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Grace. Does it mean what we think it means?

Some thoughts shared with a few friends on Friday, 3 February, 2017.

‘Grace’ – our English equivalent of the Greek charis – was one of Paul’s favourite words. Of its 155 appearances in the New Testament, 100 came from his pen, while a further twenty-four are attributable to Luke, Paul’s fellow traveller on his second and third missionary journeys and his constant companion during Paul’s two-year imprisonment in Rome. But what did Paul and Luke mean by the word? I imagine that, if we have taken on board what has generally been taught from the pulpit, our answer will be, ‘The unmerited favour of God’; or, if we are still clinging to the rather twee acronym we were given in Sunday School, ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’. But did grace – does grace – ever really mean that?

The word charis has a shared origin with chara – ‘joy’ – so its basic meaning is, ‘that which gives joy’. But that really doesn’t get us very far because there are many things that can give us joy. Does the Septuagint – the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible – help? Well, yes, to some extent.  The scholars who made that Hebrew-Greek translation in around the third century before Christ always used the word charis to represent the Hebrew word chen, and that Hebrew word undoubtedly meant ‘favour’ and almost always occurred in the phrase ‘found favour in the eyes of’ someone or other, usually the Lord. ‘So,’ you say, ‘doesn’t that actually support the meaning for charis – “grace” – that you seem to be challenging?’

Well, yes and no. We might note, first, that in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) chen did not particularly signify unmerited favour. Indeed, the first person to ‘find favour in the eyes of’ the Lord’ was Noah (Gen. 6:8), and the implication of the following verse is that he found favour precisely because he did merit it … ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation [and] walked with God’ (Gen. 6.9). Be that as it may, it is clear, when we look at all the instances of the word charis in the New Testament, that in the writings of Paul and Luke in particular (and, as we shall see, of Peter too) it was being given a depth of meaning and a significance that went well beyond the sense of ‘favour’ that it continued to have in ordinary, everyday speech.

A way of discovering what that significance was, is, of course, to search the writings of Paul and Luke for occurrences of the word charis in a context which itself gives a clear indication of what they understood by the word and intended it to mean; and there are several to be found. The most important is, perhaps, Paul’s record of what the Lord said to him when refusing to grant his request that his troublesome ‘thorn in the flesh’ be removed.  ‘My grace (charis) is sufficient for you,’ says Jesus, ‘for my power (dunamis) is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). In this place, certainly, says Ralph P Martin in his commentary on this verse, ‘ it is right to take dunamis and charis as synonyms’ (1). Grace, then, is not only to do with God’s favour; it is also, it seems, to do with God’s power … in particular, the power of Jesus in us.

Interesting! But do other occurrences of charis in a descriptive context bear that out? Well, yes, they do. Take 1 Corinthians 3:10. There, Paul says that, despite the fact that he himself does not amount to ‘anything’ (1 Cor. 3:7), ‘by the grace (charis) God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.’ Grace, he is saying, empowered him to build the foundations of the church.

And what about this from Luke. ‘Stephen, full of grace (charis) and power (dunamis), did great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). There, power is linked to, but somehow distinguished from, grace. There, Luke seems to understand grace as that which brings power and makes it accessible to us. So also in Acts 14:2 … ‘So they [Paul and Barnabas] remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace (charis)by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.’ When Paul and Barnabas spoke the words they were graced with, power was released. Commenting on the term ‘words of grace’ that are found in Luke 4:22 (‘All spoke well of him [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words [literally, “the words of grace”] that came from his mouth’), John Nolland in his commentary on Luke says that ‘words of grace’ are ‘not winsome words … or words about God’s mercy or grace … but words endued with the power of God’s grace. Luke uses charis, “grace,” as a quasi-substantial power, especially as resident in or on people … charis is the divine influence which is present in the words and which gives the words their quite tangible impact’ (2).

All this must surely lead us to conclude that the generally taught and accepted idea of grace is, at best, inadequate. As Paul and Luke use the word, charis – ‘grace’ – is clearly more than just another divine attribute – a favourable disposition on the part of God towards undeserving humanity. It is also (and maybe predominantly) a word denoting the empowering or enabling presence of God in a human being. Handley G C Moule memorably expressed something of this when he wrote in his commentary on Romans: ‘Grace is God for us, grace is God in us’ (3). Grace has a two-fold force: it is both God’s favourable attitude towards us and his enabling presence within us.

Once we accept that this is what grace really is, we shall, of course, see many a text in quite a different light. What about Gabriel’s opening words to Mary, ‘Greetings, favoured one [literally, ‘one having received grace’]! The Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). What Mary had received was not just God’s favour but his empowering presence within her that would enable her to ‘conceive and bear a son’ (Luke 1:31) without the intervention of Joseph. ‘But wait a moment,’  you say, ‘Surely the conception of Jesus was the work, not of grace, but of the Holy Spirit?’ Yes, but as James Dunn says in his commentary on Romans, grace ‘overlaps in meaning’ with Spirit (4). Indeed, as a comparison of Romans 6:14 and Galatians 5:18 reveals, ‘grace’ and ‘Spirit’ are, in Paul’s thinking, almost synonymous (5). So no wonder Paul begins his letters by praying for grace to be given to all the believers in all the churches to which he writes (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:2, Philemon 1:3) and ends them by praying: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you’ (Rom. 16:20, 24; 1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; 1 Thes. 5:28; 2 Thes. 3:18, Philemon 1:25). Paul wants everyone to receive grace because it is not just something that gives us the warm glow of knowing that God loves us and accepts us, but is what actually empowers God’s people to be effective in doing God’s will in God’s way and in God’s good time. It is the Spirit of Jesus empowering us from within.

And speaking of the Spirit in this connection, what about spiritual gifts? The word Paul uses for such gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 is charismata, the plural of charisma – ‘gift’.  But that word in both its singular and plural form is derived from charis – ‘grace’ – so, in the light of our new understanding of what that word really means, we can see that charismata are not merely tokens of God’s unmerited favour towards us  but rather specific empowerings to do various things under the authority of God present in us by his Spirit. Am I being fanciful? No, because Paul specifically connects the two words in Romans 12:6: ‘ We have gifts (charismata) that differ according to the grace (charis) given to us,’ he says, ‘prophecy… ministry… teaching … exhortation…’ And he makes the same connection but in a different way in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7:  ‘Now there are varieties of gifts (charismata),’ he says, ‘but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates [energeo … energizes, empowers] all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ Then, finally, we need to look at 1 Peter 4:10: ‘As each has received a gift (charisma),’ he says, ‘use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace (charis). In other words, the empowering presence of God that is the essence of grace is there in his people to energise different forms of service in different members of his church.

How encouraging is all of this! Grace is the empowering presence of the Spirit of Jesus in our lives. The Spirit is within us not just to assure us of the Father’s love – though he so wonderfully does that – but also to keep fully-charged the power tools he has put in our hands to serve the church and world, and to extend his kingdom. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – his empowering presence in me – is sufficient for me too – just as it was for Paul; for his power is and will continue to be made perfect – to achieve its ends – in my weakness. Thanks be to God.

1. Ralph P Martin, Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Word, 1986), 419.
2. John Nolans, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1-9:20 (Word, 1989), 198-9.
3. Handley G C Moule, Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Leopold Classics, 2016), 22.
4. James D G Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Word, 1988), 17.
5. Ibid, 340.

2 comments on “Grace. Does it mean what we think it means?

  1. Angela says:

    Thank you. I have learned so much about grace this past year and what you have written has helped deepen my understanding futher.


    1. Neil says:

      Thank you, Angela … So pleased!


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