There are, especially, three ideas which are conveyed by the word “grace,” all of which must be given full validity if we are to understand what the apostle was impressing with such earnestness upon the Ephesians.
The first of them is the idea of power. Grace is power. And it is only because grace is power that it can save, save dead men, men dead in trespasses and sins. If men were not dead, possibly they might be saved by something else than power. By good advice, say; by pointing out to them something, some good thing, to do, by which they might inherit eternal life. That is what the law does. And that is why the law cannot save, cannot, that is, save dead men. The law tells us what we ought to do. Because the law is the law of God, perfect and holy and just and good, it tells us perfectly what we ought to do. But it is of no avail to tell dead men what they ought to do. Dead men cannot do anything. They need not instruction but life; not good counsel but power. That is the reason why Paul, when he is assuring the Romans that the salvation which had been begun in them should certainly be completed, hangs it all on the fact that they were not under law but under grace. “Sin shall not have dominion over you,” he promises them — and what a great promise that is! — “sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace.”1
If they were under law, sin certainly would have dominion over them. Law can do nothing but tell us what is right and what is wrong; and after that there is nothing that law can do. It cannot enable us to do the right and refuse the wrong which it has made known to us. But grace is power. It does not instruct, it energizes; and what dead men need is energizing, such energizing as raises the dead. Only God’s grace, which is almighty power, can do that. It is, says Paul, the same working of the strength of his might which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead.2
This is the first idea which is conveyed by the word “grace,” when we are told that it is by grace that we have been saved. Grace is power, and because it is God’s grace, it is almighty power.
The second idea conveyed by the idea of grace is love. Grace is power. But it is not bare power; wild power, as we say; power operating without direction, producing any variety of effects. It is power directed by love.
That is the fundamental meaning of the word “grace” — favor, love, yearning desire. And that is what grace always means when it is spoken of in the New Testament with reference to God. It always expresses the idea of good will, kindness, favor, love. Power, in itself considered, may blast as well as bless. The power that grace is always blesses, because grace is love. The grace of God is the power of God exerted in kindness. It is the love of God acting, according to its nature, in blessing. And therefore, in the passage from Ephesians which has been in our mind—that is, Ephesians 2:1-10—it is because he is telling his readers that it was due only to the riches of God’s mercy and “his great love wherewith he loved us”3 that we are saved, that Paul is led to interject suddenly in explanation of it all, “By grace have ye been saved.”4
To be saved in the riches of God’s mercy because of the greatness of his love, that is what it is to be saved by grace. For the same reason, when Paul comes to speak a little later of the manifestation of the exceeding riches of God’s grace in our salvation, he explains that the precise thing in which these exceeding riches of God’s grace are manifested, is “kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”5
Grace is manifested in kindness. To deal kindly with us is to deal graciously with us. The second idea which is conveyed by the word “grace,” when we are told that it is by grace that we are saved, then, is that we owe our salvation purely to the love of God. Grace is love and because it is God’s grace by which we are saved, our salvation is a pure product of the love of God.
But there is a third idea conveyed by the word “grace” as well and it is the idea of gratuitousness. Grace is gratuitous just because it is love. That is, because it is the “love of benevolence,” as we say, the love that is good will, kindness, favor. It is the very nature of the love that is good will, kindness, favor, that it is gratuitous. We might do something, perhaps, to attract to ourselves, to secure, to deserve the love of complacency. That is to say that kind of love that seeks and finds gratification for itself in its object rather than is intent only on benefiting its object; that seeks its own pleasure in its object rather than purely seeking to do it good. But that is not the kind of love that grace is.
Grace is the love that is good will, kindness, favor. And the love that is good will, kindness, favor is in the nature of the case gratuitous. At all events this is what the Bible speaks of when it speaks of the grace of God. Paul, for instance, is at great pains to make it clear that the grace of God is not earned by us, is not secured by us, is not obtained by us; but is just given to us, comes to us purely gratuitously.
What is of grace, he tells us, is by that very fact not of works; if it be in any way, in the slightest measure, earned, by that very fact it ceases to be of grace. He carries the idea, indeed, to its extreme height. Grace, with him, is not only pure kindness, kindness which has not been earned—had it been earned, it would have ceased to be kindness—but kindness to the undeserving in the positive sense, kindness to the ill-deserving. Grace is very distinctly and very emphatically love to the ill-deserving.
This is the third idea which is conveyed by the word “grace” when we are told that it is by grace that we have been saved. Our salvation is a pure gratuity from God. We have not earned it. We have not secured it. We have not obtained it. God has fixed upon us in the riches of his mercy and the greatness of his unconstrained love pouring out upon us in the exceeding riches of his grace, his pure kindness in Christ Jesus.
This is, then, what Paul means when he tells us with reiterated emphasis that it is by grace, by grace and nothing else than grace, that we have been saved. He means that we have not saved ourselves. It is God who has saved us, God and God alone.
If we had saved ourselves or supplied anything whatever which entered into our salvation as in any measure its procuring cause, it would not have been distinctively by grace that we have been saved. And Paul’s strong emphasis on the assertion that it is by grace, that it is by nothing else than grace that we have been saved would be misplaced. We were in point of fact dead in our trespasses and sins and therefore utterly unable to move hand or foot to seek salvation. We were helplessly and hopelessly lost. We owe our salvation wholly to God’s kindness, to his undeserved love, to his grace.
It is all from him, in its beginning and middle and end: all from him. Just as Lazarus was called out of the grave by the sheer power of the God who raises the dead, we have been called out of our death in trespasses and sins by the sheer grace of God, the grace which is the power of God, working under the direction of his ineffable love, poured out in gratuitous kindness upon ill deserving sinners. We have not made the first step in knowledge of the salvation of God until we have learned and made the very center of our thought of it this great fact: that it is by the pure grace of God, by that and that alone, that we are saved. And, as we have said, this is the heart of the heart of the gospel.
1. Romans 6:14
2 Ephesians 1:20.
3 Ephesians 2:4.
4 Ephesians 2:5.
5 See Ephesians 2:7