It is commonplace in all the churches to call Christianity a religion of grace. It is a truism of Christian scholarship that grace, far from being an impersonal force, a sort of celestial electricity received like a battery charge by “plugging in” to the sacraments, is a personal activity—God operating in love toward people.

It is repeatedly pointed out in books and sermons that the Greek New Testament word for grace (charis), like that for love (agapē), is a wholly Christian usage, expressing a notion of spontaneous, self-determined kindness which was previously quite unknown to Greco-Roman ethics and theology. It is staple diet in the Sunday school that grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. And yet, despite these facts, there do not seem to be many in our churches who actually believe in grace.

To be sure, there have always been some who have found the thought of grace so overwhelmingly wonderful that they could never get over it. Grace has become the constant theme of their talk and prayers. They have written hymns about it, some of the finest—and it takes deep feeling to produce a good hymn. They have fought for it, accepting ridicule and loss of privilege if need be as the price of their stand; as Paul fought the Judaizers, so Augustine fought the Pelagians, and the Reformers fought scholasticism, and the spiritual descendants of Paul and Augustine and the Reformers have been fighting Romanizing and Pelagianizing doctrines ever since. With Paul, their testimony is, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10), and their rule of life is, “I do not frustrate the grace of God” (Gal 2:21 KJV).

But many church people are not like this. They may pay lip service to the idea of grace, but there they stop. Their conception of grace is not so much debased as nonexistent. The thought means nothing to them; it does not touch their experience at all. Talk to them about the church’s heating, or last year’s accounts, and they are with you at once; but speak to them about the realities to which the word grace points, and their attitude is one of deferential blankness. They do not accuse you of talking nonsense; they do not doubt that your words have meaning; but they feel that, whatever it is that you are talking about, it is beyond them, and the longer they have lived without it the surer they are that at their stage of life they do not really need it.


What is it that hinders so many who profess to believe in grace from really doing so? Why does the theme mean so little even to some who talk about it a great deal? The root of the trouble seems to be misbelief about the basic relationship between a person and God—misbelief rooted not just in the mind but in the heart, at the deeper level of things that we never question because we always take them for granted. There are four crucial truths in this realm which the doctrine of grace presupposes, and if they are not acknowledged and felt in one’s heart, clear faith in God’s grace becomes impossible. Unhappily, the spirit of our age is as directly opposed to them as it well could be. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that faith in grace is a rarity today.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

We have just completed a Study of J.I. Packer’s classic book, Knowing God. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon