I take my sense of the word “grace” mostly from the New Testament (the word “charis” in Greek), though the English word grace is also found in Jeremiah 31, a crucial chapter relative to the “new covenant.” Now there are some 155 uses of “charis” in the the NT (115 or so being translated as “grace”) and all of them bear examination. For the sake of space I am focusing here on Romans 4:16.1
I have chosen this example because it offers a terse but ready contextualization for the use of grace (“charis”) in what I believe to be its correct context: in connection with both promise and covenant.
Romans 4:16 “For this reason it [the promise to Abraham] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those that share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all . . .” Grace in this sense means “a beneficent disposition towards someone” in the sense of “that which one grants to another / the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.” (From the Bauer-Danke Greek / English lexicon).
Two points appear important:
On the one hand, Romans 4:1-25 is considered to be a logical unit and the use of grace in Rom 4:16 in contextualized by its use in Rom 4:4, where “charis” is translated as “gift.” Particularly, grace is the mode or manner of the action—the ‘how’, if you like. So we have the close association between grace and gift: that which is given freely and without being earned.
On the other hand, Rom 4:16 is a wonderful encapsulation of grace within its actual context: the extraordinary reality that a) God committed to a promise before entering into the covenant (in Gen 12) and b) God “made good” on this promise by “making good” on the covenant, through the life and death of Jesus the Christ (see Rom 3:21-26, much of Rom 5, etc.).
In other words, grace (“charis”) is how God both a) began his main dealings with humankind through Israel and b) completed those dealing to the inclusion of all peoples, through Jesus. But note that if grace is how God acted, it is not why.
Why did God choose to freely give both full relationship (via the covenant) and the means for that relationship to be accomplished (via the life and death of Jesus)? While I would like to go much deeper with my argument here, the most basic answer is that God acted / chose to act according to God’s character. And against those who focus on sovereignty to the exclusion of all else, the Bible clearly characterizes God as both sovereign and father / parent.
So with such clear biblical indications as “God is love” (1 John 4) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him should may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3), I attribute the ‘Why’ of God’s action to God’s passionate love (in general and for humanity specifically), such that God enacted God’s love toward us for the purpose of furthering relationship with us and for establishing God’s kingdom with and through us.
God does require certain things of us as our sovereign, but the gift—the grace—of God comes to us as a matter of God’s love and specifically as an expression of God’s fatherly and parental love. In other words, grace is that mode of expression by which God most truly expresses God-self: grace shows God’s love in its truest and fullest light.
In this sense, while I deeply value grace as God’s “mode of engagement” that makes my relationship with God possible (i.e., how the relationship has been made possible) love, along with truth, is the overarching orientation both from God to me and from me to God.
Love is the reason why God offered grace in the first place (and God could legitimately do so because God is truly sovereign and truly father / parent). Likewise, being loved by God and truly known by God are the reasons why I am nowhere more content and more myself than in my relationship with God (and why I both am passionately in love with God and seek to proclaim God’s existence and character as being truly true).