God’s grace is sufficient: What we mean, what Paul meant.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 February 2017

2 Corinthians 12.9.

One really good example of an out-of-context bible phrase is the idea God’s grace is sufficient. Sometimes phrased, “Your grace is enough for me,” or “His grace is sufficient” or if you wanna put the words in God’s mouth, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” People don’t even quote the entire verse; just the “grace is sufficient” bit.

And when we quote it, we mean one of two things.

Most of the time it’s used to state God’s grace is sufficient for salvation. It’s a reminder we humans can’t save ourselves from sin and death, no matter how many good deeds we do; and that’s fine ’cause God does all the saving. He applies Jesus’s atonement to our sins, takes care of it, forgives us utterly; all we need is God’s grace. It’s sufficient. It does the job.

Great is your faithfulness oh God
You wrestle with the sinner’s heart
You lead us by still waters into mercy
And nothing can keep us apart
So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough for me
—Matt Maher, “Your Grace Is Enough,” 2008

Is this what Paul meant by “grace is sufficient”? Not even close. While the idea we’re entirely saved by God’s grace is entirely true, the basis for this idea isn’t at all the verse where we find the words “grace is sufficient.” It comes from other verses, like “By grace you have been saved,” Ep 2.4, 8 NIV —not good works. There’s more to say about that, but I’ll do that later.

The rest of the time, “grace is sufficient” is used to say God will provide all our needs. ’Cause he’s gracious, generous, watches over us, answers prayers, cures our illnesses, guides our steps: We figure when we have God, we don’t need anything else. A self-sufficient person doesn’t need help, and neither does a God-sufficient person, ’cause God has us covered. Different worship song:

Jehovah Jireh, my provider
His grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me
Jehovah Jireh, my provider
His grace is sufficient for me
My God shall supply all my needs
According to his riches in glory
He will give his angels charge over me
Jehovah Jireh cares for me, for me, for me
Jehovah Jireh cares for me
—Don Moen, “Jehovah Jireh,” 1986

Horrible pronunciation of YHWH-yiréh aside, which I remind you isn’t one of God’s names but a name of an altar, Ge 22.14 the problem is this also has nothing to do with what Paul meant by “grace is sufficient.”

But you know how songs are. Once a catchy one gets in your head, it’s hard to shake the song away… much less the inaccurate bible interpretations which come along with it. Just because K-LOVE plays it twice an hour, doesn’t mean it’s theologically sound: It’s a radio network, not a church. They’re not pastors; they’re programmers. They’re here to entertain Christians, not disciple us. They don’t know any better. All the more reason we gotta be careful about Christian music.

But I digress. Time to get to the context.

The thorn in the flesh.

Paul and Timothy wrote 2 Corinthians together, although likely in the capacity of someone dictating, and someone taking dictation (and adding suggestions where helpful). And for a few chapters, Paul spent a bit of time “boasting,” as many translations put it (I prefer to translate kavháomai/“speak loud” as “emphasize”) about his experiences as an apostle, and with God. As he should; testimonies are important.

So the folks of Corinth might emphasize all their personal gain, financial success, and other worldly prosperity they had as a result of becoming Christ. Paul chose instead to emphasize all the suffering and degradation he went through. Because prosperity may be nice, but God-experiences are lasting.

Anyway, one of the things Paul emphasized was his “thorn in the flesh,” as the KJV puts it. He described it thisaway.

2 Corinthians 12.6-10 KWL
6 When I want to emphasize things, I won’t be foolish:
I tell the truth, and I don’t spare details.
Otherwise one might consider me greater than what they see of me, or hear from me,
7 and they or I might exaggerate my revelations.
In order that I’d not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given me:
a satanic messenger, which’d jab me so I’d not exalt myself.
8 I called on the Master thrice about this, so he’d pull it out of me.
9 He told me, “My grace is holding you back. Power is fulfilled by weakness.”
For this reason I gladly emphasize my weakness—so Christ’s power can dwell in me.
10 I’m thrilled with weaknesses!
With smackdowns, deprivations, persecution, getting squeezed for Christ:
When I’m weak, then I’m strong.

The KJV’s word sufficient is, to be blunt, a mistranslation. It’s what the word arkei/“holds back” could mean—if you’re using in the sense of “strong enough to hold back,” or “sufficient to hold back,” as Sophocles and Thucydides sometimes used it. In its passive sense, it means to be satisfied or content, which is how it appears half the time in the New Testament. But ordinarily: Holds back. Supports.

“My grace is sufficient for thee” 2Co 12.9 KJV tends to get interpreted, “I’ve given you all the grace you’re ever gonna get. You have plenty. Suck it up, princess. You can tough out that ‘thorn in the flesh’ just fine.”

Doesn’t sound at all kind and encouraging of Jesus—which is entirely out of character. Which should tip us off we’re projecting our own lack of sympathy upon our Lord.

But this interpretation doesn’t fit the context of the text. As Paul said, the “thorn in the flesh” was holing him back. Keeping him from exaggerating his accomplishments. Keeping him from concealing some of the embarrassing, or less-impressive, details of his ministry. Keeping him from acting the fool. Human nature is to show off. But Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” wouldn’t let him. It was keeping him from going astray.

People miss this fact because Paul described the “thorn,” whatever it was—a literal thorn, a form of arthritis, an injury which never healed right—as an ánghelos sataná/“satanic messanger,” or “Satan’s angel,” as The Message puts it. They think Satan was literally behind this thorn. As, quite likely, Paul did too, when he first encountered it: “Ow! What the…? What’s this stopping me from preaching? Gotta be the devil.”

But when Paul brought it to Jesus, to his surprise Jesus took credit for it. He was holding Paul back—graciously. And because we humans fixate on the devil too much, many an interpreter skips right over this fact.

Jesus didn’t want his apostle to sin. Or dance on the edge of sin. He knows exactly what can corrupt and ruin us—so he’ll stop us from going there. In Paul’s case, Jesus stopped him by letting this thorn poke him whenever he crossed the line. Three times Paul cried out to Jesus, because three times Paul crossed the line. (Like he said in verse 6, he’s not sparing details!) Jesus’s response was, “I’m not taking it away. It’s keeping you on the straight and narrow. You have to remember exalting yourself doesn’t grow my kingdom any. Humility does.”

Paul definitely learned that lesson. As a result he emphasized weakness—in contrast to the Corinthians boasting of their strength.

“Grace is sufficient”—when we mean salvation, or supplying needs.

Now back to grace for salvation. Told ya I’d do this later.

When Christians talk about how God’s grace is sufficient for salvation, it’s true. It’s entirely true. Grace is all we need to be saved. There’s nothing at all wrong with teaching this idea.

The problem is when newbies try to look up “grace is sufficient” in the bible… and get confused, ’cause the “grace is sufficient” verse is about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and says nothing about salvation. Or when they ask you, “Where’s it say, ‘God’s grace is sufficient’?” and you correctly respond, “In 2 Corinthians 12”—but you don’t realize why they wanna look up that verse, and they wind up blaming you for misquoting the bible.

So remember: When people ask you to help ’em find a verse, always ask why. And if they’re going for the wrong verse, or they’re planning to use a verse wrong, redirect ’em to the right verse. You wanna prove we’re saved by God’s grace alone? You point ’em to Ephesians 2.

Ephesians 2.8-10 KWL
8 You’re all saved by his grace, through your faith.
This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.
10 We’re his poetry, creations in Christ Jesus,
for doing the good works which God pre-prepared. We should walk in them!

Likewise when Christians talk about how God supplies all our needs: It’s true. It’s entirely true. Jesus taught us to not worry, focus on his kingdom, and God’ll take care of the balance. Again, nothing wrong with teaching this idea. The problem is when people ask, “Where’s it say, ‘God’s grace is sufficient’?” and we again point to 2 Corinthians 12. You want a proof-text, you go to the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 6.31-34 KWL
31 So stop worrying. Stop saying, ‘What can we eat? Drink? Wear?
32 Every nation seeks them. Your heavenly Father knows these are all your needs.
33 First seek God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness,
and all these things will be handed to you.
34 So stop worrying about tomorrow: Tomorrow has its own worries.
The evils of the day are plenty.”

YHWH-yiréh is our provider—but we don’t take that idea from 2 Corinthians.

To clear up the confusion, perhaps we oughta use different language than “God’s grace is sufficient.” You see, anyone who plugs “grace” and “sufficient” into a search engine is gonna wind up in 2 Corinthians. They might realize you didn’t mean that particular passage; then again they might not. That’s the usual problem with newbies: They don’t know any better.

So you, as the wiser Christian, might do better to say “God’s grace is plenty,” or “God’s grace is all we need,” or “God’s grace abundantly provides.” Something other than the bible-y sounding “God’s grace is sufficient.” Break the habit. Work on that self-control.