Does grace transform us, or is that wishful thinking?
The apostle Peter refers to the manifold or ‘many-coloured’ grace of God (1 Peter 4:10). The New Testament speaks of grace in many different ways. In this interview we have been mainly concerned about grace in terms of God’s favour, forgiveness and acceptance. But grace speaks of God’s empowerment as well as God’s pardon. The apostle Paul is an outstanding example of the transformative power of grace:
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward 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 Corinthians 15:9-10).
By his own account Paul had been a blasphemous, violent and insolent man but having received God’s mercy and grace, was to be a pattern for all believers (1 Timothy 1:12-16).
The gracious activity of God toward us does not cease with his pardon, but the Holy Spirit is ‘God’s empowering presence’ (Gordon Fee’s name for the Holy Spirit) given to us to sanctify and transform our lives into the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). This, too, is grace, God accomplishing for us and in us what we cannot accomplish for ourselves and in our own strength.
Truly receiving the grace of God opens our eyes to God’s amazing acceptance of us in spite of our own failures and sin. Grace humbles us in the presence of God, and results in an overwhelming gratitude toward God which then begins to overflow toward others. If our own wrong does not disqualify us, surely the wrongs of others should not disqualify them. The Holy Spirit gently leads us to respond to God’s grace by showing grace and living graciously towards others. He prompts us to forgive, even those who have most hurt us. He opens our heart to welcome others. He reminds us that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ He reminds us that grace has interrupted our path and changed our course; grace can interrupt and change the course of others. God may even us as a vessel and channel of his grace. Thus grace is not only a gift but a calling and a responsibility.
Notice that Paul, in his statement about grace, also says that he laboured, so that God’s grace would not be given in vain. This is the crucial key about the transformative power of grace: grace calls for human response. God works within us to both to will and to do his good pleasure, and so by his grace we are empowered to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). Grace always comes first, but God does not work without us. His work elicits and empowers our responsive and cooperative work. Grace makes us co-labourers with God, and so Paul says, ‘We then, as workers together with Him, also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain’ (2 Corinthians 6:1).
The promise of transformation is not wishful thinking but neither does grace function like Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. Eugene Peterson has given us a most useful metaphor for understanding the work of grace: water. Water is essential for life, a life-giving and transformative substance. Yet if we were to pass our hands through water it would run through our fingers and escape. We cannot hold or contain it. We know it is too weak to hold us, and we cannot hold it. Nevertheless, if we can learn to relax in it, and like a swimmer to begin to make a series of strokes—simple repetitive actions—we will find that the water miraculously holds us and we begin to make progress. We are not holding the water; it is holding us.
Peterson’s analogy helps us understand the mysterious interplay between grace and works, between God’s will and our will. Transformation is not our work but God’s work in us. Yet it does not occur without our participation. Our simple repetitive actions—spiritual practices and habits such as participating in congregational life and worship, reading Scripture and learning to pray, humble service and generous kindness—become a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works transformation more deeply into our being. This is how we ‘grow in grace’ (2 Peter 3:18) and become ‘strong in grace’ (2 Timothy 2:1). This is how grace becomes a fruitful and transformative power in our lives. This is the kind of response that does not ‘receive the grace of God in vain.’
Ultimately transformation is about becoming more genuinely and authentically human; that is, becoming more Christlike, for Jesus Christ is both the image of God and the truly human person. This is grace reaching its goal. We begin by grace, continue by grace, and reach the goal by grace. ‘Grace has brought us safe this far, grace will lead us home.’
 See Peterson, Eugene H., Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 94-95.