Forthright Magazine

The grace Paul never knew

Few things can be as misleading as falsely assuming we share the same understanding of a word as another person. Such differences become significant when they involve serving God.

If we infuse our ideas into Paul’s vocabulary, studying scripture will cause us to hear our own voices rather than Paul’s. This article briefly considers one way our understanding of grace can differ from Paul’s.

Both the ancient world/1 and Paul understood that to extend grace, that is to give a gift, expects reciprocity from the recipient. Yet, since the time of Martin Luther in the 1500’s, many have assumed God’s grace does not call for an expected response.

Hence under the banner of, "grace will cover it," a devout Christian dismissed his need to repent from an affair. For him, grace meant that God neither expected nor required him to try to live as God desires. Similarly others, who are confident they understand grace, feel enlightened and even proud about living and worshipping as they desire rather than seeking to offer to God what he has requested.

Yet for Paul, grace centered around the event of God’s giving of Christ, rather than a carte blanche benevolent license from God. Thus the gospel with its message of grace expects people to respond with "the obedience of faith" (Romans 16:25-26; 1:5).

For Paul, it is through Christ "we have access to this grace in which we stand" (Romans 5:2). Those in Christ are those who are saved and hence free from condemnation. Romans 8:1-2 neither empowers doing things my way nor rebellion. Rather, "the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and in a godly manner in the present age" (Titus 2:11-12).

The topic of biblical grace will immediately draw us into discussing our assumptions about faith, works, and Law – words whose meanings also seem to have shifted during and since the Reformation. This article’s purpose involves calling us to consider whether our assumptions about biblical words align with those who penned scripture. It also invites us to read scripture closely inquiring whether we understand grace like Paul did.

1/ John Barclay, Paul & the Gift, pp. 24-39.


Barry Newton
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