4 Things Saving Grace Is and 4 Things Saving Grace Is Not

Borrowed Light
Updated Jun 19, 2024
4 Things Saving Grace Is and 4 Things Saving Grace Is Not

Saving grace is a word that you’ve likely heard a few times. There was even a television show on TNT named Saving Grace. It was about a lady with an angel on her shoulder, and it somehow squeezed out three seasons. I suppose you could say that its saving grace was the strong performance of lead actress Holly Hunter.

Of course, “saving grace” would imply that there were elements of the show that some saw as off-putting. Perhaps some potential viewers were turned off by its graphic content. Others believed that the plot was somehow both inconsistent and highly predictable. That’s why we’d say it needed a “saving grace.”

That’s how we typically use the word. Like if I wanted to make a bit of a swipe at my friend Gary but then started to feel bad, I might say something like this: “Gary sure smells like moldy French cheese, but his saving grace is that he has a drawing personality and a wonderful sense of humor.” The phrase means a redeeming quality that rescues the whole enterprise. The saving grace is that little thing that keeps you from being discarded onto the ash heap.

The Bible itself talks about saving grace, but it means something quite different. To help us understand what this concept means, it might be helpful for us to outline 4 things that saving grace is NOT and 4 things that saving grace IS.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/piola666

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1. Saving Grace Is Not Cheap

There are quite a few things that saving grace is NOT. It is not the name of a baseball team, for one. But some concepts tend to hang out in the same circles as saving grace, and on occasion, they might wear that big nose and fake glasses to trick us into thinking it is saving grace. Yet, our saving grace here is that when you get up close, you realize the mustache that is attached to the glasses is so ridiculous it cannot be the real thing. Likewise, here are four things that saving grace is NOT.

I am indebted to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the language here. Bonhoeffer saw many of his people running like lemmings after Hitler and all of his wickedness. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer discussed the concept of cheap grace. He described it this way:

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, and absolution without personal confession. It is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Simon the Magician thought that grace was something cheap enough to be purchased. Though he might have placed a steep economic price upon it, had he been able to package it, the idea that it can be bought and sold cheapens the concept. Grace cannot be purchased. That is why Peter rebuked him sharply.

We get confused here because we often discuss grace as a free gift. But free doesn’t mean cheap. Just ask the guy who freely gave a kidney so that his buddy could have a few more years of life.

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2. Saving Grace Is Not a License to Sin

Paul had to deal with this one directly. If we preach and proclaim grace, this question will always rear its ugly head. In Romans 6:1-2 Paul said, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" He had to ask these questions because some silly person thought that saving grace was like getting a passport to the land of debauchery.

I can understand why some might get a little confused here when a hero like Martin Luther said something like this:

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must bear the truth, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13), are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory, we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.[1]

Telling someone that committing adultery or killing someone a thousand times a day and still not being separated from mercy might lend itself to believing that grace gives you a license to do what you want. But that’s actually not Luther’s point. His point was to exalt the power of saving grace. As we will see later, rather than inspiring sin, grasping a paragraph like this will do the opposite—at least if you truly receive saving grace.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/did-luther-really-tell-us-to-love-god-and-sin-boldly/

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Woman relaxing in a hammock; what saving grace is NOT

3. Saving Grace Is Not Obtained by Human Effort

It seems silly for someone to earn a gift, but such an asinine concept is woven into our holiday season. Doesn’t Santa ask each little kid sitting on his lap whether they’ve been a good little boy or girl? It is as if this should have any bearing on whether or not you get that Red Ryder BB gun.

Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us that when it comes to being saved, Santa’s question is about as foolish as using reindeer as your mode of transportation. It declares, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast." If saving grace were somehow acquired by human effort, it wouldn’t be grace anymore.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/skynesher

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4. Saving Grace Is Not Temporary

When I was in middle school, my basketball coach decided to make me the starting point guard. He was new to the area but had played softball with my dad a little that summer. I guess a somewhat known commodity was better than the unknowns. I was pretty fast and much better at baseball—he probably saw me playing catch on the sidelines and figured my athleticism carried across sports. Truth be told, making me the starting point guard didn’t have much to do with my efforts. One might say it was entirely based upon grace (or maybe ignorance, but that would hurt my illustration).

I was the starting point guard for about a week. It’s not that I was awful. I just wasn’t starting caliber. And being in that position got me so excited and nervous that I started making many unforced errors—the very thing a point guard cannot do. “Grace” was suddenly thrown out the door, and my merit was all that was left. I took my rightful place on the bench.

Some people think that saving grace is similar. It's as if grace gets us through the door, but it’s now up to us to finish this thing. Whatever “this thing” happens to be. The problem is that this was exactly the idea of the Galatians, who had been bewitched by false doctrine. Where are they now attempting to gain salvation through human effort? “No,” Paul told them, “It’s grace from beginning to end.” It will never not be grace. Grace, thankfully, isn’t temporary.  

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1. Saving Grace Is Costly

1. Saving Grace Is Costly

Now that we’ve seen what saving grace is NOT, we are prepared to understand better what saving grace is.

As opposed to being cheap, saving grace is actually quite costly. Yes, it comes to us as a free gift, but it is eternally costly. It costs the shed blood of Jesus Christ. There is nothing more valuable. We get to return to Bonhoeffer here:

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it, a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy, and the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him…It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life but delivered him up for us.

Yes, indeed. It may not cost us anything, but it cost God “everything.”

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Bartek Szewczyk 

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2. Saving Grace Is Transformative

That is the little thing missing in that Luther quote we shared earlier. Luther himself would not deny this concept. In fact, it was his very point. Rather than being something that gives a license to sin, grace is actually transformative. The gospel changes us from the inside out.

You might liken saving grace to being attacked by a bear. I know that’s a weird comparison, but hear me out. If you’re attacked by a bear, it will fundamentally change you. In fact, it might change you so profoundly that you are no more. The rest of your days will be somehow connected to that bear attack. Now imagine that this bear stays with you every day of your waking life, and each time you get a little out of order, he gives you a side-eye.

That is what saving grace does, except its motivator isn’t sharp claws but rather deep love. It stays with you and impacts every bit of your life. You’re never the same when you encounter saving grace.

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A woman smiling in the sunshine

2. Saving Grace Is Unmerited Favor

This is really the definition of saving grace. Bible teacher Jerry Bridges once defined it as God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. I like that. It is God’s riches given to us not by any merit of our own but because of the finished work of Jesus. This is the wonder of the gospel: when we are connected to Jesus, He inherits our debt, and we get all of His riches.

That doesn’t seem very fair, does it? Well, that’s what grace is. It isn’t fair. We don’t deserve one lick of grace—but we get all of it. Grace beyond measure. And it’s not because we are good little boys and girls, nor even because we make really good decisions with our lives. Grace captures us simply because that is what God decided to do with us.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Eva Blanco

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4. Saving Grace Is Eternal

Even if this were temporary, it’d be pretty great news. But there would always be that lingering feeling that, somehow, we’d mess it up. Maybe we return to that bear who is side-eyeing us and threatening us with painful expulsion when we get out of line. But grace isn’t like that. We didn’t do anything to deserve it, and we don’t do anything to undeserve it. Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand." (John 10:28-29)

You can’t lose this because it has never been up to you. I don’t understand all these intricacies, and that’s okay. I don’t think grace is something we’re supposed to dissect; rather, it’s a beautiful and wonderful reality that we get to swim in…for all eternity.

Related Podcast: Look at how dysfunction affects our families and relationships and how it can be healed by God's truth, mercy and grace.

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.

Originally published Thursday, 30 May 2024.