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"Unmerited" Favor?

by Tim O'Hearn

Sometimes the word Grace is defined as “unmerited favor.” Does this imply that there is such a thing as “merited favor”? Is this an accurate biblical definition of grace? What, truly, is grace and what are its implications for us?

Scholars simply define the Greek word charis as grace or favor. Sometimes it is translated using one word; sometimes it is translated using the other. It neither implies nor requires some modifier such as “unmerited.” Grace or favor simply is what it is, without need for amplification.

Favor, even in our own experience, is generally independent of merit or the lack thereof. Many people put their children’s art work on the refrigerator. That is an act of grace. It is doubtful that any of those people put up the art only when the child is deserving of recognition and take the work down in punishment for breaking household rules. The art goes on the refrigerator regardless of merit (either of the individual or the artistic merit of the work). Sometimes parents even praise the child for something done properly just because they have acted in a way that lacked merit. Grace is extended in one area in order to redirect wrongdoing in another.

Sports fans are quite familiar with the independence of favor and merit. An athlete may be quite good at what he does, and some people will not like him simply on the basis of the team he plays for. Some will not favor him simply because he is so good at what he does. If this same athlete changes teams to the one the fan roots for, the grace afforded him changes. It is not based on personal merit, but on something as minor as the team that pays him.

God’s grace is unexplainable. There are those who teach that God makes a choice of who will be saved and who will not, perhaps even before the person is born. That would certainly be unmerited favor, but it does not jive with God’s being God. Unlike his creation, God does not have grace toward some and not toward others. God does not choose who will be the recipient of his grace and who will not. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” (Tit 2:11) He does not say that one person is unworthy of his grace while another is worthy. His grace is universal. In that he is different from most people. Using the earlier example, some might be willing to post pictures on the refrigerator from more than just their own children (perhaps that of other relatives or friends); few would solicit artwork of questionable quality from everyone in the world (unless you call your refrigerator YouTube™).

Is there such a thing as “merited” favor? Paul argues that there is not. “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” (Rom 11:6) A short while before that, he says, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:23) If it is merited, it is not favor.

Does universal grace imply universal salvation? If God has favor for everyone, does that mean everyone will be saved from their sins? Hardly. Grace and mercy are inextricably entwined, but they are not the same thing. Everyone is a beneficiary of God’s grace; only a few benefit from his mercy. Paul does not tell the Ephesians “by grace are ye saved, regardless.” Rather he states, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8) The grace is extended to everyone. Jesus died so that all sins could be forgiven. That does not mean all sin will be forgiven. The condition of, and means unto, salvation from sin is faith, not grace. Grace makes salvation a possibility; trust makes it a reality.

Grace is, by definition, independent of merit. There is no reason to include that qualifier in the description because it implies something that is not true. Grace is available to all, even though none of us have merit in ourselves. But that is what makes God who he is.