How Grace Works

By:  Sarah Zwicker



“I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God .  But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective.  However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me”

I Corinthians 15:9-10


How do you experience grace?  How does it change your life?  Of all of the New Testament authors, it is the Apostle Paul who talks the most about grace.  About 70% of the time the Greek word we translate as grace is used in the New Testament it is Paul who said it, even though he only wrote about 25% of the New Testament by volume.  He thought grace was so important in his fellow believers’ lives that he wishes them “grace” as a greeting in his letters along with the traditional Jewish greeting “peace”.  Paul uses the word “grace” especially when he talks about the events in his life that shaped who he became as an apostle of Jesus Christ. 


When Paul first appears in the book of Acts his name is Saul and he is one of the impromptu staff at the stoning of Stephen, who was a believer and a leader in the church (Acts 7:58).  Saul was a Pharisee, part of a Jewish religious sect that was, at the time, violently opposed to Jesus and His followers.  The stoning fueled a rage in Saul’s heart that sent him on a campaign against all believers.  He would barge into their houses and drag both men and women off to prison where they would be mistreated (Acts 8:3).  When it was time to sentence the believers, Saul would vote for the death penalty (Acts 8:1). 


As he was going to another city to imprison more disciples of Jesus, a light flashed around him and overwhelmed him throwing him to the ground.  He heard Jesus’ voice call to him by name and ask why he was persecuting Him.  Saul was shocked that Jesus was indeed arisen and alive and speaking from heaven with blinding power.  He repented and called Jesus his Lord from then on.  


God called him to be His witness to the Gentiles.  Paul believed God and he attributed his calling to His grace.  He later reflected on his calling to the Corinthian church, saying, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God .  But by God’s grace I am what I am” (I Corinthians 15:9-10).  Grace was the only thing to which Paul could attribute his calling as an apostle.  All of his zealous religious efforts turned out to be an offense directly against the God he was trying to please.  He knew it was only by God’s grace that he could be given a position of honor in the church he had persecuted. 


Paul’s life changed dramatically when he surrendered to the Lord.  His old life had been characterized by violence against believers in Jesus; his new life was characterized by spreading the fragrance of Christ all over the Gentile world.  He left his former name behind with his former life and was given the name Paul and a new identity in Christ.  He continues, “By God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective” (I Corinthians 15:9-10).  Paul’s new life in Christ is evidence that the grace of God can work wonders.  He says God’s grace was effective in transforming him and giving him a new identity.


Grace was what enabled Paul to serve God as an apostle.  The life of an apostle was difficult.  He characterized himself and his fellow laborers in the gospel as “genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).  He could not have done his work as an apostle without the grace of God to sustain him.  He concludes his thought to the Corinthians, “His grace toward me was not ineffective.  However, I worked more than any of [the other apostles], yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me” (I Corinthians 15:9-10).  Paul was passionate in his ministry and extraordinarily effective, yet he says God’s grace deserves the credit.  He drew on God’s grace for strength, hope and comfort in his trials.  He believed that it was God’s grace that gave him the ability to live up to his calling. 


Paul says it was by God’s grace that he was called to be an apostle, that his life was transformed and that he was able to minister effectively.  Do we experience life like Paul?  Are we passionate and effective in our ministry?  Do we find our identity in Christ?  Is it His fragrance that we spread in this world?  Have we believed the Lord about His calling for our life?  These questions measure the effectiveness of God’s grace in our lives.  If we want grace to be more effective in our lives, let’s explore what it is and how it works. 



Part One:  What is grace?


The popular definition for grace is “unmerited favor”.  However, this definition is insufficient to describe the richness of the word.  It makes grace indistinguishable from mercy.  We can recapture a sense of what the definition means if we look at how we use the word grace in English.  We call a person a “gracious host” if they provide us with everything we could need, making us calmly satisfied.  We call a dance “graceful” if the dancers move around in a lovely and beautiful way.  The definition of grace in the Bible is closer to these concepts. 


The word “grace” in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible literally translates into English as “graciousness.”  So whenever the word “grace” is used in the Bible, it is referring to a characteristic of a person.  Therefore, “grace” does not refer to whether the recipient merits or does not merit grace; it is part of the character of the one showing grace. 


The Greek root word that literally translates to “grace” is chairo.  It is translated by one concordance as, “calmly happy or well off” and by another, “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness” (Strong’s, Thayers’).  That means the phrase “the grace of God” refers to the part of God’s character that is delightful, charming, and sweet and makes us calmly happy inside. 


God describes Himself as gracious when He declares His name (in the ancient world this means His character) to Moses (Exodus 34:6).  God’s character never changes, so we can trust he will always be gracious.  His grace is on display in the creation:  he designed soft koalas that smell like bamboo, the rich aroma of coffee, the beauty of a rose in bloom, the tangy sweet delight of a mango, and the rhythmic sound of waves crashing and receding on the shore.


Jesus is said to be full of grace (John 1:14).  Luke says that Jesus had the grace of God “on Him” or, as it can be translated, “superimposed on Him” (Luke 2:40).  This literally means Jesus and God’s grace occupied the same space as He walked around teaching, preaching and healing people.  People recognized that the grace that Jesus displayed was not only just like God’s grace, but actually God’s grace. 


When a person receives grace from God, he or she is transformed in response.  Because grace has a singular effect on a person, the same word in Greek for grace, is used to refer to what being calmly happy does to a person (Strong’s).  It makes us grateful and teaches us to love Him.  What changed Paul from a person who persecuted the church into a person who found his identity in Christ was his experience of God’s grace in his life.  What gave Paul the ability to persevere in spite of hardships was the continuing experience of God’s grace in his life. 



The strength of grace


Grace is fundamentally relational.  We experience grace only in relationship with the Father and with Jesus Christ our Lord.  How does God’s grace hold up when exposed to the reality of sin?  The true strength of God’s grace can be seen when He is faced with our offenses that breach our relationship with Him. 


The world’s problem is thinly concealed.  You can see it if you look behind the façade.  Behind the Hollywood glamour is a girl who’s lonely and desperate to feel that she’s beautiful, so she turns to drugs, to a man who uses her and to selling her body for love.  Behind the upright appearance of a young man is raw selfish ambition coupled with insecurity such that he takes pleasure in verbally abusing his wife and he can’t see the part of his soul that dies along with hers each time.  In some places and at some times, the people are carefully deceived so that the violence can surge and engulf an entire society.  In one such place, men and women raged against their neighbors with machete knives until the madness subsided and they were only left with shoulder blades sticking up through the loose dirt and empty skulls.   What can hope in when people dash their lives against the rocks and killing sprees continue to infect the people of our world? 


This was not what man was created for.  God put man in a luscious garden to enjoy the beauty of life.  The destruction began when the first man and woman entertained their self-focused desires and sinned.  Once people sinned, the problem just escalated.  Cain murdered his brother Abel.  Lamech prided himself in marrying two wives.  God looked down and became very sad because men’s hearts were so evil and the earth was filled with corruption and violence.  And after only nine generations, God was so grieved in His heart by the sin that festered on the whole earth that He was sorry He had made man (Gen 6).  God who is compassionate and slow to anger became so heart-broken that He resolved to wipe out the sad human race. 


Why did He even make man if He knew this would happen?  He must have had a plan.  But, what was His plan to break the escalating sin and death and heartache humans had gotten themselves into?  Bully them?  No . . . Do something for them in order to guilt them later into obeying Him?  No . . . Say “Oops” and change the laws of the world so that everyone is acceptable to Him in their sin?  No . . . Not care how much they personally offend Him as long as they think it makes them happy?  No . . . Reward those who are extra hard on themselves but not any less steeped in sin?  No . . . His plan was to show grace.  After God resolved to wipe out the human race, we are told “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” and so humanity was saved through one man (Gen 6:8 KJV). 


How can God show grace when there has been so much sin?  Sin darkens the skies and blocks out the hope that we can experience the quality of relationship that the grace of God promises.  In Hosea’s time, it looked impossible. 


God’s repeated desire echoing throughout the Old Testament is to be in a covenant relationship with His people.  He tells His people over and over that His motivation for His actions is so that, “You will be My people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12, Psalm 50:7, Jeremiah 7:23, Jeremiah 11:4, Jeremiah 30:22, Ezekiel 36:28).  However at one point, God tells Hosea, speaking about His people, “She is not My wife and I am not her husband,” because they had repeatedly dishonored and infuriated Him by what He called cheating on Him, for money (Hosea 2:2). 

So, God says He will thwart her efforts to find her lovers (i.e. the idols that the people worshipped), and then she will want to go back to Him, because He is at least better than nothing (Hosea 2:7).  That is not the way God wants to be approached by His wife.  He says He will punish her by taking away the provisions He had given her because she thought they came from her lovers.  God says, “I will punish her for the days of the Baals when she burned incense to them, put on her rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but forgot Me. [This is] the LORD's declaration” (Hosea 2:13). 


If God really had punished the people as their sins deserved, the punishment would have been too much for them.  So, Jesus Christ took the punishment for God’s people.  Another prophet says about Christ, “But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6).  Jesus was righteous, and yet He took on the transgressions of God’s people.  His submission to His Father’s will shows the strength of His love, that it is stronger than shame, torture and death.  He was crushed, pierced, and wounded.  He laid aside the riches, glory, honor he had in heaven to become poor and humble and die.  He gave himself in a display of God’s righteousness and love to bring us into His riches, glory and honor.  Paul describes Jesus’ sacrifice as grace, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: although He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).


God increases the flow of His grace when His people’s sin increases.  In Hosea, after the punishment He says, “Therefore, I am going to persuade her, lead her to the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).  The Hebrew word for “persuade” literally means to open.  So, God’s plan is to get His people alone in order to gently open their hearts to Him.  In the face of sin and offense, God’s pours out His grace, which is stronger than sin and death. 


Sin puts people into a whirlpool of destruction.  God’s grace is like a hand in the water swirling it in the other direction, gentle but firm.  The water is violently against Him at first, but eventually His hand changes the course of the water completely. 


God’s grace not only makes a person calmly happy inside in small delights and sweet nothings, it is a stronghold and a secure place to stand (Romans 5:2).  We are free to enjoy Him even though we have been slaves to sin because we are in Christ and in Him we are wise, righteous, holy and redeemed (1 Corinthians 1:30).  The credit for our faith goes entirely to God (Ephesians 2:8-9).  And so, we have the security of knowing that we have this standing because He wanted us to be close to Him in spite of everything we did that only gave us a dismal chance of such a thing.  God’s grace is strong enough to restore us to the enjoyment of an intimate relationship with Himself through faith in His Son.  His plans for heaven are to show us how rich His grace really is (Ephesians 2:6-7).   



Part Two:  How does grace work?

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” Ephesians 1:7-8

God’s grace in acts of romance can transform us to love Him and love our neighbors.  Christ is our Savior and He cleanses us so that He can present us to Him in white garments without spots or wrinkles, holy and blameless.  He loves us and gave Himself for us to make us holy.  He provides for us.  He wants us to submit to Him and honor Him in response as a bride does to her bridegroom (Ephesians 5:22-32).  Christ faithfully fulfills his commitment to us as our bridegroom.  The extent to which we experience unity with Christ is dependent on our response as a bride to His grace. 


God’s grace works by freedom and wisdom.  He lavishes His grace on us, and he does it with all understanding (Eph 1:7-8).  He wants us to love Him freely and enjoy the benefits of wisdom.  Our response to Him is voluntary and He is wise in discerning how and when to pours out His grace on us depending on our response. 




Christ set us free for us to be free (Gal 5:1).  God wants us to live in freedom.  However, we need to learn how to live as free people.  Coming out of slavery to sin, we are used to the logic of coercion, and we expect God’s grace to work in the same way.  Sin works by coercing us in fear.  It has a crude sort of logic.  For a forced-laborer it might go:  “My children, my husband and I will be beaten and starved if I don’t carry my quota of buckets of dense bricks on my head from the kiln to the drying racks today”.  Everyone can see how it works, and to the slave it feels like the only logic that matters.  The logic of God’s grace, like God Himself, is refreshingly different. 


We are baptized into His death and resurrection.  We die with Christ and are raised with Him from the dead.  When we have died, we are no longer slaves to sin, but free (Romans 6:4-7).  We are set free by grace, but grace does not give us permission to sin.  When we have risen we are one with Christ and we owe our life to Christ (Romans 6:22).  We are united in spirit with the One who knew no sin, so we are free to let Christ live out His righteous life in us.  We owe our lives to Him in gratitude for His gift of Himself.  Yet, it is our choice to live a life in close relationship with our humble Lord Jesus. 



God is wise in how He pours out our experience of His grace into our lives.  God told us that His greatest desire is for us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30).  He wants to draw us close to Him.  His grace affects our heart, soul, mind and strength each in a different way to inspire us to love Him with our whole being. 

When God is not the sole love of our life, we do not allow him to work out His purposes through us.  Sin works by deception.  We sin because we believe the deception that the consequences of sin will not be that bad.  We will reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7).  God wants us to know the truth about our choices so He tells us what will happen if we let sin deceive us and what will happen if we let grace teach us wisdom.  If we see the affects of sin in our lives, we can discern (despite what we may want to believe) where we are giving in to sin.  If we see the affects of grace in our lives, we are blessed!

The heart

“The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick—who can understand it?”  Jeremiah 17:9

“But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires.  Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.”  James 1:13-15

When our heart is enticed by our own lusts, it deceives us and starts us on an escalator that inevitably leads to sin and then to death.  It will bring us there if we do not prohibit our desires from playing around.  If our desires have played around, they need to be made to abort the sin they are carrying.  If our desires have given birth, the sin must be killed.  Otherwise, our hearts are so deceptive that they will cause our death! 

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.”  Ezekiel 36:26-27

“Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God.” Matthew 5:8

The heart under the influence of grace is a transplant.  God removes the rock that never softened to Him and gives us a heart that is completely won over to Him.  It listens to His voice and jumps up to do whatever little thing will please Him. 

God says His eyes range throughout the whole earth looking for hearts that are fully devoted to loving Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).  Jesus called a heart that is won over a “pure heart”; it wants only one thing.  He said those with a pure heart are blessed because they will see God.  When we see God, we start a reinforcing cycle of seeing more of God, becoming more like Him, and loving Him more. 

The choice to love Him with all our hearts is costly.  It includes a commitment to do whatever it takes to mend the relationship when there is an offense.  We commit to repent, confess, and ask forgiveness to kill the sins that God finds in our life.  He shines His light into our lives and brings to our attention what we keep secret, even from ourselves.  Godly sorrow makes us repentant and invokes God’s salvation; it leaves us with nothing to regret (2 Corinthians 7:10).

The soul

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.”  Ephesians 2:1

“For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God's law.  But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Romans 7:22-24

Under the influence of sin, the soul is lifeless.  Each sin takes a little bit of life out of our soul.  The soul stares death in the face and sees all its shocking emptiness and cruel thievery.  The soul is also a prisoner, striving and straining with no end in sight.  It longs to be at rest in security.    

“I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance.”  John 10:10

“Return to your rest, O my soul, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.” Psalms 116:7 NASB

Under grace, the soul has passed from death to a new life.  We are united with Christ Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection.  The life that Jesus gives us in Him is abundant and eternal (John 3:16).  We get back so much more than we lost!

Our souls are also given rest in Christ.  We are invited to cease striving and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10 NASB). 

The truth about rest is that we have to make every effort in order to enter rest in our souls (Hebrews 4:11).  The soul has to be quieted when it is disturbed.  God has given us everything in Christ.  We have to trust Him and draw close to Him to be at rest. 

The mind

“The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  Romans 8:6

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” Colossians 1:21 NIV

The mind under the power of sin occupies itself with sad things and things that are not true.  For example, how God is the enemy.  It gives up considering God’s commands to be worthwhile.  It becomes foolish, unable to discern anything in the darkness away from Christ.  Everything looks futile. 

 “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.  I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.” Romans 12:2-3

 “Therefore, get your minds ready for action, being self-disciplined, and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ”  1 Peter 1:13

The mind influenced by grace is discerning and humble.  It is renewed as it waits quietly before the Lord each morning.  It listens for Jesus’ voice and follows His lead throughout the day.  It is wise with God’s wisdom and good at using God’s logic in the light of the truth. 

The mind that has its hope set on Christ alone is ready for the deceptions that will come.  The world, the flesh and the devil have nothing compared to Christ.  At the revelation of Jesus Christ we will see things how they really are, He will reign as Lord over everything.  Then, everything will make sense. 

The truth about knowledge is that it can puff us up.  Knowledge is in the progression Peter gives about learning to love (2 Peter 1:5-7).  However, it is not a fruit of the spirit, like some other parts of the progression are (Galatians 5:22).  It is a step, no more vital, but no less than the others are, but it is not an end in itself.  Love builds up and love is the goal. 


“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”  John 15:4

“If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is . . . the fire will test the quality of each man's work.”  1 Corinthians 3:12-13

Strength wasted in sin feeds the fire meant to test the quality of our works, and what we have worked so hard to produce is consumed.  Jesus says that everything is futile without Him.  We can do nothing of worth in God’s eyes apart from what He asks us to do.  God despises sin.

“I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13

“If you keep My commands you will remain in My love.” John 15:10

Anything is possible when we obey Christ.  He values our obedience like gold, silver, and precious stones that are only purified and made more beautiful when they are scorched.  In His time, the fruit of our obedience is as soothing as a blueberry, as delightful as a raspberry, as sweet as a honeydew and as refreshing as a watermelon. 

The truth about obedience is that God wants us to do the good works He prepared for us.  Obedience takes a heart surrendered to Him to obey, a soul at rest to delight in our work and a humble and discerning mind to hear from Him which good works He wants us to do.


God’s creation shows us the part of His character we call grace.  He created us to cultivate fruit in a beautiful garden and learn about Him through the experience.  That is the life He designed us to enjoy.  But, man was deceived and let sin be the master.  As the years went by, it became steadily worse.  God looked down at the corruption and violence that filled the earth and resolved to wipe out humanity.  However, Noah found grace in His eyes and God saved humanity. 

When His people offended Him so much that He could not be in relationship with them anymore, He told them He would punish them.  But it would have been too much for them.  So in a display of righteousness and love Jesus took the punishment.  Then, God showed His heart and expressed His grace with renewed strength.  His grace makes us secure in our relationship with Him.  He provided a standing for us, and so no matter how strong sin gets, it is no match for Him or His grace. 

God in His grace has provided a Way for us to draw close to Him.  Jesus cleanses us to make us holy.  His acts of romance draw us close to Him and transform us, teaching us to love.  When we understand and experience the freedom of grace, we open our whole beings up to the Lord to surrender every part of ourselves to Him, so He can live in us as much as possible.  It is the only reasonable thing to do under the influence of God’s grace and yet it remains our free and intentional choice.

Where do we turn when we are entangled with sin and we want the power to throw it off?  What do we crave when we have been striving for something and it turns out to be futile?  Through God’s grace, we can become wise and leave behind confusion, striving, frustration and futility.  We can go on to a deep love for Christ that gives us life, peace and abundance.  Through His grace, He gave us a new heart that can learn to respond more completely to the acts of love of our Bridegroom.  He can give us abundant life that will continue forever with Him.  Our souls can be completely satisfied and enjoy our rest in Him.  Our minds can be humble, filled with Christ.  We can be at peace in a hope that is secure.  In His strength, we can do anything He asks, and it will turn out to be beautiful. 

Paul says God’s grace gave him an honorable calling, a new identity in Christ, and the ability to do the work God gave him to do.  He invites us to imitate him as he follows Christ.  Let’s draw close to Christ, experience His grace and respond to Him in wisdom and freedom.  Let’s love Him! 

Works Cited

Holman Christian Standard Bible.  Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville Tennessee. Used by permission.*

King James Version (KJV).  Public Domain.

New American Standard Bible (NASB) ®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.  Used by permission.


New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.  Used by permission.


Strong's Exhaustive Concordance by James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., 1890.


Thayers’ Greek Definitions as found in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), edited by Gerhard Kittel.

* Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from the bible are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.