Many terms in the church vernacular are taken for granted. Some terms are heard so many times that their impact is lost. The term “grace” is much that way. “Grace” and “mercy” are similar words, but with distinct differences. Mercy (elee’o) means that one does not give another something that they deserve. For instance, one shows mercy if one’s child does something bad, is repentant, and the parent decides not to punish the child. That is mercy. Grace (charis) means favor. In other words, it means that one gives another something that they did not earn. For instance, when one gives a friend a present, it is an act of grace. The friend did not earn the gift. The friend received the gift due to the grace of the one giving the gift. When thinking of the grace of God, there are two distinct categories of grace (common and special) and individual forms of grace within those categories.
P. E. Hughes writes, “Common grace is so called because it is common to all humankind. Its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without discrimination between one person and another” (Hughes, EDOT, 519). There are several graces that are bestowed upon every human being who has, is, and ever will walk the face of God’s green earth.
Grace of Divine Providence
Jesus said, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). By divine providence, it is meant that God created everything and sustains everything. By this, everyone has experienced the grace of God. We all have life. We all live in a beautiful world created with great intricacy. Divine providence is a common grace because everyone reading these words has experienced this grace…and continues to do so.
Grace of Consciousness
The fact that all of us are conscious and have knowledgeably of the world around us and of God is a grace bestowed only upon the human race. Perhaps this has something to do with being made imagio dei (image of God). Regardless, this is a grace that has been bestowed upon the human race.
Grace of Love
We have all also been bestowed with the ability to love and to be loved. The ultimate expression of this love is found in God. John writes, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:8-9). God is love. Because of God’s essence of love, we are able to experience love, as well. Not everyone does, but love is available for everyone to experience. Humanity has greatly abused love. The expressions of love were manipulated and twisted in the sexual revolution of the sixties. Nonetheless, love is given to all to experience. This is a common grace of God.
There is another type of grace available to humanity. However, it is not shared by everyone, but only a group. This grace is a special type of grace that emanates from God to people. This grace is called special grace. There are at least four kinds of special grace: prevenient, efficacious, irresistible, and sufficient.
Prevenient grace is a grace that precedes human action. Hughes writes, “It precedes all human decision and endeavor: Grace always means that it is God who takes the initiative and implies the priority of God’s action on behalf of needy sinners” (Hughes, EDOT, 520). This is found in several passages. In relation to God’s love, John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19). So, we see that our love does not precede God’s. God loved us before we could ever even know God.
Also, prevenient grace applies to God’s actions. Paul writes in Romans 5:6, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). Classic Arminians and Calvinists alike will agree that God takes the first action in salvation. God loved first and sent forth His grace towards us before a response could occur. We do not save ourselves…God saves us. That is why Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved…For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:4, 8-9). If it were not for God’s prevenient grace, no one would ever know salvation as salvation is a complete work of God.
Efficacious grace is, as Hughes writes, “grace that effects the purpose for which it is given” (Hughes, EDOT, 520). In other words, the work of God will serve the purpose that God has for it to serve. If God chooses to save, God will save fully and completely. The believer does not have to guess if he or she is saved. The believer can know that he/she is saved. There is no guess work. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel form the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:4b-6). John wrote, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 4:13-14). So what God does, God does completely.
Irresistible Grace (Calvinism)
Hughes writes, “Irresistible grace is grace that cannot be rejected” (Hughes, EDOT, 521). Calvinists claim that God’s grace cannot be rejected. If this is so, then when God gives His grace to a person, the recipient has no choice but to receive the grace offered to him/her. However, Arminians will agree that God’s actions are complete and irresistible. However, this would not be the case with salvation. Salvation transpires when God acts and a person receives after enlightenment. In a sense, one could claim that Arminian Christians hold to a form of irresistible grace. For the one God foreknew would receive His grace, did receive His grace. Arminius gets around this conundrum by foreknowledge. Arminius writes, “This decree has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew those who would not believe and persevere” (Arminius, DOS, 135). Needless to say, the debate between Arminians and Calvinists will continue over the issue of irresistible grace.
Sufficient grace, or sustaining grace, is God’s ability to keep the believer in the fold. God gives grace to the believer to keep the believer saved. The writer of Hebrews states, “…Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:24b-25). So, those who draw near to God, God will draw near to them. There is no need to wonder if one is saved. The believer can know that he or she is saved. It is this hope that gives comfort to the believer when the believer draws his/her last breath.
If one thinks that they have nothing for which to be thankful as they enter the Thanksgiving season, all the person needs to do is to review the grace of God. Every Christian believer has something for which to be thankful. This article did not even address the grace given to us in having a family, having friends, and the simple things of life. Go out and drive on a national parkway and you can instantly see the grace of God given in the beauty of creation. One clear night, take a blanket and look up at the wondrous universe that God has created for us. When we concentrate on the grace of God and think of the beautiful eternity promised to the believer, the bad things of life don’t seem as bad.
Focusing on God’s grace this Thanksgiving season,
All scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Arminius, Jacob. Declaration of Sentiments. From Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary. Translated by W. Stephen Gunter. Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2012.
Hughes, P.E. “Grace,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2d Ed. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.