I forgive you, but please don't call it 'giving grace'
August 25, 2014
What should I do when my husband forgets to buy milk on the way home from work? When my kids leave their new bikes out in the rain? When fellow church members are curt or critical on Sunday mornings?
Increasingly, I hear the godly action in these scenarios described as "giving grace." And, while I wholeheartedly applaud heart-motivations of love, and God-glorifying acts of mercy, words still matter. When I hear Reformed people urging me to give "grace" to others, I question whether this is the right use of that precious word.
Ultimately, I'm afraid that by using the wrong biblical word for the right biblical response we may be misunderstanding both.
So, when people talk about "giving grace"--to husbands and children and the person next door--what, exactly, does that mean?
There are several biblical uses of the word "grace." Among other things, it can mean favor (Luke 2:52). It sometimes refers to the gifts given by Christ (Eph. 4:7). It can also mean God's working in the lives of elect and non-elect persons--restraining sin, promoting right action and attitudes, and giving temporal blessing (Matt. 5:45).
Primarily grace is, as Louis Berkhof writes, "God's free, sovereign, undeserved favor or love to man, in his state of sin and guilt, which manifests itself in the forgiveness of sin and deliverance from its penalty."
I think it is a human version of this which most people have in mind when they encourage moms to give grace to their kids, wives to give grace to their husbands, and church members to give grace to one another. Giving grace, one person to another, is commonly understood as forgiveness or patient forbearance when confronted with someone's sin. This is a biblical and right action, and I give thanks to God for those who encourage parents and spouses to do more of it. Our families and communities need the self-denying kindness which Christ's followers lavish on others.
But I hesitate to call those actions grace.
For one thing, the Bible doesn't use that word. In the Scripture passages where grace is described as given or received, God himself is always the giver. (The single exception to this is Eph. 4:29 where wholesome speech is said to "give grace to those who hear." But even this verse does not make humans the originators of grace, nor is it referring to grace in the sense of forgiveness.)
Scripture does give us words for what we can do with husbands who forget to buy milk and the children who spill it. We can forgive. Ephesians 4:32 reads, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you." The Bible also uses the language of covering sin as in I Peter 4:8, "love covers a multitude of sins." And I Corinthians 13 commands a love which "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
The Christian ought to be characterized by kindness, forgiveness, patience, and a disposition to assume the best of others. But the Bible does not refer to these actions, done by humans, as grace.
Second, as Berkhof's definition highlights, grace is necessarily an act of sovereignty. John Murray explains it this way: "The sovereignty of grace is implicit in its nature. If grace excludes the constraint of human merit, if its whole constraint and explanation reside in God, it must be of his free good pleasure. . . To dissociate grace in its source, progress, or fruition from pure sovereignty of will is to annul not only its character but also that by which its exercise is conditioned." Sovereignty is intrinsic to grace. Grace is always from Him and through Him and to Him--and only according to his holy will.
Human forgiveness and patience, on the other hand, are not sovereign acts at all. In my attitude toward my tantrum-throwing children and my (very occasionally) thoughtless husband, I do not freely choose mercy as an ultimate authority. Nor is my mercy effective to bring about my desired results in the lives of my family.
But God has mercy upon whom he will have mercy. He has loved Jacob and hated Esau. And his grace accomplishes what he intends.
Further, we have to consider the fact that we are people under obligation to our gracious God. In spite of the controversy surrounding his application of how grace works, I still think Tullian Tchividjian's definition of what grace is can be helpful here: "Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver." But some would use that word--grace--and apply it to a human response. And we humans are never unobligated givers. In fact, we are obligated again and again by God in His word to do precisely the forgiving that so many would like to call "grace." When my brother sins against me, I am obligated to forgive him. And I am obligated to forgive him not once but seventy-times-seven. I am obligated to love my enemies because Jesus commands it. Jesus is never obligated to love his.
Like the unmerciful servant, my own debt to God obligates me to mercy toward fellow-debtors. But God has no such debt, nor any such requirement. His grace is given from a position of unequaled authority--the judge of all the earth condescending to lowly rebels--while our human forgiveness is given from a position of mutual humility.
Finally, God's acts of grace always flow from an unchangingly gracious character.
In The Christian Faith, Michael Horton writes, "God remains gracious and merciful in his essence, even though the exercise and objects of his mercy are determined in absolute freedom. In other words, God is not free to decide whether he will be merciful and gracious, but he is free to decide whether he will have mercy on some rather than others . . . God is patient, but he is free to show his patience to whomever he chooses." Whether God bestows grace or withholds it, he is still and always the merciful and gracious one.
In my human, sin-plagued heart, no such essential graciousness flourishes. Instead, I am at war against the deeds of the flesh. And in the absence of forgiveness, bitterness takes root. In the absence of patience, impatience. In the absence of mercy, pride and anger.
I am compelled to kindness toward sinners, for in those acts I overcome evil with good.
Ultimately, my own actions are merely a response to God's gracious actions toward me. And I don't call my human forgiveness "grace" because I want my children and husband to remember that grace is something distinct, something which they desperately need, but something which can only come from God himself.
In the end, it is the freeness of God's grace which most amazes. God had a choice about whose sins to cover, and he chose mine. Not because I was deserving or because he was obligated, not because he owes a debt, and certainly not because he would otherwise fail to be holy, but simply out of his good pleasure. Thanks be to God.
So, yes, let's forgive each other. Let's be patient and kind and cover with love a multitude of wrongs. Let's do those things as humble debtors, constrained by God's mercy and seeking after holiness. But, please, let's not call it "giving grace."
Megan Hill is a member of Pinehaven Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Clinton, Mississippi. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics and to The Gospel Coalition. You can read her blog about ministry life at www.SundayWomen.com