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The Biblical Concept of Grace

The Biblical Concept of Grace

From Sin and Grace, by Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema, pages 164-166.


To arrive at an accurate conception of the operation of the will of God, we cannot proceed from the meaning of the word grace in our everyday usage of the term, nor even from its usage in Holy Scripture. We must study specific terms and the use of words, but it must be done with great care. We always run into the danger of arguing from something in man to what is in God. That is the re- verse order. We must work theologically. God Himself determines the character of His will, grace, love, hate, wrath, and so forth. But it is also true that we know nothing definite about God apart from God’s revelation in Scripture. And so we must have a clearly defined idea of God and the operation of His will, which we get from God’s self-revelation, before we say anything at all. Such submission to the same Word of God’s revelation must also be present when we consider election by His grace, and the accompanying reprobation of His wrath, because both are the operation of His eternal will.

The word grace in Scripture has the meaning of beauty, pleasantness, goodness, benevolence, favor, helpfulness. It also means bowing down, giving of thanks, and showing unrestrained guilt- forgiving love for the unworthy. These meanings are found in the ancient and modern languages that come into consideration in our present study. The last meaning of the word for grace, show- ing unrestrained guilt-forgiving love for the unworthy, does not actually have that meaning outside of the New Testament, but in Scripture that meaning stands on the foreground, especially in the epistles of Paul. It is then contrasted with such concepts as law, work, duty, and reward.

The word sometimes has similar meanings in our modern languages. The Latin word gratia, from gratus (gratifying), and likely related to the Greek charis (in the sense of “glad,” or “favor,” or “gracious”), has approximately the same meaning. In Psalm 45, ac- cording to the metrical version, we sing this in regard to Israel’s king: “Supremely fair Thou art,/ Thy lips with grace o’erflow;/ His richest blessings evermore /doth God on Thee bestow.” It refers to the appealing appearance of this King, given by God in His grace. According to Ephesians 2:8, we are saved by grace, and not by our works of the law.

Also the Dutch language speaks of a gracious figure, of being in the favor of some one, of being king by the grace of God, or of being an artist by the grace of God. It refers to asking favor, granting, making grace available, as well as gratifying or gratification. In the English we also speak of grace as gratitude; in the Dutch we use gaarne (willingly), graag (gladly), and begeeren (desirable); in the German gerne; and in the Italian grazia (thanks). All of these translations can be used for the Greek charis (grace). These various meanings of the word tell us that grace is rich in content.

But this is by no means sufficient to reach an accurate concept of the grace of God. Indeed, we are not dealing with the use of the word grace, but with the idea of grace—grace as it is in God. Regardless of that, in determining the concept of grace we must emphatically take note of the use that is made of the word in Holy Scripture, the translations of God’s Word, the confessions, the liturgical forms, the metrical version of the Psalms, the works of Reformed theologians, and our own usage; and we must take note of many related words, such as benevolence, mercy, compassion, patience, kindness, pity, and (though the word is rarely used) endurance. Compare, for example, Hos. 2:22; Rom. 9:23, 25; 1 Pet. 2:10; 2 Pet. 3:9, 15; James 5:7, 11; Rom. 3:25; and the metrical version of the Psalms: 6 verse 1; 24 verse 3; 25 verses 3–6, 8, 9; 36 verse 2; 51 verse 1; 77 verses 5–7; 79 verse 4; 86 verse 3; 89; 95; 99; and 103;[11] and the Baptism Form. This comparative study will enable us to see that the same concrete idea is expressed by all these words, and many others, even though it is true that each of these words, some with interchangeable meanings, usually shows us the rich grace of God from a particular viewpoint and in a special relationship.

A study of all sorts of words, terms, and figures that deal with reprobation, such as hate, wrath, anger, and rage, must obviously still be added. This twofold revelation of God’s will (electing grace and reprobating wrath) must be carried through in regard to their object, their historical development, and their eternal result.

[11] The reference is to the Dutch Psalm book. In The Psalter, the numbers and verses would be these: 12:1; 59:3; 67:2, 3, 5; 94:1, 2; 140:1; 212:5, 6; 216:3; 233:3; 242; 254; 265; and 278:3.


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