What do you mean, Ken … what does grace do? Grace doesn’t do anything. Grace is unmerited favor from God. It is something given. Grammatically, grace isn’t the subject of the verb; it’s the object of the verb. It’s the thing that God bestows. Right?

Yes … usually. But not in every case. Although you are entirely correct to think of grace as unconditioned favor from God, the Apostle Paul, who uses the word “grace” (Greek: χάρις) far more than any other writer in the Bible, occasionally does something with this word that we don’t expect. Six times in his letters, he makes grace the subject of an active verb (or active participle). In other words, he makes grace do something.

Do you remember learning about personification in Junior High School? Personification is the “representation of a thing or abstraction as a person.”[1] I would add to this definition, at least in this case: “ … which does thing.”

Six times in his letters, it appears that Paul personifies grace and makes it the subject of a verb or verbal idea. In other words, Paul tells us that grace does something. Now, we know that God is the one who does whatever gets described. But Paul’s wording is a little unusual. He makes grace active. I think he does this so that we will know that grace is not a mere concept floating around in the air. Grace isn’t like the California coastal fog near where I live — moist, for sure, but having no capacity to quench one’s thirst. God’s grace is effective and operational.

Paul wants us to view grace as active, first in our salvation, and then in our daily lives. He does this by telling us that grace does stuff. So, what does grace do?

It does three things regarding salvation and three things regarding sanctification.

Grace and Salvation

1. The first thing grace does is that it brings salvation. Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The way God effects salvation is through the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. This is the first thing that grace does. It brings salvation to those who believe and receive.

2. The second thing grace does is that it super-overflows into salvation. 1 Timothy 1:14 reads, “And the grace of our Lord super-overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” I know that “super-overflow” is not a real English word, but it’s the closest approximation of the Greek verb in 1 Timothy 1:14 I could find. Despite previously having been a “blasphemer” (1 Tim. 1:13), grace flowed all over Paul — tons and tons, heaps upon heaps. That’s the second thing grace does. It super-overflows to sinners like Paul, you and me.

3. The third thing grace does is that it leads us. Leads us to what? To repentance. Romans 2:4 reads: “The kindness of God leads you to repentance.” Here he uses kindness (χρηστός) instead of “grace” (χάρις), but the theological category is clearly the same in this instance.

But this begs a question: How does God’s grace lead us to repentance? Perhaps it’s like a parent choosing to forgive a teenage son or daughter for driving the family car into a telephone pole(!), the forgiveness of which elicits a response of heartfelt sorrow and a sincere apology.

Grace and Sanctification

4. The fourth thing grace does is a bit more surprising. Grace teaches. Grace stands in front of the classroom and instructs the very people who have received the salvation mentioned in the previous verse. Titus 2:12: “Teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, uprightly, and godly in the present age.” Grace instructs us to deny sin and live godly lives.

But as with the previous example, this begs a question: How does grace teach us this? I think Paul envisions a response of thankful action to what God has done in saving us (Titus 2:11). We are so overcome with the truth that we were pardoned — criminals (“sinners”) though we were — that our response of thankfulness is a life that rejects sin and seeks patterns of godliness.

5. The fifth thing grace does is that grace enoughs. Paul wrote down what God said to him after he begged God to remove his “thorn in the flesh”: “My grace enoughs for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). We don’t notice that this is an active verb in English, because we have no common modern active synonym in English to draw upon. (“Suffices” is the closest, but it’s somewhat archaic.) So we translate this verb as “is enough” or “is sufficient,” using a passive form of the verb. But the verb is indeed active in Greek, similar to when Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:6 (using a different verb) that God sufficient-ed us to be ministers of a new covenant. (I also know that sufficient-ed isn’t a real word.) In 2 Corinthians 12:9, it is grace that is the subject of the active verb: grace enoughs for you. Cool concept, don’t you think? But really hard to put into English …

6. The final thing that grace does in Paul’s letters is fascinating, even a bit surprising. Grace works hard. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Here Paul envisions God’s grace as the actor behind all the gospel work that he does. Paul refuses to claim the credit; God’s grace did it all.

So, there you have it. Six things that grace does. Hopefully, this will help you to stop thinking of grace as passive. At least in these six verses, grace is active. In fact, you could replace the word “grace” in all of the above verses with “God” and each verse would make perfect sense — almost better sense. This suggests that grace is simply a personified expression of what a generous and giving God does.

Grace — God’s benevolent and generous action — brings salvation, super-abundantly, in leading us to repentance. Grace teaches us to deny sin and live godly lives. It suffices for weak people like us. And it empowers us to do the work that God has called us to do. That’s what grace does.


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/personification.

This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.