses], and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exod. 34:6). David says, “But Thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth” (Ps. 86:15). The Psalmist sings, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Ps. 103:8) and exclaims, “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful” (Ps. 116:5). In and of Himself God is gracious.

God’s Grace Defined

We must remember the fundamental meaning of the word “grace.” It is the virtue of being pleasant and attractive, beautiful and graceful, with a beauty that is rooted in and based on ethical perfection. In this sense, one can readily understand that God is gracious, for He is the Holy One. He is the implication of all goodness, of all ethical perfections. Goodness is His very being. He is a light, there is no darkness in Him at all. He is righteousness, justice, truth, peace, love, and life. He is the only good. For that reason, God is also infinitely beautiful, charming, pleasant, attractive. Even as the ethically corrupt is repulsive and ugly, so the ethically perfect is truly beautiful and pleasant.

In the absolute sense, therefore, grace in God is the beauty of His infinite perfections, the charm of His divine goodness, as Psalm 27:4 expresses: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.” The inspired poet exults: “In Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11) and, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined” (Ps. 50:2). God as the Holy One, as the absolutely perfect one, as the one consecrated eternally unto Himself, is altogether lovely; He is absolute loveliness. All that is in God is truly attractive and charming.

But this is not all. The above description conceives of the grace of God only in the objective sense, as an attribute of loveliness. However, we may also apply the subjective meaning of the word “grace,” that of a gracious disposition, to God in Himself without any relation to the creature outside of Him. In other words, God is gracious as the Holy One, as the one who is self-centered and is consecrated to Himself, who seeks and finds Himself in love. God is attracted by Himself, and He is graciously disposed to Himself. He is charmed by His own loveliness. He delights in His own infinite beauty, for He is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Son is the Word, the express image of the Father’s substance; in Him the Father expresses all the beauty of His image. In the Spirit, the Son returns to the Father, and the Father contemplates Himself in the loveliness of His own infinite perfections. Of the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit, the triune God knows Himself and contemplates Himself in His perfect gracefulness and charm with infinite delight. He is graciously inclined to Himself.

As an attribute of God, grace is that divine virtue according to which God is the perfection of all beauty and loveliness and contemplates Himself as such with infinite delight.

(Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics [Grandville, MI: 2004], vol. 1, pp. 154-160)