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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: May 2013

My readers may remember that one aspect of modern Christian speech that gets under my skin is the rampant misuse of the word “grace.” Christians regularly and frequently use this term to refer to “forgiveness” or “not being held accountable for our wrongs,” and we refer to “grace periods” as times during which we can escape punishment for error.

Christians also often use the word “grace” to refer to a gift that is unmerited. When many Christians say “we are saved by grace” they mean something like “we reap the benefit of salvation though we have done nothing to merit it.” But this interpretation is manifestly at odds with Paul’s own use of the term. For example, if “grace” has nothing to do with us, then how could the Galatians to whom Paul writes “fall from grace” (Galatians 5:4)? And Paul certainly makes quite clear in 1st Corinthians 9:27 that he labors for the Gospel is so that he will not be disqualified from its blessing.

 (Note to the well-read, I will discuss Ephesians 2:8-9 as an example.)

Since “grace” is a key word for the Christian gospel, it is important to understand what the term means, what the Jewish writers of Greek New Testament meant by the word. The word “grace” does not refer to unmerited goodness, nor does it directly refer to forgiveness or pardon.

In fact, the Greek word translated as “grace,” charis, generally presupposes that the receiver of the grace has pleased the giver. It literally means “that which delights” (The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). It can refer to holding someone in good favor because of this delight and can also refer to means and demonstrations of the pleasure one takes in another. In later times it frequently referred to gifts bestowed by a ruler. Its intransitive version is chara, which means “joy,” and is used 59 times in the Greek New Testament. For example, when the shepherds saw the star in Matthew 2:10, they rejoiced “with great joy.”

The clearest indication of this point in the Bible is Jesus’ oratory in Luke 6:32-36, a passage that explicitly refers to favor given in response to godly actions. The text of this passage (from the NRSV) is transcribed below, except I have inserted the word [grace] in those places where that Greek word shows up in the text. (In this passage it is commonly translated “credit” instead, which should say something about the meaning of the word!)

 “If you love those who love you, what [grace] is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what [grace] is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what [grace] is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

I’m not claiming that “grace” is the appropriate translation here, but I do believe consistent word choice would help readers; practically no one can be expected to know that the Greek word used here is elsewhere commonly translated “grace.” Knowing this would hopefully color one’s interpretation of several passages.

Perhaps a better translation would be “If you love those who love you, why should that bring you God’s favor?…” and then in Paul’s writings, the same word could be used “… we are saved through God’s favor…” and “…you have fallen from God’s favor…,” this would be less biasing in the interpretation as one would determine from context what (if anything) engendered this favor or its loss.

I have brought all the above up before, but in my recent readings of Philo I found two further excellent examples that should lay to rest the presumption that “grace” has some intrinsic notion of unmerited benefit. Philo is perhaps the most important writer to study when determining what certain Greek words meant to the Jews writing in the 1st century AD. He was a Greek-educated Jewish philosopher and theologian living in Alexandria (the birthplace of the Septuagint, which was the guiding Greek text for all Jews at the time) between 20 BC and 50 AD.

In On the Change of Names (52), Philo quotes and explains the giving of a covenant:

…for he says, “I will place my covenant between me and between thee;” and covenants and testaments are written for the advantage of those who are worthy of the gift, so that a testament is a symbol of grace, which God has placed between himself who proffers it and man who receives it.

(Emphasis mine.)

And again in passage 57 of the same text:

And this expression conceals beneath its figurative words such a meaning as this: There are very many kinds of covenants, which distribute graces and gifts to those who are worthy to receive them; but the highest kind of covenant of all is I myself.

Both of these texts are from C. D. Yong’s translation: The works of Philo: Complete and unabridged (345). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

The above quotes (from both Jesus and Philo) are not meant to indicate that grace always refers to unmerited kindness. Parents often favor their children over other boys and girls for reasons having nothing to do with their offspring’s objective superiority. In any given setting, one has to deduce whether the receiver of grace has played a role in the favor they have found or whether God has found them pleasing for some other reason. The Bible provides many examples where people have pleased God through their actions. Christ Himself describes many people as “righteous” and refers to God rewarding people for their individual works.

In any event, when we see the word “grace” in the New Testament, we should definitely not believe that the writer is attempting to reference or emphasize worthiness (or lack thereof) of the receiver. That’s simply not the meaning of the word, which should lead us to ask “then what is the writer attempting to draw our attention to when referring to ‘grace’?”

The key idea behind “grace,” especially as it is used by Paul, is that it is non-obligatory. There is a big difference between “non-obligatory” and “unmerited.” A graduation gift is non-obligatory, but it is certainly not unmerited or without any reference to the receiver’s conduct.

The main purpose of Romans and Galatians is to emphasize that the salvation available through Christ is a gift to the world rather than a contractual obligation to the Jews. Galatians is a simpler text to read, and it clearly describes how Christ’s coming is a fulfillment of a promise made to Abraham 400 years before the Law (i.e. the Mosaic Covenant) was given. Thus, it is impossible to claim that Jesus is a gift only to those who keep the Mosaic Covenant. The conclusion, extremely important in the middle of the 1st century, was that non-Jewish believers did not have to take on the Jewish cultural law to claim Jesus as their Lord. Neither could the Jews boast about being the cause of Jesus’ advent and hold that over their Gentile brothers as proof that Jewish practices were more godly.

It is this boasting that Paul refers to in Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:27-29, and the “works of the law” he refers to are the cultural markers and customs (circumcision, seasonal festivals, and eating habits) prescribed by the Jewish Torah [the Law]. Note in particular Romans 3:29, which makes no sense whatsoever if “works of the law” is taken to mean “godly deeds.” Paul refers explicitly to these practices in a few places, such as Colossians 2:16.

Notably, when Paul discusses the Final Judgment (rather than “salvation” which I claim has a different province), he is not bashful about the value of pleasing Christ: 2 Corinthians 5:9-10. Then again, neither is Christ (e.g., Matthew 12:36-37, Matthew 13:24-30, and Matthew 13:47-50.)  Interestingly, Matthew gives over a dozen vignettes of the Final Judgment and he also discusses the oft-quoted Isaiah 53:4, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Yet, Matthew interprets the meaning of this verse in a way that has nothing to do with a modern view that God punished Christ in our place. See Matthew 8:16-17.  

If one is forced to dissect the motivation for salvation, a reasonably simple and accurate model would be:

1. God is motivated to send Christ owing to God’s love for the world and God’s promise to Abraham, based on the latter’s righteous loyalty and obedience (Genesis 22:18, John 3:16-17, Galatians 3:8-18).

This promise, which Paul describes as the “preaching of the gospel” to Abraham in Galatians 3:8 was declared without any indicated provocation in Genesis 12:2-3 but is confirmed in Genesis 22:18, where God gives as the reason “because you have obeyed My voice.”

2. God is motivated to commence the New Covenant in response to Christ’s obedience, an obedience that naturally led to Christ’s death, a work that perfected Christ as High Priest before God. This covenant provides salvation from our sinful natures in the form of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-21, John 16:7, 1st Peter 2:23, Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 5:9).

Combining 1 and 2, we have that the salvation of the world and in the abstract is wholly based on God’s love, Christ’s righteousness, and Abraham’s finding favor with God.

3. Those worthy of this New Covenant are naturally drawn to Christ and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as the promise of that Covenant after being consecrated from their previous lives and baptized into a new one of repentance (John 3:20-21, John 14:15-16, Galatians 3:7, Acts 2:38, Acts 11:18, Titus 3:5).

4. The natural culmination of those who remain in the New Covenant (as well as all those deemed worthy to join on the day of the Final Judgment) is the resurrection of the body. Those with the Holy Spirit enjoy a foretaste of this in the present insofar as they participate in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6: 1-11, Romans 8:1-11, Romans 8:23-24).


When Paul discusses “grace” his goal is not to usurp God’s role as righteous judge, for “salvation” is not explicitly linked to the Final Judgment. Rather, Paul’s interest is in showing that the Jews do not have a monopoly on Jesus Christ. He did this by showing that God did not send Christ out of an obligation sourced in the Mosaic Law. Thus, in reference to Christ, the Jews had no reason to boast in their heritage or force it upon believing Gentiles. Thus, Gentiles should not feel their salvation depended on their taking up the trappings of the Mosaic Law (the “works of the law”).

Paul, rather, says that it is Abraham’s heirs, not Moses’ followers, who have a claim on Christ, and in Romans 4-9 he lays out his doctrine that the heirs to this claim are not the physical progeny of Abraham but Abraham’s spiritual progeny, those who had faith in God’s promises. (In the New Testament, this faith primarily refers to faith in the resurrection.)

In a manner very similar to how 1st-century Jews actually saw their own covenant (as opposed to how anti-Semitic Christians portrayed them afterward), the New Covenant owes its abstract existence completely to the goodness and charity of God, but individual members could prove themselves unworthy of the New Covenant and hence fall from it. In this way it is possible to “fall from grace” or “fail to enter God’s rest” or any of the other metaphors used by the writers of the New Testament when a believer failed to live in repentance. In some cases these metaphors are set in the present; in others they have an eschatological setting (Matthew 7: 21-23, Matthew 22:11-14, Hebrews 3:12-13, Peter 2:20-21, Revelation 3:15-16).

Thus, the “Final Judgment” is not best seen as a court of law where people are judged only on their sins (and not their godly deeds) and are convicted if they have a single unforgiven sin. The Bible never presents it as such. Neither is to there to be found among its many depictions of the Judgment a case where believers are treated differently from non-believers. Rather, it should be seen more as an immigration interview where Jesus selects people for (or allows them to remain in) the Covenant He inaugurated 2000 years ago and will perfect in due time.

In fact, the whole idea that “salvation” means “protection from God’s righteous judgment” is an invention of Saint Augustine, who lived nearly 400 after Christ. But that is a post for another day.