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Words I Hope I Never Hear Again – Part 7

This month we look at the magnitude of God's grace, our understanding of it and a more simple and accurate way to define it.
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Grace is an Undeserved or Unmerited Favor

This month’s topic doesn’t quite fit the series title. This standard definition of grace is more of an “I hope never to hear it again without it being given due thought as to what it entails.” As a fast and easy definition of grace, it doesn’t say what it appears to say. There’s a simpler and more accurate way of defining “grace.”

What’s wrong with it? The deficits of the phrase “undeserved favor” are fivefold. First, “undeserved” or “unmerited” (I use “undeserved” in this article, as it is the more comprehensive term) is redundant. Second, the phrase is a negation; it denotes only what grace isn’t, not what it is. Third, the qualifier “undeserved” introduces the human element into an attribute that is completely and solely the prerogative of God. Fourth, although Scripture hints at this definition, it’s not a Scriptural phrase, probably not for the reasons given here. Fifth, the meaning of “undeserved grace” depends on the meaning of its positive form, “deserved grace.” If it turns out that “deserved grace” has no meaning, then “undeserved grace” is in big trouble. 

What’s at stake? Our understanding of the magnitude and basis of God’s grace.

How can it be fixed? The definition is easily fixed by dropping the word “undeserved.” Grace is God’s favor. That’s it, at least for the one aspect of God’s grace of concern here. As used in the New Testament, this word has a broader reach. 

Discussion: Starting with problem #1 above, the shortest argument to remove “undeserved” is that it’s redundant. By definition, “grace” is undeserved, so adding the qualifier “undeserved” makes it like those promotions that offer a “free gift.”1 There’s no need to muddy “grace” by qualifying it as “undeserved.”

As for problem #2, a definition that is a negation only tells you what something is not, not what it is. If you see “unpasteurized” on a milk carton, you only know what didn’t happen to the milk; it was not heated to 130ºF. It may have been rendered safe to drink by another method, but you need more information on the label to know that. Likewise, “undeserved” denotes that grace does not come from our deservedness but does not tell you what might be the basis of the bestowal of grace.

The problem with #3 is that “undeserved” introduces a human factor into God’s granting grace. The presence of “undeserved” tracks a hint of self-justification into the pure realm of God’s favor. True, it’s saying that it’s not about you, but any human reference, even as a negation (not about you), invokes the awareness of your own merit. It’s like that old saw, “Don’t think about pink elephants.” Or a golfer thinking, “Whatever you do, don’t hit it into the trees.” You can’t think, “Don’t hit it into the trees,” without thinking—and therefore imagining—hitting it into the trees. Grace is purely God’s doing. So adding this qualifier can lead your mind to think, “God’s not going to count my… [insert something positive about yourself] because I’m saved by his grace.” 

Problem #4 needs little explanation: “undeserved” grace is not Scriptural coinage. The closest you will find is Ephesians 2:8-9, where Paul could have said it but didn’t. Besides the context, there is the conversation about “works of the law versus grace.” As explained below, “works” cannot be a basis of “deserved grace” and, therefore, does not help give meaning to “undeserved grace.” 

Problem #5 requires a lengthy explanation. A negative definition only has meaning insofar as its positive corollary has meaning. That is, “not A” only has meaning when “A” has meaning. In the example used earlier, “unpasteurized milk” means something because “pasteurized milk” has meaning. So what could “deserved favor” mean? 

If you’re thinking, “Wait—there is no such thing as deserved favor,” you’re right, of course. If we could do something to deserve God’s favor, then it wouldn’t be a gift—true. However, that’s not the point of discussion. The question being asked here is hypothetical to determine the meaning of “undeserved favor.” If there were such a thing as “deserved favor,” what would be a logical basis of “deservedness”? Determining what “undeserved favor” denotes turns out to be elusive, but let’s look at some possibilities.

Fulfilling Contractual Duties?

To start with, “deserved favor” could not refer to benefits accrued under a system of law. When contrasting the Old Covenant to the New, Paul wrote, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due.” (Rom 4:4 ESV). This means that if you follow these rules, you earn salvation—it’s a contract. And if you fulfill a legal contract, you don’t deserve your payment. You have earned it. 

For instance, if I hire a contractor to remodel my kitchen, I sign a contract that says he will get paid when he finishes the job. I can’t logically say, “You did the specified work, so you deserve to get paid.” No, he must get paid. Contractual arrangements obviate deservedness, so “deserved favor” cannot refer to our fulfilling any set of duties or performing specified rituals or acts of worship. 

Again, please note the intent of the above. It’s not about whether we can or cannot be justified by works—we all know where that discussion goes. The point here is to find a basis for the hypothetical construct “deserved favor” that will give meaning to “undeserved favor.”

Quid pro quo?

If I do you a solid, you might feel like you owe me a favor in return. There’s no legal contract involved, no requirement to return the favor. There’s also no logical reason to do so. That is, if I do something beneficial for you, you thank me, and that’s that. It’s something I did for whatever reason or purpose. If you have a “should” moment, that’s only an emotional connection, a sense of obligation to do something nice in return.

Regarding God’s grace, you can see there’s no connection at all. Even if you allow that doing good deeds for others is doing them for God, what is the logical reason for this to be a basis of “deserved favor?” God cannot be put in our debt logically, legally, or emotionally. So quid pro quo as a basis for deserved favor also falls by the wayside.

A Personal Characteristic?

This category includes personal attributes and personal history. It could be belonging to an underprivileged social class or having had serious health and financial setbacks. People in those categories are often thought of as deserving a good break in life—they deserve special favor to help bring them back to baseline. 

While there is an emotional appeal (at a human level) for such persons to receive special favor, there is no logical reason for this. This is not to say that God does not look with compassion on any of His creatures, though. It is to say that as a basis to establish a meaning of “deserved favor,” personal hardship cannot suffice. If that were the case, then the full definition of grace would be something like: Even though you deserve grace because of drawing the short straw in life, God does not count that, but bestows grace anyway. Does that sound even remotely possible?

As I said above, identifying a basis for “deserved grace” is a challenge.

A Characteristic That Makes Sense 

There is a personality characteristic that does make a logical choice for the basis of hypothetical “deserved grace:” being the kind of person God would want in His Kingdom. Being the kind of person who would fit well with Jesus the King. We have parallels in our present world: A dispassionate coach looks for players who are the best fit for the team. An employer wants people with the skills and attitudes to benefit the company. 

Now we’re on to something. If deserved favor is “I’ve made it my life’s objective to be the kind of person God wants in His Kingdom,” then “undeserved favor” would have a rational basis. It would look something like this: You did a fine job of developing the Fruit of the Spirit and living in love, hope, and faith. You have shown yourself to be compassionate, trustworthy, and spiritually focused. You are the kind of person suited for the Kingdom of God. But that won’t get you into the Kingdom. It’s by my grace alone.

This thought seems like a basis for deserved favor if there were such a thing. Being the right kind of person for the Kingdom is not a legal contract, nor is it an emotional appeal. It is a logical way to select someone. Therefore, God wants you to be the kind of person who is fit for His Kingdom, but without grace, you’re destined for oblivion. Grace is entirely God’s initiative and prerogative; spiritual development is your acknowledgment of that fact.

A spiritual life is your response to God’s grace, not the cause of God’s grace. God has blessed you already with every aspect of grace except eternal life. Our Lord’s return brings the completion of grace. 

David Levin,
Denver Ecclesia, CO

  1. The phrase “free gift” might seem Biblical per Rom 5:15, 16 and 6:23, but it is translated from one Greek word, which otherwise is translated simply as “gift.” The addition of “free” perhaps adds emphasis, but that is already implied in “gift.”

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David Styles
1 month ago

Thanks again David for another insightful article. Your analysis and thoughtful consideration of grace and the problematic implications of the ” undeserved” addition is very helpful and clarifying.

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