Grace: A Biblical Overview

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A Biblical Overview

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Grace: A Biblical Overview

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“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:3 1 Corinthians 1:3Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×
).

Many are familiar with the famous hymn Amazing Grace. While its words are known to many, far fewer know anything about the man who penned them and how they came to be written. John Newton had been a captain of slave ships and had transported cargoes of slaves from Africa to the Americas. In 1748 his ship was caught in a violent storm and began filling with water. When it seemed he would drown with the ship, he cried out to God for deliverance. The ship stopped taking on water and drifted to safety.

Newton surrendered his life to God and began seriously studying the Bible. In time he became a minister and devoted his life to abolishing the slave trade. Later in life he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”as a reflection on his prior life and how God in His mercy and grace had delivered him from a life of evil to something far better. Its famous refrain goes:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Newton lived to see Britain abolish slavery shortly before his death in 1807.

What does grace mean?

John Newton’s story could apply to many of us. The subject of grace is vital to our spiritual well-being. Yet it is often misunderstood and at times even controversial because of the way grace has been abused, leading to permissiveness and lawlessness.

How would you define grace? If we asked different people, we would see different focuses put on the subject, different nuances from one person to another.

For some, the definition may be God’s goodness to an undeserving person. Others may see it as God’s unmerited pardon, the forgiveness of one’s sins. Are these definitions correct? Absolutely! But is that all there is to the subject of grace? These are actually only a small part of the entire spectrum of all that is grace.

The biblical study of grace is not too hard to grasp. It does involve looking into the definitions of the Hebrew and Greek words translated into English as “grace” and several related terms in the Bible. But this is not theological “rocket science.” It can be understood.

The Bible was written and compiled over a period of some 1,500 years, so as the word grace appears, which it does in the opening chapters of the Bible, we see different emphases placed on how it comes across and what it means.

The first time the word grace appears in the Bible

Grace shows up early in the Bible, where we see that Noah was under or within God’s grace. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8 Genesis 6:8But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.
American King James Version×
, emphasis added throughout).

So grace is not a concept that appears only in the New Testament. It’s not something Jesus Christ brought that was unknown before then. In fact, the Old Testament contains many mentions of grace, such as Noah finding grace in the eyes of God. What does this mean?

The Hebrew word translated “grace” here is hen or chen (pronounced khane), which has been defined as “favor, grace, acceptance . . . unmerited favor or regard in God’s sight . . . The word conveys a sense of acceptance or preference . . . and some special standing or privilege with God or people” (Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, 2003, p. 354). It is often translated “favor” in various Bible translations.

Digging a little deeper, chen comes from the Hebrew verb chanan. This root word adds a more visual and more humanly understandable layer to grace’s meaning. The first meaning of the word given in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior . . .”

What a definition! Grace is God bending downstooping—in kindness to us, greatly inferior. What a beautiful picture of what grace is all about!

We’ve probably all helped someone up from the ground, whether it was a child, an elderly person or someone who simply fell down. And we’ve likely all been helped up before. Think of how you felt when someone reached out a hand to you after you tripped and fell. It’s embarrassing to fall, but the other person’s hand, extending kindness, makes it all better. And when you take that hand, you are back on your feet and can go about your day.

The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words adds to our understanding of chanan, explaining it as “the response of a person who is able to help another person who stands in need . . . There is the implicit assumption that the one who helps is moved by his feelings and that the one who is helped has no right to expect aid” (Lawrence Richards, 1985, p. 439).

This also greatly helps our appreciation of the meaning of grace. Although we have no right to expect aid, and we are in deep need, God knows our needs and responds with His help.

Being in “good graces”

Now back to Noah: In this particular case, how can we make the meaning of grace relevant to us? And what does it mean that Noah found grace in the eyes of God?

To put it in more modern terms, we might say that Noah found himself on God’s good side. There are many people whom we would want to be in good graces with—to be on their good side. Those who are married want to be in good graces with their husband or wife. We know if we find favor in the eyes of our husband or wife, things go well. Small things are overlooked. Things don’t grind to a halt, but are worked out. We can bring ideas to the fore, discuss them with enthusiasm and reach agreement. Everything works better!

On the other hand, we also don’t want to be in a position where we are not found in favor. Because then nothing goes right. Small irritations can become a big deal. We want to be in good graces with our spouse!

We also want to be in good graces with our employer. You know what it’s like when you go to the job and your boss likes you. You’re in good graces with him—in favor. Everything goes right. Small things are overlooked. If you arrive five minutes late for work, your boss may take the approach of “No problem, you’re a good worker, and you can make it up some other time.”

But if you’re not in good graces and you’re five minutes late, it can be a different story. Your boss can get irritated. Things don’t go well. Every mistake can be amplified and blown out of proportion. The situation can and often does go downhill!

Friendship is based on being in good graces with someone. The reason you gravitate toward certain people is because you are favored by them and they are favored by you. You get along. Small problems or differences are overlooked. But if you’re not in good graces with someone, the slightest things may become irritating and upsetting.

God’s grace toward us operates in a similar way. Jesus calls us His friends (John 15:15 John 15:15From now on I call you not servants; for the servant knows not what his lord does: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known to you.
American King James Version×
), and we strive to remain in good favor with Him. We are in a relationship that overlooks small things. You might say that being under grace or being in good graces is being on someone’s good side, and we want to be on God’s good side.

When we pray and talk to God, we let him know, “I want to be on your good side!” God wants to have a relationship with us. And if we choose to do so, and if our relationship is right with Him, we know we are on His good side!

Noah was on God’s good side. In spite of his human frailties, he was still favored by God. He was on God’s good side—where, again, we should want to be! In Noah’s case, God’s grace literally saved his life and the lives of his family members when the world had become so hopelessly corrupt, violent and evil beyond repair that God essentially had to start over (Genesis 6:11-13 Genesis 6:11-13 [11] The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. [12] And God looked on the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way on the earth. [13] And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
American King James Version×
).

Noah being saved by God’s grace has important lessons for how we are saved by God’s grace too, which we’ll discuss in more depth later.

Understanding grace by how the Hebrew word is used

The problem with some definitions of grace is that they become too restrictive and narrow and pit concepts against one another. This leads to people debating the meaning of words.

An important principle to remember when studying the Bible is that when multiple definitions are possible, it doesn’t mean they are contradictory. It often means they are complementary, that both are true. When the definitions are biblically sound, different definitions and different ways of defining grace only add to the fullness of the meaning.

For example, God liberally uses the word translated “grace” in the Old Testament Scriptures. By looking at how the word is used we can come to better understand its meaning. Let’s notice several passages:

“For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalms 84:11 Psalms 84:11For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
American King James Version×
).

We see here that God is the one who wants to give favor. He wants to give gifts. He wants to help people’s lives. And to anyone who is willing to walk uprightly, He wants to shower even more to them. This is what David was inspired to write about God!

In Proverbs 3:34 Proverbs 3:34Surely he scorns the scorners: but he gives grace to the lowly.
American King James Version×
Solomon shared his understanding about God, saying,  “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.” This is quoted in James 4:6 James 4:6But he gives more grace. Why he said, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
American King James Version×
and 1 Peter 5:5 1 Peter 5:5Likewise, you younger, submit yourselves to the elder. Yes, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.
American King James Version×
, but it appears first in Proverbs. This assures us that God gives His favor, His goodness and His gifts to those who are humble.

Proverbs 4:9 Proverbs 4:9She shall give to your head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to you.
American King James Version×
, speaking of wisdom personified as a woman, says, “She will place on your head an ornament of grace; a crown of glory she will deliver to you.”

Grace is one of the most wonderful things God wants to give to us. It is far beyond just forgiveness of sin, which is extremely important and is also a gift that comes from God. Forgiveness is not something we can earn or buy or pay for in some way. It is a gift freely given by God.

But grace is far more than forgiveness of sins. Grace is far more than unearned or undeserved pardon. Grace is God’s continual outpouring to us of knowledge, of glory, of wisdom, of anything you could imagine that is good from God. All these are part of God’s grace.

Grace given on a large scale

God extended grace on a large scale to Israel when that nation left Egypt. Notice Jeremiah 31:2 Jeremiah 31:2Thus said the LORD, The people which were left of the sword found grace in the wilderness; even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest.
American King James Version×
: “Thus says the Lord: ‘The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness—Israel, when I went to give him rest.’”

So God’s delivering Israel from generations of slavery in Egypt and leading them into the Promised Land was an act of great grace—of God favoring them, delivering them, lovingly caring for them and blessing them.

This was exactly in keeping with God’s nature and character as He described Himself to Moses when the Lord appeared to Moses in the incident at the burning bush: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . .” (Exodus 34:6-7 Exodus 34:6-7 [6] And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, [7] Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children's children, to the third and to the fourth generation.
American King James Version×
). Here we see the “Old Testament God” revealing Himself to be full of mercy and grace!

In the same way that God extended grace on a large scale in the past, He says He will extend grace to many people at a future time. Notice this prophecy of what He plans to do: “I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced [a specific prophecy of Jesus Christ]. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10 Zechariah 12:10And I will pour on the house of David, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look on me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.
American King James Version×
).

While it seems part of this prophecy had a small degree of fulfillment in the first century when God started His Church as recorded in Acts 2, the full context of Zechariah 12 shows that it will be fulfilled on a much larger scale when Jesus Christ returns to earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. At that time God will show great grace to many, and as a result of that grace they will recognize that their sins are responsible for the death of mankind’s Savior, Jesus Christ—and this will lead many to heartfelt repentance over their sins.

So we see that these are only a few of the examples and uses of the word chen, the Hebrew word translated “grace” in the Old Testament. We see God’s favor, God’s giving of gifts and special attention to those whom He chooses to give to. Two other Hebrew words that fit with the overall meaning of grace are ratson, with the sense of acceptance, and hesed (or chesed), meaning lovingkindness, mercy and devotion.

Charis: the New Testament word translated “grace”           

The New Testament Greek word typically translated as “grace” is charis (pronounced kharis). It is defined as “grace, particularly that which causes joy, pleasure, gratification, favor, acceptance, for a kindness granted or desired, a benefit, thanks, gratitude. A favor done without expectation of return, the absolutely free expression of the loving kindness of God to men finding its only motive in the bounty and benevolence of the Giver; unearned and unmerited favor” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, 1992, p. 1469).

Charis is the root for the English word “charity,” which means both love and a gift. It comes from the Greek verb chairo, which means “to rejoice.” It’s also the origin of our English word charisma and, less directly, of grace. From the range of usage we see that “grace” means to be favored, to be acceptable, to be the recipients of God’s blessings and kindness. We also see that it is a gift reflecting God’s love. (For a detailed understanding of how charis was understood by the writers of the New Testament in the first century, see “What Did ‘Grace’ Mean in the First-Century World?”)

The first use of the word “grace” in the New Testament is in reference to Jesus Christ in Luke 2:40 Luke 2:40And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was on him.
American King James Version×
: “And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”

When Jesus was a young child there was probably nothing more important to God the Father than to do everything He could for this little Jewish boy—to nurture Him, care for Him, protect Him, and in every way bring Him to fulfill the mission the two of Them had previously planned together.

The grace of God, every possible attention and favor, was on Him.

We also see in this case that we can’t possibly limit the definition of grace to merely the forgiveness of sins or unmerited pardon, because as God in the flesh (Matthew 1:23 Matthew 1:23Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
American King James Version×
), Jesus had clearly never sinned and thus needed no forgiveness.

Forgiveness of and pardon for our sins are only part of the definition of grace. So when we think of ourselves as being under grace, it is not just that God has forgiven our sins, forgiven the things we’ve said and forgiven us for the wrong thoughts and attitudes we’ve had. God’s grace encompasses far more!

As we grow in grace and knowledge, a concept we’ll look more at later, a good way to view grace is not from the standpoint of God removing from us what is bad, but God giving to us what is good.

Consider a few things He gives us: The understanding of His plan and purpose for us. The opportunity for eternal life. The opportunity for a loving relationship with Him and His Son. His priceless instruction and revelation for us, the Bible. The understanding of the Kingdom of God and how we may enter that Kingdom. The forgiveness of our sins. And these are just spiritual blessings, not to mention physical blessings. All these and much more are part of His grace!

God’s law: part of God’s grace

Those who truly know God’s Word know that the law of God is part of God’s grace, too. The law of God is part of His goodness toward us—giving us that light, that direction of how to live, that being able to avoid the pain and heartache and suffering that comes from sin, the breaking of God’s law (1 John 3:4 1 John 3:4Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
American King James Version×
).

The misuse of the contrast between being under the law and under grace is a false argument made to confuse people and to finesse away the law of God, which is one of the most beautiful and gracious gifts a loving God could have given. That law guides people in how to live and will be the striking feature of His coming Kingdom in the world tomorrow (Deuteronomy 6:24 Deuteronomy 6:24And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 10:13 Deuteronomy 10:13To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command you this day for your good?
American King James Version×
; Joshua 1:8 Joshua 1:8This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; but you shall meditate therein day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success.
American King James Version×
; Isaiah 2:3 Isaiah 2:3And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
American King James Version×
).

Grace and law actually go hand in hand. The law itself is grace from God, as just mentioned. And without law there would be no need for the grace of forgiveness. Grace includes how God extends His favor to repentant sinners by forgiving their former disobedi­ence of His law. This is necessary because “everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4 1 John 3:4Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
American King James Version×
, New International Version, 2011 version used throughout). If there is no law to break, as some argue, sin would not exist (Romans 5:13 Romans 5:13(For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
American King James Version×
). And if there is no sin, the very idea of grace as God’s forgiveness has no meaning at all. Furthermore, God through grace also gives us the means to obeying His law, as we’ll see.

God’s law is a crucial part of His grace. It is a gift that comes from Him. It is His guide, His instruction manual, for how we are to live. It is a reflection of God’s mind, His perfect thinking (Psalms 19:7 Psalms 19:7The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
American King James Version×
). What a beautiful gift, what a beautiful guide, what beautiful direction for a peaceful and productive life! Everything good that God gives us is part of His grace. We’ll discuss this in greater detail later in this study guide.

Grace was on the early Church

Notice this remarkable statement about the early Church in Acts 4:33 Acts 4:33And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was on them all.
American King James Version×
: “And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.” This is describing the work of the early Church at the very beginning.

Notice that great grace was given to Jesus Christ’s followers—not just grace, but great grace. With this great grace came great power by which “the apostles gave witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” They had great power because they had great grace. God’s graciousness and favor gave them power—just as it can give us power today.

If anything could be described as a big help God gave to the early Church, it was His grace—giving them His Holy Spirit and opening unbelievable doors for them to get off to a fast start. The Church was experiencing a great deal of grace from God. The apostles had great power. They gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the power of God.

How might that apply to us today? Have you considered praying for the grace, the divine favor, that came on the early Church to be given to God’s Church today? Do you regularly ask for God to open doors, for Him to give His power, for Him to give us greater and deeper understanding, for Him to multiply our strength so His work can be done in us and through us and His Church—to better follow and obey Him? Because all this comes through God’s grace in giving His power!

Opening the hearts and minds of people who hear the message He has given the Church to proclaim is also an aspect of God’s grace—part of the goodness of the gifts that come from God.

Called by God’s grace

Let’s notice also Romans 5:17 Romans 5:17For if by one man's offense death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)
American King James Version×
: “If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man [the first man Adam], much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (English Standard Version).

There would have been no need for God’s grace and forgiveness had not human beings, beginning with Adam, sinned and put themselves in the position of needing it. Paul here talks about “the abundance of grace” we have received through Jesus Christ because this grace covered the sins we committed. And we know what would have remained for us if that death penalty had not been removed. It is a great gift to have that penalty removed and no longer hanging over us.

Another passage in Romans discusses the fact that God calls and chooses some by His grace. Notice Romans 11:5 Romans 11:5Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.
American King James Version×
(NIV): “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.”

Being called and chosen at this time to be part of God’s Church and His family is an expression of God’s grace. The calling we’ve received to understand God’s truth is by His grace toward us.

Paul then goes on to say: “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6 Romans 11:6And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
American King James Version×
, NIV). Grace, the goodness of God, is not something anyone can earn or buy. It is a gift. It is something that freely comes from Him because you are on His good side, because you have become His friend.

God wants to give you everything. His grace is so profound that He even wants to give you an inheritance almost beyond human imagination! That’s what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:9 1 Corinthians 2:9But as it is written, Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.
American King James Version×
: “This is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him’” (New Living Translation, 2015 version used unless noted).

These verses only begin to scratch the surface of the fullness of what God has planned for us by His grace toward us. The true picture is far greater than we have space to cover here. To learn more, be sure to download or request our free study guide Why Were You Born? It will help you understand this marvelous truth in much greater detail.

Grace to help in the struggle against sin

In Romans 7 we see some of the workings of grace in our lives. The apostle Paul here describes his struggles in his day-to-day existence—exactly the kind of battles we all go through in our body, mind and spirit. Paul writes: “But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me” (Romans 7:23 Romans 7:23But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
American King James Version×
, NLT).

Paul was writing these words long after he had become an apostle, probably some 20 years after he had been serving God in spreading the gospel, raising up churches and even performing miracles. Yet he still struggled with the personal battles he had to fight within himself.

He continues in verses Romans 7:24-25 Romans 7:24-25 [24] O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? [25] I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
American King James Version×
: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin” (NLT).

Paul relied on the help that came from God the Father and Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. He relied on His goodness. He relied on all the strength Christ gave him to fight the weaknesses of the flesh.

Every day when we pray and ask God to forgive us our sins and weaknesses, and as we ask Him to give us strength to not repeat our mistakes and the evil things we have said or done, it is by God’s grace that we have the desire, will and determination to go on because we are on His good side. He wants to give us that help, and He will give us that help as we surrender and submit our lives to Him and allow ourselves to be led by His Spirit. We should be praying for that help every day, so that whatever our fight and struggle is, God through His grace leads us toward change.

Paul expresses a very similar thought in Romans 2:4 Romans 2:4Or despise you the riches of his goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?
American King James Version×
: “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”

We could easily substitute “grace” for “goodness” here—“not knowing that the grace of God leads you to repentance?” God’s goodness and grace are essentially the same because everything good that comes from God is part of His grace. We are likewise told elsewhere that God grants repentance (Acts 11:18 Acts 11:18When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance to life.
American King James Version×
; 2 Timothy 2:25 2 Timothy 2:25In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;
American King James Version×
).

Repent and repentance are the terms used in the Bible for turning from our own ways of living and thinking to, instead, seeking God’s way of life and thinking as He thinks. This is a requirement for salvation (Acts 2:37-40 Acts 2:37-40 [37] Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do? [38] Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. [39] For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call. [40] And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.
American King James Version×
) and a necessary first step in properly responding to God’s grace toward us.

It is God’s goodness and grace that leads us to repentance. When we receive a good gift we should recognize that He is encouraging us to do things right, to make changes so that we might be reconciled to God, or restored to a right relationship with Him, and draw ever closer to Him. This is the response He expects from us as recipients of His grace!

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