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WHAT IS GRACE?
The Word Charis
In the English New Testament, the word “grace” is always a translation of (charis), a word that occurs in the Greek text something over 170 times (the reading is uncertain in places). In secular Greek of all periods it is also a very common word, and in both Biblical and secular Greek it is used with far more meanings than can be represented by any one term in English Primarily (a) the word seems to denote pleasant external appearance, “gracefulness” “loveliness”; compare the personification in the Graces.” Such a use is found in Lu 4:22, where `wondered at the charm of his words’ is a good translation, and similarly in Col 4:6. (b) Objectively, charis may denote the impression produced by “gracefulness,” as in 3Jo 1:4 `greater gratification have I none than this’ (but many manuscripts read chara, “joy,” here). (c) As a mental attribute charis may be translated by “graciousness,” or, when directed toward a particular person or persons, by “favor.” So in Lu 2:52, “Jesus advanced …. in favor with God and men.” (d) As the complement to this, charis denotes the emotion awakened in the recipient of such favor, i.e., “gratitude.” So Lu 17:9 reads literally, `Has he gratitude to that servant?’ In a slightly transferred sense charis designates the words or emotion in which gratitude is expressed, and so becomes “thanks” (some 10 t, Ro 6:17, etc.)’. (e) Concretely, charis may mean the act by which graciousness is expressed, as in 1Co 16:3, where the King James Version translates by “liberality,” and the Revised Version (British and American) by “bounty.” These various meanings naturally tend to blend into each other, and in certain cases, it is difficult to fix the precise meaning that the writer meant the word to convey, a confusion that is common to both New Testament and secular Greek and in secular Greek, the word has a still larger variety of meanings that scarcely concern theologian.
Grace as Power
Naturally, the various meanings of the word were simply taken over from ordinary language by the New Testament writers. And so it is quite illegitimate to try to construct on the basis of all the occurrences of the word a single doctrine that will account for all the various usages. That one word could express both “charm of speech” and “thankfulness for blessings” was doubtless felt to be a mere accident, if it was thought of at all. But nonetheless, the very elasticity of the word enabled it to receive still another–new and technically Christian–meaning. This seems to have originated in part by fusing together two of the ordinary significances. In the first place, as in (e) above, charis may mean “a gift.” In 1 Cor 16:3; 2Co 8:19 it is the money given by the Corinthians to the Jerusalemites. In 2 Cor 9:8 it is the increase of worldly goods that God grants for charitable purposes. In 2 Cor 1:15 it is the benefit received by the Corinthians from a visit by Paul.
In a more spiritual sense, charis is the endowment for an office in the church (Eph 4:7), more particularly for the apostolate (Ro 1:5; 12:3; 15:15; 1Co 3:10; Eph 3:2,7). So in 1Co 1:4-7 margin charis is expanded into “word and all knowledge,” endowments with which the Corinthians were especially favored. In 1 Pet 1:13 charis is the future heavenly blessedness that Christians are to receive; in 3:7 it is the present gift of “life.” In the second place, charis is the word for God’s favor, a sense of the term that is especially refined by Paul (see below). But God’s favor differs from man’s in that it cannot be conceived of as inactive. A favorable “thought” of God’s about a man involves of necessity the reception of some blessing by that man, and “to look with favor” is one of the commonest Biblical paraphrases for “bestow a blessing.” Between “God’s favor” and “God’s favors” there exists a relation of active power, and as charis denoted both the favor and the favors, it was the natural word for the power that connected them. This use is very clear in 1Co 15:10, where Paul says, “not I, but the grace of God which was with me” labored more abundantly than they all: grace is something that labors. So in 2Co 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness”; compare 2Ti 2:1, “strengthened in the grace,” and 1Pe 4:10, “stewards of the manifold grace.” Evidently, in this sense, “grace” is almost a synonym for the Spirit, and there is little real difference between “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power” in Ac 6:5,8, while there is a very striking parallel between Eph 4:7-13 and 1Co 12:4-11, with “gifts of grace” in the one passage, and “gifts of the Spirit” in the other. And this connection between grace and the Spirit is found definitely in the formula “Spirit of grace” in Heb 10:29 (compare Zec 12:10). And, as is well known, it is from this sense of the word that the Catholic doctrine of grace developed.
Grace in Justification
This meaning of charis was obtained by expanding and combining other meanings. By the opposite process of narrowly restricting one of the meanings of the word, it came again into Christian theology as a technical term, but this time in a sense quite distinct from that just discussed. The formation of this special sense seems to have been the work of Paul. When charis is used with the meaning “favor,” nothing at all is implied as to whether or not the favor is deserved. So, for instance, in the New Testament, when in Lu 2:52 it is said that “Jesus advanced …. in favor with God and men,” the last possible thought is that our Lord did not deserve this favor. Compare also Lu 2:40 and Ac 2:47 and, as less clear cases, Lu 1:30; Ac 7:46; Heb 4:16; 12:15,28. But the word has abundant use in secular Greek in the sense of unmerited favor, and Paul seized on this meaning of the word to express a fundamental characteristic of Christianity. The basic passage is Ro 11:5-6, whereas a definition is given, “If it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.” That the word is used in other senses could have caused no 1st-century reader to miss the meaning, which, indeed, is unmistakable. “Grace” in this sense is an attitude on God’s part that proceeds entirely from within Himself, and that is conditioned in no way by anything in the objects of His favor. So in Ro 4:4. If salvation is given on the basis of what a man has done, then salvation is given by God as the payment of a debt. But when faith is reckoned for what it is not, i.e. righteousness, there is no claim on man’s part, and he receives as a pure gift something that he has not earned. (It is quite true that faith involves moral effort, and so may be thought of as a sort of a “work”; it is quite true that faith does something as a preparation for receiving God’s further gifts. But it simply clouds the exegetical issue to bring in these ideas here, as they certainly were not present in Paul’s mind when the verses were being written.) “Grace” then, in this sense is the antinomy to “works” or to “law”; it has a special relation to the guilt of sin (Ro 5:20; 6:1), and has almost exactly the same sense as “mercy.” Indeed, “grace” here differs from “mercy” chiefly in connoting eager love as the source of the act. Of course, it is this sense of grace that dominates Ro 3:1-31 through Ro 6:1-23, especially in thesis Ro 3:24, while the same use is found in Ga 2:21; Eph 2:5,8; 2Ti 1:9. The same strict sense underlies Ga 1:6 and is found, less sharply formulated, in Tit 3:5-7. (Ga 5:4 is perhaps different.) Outside of Paul’s writings, his definition of the word seems to be adopted in Joh 1:17; Ac 15:11; Heb 13:9, while a perversion of this definition in the direction of antinomianism is the subject of the invective in Jude 1:4. And, of course, it is from the word in this technical Pauline sense that an elaborate Protestant doctrine of grace has been developed.
Special Uses of Grace
A few special uses of the word may be noted. That the special blessing of God on a particular undertaking (Ac 14:26; 15:40) should be called a “grace” needs no explanation. In Lu 6:32-34, and 1Pe 2:19-20, charis seems to be used in the sense of “that which deserves the thanks of God,” i.e. a specifically Christian act as distinguished from an act of “natural morality.” “Grace for grace” in Joh 1:16 is a difficult phrase, but an almost exact parallel in Philo (Poster. Cain, 43) may fix the sense as “benefit on benefit.” But the tendency of the New Testament writers is to combine the various meanings the word can have, something that is particularly well illustrated in 2Co 8:1-24; 9:1-15. In these two chapters the word occurs 2Co 10:1-18 t, but in so many different senses as to suggest that Paul is consciously playing with the term. Charis is the money given to the Jerusalemites by the Corinthians (2Co 8:19), it is the increase of goods that God will grant the Corinthians (2Co 9:8), it is the disposition of the givers (2Co 8:6), it is the power of God that has wrought this disposition (2Co 8:1; 9:14), it is the act of Christ in the Incarnation (2Co 8:9; contrast the distinction between “God’s grace” and “Christs act” in Heb 2:9), it is the thanks that Paul renders (2Co 9:15). That all a Christian is and all that he has is God’s gift could have been stated of course without the use of any special term at all. But in these two chapters, Paul has taught this truth by using for the various ideas always the same term and by referring this term to God at the beginning and the end of the section. That is, to the multiplicity of concepts there is given a unity of terminology, corresponding to the unity given the multiple aspects of life by the thought of entire dependence on God. So charis, “grace,” becomes almost an equivalent for “Christianity,” viewed as the religion of dependence on God through Christ. As one may think of entering Christianity, abiding in it, or falling from it, so one may speak of entering into (Ro 5:2), abiding in (Ac 13:43), or falling from (Ga 5:4) grace; compare 1Pe 5:12. So the teaching of Christianity may be summed up as word or gospel of grace (Ac 14:3; 20:24,32). So “grace be with you” closes the Epistles as a sufficient summary of all the blessings that can be wished Christian readers. At the beginning of the Epistles the words “and peace” are usually added, but this is due only to the influence of the Jewish greeting “peace be with you” (Lu 10:5, etc.), and not to any reflection on “grace” and “peace” as separate things. (It is possible that the Greek use of chairein, “rejoice,” as an epistolary salutation (so in Jas 1:1) influenced the Christian use of charis. But that “grace and peace” was consciously regarded as a universalistic combination of Jewish and Gentilecustom is altogether unlikely.) The further expansion of the introductory formula by the introduction of “mercy” in 1 and 2 Tim is quite without theological significance.
The teaching of Christ
In the Greek Gospels, charis is used in the words of Christ only in Lu 6:32-34; 17:9. As Christ spoke in Aram, the choice of this word is due to Luke, probably under the influence of its common Christian use in his own day. And there is no word in our Lord’s recorded sayings that suggests that He employed habitually any especial term to denote grace in any of its senses. But the ideas are unambiguously present. That the pardon of sins is a free act on God’s part may be described as essential in Christ’s teaching, and the lesson is taught in all manner of ways. The prodigal knowing only his own wretchedness (Lu 15:20), the publican without merit to urge (Lu 18:13), the sick who need a physician (Mr 2:17), they who hunger and thirst after righteousness (Mt 5:6), these are the ones for whom God’s pardon is inexhaustible. And positive blessings, be they temporal or spiritual, are to be looked for from God, with perfect trust in Him who clothes the lilies and knows how to give good gifts to His children (Mt 7:11; here Lu 11:13 has “Holy Spirit” for “gifts,” doubtless a Lukan interpretation, but certainly a correct one). Indeed, it is not too much to say that Christ knows but one unpardonable sin, the sin of spiritual self-satisfaction–“That which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lu 16:15; compare Lu 17:7-10; Mt 20:1-16).
In the Old Testament
There is no word in Hebrew that can represent all the meanings of charis, and in the Septuagint charis itself is used, practically, only as a translation of the Hebrew chen, “favor,” this restriction of meaning being due to the desire to represent the same Hebrew word by the same Greek word as far as possible. And chen, in turn, is used chiefly only in the phrase “find favor” (Ge 6:8, etc.), whether the reference is to God or men, and without theological importance. Much nearer Paul’s use of charis is ratson, “acceptance,” in such passages as Isa 60:10, “In my favor have I had mercy on thee”; Ps 44:3, “not …. by their own sword …. but …. because thou wast favorable unto them.” Perhaps still closer parallels can be detected in the use of checedh, “kindness,” “mercy,” as in Ex 20:6, etc. But, of course, a limitation of the sources for the doctrine to passages containing only certain words would be altogether unjust. The main lines seem to be these: (1) Technically, salvation by grace in the New Testament is opposed to an Old Testament doctrine of salvation by works (Ro 4:4; 11:6), or, what is the same thing, by law (Ro 6:14; Joh 1:17); i.e men and God are thought of as parties to a contract, to be fulfilled by each independently. Most of the legislation seems to presuppose some idea of man as a quantity quite outside of God, while De 30:11-14 states explicitly that the law is not too hard nor too far off for man. (2) Yet even this legalism is not without important modifications. The keeping of the law is man’s work, but that man has the law to keep is something for which God only is to be thanked. Ps 119:1-176 is the essence of legalism, but the writer feels overwhelmed throughout by the greatness of the mercy that disclosed such statutes to men. After all, the initial (and vital!) act is God’s not man’s. This is stated most sharply in Eze 23:1-4–Oholibah and her sister became God’s, not because of any virtue in them, but in spite of most revolting conduct. Compare De 7:7, etc. (3) But even in the most legalistic passages, an absolute literal keeping of the law is never (not even in such a passage as Nu 15:30-31) made a condition of salvation. The thought of transgression is at all times tempered with the thought of God’s pardon. The whole sacrificial system, in so far as it is expiatory, rests on God’s gracious acceptance of something in place of legal obedience, while the passages that offer God’s mercy without demanding even a sacrifice (Isa 1:18; Mic 7:18-20, etc.) are countless. Indeed, in Eze 16:1-63; 20:1-49; 23:1-49, mercy is promised to a nation that is spoken of as hardly even desiring it, a most extreme instance. (4) But a mere negative granting of pardon is a most deficient definition of the Old Testament idea of God’s mercy, which delights in conferring positive benefits. The gift to Abraham of the land of Canaan, liberation from Egypt, food in the wilderness, salvation from enemies, deliverance from exile–all of Israel’s history can be felt to be the record of what God did for His people through no duty or compulsion, grateful thanksgiving for such unmerited blessings filling, for instance, much of the Psalter. The hearts of men are in God’s keeping, to receive from Him the impulse toward what is right (1Ch 29:18, etc.). And the promise is made that the God who has manifested Himself as a forgiving Father will in due time take hold of His children to work in them actual righteousness (Isa 1:26; 4:3,1; 32:1-8; 33:24; Jer 31:33,14; Eze 36:25-26; Zec 8:1-23; Da 9:24; Ps 51:10-12) With this promise–for the Old Testament always a matter of the future–the Old Testament teaching passes into that of the New Testament.
Most of the discussions of the Biblical doctrine of grace have been faulty in narrowing the meaning of “grace” to some special sense, and then endeavoring to force this special sense on all the Biblical passages. For instance, Roman scholars, starting with the meaning of the word in (say) 2Co 12:9, have made Ro 3:24 state that men are justified by the infusion of Divine holiness into them, an interpretation that utterly ruins Paul’s argument. On the other hand, Protestant extremists have tried to reverse the process and have argued that grace cannot mean anything except favor as an attitude, with results that are equally disastrous from the exegetical standpoint. And a confusion has resulted that has prevented men from seeing that most of the controversies about grace are at cross-purposes. A rigid definition is hardly possible, but still a single conception is actually present in almost every case where “grace” is found–the conception that all a Christian has or is, is centered exclusively in God and Christ, and depends utterly on God through Christ. The kingdom of heaven is reserved for those who become as little children, for those who look to their Father in loving confidence for every benefit, whether it be for the pardon so freely given, or for the strength that comes from Him who works in them both to will and to do.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF GRACE?
This feature of spiritual purpose in the Bible is one of the most obvious things about it. It gives to the Bible what is sometimes termed its “organic unity.” The Bible has a beginning, middle, and end. The opening chapters of Gen have their counterpart in the “new heaven and new earth” and paradise restored of the closing chapters of Revelation (21; 22). Man’s sin is made the starting point for disclosures of God’s grace. The patriarchal history, with its covenants and promises, is continued in the story of the Exodus and the events that follow, in fulfillment of these promises. Dt recapitulates the lawgiving at Sinai. Josh sees the people put in possession of the promised land. Backsliding, rebellion, failure, do not defeat God’s purpose but are overruled to carry it on to a surer completion. The monarchy is made the occasion of new promises to the house of David (2Sa 7:1-29). The prophets root themselves in the past, but, at the very hour when the nation seems to sink in ruin; hold out bright hopes of a greater future in the extension of God’s kingdom to the Gentiles, under Messiah’s rule. A critical writer, Kautzsch, has justly said: “The abiding value of the Old Testament lies above all in this, that it guarantees to us with absolute certainty the fact and the process of a Divine plan and way of salvation, which found its conclusion and fulfillment in the new covenant, in the person and work of Jesus Christ” (Bleibende Bedeutung des Altes Testament, 22, 24, 28-29, 30-31).
Fulfillment in Christ
How truly all that was imperfect, transitional, temporary, in the Old Testament was brought to realization and completion in the redemption and spiritual kingdom of Christ need not here be dwelt upon. Christ is the prophet, priest, and king of the New Covenant. His perfect sacrifice, “once for all,” supersedes and abolishes the typical sacrifices of the old economy (Heb 9:1-28 through Heb 10:1-39). His gift of the Spirit realizes what the prophets had foretold of God’s law being written in men’s hearts (Jer 31:31-34; 32:39-40; Eze 11:19-20, etc.). His kingdom is established on moveless foundations and can have no end (Php 2:9-11; Heb 12:28; Re 5:13, etc.). In tracing the lines of this redeeming purpose of God, brought to light in Christ, we gain the key which unlocks the inmost meaning of the whole Bible. It is the revelation of a “gospel.”
by Burton Scott Easton and James Orr