”If righteousness could be gained through the law,” Paul wrote, “Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21). The only alternative, he says in this same verse, is “the grace of God.” We are saved by grace, not by keeping the law.
These are alternatives that cannot be combined. We are not saved by grace plus works, but by grace alone. We must choose one or another. “Both” is not an option (Romans 11:6). “If the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise” (Galatians 3:18). Salvation does not depend on the law, but on God’s grace.
“If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” (verse 21). If there could be any way that rule-keeping could lead to eternal life, then God would have saved us with the law. But it wasn’t possible. The law cannot save anyone.
God wants us to have good behavior. He wants us to love others and by doing that, to fulfill the law. But he does not want us to ever think that our works are a reason for our salvation. His provision of grace implies that he has always known that we would never be “good enough” despite our best efforts. If our works contributed to our salvation, then we would have something to boast about. But God designed his plan of salvation in such a way that we cannot take any credit for saving ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9). We can never claim to deserve anything; we can never claim that God owes us anything.
This goes to the heart of the Christian faith, and it makes Christianity unique. Other religions say that people can be good enough if they try hard enough. Christianity says that we cannot be good enough; we need grace.
On our own, we will never be good enough, and because of that, other religions are not good enough. The only way we can be saved is through the grace of God. We can never deserve to live forever, so the only way we can be given eternal life is for God to give us something that we don’t deserve. This is what Paul is driving at when he uses the word grace. Salvation is a gift of God, something that we could never earn with even a thousand years of the law.
Jesus and mercy
“The law was given through Moses,” John writes. “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). John saw a contrast between the law and grace, between what we do and what we are given.
Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t use the word grace. But his entire life was an example of grace, and his parables illustrated grace. He sometimes used the word mercy to describe what God gives us. “Blessed are the merciful,” he said, “for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). In this, he implied that we all need mercy. He noted that we should be like God in this respect. If we value God’s grace to us, we will give grace to others.
Later, when Jesus was asked why he associated with notorious sinners, he told people, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). In other words, God wants us to show mercy more than he wants us to be perfectionists in law-keeping.
We do not want people to sin. But since we inevitably make mistakes, we need mercy. That is true of our relationships with one another, and true of our relationships with God, too. God wants us to know our need for mercy, and for us to have mercy toward others. Jesus gave us an example of this by the way he lived, when he ate with tax collectors and talked with sinners – he was showing by his behavior that God wants fellowship with us all, and he has taken all our sins upon himself and forgiven us so we can have fellowship with him.
Jesus told a parable of two debtors, one who owed an enormous amount, and the other who owed a lot less. The master forgave the servant who owed much, but that servant did not forgive the servant who owed less. The master was angry and said, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18:33).
Each of us should see ourselves as the first servant, who was forgiven an enormous debt. We have all fallen far short of what God wants us to be, so God shows us mercy – and he wants us to show mercy as well. We fall short in showing mercy, too, so we must continue to rely on God’s mercy.
The parable of the good Samaritan concludes with a command for mercy (Luke 10:37). The tax collector who pleaded for mercy was the one who was set right with God (Luke 18:13-14). The wasteful son who came home was accepted without having to do anything to “deserve” it (Luke 15:20). Neither the widow of Nain nor her son did anything to deserve a resurrection; Jesus did it simply out of compassion (Luke 7:11-15).
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
The miracles of Jesus served temporary needs. The people who ate loaves and fishes became hungry again. The son who was raised eventually died again. But the grace of Jesus Christ continues to be extended to all of us through the supreme act of grace: his sacrificial death on the cross. This is how Jesus gave himself up for us, with eternal consequences rather than temporary ones.
Peter said, “It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” (Acts 15:11). The gospel was a message about God’s grace (Acts 14:3; 20:24, 32). We are justified by grace “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). God’s grace is linked with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (verse 25). Jesus died for us, for our sins, and we are saved because of what he did on the cross. We have redemption through his blood (Ephesians 1:7).
More than forgiveness
God’s grace goes further than forgiveness. Luke tells us that God’s grace was on the disciples as they preached the gospel (Acts 4:33). God showed them favor, giving them help they did not deserve. Don’t human fathers do the same? We not only give our children life when they had done nothing to earn it, we also give them food and clothing that they could not earn. That’s part of love, and that is the way that God is. Grace is generosity.
When church members in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas out on missionary trips, they commended them to the grace of God (Acts 14:26; 15:40). In other words, they put the missionaries into God’s care, trusting God to take care of the travelers, trusting him to give them what they might need. That is included in his grace.
Spiritual gifts are a work of grace, too. “We have different gifts,” Paul says, “according to the grace given us” (Romans 12:6). “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4:7). “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
Every good thing is a gift of God, a result of grace rather than something we have earned. That is why we are to be thankful even for the simplest of blessings, for the singing of birds and the smells of flowers and the laughter of little children. Life is a luxury, not a necessity.
Paul’s own ministry was given to him through grace (Romans 1:5; 15:15; 1 Corinthians 3:10; Galatians 2:9; Ephesians 3:7). Everything he did, he wanted to be according to God’s grace (2 Corinthians 1:12). His strength and skills were a gift of grace (2 Corinthians 12:9). If God can save and use the biggest sinner of all (that’s how Paul described himself), he can certainly forgive and use any of us. Nothing can separate us from his love, from his desire to give to us.
Response of grace
How should we respond to the grace of God? With grace. We should be merciful, even as God is full of mercy (Luke 6:36). We are to forgive others, just as we have been forgiven. We are to serve others, just as we have been served. We are to be gracious toward others, giving them favor and kindness.
Our words are to be full of grace (Colossians 4:6). We are to be gracious (forgiving and giving) in marriage, in business, in church, with friends and family and strangers. It’s supposed to make a difference in our lives and in our priorities.
Paul spoke of financial generosity as a work of grace, too:
We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. (2 Corinthians 8:1-3).
They had been given much, and they in turn were willing to give much.
Giving is an act of grace (verse 6), and generosity – whether in finances, in time, in respect, or in other ways – is an appropriate way for us to respond to the grace of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us so that we might be richly blessed (verse 9).