Apologetics Index

Grace and Mercy: Two gifts that set Christianity apart from any other religion

Saved by grace, through faith (and what that means)

Whether we’re discipling new Christians, training older ones, or counseling people who have been hurt at church, in relationships or by life’s circumstances, Janet and I always make sure we teach — in word and in deed — about God’s gifts of grace and mercy.

We teach from experience, having learned — often the hard way — that God’s grace is sufficient for us. That we can not please God any other way than by living and walking in grace. His grace.

Perhaps you have heard grace explained like this:

Grace = receiving something good that you do not deserve

Grace goes hand in hand with mercy:

Mercy = not receiving something bad that you do deserve

Grace and mercy are at the heart of the Christian Gospel. According to the Bible, salvation is a gift from God – not something that can be obtained by works or any other way:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens,[a] the spirit now working in the disobedient.[b] 3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us,[c] 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift– 9 not from works, so that no one can boast.
– Source: Ephesians 2:1-9, Holman Christian Standard Bible

All Christians know this passage, and many have memorized it. And yet, many Christians do not fully understand what the passage actually means. They know they have been saved by grace through faith. That is, they know that:

  • their sinful nature separated them from God, who is holy (the opposite of sinful), and that
  • they therefore were dead in their sins, unable to have peace with God. In other words, the payment for sin is death – eternal separation from God. They also realize that
  • they could not make peace with God by trying to measure up to His standard of holiness – for example by following rules and regulations or by doing good works. And they learned that
  • God nevertheless desired to have peace with man, and that God therefore Himself provided a way to make this possible. They know the Bible says that
  • “Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful.” (Romans 5:6-9O). And they realize that
  • those who believe this – that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, died and paid for their sins – are saved by grace (God’s ‘undeserved gift’ to us).

Hence we are saved by grace, through faith. The Bible says that we were dead in our sins, but made alive in Christ (Colossians 2:6-17). Having thus made peace with God – by accepting Jesus Christ into our lives – we therefore have eternal life with God.

They know all these things. And yet…

Legalism: Trying to earn God’s approval

Yet there are countless Christian who do not realize that God’s desire and will for us is to continue to relate to Him on the basis of grace alone. Instead, they get trapped into a legalistic, performance-based relationship that leaves them disillusioned and frustrated.

Jeff Harkin, author of the book, “Grace Plus Nothing” — Paperback | Kindle — writes

Church history demonstrates that believers in every generation become enslaved to a performance basis for earning God’s approval and blessing. In other words, they believe they are right with God because they do the right things. This is a constant temptation for all who desire to please God. […] I’ll be using the term performance basis interchangeably with the term legalism.

Because performance-based living is so deeply rooted in human nature, the entire world, not just the Christian world, is filled with people who either thrive on it or who are constantly striving to extricate themselves from it. But apart from the applied grace of God – the exact opposite of performance-based living – nothing more than superficial relief is ever realized by anyone, Christian or not.
– Source: Jeff Harkin, Grace Plus Nothing, 1

The ‘victorious Christian life’ is not obtained on the basis of performance, but rather on the basis of grace. God’s grace continues to set us free from legalism, and instead allows us to become expressions of Jesus who lives in and through us (see Galatians 2:20, Galatians 5:1, Romans 6:1-15).

Cheap Grace?

Before he wrote Grace Plus Nothing, Jeff Harkin used to publish a monthly devotional letter under the same title. To insure that people did not misunderstand the phrase, that letter included the following statement:

Every Christian should be aware that Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth, not just grace (John 1:14Off-site Link ). Therefore, what I meant by grace plus nothing is not some sort of cheap grace without truth. My intent in naming this letter Grace Plus Nothing is to emphasize the biblical truth that, in the formation of Christian character, God’s truth works only through his grace, not apart from it.

I emphasize grace plus nothing because there has always been a tendency in the body of Christ to preach salvation by grace through faith and then to attempt sanctification and holiness through every imaginable form of legalism.

Certainly the Lord calls every Christian to press into sanctification and holiness, but neither happens apart from grace:

Legalism – the attempt to justify ourselves before God through good works – can never satisfy God.

Therefore, sanctification is by grace: “For sin shall not master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace… those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 6:14; 5:17Off-site Link )

Christians need to be taught to completely forsake any performance basis for relating to God and to forever embrace the grace basis, carefully avoiding the error of cheap grace in the process.

The grace of God is neither legalistic nor cheap. One of my most important objectives is to help you define and avoid both distortions. In a nutshell, legalism means any attempt to earn right standing before God based on our performance or good works, while cheap grace refers to the all too common misconception that we can accept Jesus as our Savior and yet somehow simultaneously avoid his lordship.

In our generation many Christians fear cheap grace so much that they have completely rejected preaching about grace. Thus, in many circles, even sincere believers are not secure in their salvation.

Grace Plus Nothing asserts that without grace all preaching is just wasted hot air. Sin cannot be removed apart from grace. Hearts and minds cannot be transformed apart from grace. Grace is God’s program. Grace is God’s design. We have celebrated virtually everything else in our churches; now, let us celebrate grace!
– Source: Jeff Harkin, Applied Grace Publications, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Frankly, Grace Plus Nothing is a book we would have liked to have written ourselves. But with Jeff’s excellent book freely available, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Jeff has graciously permitted us to post a few chapters of his book on Apologetics Index. We encourage you to read them, and then to order a copy of the book for yourself or a loved-one.

If you’d like to talk with us about the things you read here, please feel free to contact us.

Grace and Mercy

Grace and Mercy: Two gifts that set Christianity apart from any other religion.
You are welcome to share this graphic on your website, blog, or social media accounts.


  1. Jeff Harkin, “Grace Plus Nothing,” Paperback | Kindle edition

Article details

Category: Grace and Mercy
Related topic(s):

First published (or major update) on Sunday, July 29, 2018.
Last updated on November 01, 2021.

Original content is © Copyright Apologetics Index. All Rights Reserved. For usage guidelines see link at the bottom.

Ad: Do you wish to visit the world's foremost religious and spiritual sites? Or do you simply want to experience wonderful places like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, the Grand Canyon, Mexico ... the world?

Apologetics Index: Research resources on religious movements, cults, sects, world religions and related issues

Our website includes some affiliate links. That means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each purchase you make. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Apologetics Index earns from qualifying purchases. Your support helps us provide this site free of charge. Naturally, as our Editorial Policy states, our content is never influenced by our advertisers or affiliates. Details.