What does “grow in grace” mean?

Main Points

  1. Common definitions of God’s grace are true, but incomplete.
  2. Peter’s command to grow in God’s grace makes more sense when grace is seen as a patron-client/gift-loyalty relationship.
  3. Peter’s understanding of growth in grace appears to be explained in 2 Peter 1:3-11.
  4. Dallas Willard’s aspects of the human person and V-I-M pattern can help us think about growth in grace in specific terms.

Introduction

17 Therefore, beloved, having been made aware, you should guard yourselves so that you will not lose your security by means of being carried away by the error of unprincipled folk, 18 but instead, you should grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:17-18). [1]

In the passage quoted above Peter says a great deal which diagnoses the spiritual condition of many of us today with respect to errors, unprincipled people, and the need for self-vigilance, whether Christians or not. While it is important for pastors and Christian teachers to expound upon the first sentence in the verses above and explore the rest of Peter’s letter to express the danger of false teachings on the one hand and false teachers on the other, the aim of this present series of essays is to focus on one clause in verse 18. Peter commands Christians, saved Christians, to grow in grace. This particular command is reiterated in several ways throughout the New Testament.[2] But I want to hone in on the way Peter says it here.

Definitions matter. A good definition can control a debate, clarify an argument, or protect you from making bad decisions. The situation in contemporary evangelical culture has granted us a common definition of grace that is limited to: “unmerited forgiveness.” Along with this definition of grace, we have a commonly expressed definition of faith, “believing Jesus is my savior who gives me forgiveness.” What I fear is that definitions like these have lead many (myself included in my younger years), to think that “I’m saved by grace through faith” means that “I am saved by God’s unmerited forgiveness, simply by believing that I am saved by God’s unmerited forgiveness.” Our definition of faith has literally nothing to do with loyalty to or trust in the person of Jesus Christ or his Father, who raised him from the dead.

These common habits of vocabulary and popular theology can have a devastating effect upon how people read Scripture. For instance, if grace and salvation are viewed merely in terms of forgiveness, then passages like Titus 2:11-14 make very little sense:

11 For God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation to all humanity 12 training us so that we might denying the desires which are impious and worldly we might live wisely, justly, and piously in this present age 13 as we await the blessed hope: both the appearing of the glory of the great God and our savior, Jesus Christ,[3] 14 who gave himself on our behalf, so that he might redeem us form all lawlessness and that he might cleans for himself a people of his possession who are zealous for good works.[4]

Above it is most likely that God’s grace refers directly to Jesus. But, the point of citing it is two-fold:

  1. Context Matters
    When we allow the context of the Bible to help us understand the meanings of words, we can discover that favorite ideas are challenged by the Bible. Unmerited forgiveness cannot train us to renounce anything, but a person and a message about that person (Jesus) can do this. Not only so, but this grace trains us for wisdom, justice, and piety. This is the sort of life demonstrated by Jesus in the gospels and taught by him in Matthew 5-7.
  2. Jesus Centered New Testament
    The New Testament is a collection of documents about Jesus. When key words like grace are used, we need to ask, “How is the author relating this back to Jesus Christ. Observe whose grace Christians are to grow in in 2 Peter 3:18: the grace of…our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Grace, Faith, and Response

If grace does not always mean “unmerited forgiveness,” what does it mean? Well, it depends upon the context, but in 2 Peter 3:18, it appears that a feature of the social realities of the ancient world may help us. In the ancient world, patron-client relationships wherein a resource rich benefactor would offer favors in exchange for honor or loyalty were a part of the social fabric in which our New Testament was written. These relationships are the foundation upon which “grace/thanksgiving” language are built. In our New Testaments, God the Father is often portrayed as a heavenly patron who gives lavish gifts (salvation, forgiveness, Jesus himself, personal transformation, promised resurrection bodies, the church community, and so-on) in exchange for loyalty to his person and mission in the world.[5] If this is true, we should read God’s grace as “his gift which demands a response.” I would add that perhaps the reason the Bible says that we’re saved by “faith” and “saved by grace” is that we receive the gift by having faith. The only way to receive a check is to cash it, the only way to receive Jesus is by having faith/loyalty in/to him. [6]

If this is the case, then to “grow in grace” means to grow in response to God’s grace or more fully, “to grow by receiving God’s grace in the fashion in which it was designed to be received.”

In 2 Peter 1:3-11, Peter explains what God’s grace offers and how to respond to it (receive it): [7]

In just the same way as his divine power has given us everything for life and piety, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue, (4) through which he has given us his precious and very great promises so that through them, you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the decay which is in the world by evil desire. (5) So also and for this reason supplement (doing everything thing you can to do so) your faith with virtue, then virtue with knowledge, (6) then knowledge with self-mastery, then self-mastery with endurance, then endurance with piety, (7) then piety with friendship, then friendship with agape. (8) For if these things exist in you and are increasing, then they will ensure that your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is neither ineffective nor fruitless. (9) For to the one who does not have them, he is blind from being short-sighted, having forgotten that he received cleansing for his former sins. (10) Therefore, all the more, brothers and sisters, work hard to make certain your calling and election; for those who do such things will not ever fail. (11) For in so doing, the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be provided to you.(2 Peter 1:3-11)[8]

Peter says that in order to receive the benefits of God’s gift we should respond with faith and to that faith we should add: virtue, knowledge, endurance, piety, friendship, and agape (the type of love described perhaps in 1 Cor 13 or Romans 12:9-21). He says that in so doing, we make our calling and election sure. In other words, we grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by adding these traits to our lives.

A big question for many Christians then is this: what must I do to grow in grace? Well, if grace is a word that signals a relationship wherein gift leads to thanksgiving and response, then what the Bible says to do in response to God’s grace is where the answer lies. “Grow in grace” is a command and commands are meant to result in action. I hope to offer, over the next several days, reflections on how to grow in grace.

I am no expert in this. Many who know me know how graceless I can be. What I can do is examine Scripture and other competent authors are try to synthesize it and say it in the most common sense way that I can. I hope to accomplish this using two rubrics provided by Dallas Willard.

Rubric 1: The Aspects of the Person

In his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Dallas Willard divides the person into 6 distinct aspects:[9]

  1. The mind (with reference to thoughts, beliefs, and reasoning)
  2. The mind (with reference to our feelings, passions, and emotions)
  3. The will/heart/spirit
  4. The body
  5. The social dimension
  6. The soul[10]

The idea here is that our growth in grace happens through every aspect of our self.

Rubric 2: V-I-M

The second rubric, from the same book, is VIM, which Willard takes from the phrase “vim and vigor.” He uses the acronym in order to make the process of personal transformation easy to remember:[11]

  1. Vision – The picture of who or what you want to be and accomplish for the future.
  2. Intention – The conscious decision to bring this picture into reality.
  3. Means – The specific steps taken in order to reach the vision.

Obviously, this pattern would work for becoming a bodybuilder, getting rich, or learning karate. But just because something is human, doesn’t mean it is bad. Grace redeems and ultimately upgrades nature, it does not replace or deform it.

Conclusion

The Biblical picture of God’s grace is ultimately that of a gift which demands a response. In other words, it is the initiation of a transformation of character and thus a transformation of relationship to God.

Posts in the Series

  1. What does “grow in grace” mean?
  2. Growth in Grace: Vision
  3. Growth in Grace: Intention
  4. Growth in Grace: Means
  5. Growth in Grace: The Feelings

References

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), 2 Pe 3:17–18, “17 Ὑμεῖς οὖν, ἀγαπητοί, προγινώσκοντες φυλάσσεσθε, ἵνα μὴ τῇ τῶν ἀθέσμων πλάνῃ συναπαχθέντες ἐκπέσητε τοῦ ἰδίου στηριγμοῦ, 18 αὐξάνετε δὲ ἐν χάριτι καὶ γνώσει τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν καὶ σωτῆρος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα καὶ νῦν καὶ εἰς ἡμέραν αἰῶνος.”

[2] For a brief look at various commands in the New Testament that imply that grace (God’s gift in Christ) is something in which we can grow or make progress see: Luke 9:23, Romans 12:1-2, and 2 Peter 1:3-8.

[3] Though many commentators take this verse to be a reference to Christ’s divinity and translate it something like “as we await the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” it is difficult to get that on a natural reading of the Greek text. It is also the case that the Latin Vulgate treats God and Jesus as different referents here rather than treating God as a title for Jesus. The clear teaching of Scripture is that Jesus is divine, but that is not Paul’s point here.

[4] Aland Tt 2:11–14, “11 Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις 12 παιδεύουσα ἡμᾶς, ἵνα ἀρνησάμενοι τὴν ἀσέβειαν καὶ τὰς κοσμικὰς ἐπιθυμίας σωφρόνως καὶ δικαίως καὶ εὐσεβῶς ζήσωμεν ἐν τῷ νῦν αἰῶνι, 13 προσδεχόμενοι τὴν μακαρίαν ἐλπίδα καὶ ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, 14 ὃς ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν, ἵνα λυτρώσηται ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀνομίας καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἑαυτῷ λαὸν περιούσιον, ζηλωτὴν καλῶν ἔργων

[5] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 144, “Besides bringing honor to a patron, it was also a vital part of gratitude to show loyalty to the patron. Attachment to a patron could become costly should that patron have powerful enemies. Being grateful—owning one’s association and remaining committed to that patron—could mean great loss (Seneca Ep. Mor. 81.27). True gratitude entails, however, setting the relationship of grace above considerations of what is at the moment advantageous. First-century Christians often faced, as do so many international Christians in this century, choosing between loyalty to God and personal safety. For this reason, several texts underscore the positive results of enduring hostility and loss for their commitment. First Peter 1:6–9 interprets the believers’ present experiences of testing as an opportunity for them to demonstrate the firmness of their commitment to their divine patron. Even though the mediator of their salvation, Jesus, is presently unseen, they love him and persist in trust toward him. The end result of keeping this trust firm is the preservation of their souls. Their joy in this interim is an outward witness to their confidence in their patron to deliver what has been promised.

[6] D. A Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2003), 57-61. Carson calls the mistake of assuming a word always has a particular narrow meaning, regardless of context an unwarranted narrowing of the semantic field. The technical name is not necessary. One could just as easily call the problem “not reading carefully.”

[7] Aland, 2 Pe 1:3–11, “3 Ὡς πάντα ἡμῖν τῆς θείας δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ τὰ πρὸς ζωὴν καὶ εὐσέβειαν δεδωρημένης διὰ τῆς ἐπιγνώσεως τοῦ καλέσαντος ἡμᾶς ἰδίᾳ δόξῃ καὶ ἀρετῇ, 4 διʼ ὧν τὰ τίμια καὶ μέγιστα ἡμῖν ἐπαγγέλματα δεδώρηται, ἵνα διὰ τούτων γένησθε θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως ἀποφυγόντες τῆς ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐν ἐπιθυμίᾳ φθορᾶς. 5 Καὶ αὐτὸ τοῦτο δὲ σπουδὴν πᾶσαν παρεισενέγκαντες ἐπιχορηγήσατε ἐν τῇ πίστει ὑμῶν τὴν ἀρετήν, ἐν δὲ τῇ ἀρετῇ τὴν γνῶσιν, 6 ἐν δὲ τῇ γνώσει τὴν ἐγκράτειαν, ἐν δὲ τῇ ἐγκρατείᾳ τὴν ὑπομονήν, ἐν δὲ τῇ ὑπομονῇ τὴν εὐσέβειαν, 7 ἐν δὲ τῇ εὐσεβείᾳ τὴν φιλαδελφίαν, ἐν δὲ τῇ φιλαδελφίᾳ τὴν ἀγάπην. 8 ταῦτα γὰρ ὑμῖν ὑπάρχοντα καὶ πλεονάζοντα οὐκ ἀργοὺς οὐδὲ ἀκάρπους καθίστησιν εἰς τὴν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐπίγνωσιν· 9 ᾧ γὰρ μὴ πάρεστιν ταῦτα, τυφλός ἐστιν μυωπάζων, λήθην λαβὼν τοῦ καθαρισμοῦ τῶν πάλαι αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτιῶν. 10 διὸ μᾶλλον, ἀδελφοί, σπουδάσατε βεβαίαν ὑμῶν τὴν κλῆσιν καὶ ἐκλογὴν ποιεῖσθαι· ταῦτα γὰρ ποιοῦντες οὐ μὴ πταίσητέ ποτε. 11 οὕτως γὰρ πλουσίως ἐπιχορηγηθήσεται ὑμῖν ἡ εἴσοδος εἰς τὴν αἰώνιον βασιλείαν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν καὶ σωτῆρος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. “

[8] In a future series, it would probably be helpful for me to explain the virtues in this list using the pattern I outlined here.

[9] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002), 32-39. In one sense, dividing the person up like this isn’t helpful because our body/mind/will are almost indistinguishable. On the other hand, for the purposes of providing an incomplete but data-fitting model, these divisions can be very helpful.

[10] In my own thinking, his use of the word “soul” is not quite accurate and is even a bit unhelpful. When I get to that, I’ll explain his point of view as well as my own which is, in my mind, more tied to Scripture, Aristotle’s reasoning, and daily experience.

[11] Ibid, 85.

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