A fitting passage that describes grace is this:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.
Here it says that grace is something by which salvation is effected. If you study the verb “save” in Greek, it means “to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction”. It often times used to refer to healing, deliverance, etc. throughout the Gospels. Grace, then, is something that God gives, and that we appropriate by faith (as the passage points out) which results in being safe and sound from any type of destruction (in spirit, soul, or body). Grace can be thought of as God’s supply that’s been given nearly 2000 years ago through the finished work of Christ, and we appropriate and use it by placing active trust in it.
One way remember what NT grace stands for is this acrostic: GRACE: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Also, throughout Paul’s writings grace (that which is given as a gift, outside of our merits) is often juxtaposed with works of the law (self-effort exerted in order to earn things from God). If we try to earn something from God in our own strength, it would give a reason to boast, since it would be an earned blessing. Grace leaves no room for boasting in self – only in Christ. The above-quoted passage from Ephesians also points to that.
Clearly, if in the natural you are too weak / unqualified to earn something from God (think sinners, prostitutes, or tax collectors), you’ll jump a lot quicker on the free grace offer. If you are strong (think Pharisees, priests, etc), the very fact that you consider yourself qualified stands in the way of you being willing to freely receive anything from Christ as a free gift, since gifts are given irrespective of merits, which puts you on equal ground with sinners (Paul calls this “the offense of the cross”). That mentality was a problem area for Paul early on:
3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law,faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ
You can see from this passage that he calls his qualifications “flesh”, and his confidence in his own pedigree and achievements as “confidence in the flesh”. However, in v. 7 he says that when he considered them gain, as far as [the power of] Christ was concerned – it was a loss. Meaning that when he relied on those qualifications, he would lose out on what Christ has provided for him. In v. 8 he says that in order to gain Christ (and everything that comes with Him), he had to consider all his “qualifications” as garbage. It’s interesting that when people try to rely on anything to merit a free gift, even in part, that nullifies the power of grace.
Here’s another passage from Paul that sheds further light:
2 Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Here, it says that those who try to add their qualifications or self-efforts (in that case, only the ritual of circumcision) to the finished work of Christ, make “Christ of no value” (or “of no profit”) to them (v.2), of no effect (Greek: katargeo, from kata (in this case, nullify) + ergon (work) – meaning non-functional, idle, unemployed, inoperative, deprived of power) (v.4), and that they “fall from grace” back to their own qualifications gained through self-effort. Substitute circumcision with Bible reading, witnessing, acts of charity, personal “holiness”, or anything else that people do with the motive to merit blessings from God.
So from this, it follows that standing in grace is placing trust on Christ alone, and using our position in him, and that’s when Christ is operative, and is of value to us. God’s grace is sufficient for every challenge we may come across!
Another lesson here is this: don’t ask God to do what he expects you to do, don’t rely on your accomplishments, rely only on Christ and his finished work, and use what he has already given you to meet your need of the hour.