It is told that during a meeting on comparative religions in Britain that many scholars gathered together to discuss what, if anything, was unique to Christianity. Many different elements were discussed and debated. Was Christianity unique because of its concept of truth? No, other religions have this. Was it unique because of the doctrine of reconciliation? No, other religions have this. Was it unique in terms of inspiration of a particular book? No, again, other religions have this. It is told that C.S. Lewis entered the room during the debate and asked what the discussion was all about. “We are discussing what makes Christianity unique, if anything.” “That’s easy” Lewis responded, “its grace.” What is grace? If it is the primary element that separates Christianity from all other world religions (and I believe that it along with the doctrine of the Trinity is), all Christians should have a deep understanding of it, along with the ability to articulate it in a accurate way. Let’s start with this working definition: “Grace is the gift of God that is not deserved, cannot be earned, and cannot be paid back.”
The word grace comes from the Greek charis which means “a beneficent disposition to someone” (BDAG). From it comes charisma, the Greek word for “gift.” When we talk about people being “charismatic,” we mean that they are gifted. Theologically, while the term does not occur many times in the Gospels, Paul develops the Christian understanding of grace from his understanding of the acts of God through Christ Jesus. It is a free gift that God offers in exchange for nothing other than a willing hand of reception. Broadly speaking God’s grace is seen in creation (He gave us life for free), in providential provision (He sustains the world for free), and in salvation (He offers to those who have turned against Him reconciliation for free). While other religions may have love, they do not have unconditional grace as the avenue for the expression of that love. Grace can be thought of as the wings of God’s love. It is the path that His love walks. Other religions have this word but none of them define it unconditionally. In other religions, in order to acquire the love of God or His favor one may have to do any number of religious deeds and acts of righteousness in order to be deserving. But from the Christian worldview “grace” and “deserving” are antithetical. As Paul says to the Romans: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (11:6). In other words, “If it [salvation] is a gift, it cannot be paid for by any means, otherwise it is not really a gift, but what is deserved.” Let me illustrate. Christmas has just passed. My three year old son Will received a Christmas present from his mother and I. It was a new Superman figure pillow. What if upon receiving this present, he went upstairs to his room, broke open his piggy bank, and proceeded to pay us for this? You are right. You would say that it was a gift, and you don’t pay for a gift. Well, what if he sorted through the quarters, dimes, and nickels and found a penny. One cent. That is not much. What if he said, just take this one penny for this Superman? We would sit down with him and say “Will, you must understand. Mommy and Daddy gave you that as a gift. If we were to accept any money or payment of any kind, even one cent, it would not be a gift. You don’t have to pay us for this. You don’t have to clean your room for this. You don’t have to eat all your dinner for this. And if you fail or mess up in any way we are not going to take this back. It is a gift.” In most cultures, when you attempt to pay for a gift, it is very insulting. It is the same when it comes to God’s gift of salvation. If we attempt or believe that we can pay for this gift that He offers, we insult Him by calling His character and sincerity into question. We are in essence saying “I don’t really believe you. You are probably an Indian giver. I had better do something to make sure that you don’t take this back.” But God’s give of salvation is antithetical to any type of payment.
Neither is this gift of salvation a “lay-away” option. We don’t pay God back in increments for the gift. Again, if this were the case, it would not really be a gift. It might be kind of God to give us this “loan,” but if it is paid back in any way, it cannot be called a gift. This type of “lay-away salvation” does not even fit into the semantic range of the Christian concept.
Therefore, we must understand that we did not do anything to deserve God’s favor, we cannot do anything to earn it, and we cannot pay it back. All we can do is humbly accept it. Indeed, when understood in such a way, grace is truly a unique element to Christianity.
Sadly, I believe that because grace is so amazing, people never really get it. They either subscribe to the cheap payment idea or the lay-away option. Why, I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. I think most people probably just think that true grace is too good to be true. They don’t really experience it in their day-to-day living. Our world works off of loans, payment plans, lay-aways, and expectations based on a job-well-done mentality. As a consequence I believe that most never understand or experience the full benefits of salvation and never are able to serve God truly motivated by His love.