In February 2016, Baptist leadership teams gathered to consider how we approach the priority of mission within the Baptist Churches of Aotearoa. Five priorities emerged, centred on the theme of grace. Our Churches are being encouraged to explore these over the next five years. Here, Myk Habets reflects upon one of these priorities—what does it mean to embody grace?
Principal of Carey Baptist College Charles Hewlett (my boss) has a mantra that goes something like this: “At Carey, we love Jesus, we love the church, we love Scripture, and we love the gospel.” I think we can say that as Baptists (or as Christians), we love these things too. We might also add, “We love mission” to such a list. This brief essay reflects on what the embodiment of grace might mean with particular attention to this list.
Thinking about grace
Most of us will be familiar with the definition of grace as ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense.’ It makes sense, it’s cute, and it seems to work. Right? It represents (to some degree) what we find in some of the scriptures where grace is kind of instrumentalised, or turned into a form of stuff to be dispensed, used, and consumed.
Grace is used 154 times in the New Testament and 200 times in the Old Testament using other terms: grace is loving-kindness, mercy, or undeserved-favour of some kind. Grace is given and received, grace is shared, grace is free, and grace is always amazing.
The subjective effects of grace may sometimes seem to make God’s grace an independent virtue; a ‘thing’ possessed by the believer. Think here of Acts 4:33: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (See also Acts 11:23, 13:43, and Romans 5:21).
But if we look closer and pay more attention to the context, we see that these scriptures are rather references to the operations of the “Spirit of grace” as Hebrews 10:29 says. Grace is not simply a human virtue—it is a characteristic of God. Even in the Old Testament we have this clearly stated. Think here of the self-revelation of God in Exodus 34:6-7: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty...” (italics added).
So while the initial reflections here are not wrong, as such, we need a more biblical, more theological, and more comprehensive understanding of what grace is if we are to listen carefully and obey faithfully what God has said to us.
Some scholars have defined grace as God providing for people who cannot provide for themselves. And again, that is true. But it begs the question: What has God provided? What is the great gift to which the word grace acts as a partial definition?
Let me remind you of John 1:16-18: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (italics added).
Or Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
What these and many other texts say, when read together, in context, and in light of the entirety of God’s word, is that ultimately when we follow grace all the way up, we get to Jesus Christ. Grace is Jesus Christ!
As Joel Green has written: “From a biblical-theological perspective, ‘grace’ is fundamentally a word about God: his uncoerced initiative and pervasive, extravagant demonstrations of care and favour for all. On the one hand, his favour is poured out indiscriminately (‘to the ungrateful and the wicked’, Luke 6:35); on the other, those in dire straits, the poor and marginalized, can be assured that his compassion reaches especially to them. God’s grace is given freely, but it also enables and invites human response, so that people are called to behave towards God with worship, gratitude and obedience; and towards one another in ways that reflect and broadcast the graciousness of God.”1
What’s my point? Simply that when we limit grace to a concept, slogan, ideal human character trait, or even to a feature of God (where we think of a feature as something God possesses but not something God is) then, good friends, we have not understood grace, and we cannot embody grace.
The problem with such thinking is that we have tended to make grace something that is external to God, and so outside of us. But to make that all we say about grace is a travesty. Grace is not some mystical stuff, or superpower, or a form of magic. It is not divine ooze one squeezes like toothpaste out of a spiritual receptacle and applies to wounded or debilitated parts, or people. Grace is not there to be dispensed like Coke from a vending machine.
If we follow the biblical teaching all the way up, we realise that God does not simply give us things like mercy, goodness, and grace: God gives us himself. Grace is a gift and one which is never to be detached from the giver—God in Jesus Christ. We find that what is so amazing about grace is that it is God’s personal self-impartation. Grace is Jesus.
As one scholar reminds us: “The grace of God given to us in Christ is not some kind of gift that can be detached from Christ, for in his grace it is Christ himself who is given to us. Properly understood grace is Christ, so that to be saved by grace alone is to be saved by Christ alone.”2
Grace, by very nature, has only one direction which it can take: grace always flows down. This refers, of course, to the love of God revealed in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
There is then, when we look for it, a certain logic of grace that makes sense of what we mean by grace embodied. We do not mean, in the first instance, that we embody grace, or that we are the good, the merciful, and the holy. That would be to claim too much. Rather Jesus Christ, God-made-man, embodies grace for he is grace; Christ is good, Christ is merciful, Christ is holy, and Christ is for us and our salvation. Now let’s keep going and see where it leads.
Jesus is grace, for the gift and the giver cannot be separated. In salvation, we receive grace because we receive Christ. It is by grace we have been saved, for it is in Christ that we have been saved. To embody grace is to be united to Christ who is himself embodied grace. And when we are found in Christ, we realise that all of grace does not imply nothing of us. All of grace implies all of us. This leads us to think about the relationship between Jesus Christ and four key aspects of our faith:
- The Word
It is only right to say that in some very real and foundational sense, Jesus Christ is the church, Jesus Christ is the Word, Jesus Christ is the gospel, and Jesus Christ is mission. We have particular ways of speaking about this. When we talk about being a Christian, or salvation, we have to be clear. We shouldn’t start with the how’s and why’s of evangelism, but instead with the paramount theological question: Who is Jesus? This is followed by two further questions: What has Christ accomplished in his person? And how can one participate in what has been accomplished in Christ?
There seems to me to be a clear truth presented in Scripture—it is that Jesus is central, he is the point, and he is the focus of the whole. And so we have Christ overall and in all. Unfolding out from Christ we can then consider church, Scripture, gospel, and mission. But for each there is a necessary link, and one which Baptists have perceived in especially clear fashion.
Church and the Word
We could draw a horizontal line of sorts between church and the Word, and talk about that. Christ constitutes the church; the church is the body of Christ of which he is the head. And so the church and Christ become united to such an extent that there is no church without Christ. So as Christians we live in the awareness that Christ is in our midst, in our lives, and in our world to lead and direct, to comfort and care, and to speak and declare. Where the church is, Christ is. Yet a church in which Christ is not the focus is not a church at all, for Christ is the church.
Baptist theologian and pastor John Colwell writes in this regard: “The gospel story... defines the life of the Christian and the life of the Church, while the life of the Church and the life of the Christian is, correspondingly, a retelling and reinterpreting of that gospel story. The world has no access to the gospel story other than as it is narrated in the life, worship and proclamation of the Church... Through its service and being as witness, the Church is a rendering of the gospel to the world.”3
But it is equally true that where the church is, there is the Word of God. Borrowing from Karl Barth, we rightly affirm the threefold Word—Christ is the living Word, Holy Scripture is the written Word, and in church we hear and participate in the proclaimed Word. I think we would do well to add a fourth element here, and speak of the embodied Word as that which we eat and drink in Communion, and live out in our daily lives.
In each instance, it is not that grace acts as some independent substance making us holy, smart, or powerful. Rather, as we live with Christ’s presence in our midst, the church of the Word and the Word of the church—church and Scripture—work together to create communities of faithfulness with Christ at the centre. This is not possible for anyone apart from the church and apart from Holy Scripture.
Gospel and Mission
We could then draw a vertical line of sorts between gospel and mission, and talk about that. The gospel is the good news that God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ and the Spirit. The gospel is the stunning revelation that Jesus is God with us, and is God’s Word to us. The gospel is, ultimately, Jesus. He is its content, its subject, and its object. The good news is Christ, and what is so good about this news is that Christ has come to make us one with him in his response to the Father and the Father’s love for us.
As such, we do not simply have a message to proclaim, but a radically new life to live. As Christians, we do not act like the New Zealand Herald telling people on Sunday the winning Lotto numbers from Saturday. We don’t simply declare the gospel; there is a sense in which we are the gospel. That is, as believers we become the good news—the gospel—as we are found in Christ. Our transformation into the image of Christ is the gospel. We take up our cross daily and follow him. We worship his Father as our Father in him. Christ gives us his Spirit to live for God. Our lives are changed by Christ; radically altered, crucified, and made alive again to him. Galatians 2:20 is but one text which sums this up: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (KJV). And so we literally become the gospel to the extent that we are found in Christ.
Thus gospel and mission are inextricably linked as we who are believers live our new lives on a public stage. As we bear witness in word and deed to the one true God and the lordship of Christ, and as we participate by the power of the Holy Spirit in God’s work—his mission of reconciliation and restorative justice in Christ—we do so, like Christ, even at the risk of suffering and death.
Grace embodied: from start to finish, grace is Jesus Christ.
Story: Dr Myk Habets
Myk is the Director of Research, Dean of Faculty, and Head of Carey Graduate School at Carey Baptist College, where he lectures in Systematic Theology and Ethics. Myk has published over fifteen books and many journal articles. Myk attends Windsor Park Baptist Church with his wife and two children.
This article was based on a presentation from Carey Baptist College staff, facilitated by Myk, at the Baptist Hui 2016.
How do you explain grace?
What hinders and encourages the embodiment of grace?
Reflect on this line: “There is a sense in which we are the gospel. As believers, we become the good news... as we are found in Christ.”Ask God what he is saying to you about this.
What might it look like to be a community of the gospel, as opposed to a community which talks about the gospel?
1. Joel B. Green, “Grace,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T.D. Alexander and B.S. Rosner (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 527.
2. Thomas F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today (Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 20.
3. John E. Colwell, Living the Christian Story (New York: T&T Clark, 2001), 185.
Photo credit: Pearl/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Extracts from the Authorized Version of the Bible (The King James Bible), the rights in which are vested in the Crown, are reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.