Well, the way I see it, charisma is out!” This was the caption on a Saturday Evening Post cartoon that showed two politicians talking, the Capitol dome in the background. In a sense, charisma is indeed “out.” It became a fad word several years ago, and fads pass away. But although political charisma may be out, a deeper kind of charisma is very much in.

In general usage, charisma denotes a special attractiveness that gives a person influence over large numbers of people. But in a real sense, only Christians who daily appropriate divine grace can be said to have “charisma,” which is derived from the Greek word charis, “grace.” This world, no friend of divine grace, knows nothing of true charisma. “That word ‘grace’/In an ungracious mouth is but profane,” Shakespeare wrote. In a cartoon that appeared in McCall’s, a young boy is surrounded by a bevy of admiring girls, while off to the side one “isolate” is saying to another, “He hasn’t got charisma. He’s got a bag of jelly beans.” This world has only a pseudo-grace, what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a paltry bag of jelly beans.

Believers should be gracious experts on grace and graceful exemplars of the graces. But perhaps no word in all the language of Christianity is so beautifully significant and yet so little understood as the word grace. Many Christians, if asked to define the term, can manage only such a response as “unmerited favor” (a redundancy less than adequate, for not only do we not deserve God’s loving kindness; we deserve his unmitigated wrath); “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (an acronym that sacrifices clarity for virtuosity); or “what everybody needs and nobody deserves” (a definition too general to be very helpful). We might well take Paul’s assertion, “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 8:9), and rephrase it to ourselves: “Do I know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and, as a result, manifest the Christian graces, genuine charisma?”

Could it be that some of the difficulty in defining the words grace and charisma might reflect a failure to heed Peter’s admonition to “be constantly growing in the sphere of grace and an experiential knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18, Wuest)?

Many Christians tend to relegate grace to the past, unwittingly confining it to the Incarnation or perhaps exclusively to conversion. To be sure, grace is past: “The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men” (Tit. 2:11). But the next verse shows it is also present: “Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age” (v. 12). Grace not only wrought and brought our salvation, but it has taught us, and continues to do so as long as we are willing to learn.

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And the following verse reveals that grace is also future: “Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ” (v. 13). Similarly, Peter urges believers to “gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13). Throughout the limitless ages, Paul says, God will show “the exceeding riches of his grace toward us through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 2:7). Grace was the source of our conversion past; grace is the secret of our victory present; grace will be the subject of our praise future. As someone has said, “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”

Sometimes we singularize grace, failing to recognize and experience its limitless plurality. It is interesting that the ancient pagans personified and pluralized grace as the graces, three comely daughters of Zeus and Eurynome: Euphrosyne, representing joy, Thalia (also the inspiring Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry), representing flourishing bloom, and Aglaia, representing brilliance. These three maidens depicted as standing in a circle with arms entwined came to represent the grace of art itself and became a popular subject of artists, including Botticelli, Rubens, Raphael, Canova, Regnault, and Picasso. Should believers, whose lives themselves are works of divine art, manifest less than this graceful triad of joy, fruitful growth, and light?

Only God’s grace begets true Christian graces. “There is a grace in our lives because of his grace,” John wrote (John 1:16, Phillips). Thus the appropriation and working of grace is not a one-time matter: there is “one grace after another [“grace upon grace,” Weymouth] and spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, and even favor upon favor and gift heaped upon gift” (John 1:16, Amplified). George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican poet, conveyed this concept of the plurality of grace in the opening stanza of his poem “Grace”:

My stock lies dead, and no increase

Doth my dull husbandrie improve:

O let Thy graces, without cease

Drop from above!

This should be the believer’s daily prayer and experience. A “second work of grace”? Yes, and a third and fourth and four-thousandth.

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If, as the French novelist Albert Camus wrote, the nineteenth century was dominated by the question of how to live without grace and the contemporary world is tortured by the question of “how to live without grace and without justice” (The Rebel), the victorious believer, in any age, is dominated by the question of how to live by grace. “It is becoming clearer every day,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “that the most urgent problem besetting our church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?” The answer, with its provision, constitutes grace itself and is abundantly clear: “He gives grace more and more” (Jas. 4:6, Moffatt); “He gives more abundant grace” (Weymouth); “He gives us grace potent enough to meet this and every other evil spirit, if we are humble enough to see it” (Phillips).

But how often we hinder the flow of divine grace, and the charisma is gone. Brother Lawrence, in The Practice of the Presence of God, wrote:

Blind as we are, we hinder God and stop the current of His graces. But when He finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully; there they flow like a torrent which, being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.

What, then, is a workable definition of grace and charisma, one specific enough to be meaningful but general enough to fit the diversity of contexts in which the terms appear? The Greek word translated “grace” is charis, undoubtedly one of the richest words in the Scriptures. It appears 150 times in the New Testament and is translated variously “grace” (129 times), “favor” (6), “thanks” (4), “thank” (3), “pleasure” (2), “thankworthy” (1), “thanksgiving” (1), “benefit” (1), “acceptable” (1), “liberality” (1), and “gracious” (1). Green’s Greek-English Lexicon lists a variety of meanings of charis: pleasing show or circumstance, charm, beauty, gracefulness, graciousness, a matter of approval, kindly bearing, generous gift, charitable act. The monumental Oxford English Dictionary uses fifteen columns and six pages in its attempt to define grace in its various forms and to trace its historical usage. Grace is so rich and “manifold” (“many-colored,” “many-sided,” “varied,” “unmeasured,” 1 Peter 4:10) that it almost defies definition, which necessarily involves imposing limits.

Yet it is possible to isolate a basic kernel of meaning that applies in any use of the term. The quintessence of grace is the transforming of an unpleasing circumstance into a pleasing one. Grace, like the Trinity from which it issues, is threefold. It is the divine alchemy that transmutes the base circumstance into precious gold; it is the transmutation itself; and it is the pleasing beauty and charm of the transmuted gold. It is grace in this third form that constitutes genuine charisma.

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The unregenerate man’s circumstance is an unpleasing one, for he is dead in sin, alienated from God (Eph. 2:1–3); but the grace of God transforms this circumstance into a pleasing one of spiritual life and reconciliation with God (Eph. 2:4–7). Grace is at once the gratuitous provision for the gift, the gift itself, and the resultant charm and loveliness that response to the gift brings.

Grace is always something charming, lovely, pleasing. The believer, every day of his life, encounters unpleasant circumstances, but grace finds a way to confront them and transform them into pleasing circumstances. Paul had a “thorn in the flesh,” an actual “messenger of Satan to buffet” him, but all-sufficient grace made Paul’s very weakness his strength, enabling him to “glory” in his infirmity. This passage (2 Corinthians 12) illustrates two characteristics of grace: (1) Grace is always paradoxical to the natural mind. (2) Grace does more than enable one simply to endure adversity; it transforms the unpleasing situation into a pleasing one. Grace transforms bane into blessing, pain into pleasure, loss into gain, ugliness into beauty.

Grace, then, can be said to be the gratuitous, abounding provision—initiated by and emanating from the very essence of the Father, made personally attainable through the Son, and supernaturally applied by the operation of the Holy Spirit—of the divine influence and benignant endowment that transforms an actual or potential unpleasing circumstance into a pleasing one.

Grace can be further understood in terms of what it does. Thomas à Kempis, in his classic work The Imitation of Christ, wrote:

Thy grace is the mistress of truth, the teacher of discipline, the light of the heart, the solace in affliction, the driver away of sorrow, the expeller of fear, the nurse of devotion, the mother of tears. Without this, what am I but a withered branch and an unprofitable stock only meet to be cast away!

And in his novel Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote: “What is grace? It is the inspiration from on high; it is the breath, fiat ubi vult; it is liberty. Grace is the spirit of the law.”

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Grace teaches us the godly life. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present age” (Tit. 2:11, 12). Paul further wrote that “in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, we have behaved ourselves in the world” (2 Cor. 1:12). Readers of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress will remember Great-Grace, and his son in Part II, who “is set there to teach Pilgrims how to believe down, or to tumble out of their ways, what difficulties they shall meet with, by Faith.” Grace takes the unpleasing ugliness of an unrighteous life and transforms it into the pleasing “beauty of holiness” (Ps. 29:2; 96:9).

Grace establishes the heart. The writer of the Book of Hebrews, having just discussed the unchangeableness of Christ, admonishes us, “Be not carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace …” (Heb. 13:9). It is grace that makes the believer mature and strong in the faith. “Thou, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote to the young Timothy (2 Tim. 2:1). Grace takes the unpleasing instability and weakness of a life and transforms it into the pleasing stability and strength of a consistent, established life “stayed upon Jehovah.”

Grace helps us in time of need. We are admonished to “come boldly unto the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). “Grace under pressure” was Ernest Hemingway’s definition of “guts.” When the pressures of life threaten to overwhelm the believer, the grace of God can transform this unpleasing situation into a pleasing one. Grace can make not only our actions but also our reactions graceful. How we react in the mundane situations of life is the real test of whether or not we possess charisma. When you go out of your way to be friendly and you get an icy non-response, how do you react? When, after driving around for several minutes looking for a parking place, you finally approach one and then another car slips in before you, how do you react? When your motives are impugned, when a friend fails you, when gossip casts a dark shadow on your testimony—how do you react? In each case—and in hundreds like them—we must pray for grace and then allow grace to transform irritating circumstances into delightful ones of blessing. Only thus can we, to quote Brother Lawrence, “make a virtue of necessity.”

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Grace not only gives us a song in the night but enables us to sing in the midst of adversity. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” the Israelites in captivity asked (Ps. 137:4). Paul supplies the answer in Colossians 1:16: “Singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Paul knew what he was talking about, for only grace could have enabled Silas and him, beaten and bruised, to sing at midnight in a Philippian prison. Grace took that seemingly dismal situation and turned it into a transcendent blessing. And it would have been so even if the earthquake had not come, just as grace abounding transformed Bunyan’s prison term into a source of blessing for millions of readers of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Grace enables us to answer men who question our faith. “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col. 4:6). In The Republic Plato wrote: “Absence of grace and inharmonious movement and discord are nearly allied to ill words and ill nature, as grace and harmony are the sisters and images of goodness and virtue.” “In the sacred world,” Camus wrote, “every word is an act of grace”—or should be, we might say. The Psalmist speaks of grace being poured into the lips (Ps. 45:2): “Grace is poured out through your lips” (Smith-Goodspeed); “Charm is playing on your lips” (Moffatt); “Your lips are moulded in grace” (NEB).

Grace is so important in the Christian life that without it the believer cannot render acceptable service. “Let us have grace,” Hebrews 12:28 tells us, “by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” Similarly, Paul wrote: “By the grace of God I am what I am; and his grace, which was bestowed upon me, was not in vain, but I laboured more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). “God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that ye always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). Grace can transform our bungling efforts into lasting, fruitful, pleasing labors of love.

“This is grace,” Peter writes (1 Peter 2:19; the word translated “thankworthy” in the Authorized Version is charis), “if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye are buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” Peter here gives the definition of genuine charisma, the quintessence of grace: the supernatural ability to return good for evil, to react gracefully in adversity, to see an unpleasing circumstance supernaturally transformed into a pleasing one.

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The believer’s life should be grace-full, typified by an attraction, a charm, that lifts up Christ and thereby draws men unto him (John 12:32). “He uses us to tell others about the Lord, and to spread the Gospel like a sweet perfume. As far as God is concerned, there is a sweet, wholesome fragrance in our lives. It is the fragrance of Christ within us, an aroma to both the saved and the unsaved all around us” (2 Cor. 2:14, Living Bible). Benjamin Disraeli expressed it well in his novel Coningsby: “Grace, indeed, is beauty in action.”

The believer should—and can—experience a daily renewal of grace in, by, and through grace. Only to the extent that we appropriate divine grace daily will our lives demonstrate the graces, genuine charisma.

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