Faith, Grace and Works (Part III)

A New Perspective on Grace

Over the last couple of decades, a better understanding of the socio-cultural environment of the ancient world has revolutionised New Testament studies, including the scholarly understanding of grace. Over the course of centuries, the word grace has accrued a special religious meaning but it originally just meant a gift. According to our modern sensibilities, giving a gift is a one-time transaction which comes with no expectation of a return. The seminal work of John Barclay in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015) has convincingly demonstrated that the idea of an unconditional, purely altruistic gift probably originated with Luther in the medieval period and was actually quite foreign to the ancient world. As Dr Barclay explains, in the patron-client economy of the Greco-Roman world, gift-giving was about forming a lasting reciprocal relationship, which was absolutely necessary in a world full of scarcity. (Dr David A. deSilva provides a fairly concise overview of the patronage system and honour system in ancient Mediterranean societies which contextualises why gift-giving was so important.)

Now there are some important differences which Dr Barclay explores in detail, however, the same societal view of gift-giving mostly applied to the ultimate Benefactor. God’s gifts were also regarded as conditional. So even though his favours and benefits are completely his initiative and he gives them to people regardless of their prior merit or worth, his divine gifts still require certain behaviour from recipients. In ancient times, beneficiaries were not necessarily expected to reciprocate with equivalent value, especially when there was a difference in social status. However, in the ancient view of gift-giving, the very least a recipient could do was show public gratitude to their benefactor and generally conduct themselves in a manner that honours and enhances the reputation of their patron. In other words, gifts were always given with some expectation of return. The reciprocity existed because of the relationship that was formed through the act of gift giving and receiving. This applied to the gifts of God and the believer’s reciprocal relationship with God due to the gifts.
In the New Testament, God gives many abundant gifts but the most important one of them all is the gift of his Son for us (Romans 8:32.) The gift of Christ requires the believer to live in a manner that honours his redemptive sacrifice. In fact, this reciprocal relationship quite neatly sums up the entire ethos of the New Testament (Matthew 5:45-46, 2 Corinthians 5:15, Philippians 1:27, 1 Peter 2:9-20, Hebrews 6:4-6.) As Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:1, believers are to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. We must remember that gift giving was a relationship forming act. Both patron and client had roles to play and therefore it was expected of them to act honourably in fulfilling their duties to one another.

Now Paul appeals to believers not to “receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1) and elsewhere he says he does not “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21.) This means Paul believed it was possible through our actions to squander God’s favour. On the other hand, this suggests that there is a right way to respond to God’s generous gifts. As I earlier said, in the New Testament era gifts, even the gifts of God, came with expectations. One of those basic expectations was to behave in a manner that honours and shows gratitude to the giver as well as promoting the benefactor’s interests where possible. So grace came with a burden of performance, a fact that is made clear in Paul’s life.

Paul actually explains how he did not receive the grace of God in vain, which was by working harder than those that came before him to fulfill the gift of his apostolic calling (1 Corinthians 15:10.) Paul was so grateful to God for granting him mercy, despite formerly being a staunch opponent, he showed his gratitude by dedicating himself to unwavering faithful service to God. Interestingly, Paul identifies all the effort he exerted as the grace of God at work with him. He recognised that it was God’s favours and blessings that enabled him to do what he did. So the divine gift empowers us to live in a manner that glorifies God. If we act accordingly, God will reward our faithfulness with salvation (1 Peter 1:9.) As Paul once put it, “workout your own salvation… for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philipians 2:12-13 ESV.) However, if the gift is disregarded and abused, it results in condemnation since the individual in their conduct has shown great ingratitude and dishonoured God, the most merciful and generous giver of all (Hebrews 6:4-10.)

Far from being antithetical, I have briefly demonstrated that in the New Testament work is integral to both faith and grace. This is because they are both external relational phenomena and therefore require concrete action to realize them. Faith consists of embodied acts of allegiance while grace is a gift that forms a reciprocal relationship. Interestingly, one of the expectations of a recipient of a gift was fidelity to the giver, especially if the giver was a superior. Fidelity consisted of public displays of loyalty to a patron. Similarly, the correct response to the divine patron’s abundant beneficial gifts in the Messiah is to trust and faithfully serve him. Paul sums this up succinctly in Galatians 2:20 where he says “the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” We owe him faithful obedience for the gift of his life that he gave for us.

⇐Part II

Header image source: sights.seindal.dk

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