By Mark E. Moore
Question: What do we have to do to be saved?
Every religion has its own answer to this question. Some encourage sacrifice; others, service; others, rituals of purification or meditation. What all (but one) have in common is some human effort to achieve favor with God. This may include knocking on doors with pamphlets, giving away wealth, self-flagellation, or confession and restitution. The common thread, however, is human effort to reach God’s height.
Grace Is God’s Salvation
Christianity alone moves in the opposite direction. Rather than us climbing upward, Christianity asserts that God moved downward. Salvation is not accomplished through human effort but offered through God’s sacrifice. Logically, this is the only way to be sure of salvation. After all, how can a human reach God?
Of all the New Testament authors, Paul was clearest on this point. Let’s listen to a few excerpts from his most notable treatise on grace, the letter to the Romans:
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version).
“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (5:1-2).
“Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14).
“If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6).
With this brief flyover, we clearly see the core of Christianity: we’re saved by God’s grace, not our own effort.
Though Paul is the dominant voice for grace, he’s no outlier. Peter said the same thing. During a debate with some Jewish Christians who attempted to impose circumcision as a prerequisite for conversion, Peter concluded his argument with these words: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11). Jesus’ brother, James, officiated the debate and concurred with Peter, stating that grace was the official stance of the church (verses 13-19).
Grace Is a Social System
The clearest statement of salvation by grace through faith comes from Paul’s little letter to the Ephesians. It’s one of those banner statements of the Bible:
By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
While this description of salvation is the clearest on record, it also introduces a paradox. We’re saved by grace through faith, yet this passage tells us that we’re created for good works. So, the question is this: What’s the relationship between grace, faith, and works? In other words, if we’re saved by grace, why are we expected to perform good works?
The simplest answer is that works are the consequence of our salvation, not the cause. What we accomplish for Christ is a by-product of our salvation, not the foundation of it.
There’s a social setting for this description of salvation that paints a picture of the relationship between faith, grace, and works. In the economy of the ancient world, about 2 percent of the population controlled virtually all the goods and services. They were called patrons. These patrons hired employees (or slaves) in their homes, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and artists. These servants were called brokers, and they made up approximately 5 percent of the population. Meanwhile, those employed outside the home—day laborers, farmers, craftsmen, etc.—were called clients. This group made up the majority of the population (about three-quarters). This left the bottom 15 percent as “expendables” who served in the lowest occupations—miners, prostitutes, ditchdiggers—and who had very short life spans.
These patrons, brokers, and clients had clearly defined social roles and responsibilities. The patron’s job was to provide the resources needed for his clients to survive, such as a job, home, land, medical care, and legal protection. The total of the gifts a patron provided was called “grace.”
The broker’s task was to expand the patron’s influence. Brokers were evangelists responsible for acquiring more clients. But why would patrons want more clients if they constantly had to give them gifts? Wasn’t it an economic liability to provide for clients? It certainly was. However, in the ancient world, wealth wasn’t the most coveted commodity; honor was. The more clients a patron provided for, the more honored the patron was in the community.
The clients, on the other hand, had one primary purpose: to honor their patron. Their only job was to make him famous. If he was running for political office, they ran behind him, promoting his campaign. If he was harvesting a field, they would go work in the field. If he was addressing a crowd, they gathered to sing his praise. So, while the patron would never mention his gifts again, the client was to never fail to mention every gift the patron gave as often as possible.
The Greeks used the word faith, perhaps better translated as “fidelity,” to describe this loyalty the clients offered their patron.
So, Paul’s statement, “By grace you have been saved through faith [fidelity]” (Ephesians 2:8) was a description of Jesus as the patron and us as his clients. Simply put, our role as Christians is to do whatever we can to make Jesus famous.
Grace Is Our Service
Our efforts to make Jesus famous extend God’s grace to other potential clients. Our service is thus an act of grace. That’s why our spiritual gifts are called grace: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6). Peter said virtually the same thing: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Paul described his own ministry as an act of grace: “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you. . . . Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power” (Ephesians 3:2, 7).
One more thing. Grace is not merely our service to others. It’s the very character of our lives that inevitably results in gracious acts toward others.
Here’s how it works: God gives us grace so that we become grace-filled persons performing gracious acts toward others. Grace becomes our nature. It’s not achieved through works but received through Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Peter 1:13).
Grace thus carries the connotation of “favor” or “blessing.” Grace is what one person gives to another whom she accepts as a friend. In this way God has made us his friends and clients by bestowing on us his benefits (John 1:16-17; Acts 11:23; 15:40; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2; 9:8; Ephesians 1:6-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5, 10). This grace indicates that we have a right relationship with God. As such, it’s synonymous with “membership in the church” through a relationship with Jesus (Acts 13:43; Romans 5:2; 6:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:10; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Galatians 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:16; 1 Timothy 1:14; 2 Peter 3:18). To this extent, grace has more to do with God’s election than our effort (Romans 11:5-6; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 4:7; 2 Timothy 1:9).
Grace Is a Greeting
There’s a peculiarity in the New Testament that’s easy to overlook. Grace became a Christian greeting so common that it begins and ends all the letters in the New Testament (with rare exceptions). Here’s a typical rendition: “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This combination of grace and peace is fascinating as a sociological artifact. You see, before grace became a theological term, a similar form of this word was used as a common greeting among the Romans and Greeks. In every public square of the Roman Empire, one could hear noble gentlemen greeting one another with this word. It was a wish of health and blessing, like our phrase “Have a nice day.” Peace, on the other hand, was common fare among the Jews. It’s a translation of the Hebrew word shalom. This rich word was a wish for health, wholeness, peace, and blessing. It was a theologically laden term heard in every synagogue.
The church of Jesus Christ combined the common greetings of these Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds precisely because they were two worlds united in Jesus. Furthermore, the full theological weight of both terms was brought to bear in the most common greeting of Christians.
There’s a lesson here. Grace is so central to who we are as Christians that we incorporate it into our everyday speech. As followers of Jesus, we use common language in uncommon ways to make the extraordinary act of God’s grace available to every person in our circle of influence. Grace as a greeting is a potent example of how Jesus can become an integral part of our everyday world. Language for Christians is sanctified for evangelism. We control words, opening the possibility of infusing every conversation with meaning that can alter eternity.
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Excerpted from Core 52: A Fifteen-Minute Daily Guide to Build Your Bible IQ in a Year by Mark E. Moore. Copyright © 2019 by Mark E. Moore. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Used with permission.
Mark E. Moore is an acclaimed author and teaching pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona. He previously spent two decades as a New Testament professor at Ozark Christian College. Mark is the author of the bestseller Core 52: A Fifteen-Minute Guide to Build Your Bible IQ in a Year, Quest 52: A Fifteen-Minute-a-Day Yearlong Pursuit of Jesus, and co-author of the new children’s book Core 52 Family Edition with his daughter Megan Howerton. Whether by helping people make sense of Christianity or teaching students to understand the Bible, Mark’s life passion is to make Jesus famous.