Evangelicals often attack any deviation from traditional understandings of the atonement or Judgment as an "attack on Grace."
"by grace you have been saved through faith; the gift of God so no man may boast." [Ephesians 2:8-9]
"being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" [Romans 3:24]
have been rallying cries for protestants since the beginning. Paul uses the term "grace" more than all other NT writers combined. What does he mean?
The Greek word for grace, charis, refers to a general disposition of "favor." This can be warranted favor or unwarranted favor. However, even if something is done from "warranted" favor, it cannot be "contractual." So, if I give a chess student a free book because he has progressed well, I would be doing out of "warranted favor," but my doing so would not be contractual...unless I had somehow earlier agreed to give him a book based on a particular progress shown, in which case I would not be giving him the book out of favor.
To understand how Paul uses the term, we must understand why Paul wrote his letters and what was going on in apostolic Christianity. We also have to take some perspective of the general state of Israel prior to Christ's coming (since it is this coming that Paul sees as grace).
Humanity at the time of Christ's coming can be broken into two groups: Jews, who had nominally kept God's laws and worshipped the Living God, and Gentiles who were generally idolatrous and had a history of oppressing God's people.
That's the situation. It is extremely important to realize that the only way to be part of God's people at this point was to be a Jew.
Paul is addressing certain Jewish-influenced Gentiles who had been taught that all Christians must observe the "works of the Law" (circumcision, dietary requirements, observation of certain feast holidays, etc.) Circumcision in particular was a major roadblock to evangelism (records indicate there were three times as many women converts in the early church as men). For Paul this was all nonsense because Christ did not come due to the keeping of the Law.
And so Paul goes about showing that Gentiles certainly no "rights" to Christ (their entire history would suggest quite the opposite!) But, more importantly, the Jews had no right to Christ either. He shows this in many separate ways:
i) The Jews had not kept the Law in the first plact (by looking at their own history), so even if the Law had been a provoker of Christ being sent, the Jews would have no right. [Romans 3:9-19, noting in particular 3:19]
ii) The Law had not brought about righteousness in Israel (once again, evident by looking at its history). Since the purpose of Christ was to bring about righteousness, and the Law had historically not accomplished that role, then it would be stupid to suggest that one is better off both following the Mosaic Law and Christ. [The above verses plus Galatians 2:21-3:1, 3:21,
iii) Christ was given as the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham not as part of the Mosaic Covenant, so any belief that the law has anything to do with Christ's coming would be suggesting that commands given to Moses 400 years after a promise would nullify that promise.[Galatians 3:15-18, Romans 4:9-16]
iv) The purpose of the Law was to help the Jews identify the Christ. We no longer need the law to do that, so asking Gentile believers to keep the Law makes no sense.[Galatians 3:24-25, depending on the translation. There are other verses throughout the NT pointing to the Law as a shadow designed to point the way to Christ.]
v) The value of doing the Law is in serving God, so is it not logical to suspect that those who do God's will (as shown through the Spirit) are already deriving whatever benefit there is to be had by following "the Law"? [Romans 2]
With these arguments, Paul explains how the sending of Christ was a gift based on the unilateral promise made to Abraham. Thus, the amazing revolution whereby all people (not just Jews) have access to a covenant through faith had nothing to do with the law but everything to do with God's choice.
One particularly startling passage showing that Paul is really referring to Jewish-Gentile relations here and the idea that Jews felt they had some right over the Gentiles because they were true sons of Abraham comes in Romans 3:27-29. Paul has just hit a climax in Romans 3:24-26 about how all are justified in the same way, and in Romans 3:27-29 we see that the focus here is precisely on the Jew's having no elevation [and hence the Mosaic law having no added benefit to Gentiles] because we read:
"Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith! For we consider that a person is justified by faith aparts from the work of the law." (Romans 3:27-28)
People point to the above and think Paul is talking about "boastin" in "good" works...but that is not at all what Paul is referring to..as is shown quite clearly in the very next verse:
"Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!"
Paul is not talking about boasting about "good works." He is referring to the contemporaneous Jews' boasting in the keeping of the Mosaic Law and having Abraham as their father [c.f.,Luke 3:8, Matthew 3:9].
Note that Paul links God's Grace to two things: the "gift" of God and the "promise" of God. As I've pointed out in another blog, for the apostles, both of these terms pointed to the Holy Spirit. Paul is letting everyone know Christ became a curse for us so that the Gentiles could receive the Spirit (Galatians 3:13-14), allowing all nations to be blessed in Abraham as members of God's people by removing the wall of division between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:16) so that the traditions of Judaism were no longer a hindrance to anyone (Colossians 2:14-16, noting the similarity of language between this and the longer Ephesians passage).
So, in short, the "Grace" applied here refers to the consecrations of our souls thruogh Christ to receivethe Spirit (a blessing no one had a "right" to) and the opening of God's people to include the Gentiles (who, from a historical standpoint, had about as little claim on the Living God as one could conceivably have!)
It is 100% about the New Covenant Christ has mediated in the present as a response to the absolute failure of the earlier covenant to effect a righteous people for God [Jeremiah 31:31-34, Titus 2:14]