What’s the deal with ‘grace’? Part 1
‘It is by grace you have been saved’ – so Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 2. For many of us (myself included) these are amongst the most precious words in the Bible. And rightfully so! God’s grace is truly amazing. It quietens our fears. It brings hope, comfort and assurance. However, I wonder if sometimes we assume what ‘grace’ means without thinking it through. We throw the word around all the time. But what does grace mean? Does it basically mean an ‘undeserved gift’? Or is there more to it than that?
A good question to start is: what does the apostle Paul mean by ‘grace’? Recently, British academic John Barclay has raised this very question in his book ‘Paul and the Gift’. It’s proving to be an epic sensation in the academic world! It’s important for all of us to be aware of Barclay, because his book will probably have a much broader influence than just narrow academic circles. For Barclay, many in our culture today use the word ‘grace’ without thinking about what it means. Or, we think that grace basically means something given with no expectation of a return – a ‘pure’ gift. But, Barclay argues, this is not exactly how Paul understood grace. You can see why Barclay’s book is causing such a fuss!
In some ways, Barclay is helpful. In others, he’s unhelpful. In this post, I’ll introduce a helpful part of Barclay’s argument: his six ‘perfections’ of grace. He shows us that God’s grace is multifaceted, kind of like a diamond.
God’s multifaceted grace: the six perfections
Barclay helpfully highlights that for Paul, God’s grace is the ultimate Gift: Jesus himself. In other words, Jesus embodies God’s grace, because God gives Jesus to us and we experience God’s grace only in and through Jesus (check out Ephesians 1:3). This is a very helpful point – one which reminds us that God’s grace is not just an abstract idea or a feeling, but is primarily focused on one person: the Lord Jesus. But, Barclay explains, God’s grace through Jesus flows out and can be understood in a number of different ways.
In Paul’s world, there were six ways to understand ‘grace’ as a concept.
Before he gets there, Barclay looks at Paul’s ancient Greco-Roman context. In Paul’s world, there were six ways to understand the concept of ‘grace’ (which was expressed with the greek word ‘charis’ and other words). People used the language of grace, or ‘gift giving’, every day. They gave gifts to each other (financial, or more generally, such as favours). Barclay discovers that the concept of grace can mean six different things. He calls these ‘perfections’. I’ll get to what these six are in a moment, but first, we need to understand what he means by ‘perfection’.
By ‘perfection’ Barclay basically means the drawing-out of a concept towards definitional clarity. In other words, there are six definitions, six facets of grace, and each could be at work on their own or in combination with others when the word ‘grace’ is used.
An (imperfect) example may be helpful. We use the word ‘fire’ in various contexts to mean different things. It’s just one word, but it has different ‘perfections’ – different ways that it could be defined depending on context, usage and other factors. For example, if I wake up in the middle of the night and smell smoke, I will yell out ‘fire’ to get my family out of the house! At that point, ‘fire’ means that hot, burning element. It is also an urgent call to action. However, if I am the commander of a firing squad and I yell out ‘fire’, it means something else. Or if I am the boss of a company and I tell someone that I am going to ‘fire’ them, I mean something else again. And on it goes. Barclay argues that it’s the same with ‘grace’. Straight away, I think this is immensely helpful. We need to be reminded that there are different ways to use a word like ‘grace’, and that we need to be careful to understand what is meant.
What are these perfections of grace? Barclay gives six, and they are all to do with the giving of some kind of gift. The perfections are ‘superabundance’ (a gift excessive in size or permanence), ‘singularity’ (someone’s sole mode of operation as merciful gift-giving), ‘priority’ (a gift given prior to the recipient’s initiative), ‘incongruity’ (a gift given without consideration for whether the recipient deserves the gift), ‘efficacy’ (a gift given in order to achieve a certain goal, which achieves this goal), and finally ‘non-circularity’ (a gift given without any expectation that it will be reciprocated). Any or all of these perfections could be meant when someone talks about ‘grace’, at least in Paul’s ancient context.
God gives salvation, redemption, the Holy Spirit, life, all in Jesus, to those who do not deserve it.
If all this has skated over your head, here is the main point. Barclay argues that for Paul, God’s grace through Jesus is primarily to do with ‘incongruity’ (though other perfections like ‘priority’ and ‘superabundance’ are there too). In other words, God gives salvation, redemption, the Holy Spirit, life, all in Jesus, to those who do not deserve it. And he’s right! Romans 3:23-24 reminds us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (no one deserves salvation) and yet ‘all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (God gives salvation anyway). What a magnificent God! This is amazing grace! All good and well. However, for Barclay, Paul never considers God’s grace to be ‘non-circular’. In other words, God gives salvation to us through Jesus, but he expects something in return. Namely, a thankful, obedient life.
This is where Barclay’s argument might be disturbing for you. What should we make of this? Is Barclay promoting ‘works-righteousness’? Is he undermining salvation by grace alone? Do we really owe God a return for salvation? Here’s a couple of initial thoughts, and then in my next post I’ll explore how Ephesians helps ease some of the alarm we might be feeling.
While God expects the return of a transformed life, he does not treat us as anything other than a beloved child.
On the one hand, I think Barclay is correct that God’s grace is not ‘non-circular’. This is an important corrective for those of us who are tempted to think that our response to God’s grace doesn’t matter. God’s grace isn’t cheap! It cost him the life of his beloved Son. So, God gives us salvation in Jesus but is not content for us to just accept the gift and then live whatever life in whatever way we please. He expects that we will ‘walk by the Spirit’, obedient to God’s will for our lives (Gal 5:16), that we will offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him’ (Rom 12:1), and that we will love one another (1 John 3:11). In other words, God’s grace expects a transformed life: a life pleasing to the God from whom salvation has been given.
On the other hand, Barclay has missed something huge: our adoption as God’s children. While God expects a transformed life, he does not treat us as anything other than a beloved child (Romans 8:15-16, Ephesians 1:5). Any ‘return’ for God’s grace is the return of a beloved child. Indeed, perhaps the word ‘return’ is not helpful after all! Although Paul used the kind of ‘grace’ language that was familiar in his ancient context, he also understood that God’s grace is totally revolutionary. We can be assured that God loves and accepts us unconditionally in Jesus, and always will! We only need to consider a parent’s irrepressible love for their child to begin to appreciate how God feels about us and what he expects from us.
It’s going to be awesome going through Ephesians at Stromlo this term. In my next post, I’ll unpack how Ephesians helps us understand God’s grace even more.
Paul Avis (Associate Pastor)