Grace is one of those words that easily becomes a cliché. We can use it and sing about it without appreciating what it is and why it matters. John Newton, in his best-known hymn, declares that grace is “amazing,” but do we grasp just how amazing it really is?
The Bible uses the word most commonly in relation to salvation. And it does so to make it clear that the blessings, joys, and privileges of redemption are entirely and freely from God. We contribute nothing to them. Moreover, there is nothing in us that could even begin to deserve what God gives. Grace speaks not only of God’s unmerited favor but also of that which is actually demerited. What we merit by nature is the very opposite of what God gives us through His Son.
Of all the biblical authors, Paul most reaches for the language of grace and does so in a way that deepens our appreciation of it. This comes out notably in Ephesians, where he sums up its centrality by stating, “For by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8). Paul is not introducing some new idea here; instead, he captures and summarizes everything he has been teaching up to this point. We can trace out at least three distinct threads of grace woven together in God’s saving purpose to display its breathtaking beauty.
Paul’s message begins with a doxology praising God for the greatness of His salvation. As he traces out its contours, Paul starts with God’s eternal decree, telling his Christian readers that God “chose us” and “predestined us for adoption as sons” in and through Jesus Christ (1:4–5). Why? “. . . to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (v. 6). From eternity, God’s plan of salvation was born of grace.
The Apostle goes on to show how the grace that planned salvation is embodied in Christ, who secured it in history—ultimately through His death (vv. 6–8). Once again, Paul highlights what lies behind this. It was “according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (vv. 7–8). Paul, the erstwhile Pharisee who boasted in his own spiritual attainments, is captivated by the sheer extravagance of God’s favor. Indeed, he goes further and allows his readers a glimpse of God’s goal in salvation for the coming age: “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (v. 10). God’s purpose through Christ is nothing less than the renewal of all things.
Paul presses home the beauty of God’s grace by portraying it against the backdrop of the ugliness of what we are by nature. In our sin, we were dead, deluded, and damned, but in Christ, we have been enlivened, have been exalted, and have become the living exhibition of God’s grace for all to see (2:13; 4–7). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Paul goes on to speak of the dimensions of God’s love—His gracious love—as beyond the scope of human comprehension (3:18–19). Through all eternity, grace will never cease to amaze us.