Why Did Jesus Never Use the Word “Grace”?

by David Servant

It does seem odd, in light of the fact that salvation is “by grace through faith” (according to Ephesians 2:8-9 and many other New Testament verses), that the Gospels don’t record a single instance of Jesus using the word “grace” in any of His teachings or conversations. Although John wrote that “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), Jesus never actually said that salvation is “by grace.”

Beyond that, Jesus told people to repent and keep commandments if they wanted eternal life, and He repeatedly affirmed that there was a standard of holiness tied with inheriting God’s kingdom and entering heaven (Matt. 4:17; 5:3-10, 20, 22, 27-30; 6:14-15; 7:21; 11:20; 12:41; 18:8, 23-35; 19:16-22; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37; 13:1-5; John 15:1-11). That is so undeniably obvious in the Gospels that some try to persuade us that salvation was earned—by works—under the old covenant, the covenant under which Jesus ministered. Let me address that error before I return to our primary question.

Was Salvation Earned by “Works” Under the Old Covenant?

Although it is true that Jesus did minister under the old covenant, it is not true that salvation was earned by works under that covenant. Salvation has always been by grace, and that is obvious from hundreds of Old Testament scriptures. Here’s one:

“Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7).

That’s grace, and no one can intelligently claim otherwise. It is an offer of a pardon, predicated on repentance. So, it is conditional grace, which is the only kind of grace God has ever offered. That includes the kind of grace Jesus offered, as He called everyone to repent to be forgiven, just as God did through Isaiah (Matt. 4:17; 11:20; 12:41; Mark 6:12; Luke 5:32; 13:1-5; 15:6-10; 24:47).

Of course, if any sinner is going to be forgiven, grace is required. In His grace, however, God has never offered any sinner a license to sin. He has always offered conditional grace. So, when I say that Jesus never said that salvation is “by grace,” I am not implying that He never offered salvation by grace. He always offered salvation by grace, conditional grace.

So, back to the original question: Why, according to the Gospels, was the word “grace” never spoken even once by Jesus (and only mentioned in three verses), but we find grace mentioned about 100 times in the epistles by Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude? Why did Jesus never state that salvation is by grace, yet the concept is repeated frequently in the epistles?

Wise Bible readers won’t assume the reason is because God changed, or that His means of salvation changed (as either of those assumptions call God’s immutability into question). They will look, however, for something else that may have changed. Can you think of anything that changed from the time of Jesus’ ministry to the time the New Testament epistles were penned?

An Initial Clue

We get our first clue in Acts 11:19-24, which tells us that, after the great persecution that arose in Jerusalem in connection to Stephen’s martyrdom, some of the believers who were scattered went to Antioch and began evangelizing Gentiles, “preaching the Lord Jesus.”[1] The result was that “a large number who believed turned to the Lord.”[2]

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard the news of what was happening in Antioch, they sent Barnabas. Luke reported: “Then when he [Barnabas] arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord” (Acts 11:23).[3]

It is difficult for us to appreciate how monumental it would have been for Jewish-background believers to accept the fact that God would save Gentiles. When Peter, as recorded one chapter earlier in Acts, was divinely directed to preach the gospel for the first time in Christian history to Gentiles, he told those Gentiles, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

Jews did not associate with Gentiles because they were “unclean.” When God poured out His Holy Spirit upon those unclean Gentiles during Peter’s preaching, Luke tells us that, “All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:45, emphasis added). They didn’t see that coming! It was beyond their imaginations to think that God was so gracious!

As I already mentioned, not long after, “unclean” Gentiles in Antioch were believing in the Lord Jesus, “turning to Him” (repenting) and being born again. God was making them into new creations! Luke wrote that Barnabas “witnessed the grace of God” and “rejoiced.”

And this gives us a possible clue to the answer to my initial question. Perhaps the disproportionate number of references to “grace” in the epistles compared to the Gospels has something to do with Gentiles being welcomed into God’s family. All of the New Testament epistles were written after Gentiles started receiving the gospel (beginning in Acts 10), a phenomenon that certainly highlighted God’s grace to an even greater degree in the minds of prejudiced Jewish-background believers.

Interestingly, the first time “grace” is mentioned in a doctrinal sense in Acts is in chapter 15—in the context of the Jerusalem Council that was convened to decide if Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses in order to be saved. That Council, which included both Paul and Peter, ruled against that idea, with Peter insightfully asking, “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the [Gentile] disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they [the Gentile disciples] also are” (Acts 15:10-11).

Again, that is the first time that grace is mentioned in a doctrinal sense in the book of Acts, and it is in connection with a discussion of how Gentiles are saved. And Peter publicly acknowledged at the same time that Jews are also saved by grace.

Incidentally, if you’ve read to at least the 21st chapter of Acts, you know that the Acts 15 Council in Jerusalem did not put an end to the problem that it addressed—even in Jerusalem.

Grace in Galatia

Paul wrote to the Gentile believers in Galatia concerning the identical controversy, and Bible scholars debate if he wrote his letter before, or after, the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council. Regardless, the Gentile believers in Galatia were being influenced by Jewish teachers to think that they needed to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law—essentially becoming Jews—in order to be saved. A passage from that letter helps us to better understand how Jews viewed Gentiles. Paul wrote:

We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we [Jews] have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we [Jews] may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Gal. 2:15-16, emphasis added).

Paul, of course, believed that Jews were also sinners (see Rom. 3:9-19), but his comment above (which I italicized) seems to indicate that he considered Gentiles, in general, to be much worse! Gentiles needed a greater grace to be saved!

Could the reason we find grace mentioned only a few times in the Gospels (and never once in direct connection with salvation) as opposed to 100 times in the epistles be because of God’s amazing inclusion of Gentiles by that time? Could it be that the Holy Spirit, through the authors of the epistles, felt it needful to repeatedly remind Gentile believers that they were saved by grace so they would not be duped into thinking that they had to become circumcised Jews to inherit God’s kingdom?

In support of my thesis, have you ever noticed what Paul wrote directly after he wrote his well-known words in Ephesians 2:8-10 (“by grace you have been saved through faith”)? Take a look:

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall…. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household (Eph. 2:11-14, 19, emphasis added).

It seems Paul believed that the Gentiles needed affirmation of God’s grace as it related to them being viewed as “unclean outsiders” by Jews.

The Real Controversy

This early church controversy revealed in both Acts 15 and Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often portrayed by modern teachers as a debate between those who believed that salvation is by an “unconditional” grace to which no standard of holiness is attached, and those who believed that there is a standard of holiness connected to salvation. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of the controversy. Everyone at that Jerusalem Council believed that there was a standard of holiness connected to salvation, and none of them believed that salvation was by an “unconditional” grace to which no standard of holiness is attached.

The actual controversy was about if Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep all the regulations of the Mosaic Law to be saved, again, essentially becoming Jews, and the Council’s conclusion was that they did not. That being said, Council members Paul and Peter certainly both knew that God’s grace is not unconditional, but rather is conditioned on a living faith, and they often affirmed in their letters that heaven was only for the holy (see, for example, Rom. 2:5-9; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:3; 1 Pet. 4:3-5; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; 2:20-22).

When some modern teachers read the word “grace” in the New Testament epistles, they force their idea of “unconditional grace” into it. I recently watched a video by a pastor whose sermon was an attempt to prove that God is offering salvation “unconditionally,” and he began with his strongest scriptural proof, Ephesians 2:8, which he quoted: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” He then said, “See, the Bible says we are saved by grace, so there can’t be any conditions connected to our salvation.” I felt so sorry for him, and I felt sorrier for anyone who swallowed his teaching. The very verse he quoted contradicted his doctrine. It is by grace that we are saved through faith. Faith is the condition of salvation. God, in His wonderful grace, offers us salvation—through faith. That is what Paul said. And faith in the Lord Jesus Christ first repents, and then it goes on to obey in accordance with knowledge of God’s will.

If Paul had written, “For by unconditional grace you have been saved by faith,” his sentence would have been self-contradictory.

No apostle ever preached about grace the way it is often presented today—as “unconditional,” or as pitted against obedience to God’s moral commandments. Rather, the apostles framed the grace offered in salvation as being based in Christ’s atonement and as being conditioned upon faith in Him, pitting that against a no-grace salvation that is earned apart from Christ through the “works” of circumcision and following the Mosaic Law.

And that was the same grace that Jesus advocated during His own earthly ministry. Although He never used the word “grace” in His preaching of the gospel, He graciously offered salvation to sinners conditioned on their repentance and/or faith in Him.

Some Examples of Jesus’ Offer of Salvation by Grace

For example, to the woman who had been caught in adultery and who thus deserved to be stoned according to the Mosaic Law, He extended grace that saved her from being stoned. He did not, however, offer her a grace that was a license to sin. Rather, He told her, “Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

To the woman at the well of Samaria, who had been divorced and remarried five times and was currently living in fornication, He offered the “gift of God,” living water (John 4:10). That sure sounds like grace, doesn’t it? It was. But was God’s gracious gift “unconditional?”

When she requested the living water He was offering, He, knowing she was not married, said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” I can’t imagine His words didn’t sting with some conviction. She then replied that she had no husband, which was true, but it hid a lie, as it implied that she was single.

He then revealed that He knew all about her five failed marriages and that she was currently living with a man to whom she was not married. Not surprisingly, she tried to change the subject to the Jewish-Samaritan debate about the proper place to worship God! Suddenly, a woman who had been married and divorced five times and was now living with her boyfriend became interested in proper worship! Jesus graciously told her that God is seeking those who worship Him “in spirit and in truth,” which certainly disqualified her…

Although He never directly told her to repent, He did expose her as a woman who was married five times, a liar, and a religious hypocrite. Implied in all of that is, of course, His call to repentance.

And isn’t it interesting that to her, a “half-Gentile Samaritan” and a very sinful one at that, He offered a “gift” from God. Jesus did not use that terminology, as far as we know, with any other person besides her. Could it have been because she was not a Jew, but rather was someone who would have associated Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, with everything that Jews always listed as necessary to be saved, including Jerusalem-only worship? Could Jesus’ mention to her of a gift have foreshadowed the grace that would be offered to future Gentiles?

To the dishonest and greedy tax collector named Zaccheus—who was watching Jesus pass by while perched up in a tree—He said, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). The Son of God was about to visit a man who was a notorious sinner. Seems like grace, doesn’t it? Everyone knew Zaccheus was a rotten man (see Luke 19:7), and he certainly knew it about himself (as revealed by what happened next).

Zaccheus obviously had some prior knowledge of Jesus, which is why He was interested in seeing Him. He surely knew that Jesus was calling everyone to repentance (Matt. 4:17; 11:20; 12:41; Mark 6:12; Luke 5:32; 13:1-5; 15:6-10; 24:47). And when Jesus singled him out, he decided to repent himself, saying, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”

Zaccheus knew he was a sinner. And he knew that unless he repented, he could not have a relationship with God. That tax collector had more spiritual understanding than some Evangelical pastors!

The moment of his repentance was the moment of his salvation, at least, according to Jesus, who said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:8-9). Zaccheus was saved when he repented. Specifically, he repented of his greed, something that is manifested by (1) how one obtains his money and/or (2) what one does with the money he obtains. So Zaccheus promised to repay four-fold those whom he had defrauded, and he promised to start caring for the poor.

Hopefully, no one would claim that Zaccheus earned his salvation by his repentance or obtained it apart from God’s grace. He was saved by grace, obviously, but a grace that was conditioned upon his repentance. And he was saved through his faith, which was authenticated by his works.

In Summary

Although Jesus never, as far as we know, used the word “grace,” He certainly was gracious, and He always offered salvation by grace, promising forgiveness of sins for all who would repent and/or believe in Him. That being so, the grace He offered was not unconditional, but rather, conditional. It is also important to remember that Jesus ministered primarily to Jews.

Paul on the other hand, whose ministry was primarily aimed at Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; 1 Tim. 1:7) often wrote about God’s grace in relationship to salvation, and particularly salvation of the Gentiles. The historical context helps us understand why. Either under the influence of infiltrating “Judaizers” or born-again Jews within their churches, Gentile believers wondered if they needed to first become circumcised Jews in order to be truly saved. To counteract that influence, the phrase “salvation by grace through faith” became needful. But no apostle ever taught that God’s grace mitigated the necessity of holiness to inherit God’s kingdom. That is obvious if we read all that they wrote to the early churches. — David

[1] Note that word “Lord.” They proclaimed Jesus as Lord, which everyone in that era would have understood was a call to repent and starting obeying that Lord.

[2] (Note again that word “Lord,” and also that the Gentile believers “turned to the Lord.” They were repenting and submitting themselves to the Lord Jesus.

[3] Notice that Barnabas believed it was possible for the new believers to not “remain true to the Lord.”