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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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Undeserved acceptance and love received from another, especially the characteristic attitude of God in providing salvation for sinners. For Christians, the word “grace” is virtually synonymous with the gospel of God's gift of unmerited salvation in Jesus Christ. To express this, the New Testament writers used the Greek word charis , which had a long previous history in secular Greek. Related to the word for joy or pleasure, charis originally referred to something delightful or attractive in a person, something which brought pleasure to others. From this it came to have the idea of a favor or kindness done to another or of a gift which brought pleasure to another. Viewed from the standpoint of the recipient, it was used to refer to the thankfulness felt for a gift or favor. These meanings also appear in the biblical use of charis , but only in the New Testament does it come to have the familiar sense which “grace” bears for Christians.

Grace in the Old Testament No one word in the Hebrew Old Testament is equivalent to the New Testament use of charis for God's unmerited gift of salvation. The translators of the Greek Old Testament characteristically translated the Hebrew word chanan/chen as charis , and the King James Version likewise often translates this as “grace” or “favor” or “mercy.” The Hebrew verb chanan occurs some 56 times in the Old Testament and refers to the kind turning of one person to another in an act of assistance, such as aid to the poor ( Proverbs 14:31 ). In the Psalms it is frequently used to call upon the gracious assistance of God in times of need (Psalm 4:1; Psalm 6:2; Psalm 25:16; Psalm 31:9; Psalm 86:3; Psalm 86:16; Psalm 123:3 ). In other instances God is said to make one attractive or favorable in the eyes of another (Genesis 39:21; Exodus 3:21; Exodus 11:3; Exodus 12:36 ). It is the latter meaning of “favor” which the noun chen especially conveys. Of its 70 occurrences in the Old Testament, 43 are in the stereotyped expression “to find favor/grace in the eyes/sight of another.” Most commonly this expression refers to persons seeking or obtaining the favor of another (Jacob from Esau— Genesis 32:5; Genesis 33:8; Joseph from Potiphar—Genesis 39:14; Ruth from Boaz—Ruth 2:2 ,Ruth 2:2,2:10; Esther from Ahasuerus—Esther 2:17 ). More rarely it refers to a person receiving God's special favor (Noah—Genesis 6:8; Moses—Exodus 33:12-19; Gideon—Judges 6:17 ). In none of these instances, however, is there any emphasis on the recipient's lack of merit as in the New Testament concept of “grace.” Closest to this idea are the few passages in the prophets which refer to God's gracious favor to Israel in delivering her from captivity and restoring the nation (Jeremiah 31:2; Zechariah 4:7; Zechariah 12:10 ).

Other Hebrew words convey the idea of God's grace, such as racham/rachamim (“mercy”) and chesed (“steadfast covenant love”). These words are often combined with chen to refer to the one merciful, loving, gracious God ( Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2 ). Together they convey something of the New Testament sense of God's grace, but even then they lack the sense of this being an unmerited favor of God. To be sure, the idea that Israel did not deserve God's mercy and love is found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:7-10; Deuteronomy 9:4-6 ). God promised David that He would not remove His love from David's successor, even though the successor sinned (2 Samuel 7:14-16 ). The entire Book of Jonah deals with God's merciful concern to save the wicked Ninevites, and Hosea powerfully conveys God's undeserved mercy and grace with the image of the prophet's love for the faithless Gomer. God's grace shines forth clearly in the Exodus, where God delivered an undeserving people before they entered into His covenant. Still, it remained for the New Testament writers to catch the full vision of God grace in the light of Jesus Christ.

Grace in the New Testament We owe our distinctly Christian understanding of grace to the apostle Paul. The Pauline epistles employ the word charis and its related forms twice as frequently as the rest of the New Testament writings combined. Paul sometimes employed the word with its more secular meanings. He urged his readers to make their speech “gracious” or “attractive” ( Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:29 ), and referred to his visit to Corinth as a “grace” which would bring them pleasure (2 Corinthians 1:15 NAS text note). The idea of gift also appears, especially in reference to his collection for the Jerusalem saints ( 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2Corinthians 8:1,2Corinthians 8:4,2Corinthians 8:6-7,2 Corinthians 8:19 ). Often he used charis to mean thanks, as in the thanksgiving over a meal (1 Corinthians 10:30 ) or in songs of praise (Colossians 3:16 ). Frequently he employed the set expression “Thanks” (“charis be to God” ( Romans 6:17 , Romans 7:25; 1 Corinthians 15:57; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 8:16; 2 Corinthians 9:15; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:3 ). One wonders if for Paul this common Greek idiom did not carry a deeper nuance. It was precisely his experience of God's grace that led to his profound sense of thanksgiving.

Paul's sense of God's grace owed much to his experience of being turned from the persecutor of the church to Christ's missionary to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-14 ). So convinced was he that this was all God's doing and not of his own merit that he could describe his apostolic calling as coming even before his birth (Galatians 1:15 ). He was an apostle solely because of God's grace (Romans 1:5 ), and his entire ministry and teaching were due to that divine grace (Romans 12:3; Romans 15:15; 1 Corinthians 3:10; 2 Corinthians 1:12; Galatians 2:9; Ephesians 3:2 ,Ephesians 3:2,3:7-8 ).

Paul had too profound a sense of human sin to believe that a person could ever earn God's acceptance (Romans 3:23 ). As a Pharisee, he had sought to do that by fulfilling the divine law. Now he had come to see that it was not a matter of earning God's acceptance but rather of coming to accept God's acceptance of him through Jesus Christ. So, he came to see a sharp antithesis between law and grace. Law is the way of self-help, of earning one's own salvation. Grace is God's way of salvation, totally unearned (Romans 3:24; Romans 4:4; Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8 ). Grace is appropriated by faith in what God has done in Christ (Romans 4:16 ). God's grace comes to sinners, not to those who merit God's acceptance (Romans 5:20-21 ). It is through Christ's atoning work on the cross that God's grace comes to us, setting us free from the bondage of sin (Romans 3:24-31 ). Christ is the Representative who breaks the reign of sin and brings life and acceptance with God through divine grace (Romans 5:15 , Romans 5:17 ). God's grace is so bound up with Christ that Paul could speak of the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 8:9; 2 Timothy 2:1 ). It was in the beloved Son that God's grace came supremely to mankind (1 Corinthians 1:4; Ephesians 1:6-7; compare 2 Timothy 1:9 ). For Paul, grace is practically synonymous with the gospel. Grace brings salvation (Ephesians 2:5 , Ephesians 2:8 ). Grace brings eternal life (Romans 5:21; Titus 3:7 ). To share in the gospel is to be a partaker of grace (Philippians 1:7; Colossians 1:6 ). In Christ Jesus, God's grace is open to all people (Titus 2:11; compare 2 Corinthians 4:15 ); but the experience of God's grace is conditional upon human response. It can be rejected or accepted (2 Corinthians 6:1; Galatians 1:6; Galatians 5:4 ).

From the human perspective, the divine grace is a power which undergirds the present life. God's grace abides in us ( 2 Corinthians 9:14 ); we stand in it (Romans 5:2 ). Our calling, our witness, our works are all based on the power of God's grace in our lives (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 ). Paul sharply rejected any antinomian perversion of the gospel which failed to recognize that the true experience of God's grace changes one's life in the direction of righteousness (Romans 6:1 ,Romans 6:1,6:14-15 ). Grace never gives freedom to sin. His own experience had shown him a new power of the divine grace active in his ministry in spite of his human weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 ). In fact, all who experience God's grace have gifts of that grace for ministry and service (Romans 12:6; Ephesians 4:7 ). So pervasive was Paul's sense of God's grace that he always referred to it in the opening or closing of his letters. His usual salutation includes a wish for “grace” and “peace” upon his readers (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3 ). Here Paul played upon the normal word of salutation in Greek letters (chairein -joy). Charis has a similar sound, but a world of difference. For the Christian, a reminder of God's grace in their lives is the richest word of greeting and the fullest source of joy.

Surprisingly the word “grace” does not occur in Matthew or Mark. The concept is there, in Jesus' ministry to sinners and outcasts, in His healing ministry, and in such teachings as the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-8 ). Luke, however, made extensive use of charis in both his writings. Sometimes he used it with basically secular meanings, such as “credit, benefit” (Luke 6:32-34 NAS), as “thanks” ( Luke 17:9 ), or as attractiveness in speech (Luke 4:22 ). The familiar Old Testament idea of “favor” appears a number of times, sometimes referring to the favor of one human to another (Acts 2:47; Acts 7:10; Acts 24:27; Acts 25:3 ,Acts 25:3,25:9; Luke 2:52 ), sometimes to God's favor bestowed on individuals (Luke 1:28 ,Luke 1:28,1:30; Luke 2:40; Acts 7:46 ). Reminiscent of Paul are the references in Acts which refer to salvation or t the gospel as “grace” (Acts 11:23; Acts 13:43; Acts 18:27; Acts 20:24 ,Acts 20:24,20:32 ). Particularly Pauline is the reference to salvation through the grace of the Lord Jesus in Acts 15:11 . Also like Paul are those places where grace is described as an enabling power in the ministries of various Christians (Acts 4:33; Acts 6:8 NAS; Acts 14:26; Acts 15:40 ).

Grace only occurs three times in John's Gospel, all in the prologue (Acts 1:1 ), and all in a sense reminiscent of Paul. Grace is equated with truth (Acts 1:14 ), its gift nature is emphasized (Acts 1:16 ), and it is set in antithesis to the law of Moses (Acts 1:17 ). In the remainder of the Johannine corpus, grace occurs only three times, all in benedictions (2 John 1:3; Revelation 1:4; Revelation 22:21 ). In the Johannine writings the idea of God's unmerited gift in Christ is very present, but conveyed by a different word—agape (love).

References to grace in the other New Testament writings do not extend beyond the meanings found in the Pauline epistles and Luke-Acts. Secular meanings of charis occur, such as “gratitude” (Hebrews 12:28 ) and “credit” (1 Peter 2:19-20 NAS). Grace is connected with God's mercy ( Hebrews 4:16 ) and with the atoning death of Christ (Hebrews 2:9 ). It is virtually equated with the gospel (1 Peter 5:10 ) and with salvation (1Peter 1:10,1 Peter 1:13 ). It is seen as a power which strengthens life (Hebrews 13:9 ), undergirds those who are persecuted (1 Peter 5:10 ), and grants gifts for Christian service (1 Peter 4:10 ). God's grace can be spurned (Hebrews 10:29; Hebrews 12:14-15 ) or turned into a perverted gospel promising freedom from the law and thus freedom to sin without judgment (Jude 1:4 ). Above all, grace is the hallmark of the Christian experience and thus a frequent component in benedictions (Hebrews 13:25; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:2 ). See Mercy; Love; Justification .

John Polhill

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Grace'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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