What makes grace truly grace?

March 8, 2022

There are words in modern Christian vernacular that have assumed a contrary or incomplete meaning compared to that of the original authors and hearers of the New Testament. One of those words is “charis”, a Greek word usually translated as “grace” in English Bibles. It's used often in church names (I grew up attending a church called "Grace Fellowship Church") and song lyrics ("if grace was an ocean, we're all sinking"). In some passages in Paul’s letters (Ephesians 2, Romans 6, Galatians 2-3, and others), “grace” is often paired with “faith” and sometimes contrasted with “law” and “works” (which also happen to be two other words that have assumed a contrary/incomplete meaning).

Yet because of the writings and influence of 4th and 16th century theologians like Augustine and Luther, modern evangelicals typically hear this contrast as “receiving forgiveness a free gift” vs. “earning forgiveness through good deeds”. As it goes, God gave “grace” through the death and resurrection of Jesus and relieved the heavy burden of trying to earn forgiveness by doing “works of the law”. All one must do now is tell God that they’re a sorry sinner and that they believe that he died and rose again for them. All a sinner has to do now is “receive his love” in order to be pleasing to God and experience true life before they go to heaven when they die. I’ve heard pastors say “God doesn’t require anything from us other than that we accept his free gift. That’s the gospel.

Or is it?

A historical study of the Greek word “charis” underscores a preexisting meaning in the ancient world. It was a primarily secular (as opposed to "religious") word and was used to speak of reciprocity and mutuality both among humans and between mortals and the gods. In other words, “grace” involves actions from both parties, both the giver and the recipient if it. “Grace” must be met with “grace”, and one who failed to return the favor done to them would eventually be excluded from the sociological system altogether.

One ancient text from Aristotle said:

“Grace (charis) may be defined as helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself [or herself], but for that of the person helped.” (Rhetoric 2.7.1)

But “charis” was also used to speak of the response to a benefactor for their gifts. For instance, Demosthenes, a Greek orator from Athens, said:

“... but you are so ungrateful (acharistos) and wicked by nature that, having been made free out of slavery and wealthy out of poverty by these people, you do not show gratitude (charin echeis) toward them but rather enriched yourself by taking action against them” (De corona 131).

In light of abundant historical evidence, the New Testament authors and Jesus’ early disciples in the Diaspora understood the meaning of “grace” as derived primarily from the use of the word at the time, involving the giving of benefits and the requiting/returning of favors.

So for grace to truly be grace as they discerned it, a gift must be met with gratitude. In Greek and Roman times, “failure to show gratitude was classed as the worst of crimes, being compared to sacrilege against the gods” (deSilva, 42).

The psalmist understood this well. In writing of his deliverance from oppression and death by God, he declares:

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people… I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. (Psalm 116:12-14, 17)

Writings from the Greek and Roman world also show us that a response of gratitude was not sufficient to maintain the gracious relationship between the benefactor and recipient. To continue to benefit, continued loyalty and allegiance was required - even when it proved costly.

So why does this matter?

It’s critical to understand that grace was never earned in the ancient world (as it would fail to actually be “charis”). So the modern Lutheran idea of “earning salvation by works” isn’t a helpful framework to place first century “charis” into.

A historical understanding should help us make the connection between receiving and responding. “Grace” must always be met with “grace”. Because God has been generous toward us, we must respond with continual gratitude, loyalty, and allegiance - even if it is costly. It was not sufficient to just “receive” and not respond appropriately if one wanted to maintain the relationship with a benefactor. This is why Paul and Barnabas exhorted new disciples to “continue in the grace (charis) of God” (Acts 13:43).

Paul also wrote that in order to be presented “holy and blameless and above reproach before [Jesus]”, the Colossians must “continue in the faith” (Colossians 1:22-23), that is, to do more than just believe, but to respond appropriately with exclusive loyalty and obedience.

The Lord has used this more complete historical understanding of “charis” to strengthen me greatly. To continue to benefit from God’s past and future gifts and for grace to be truly grace, his generosity must be met by my gratitude, loyalty, and allegiance.

More than just accepting the free gift, an ongoing appropriate response is required. “The indicative and the imperative of the New Testament are held together by this circle of grace: we must respond generously and fully, for God has given generously and fully.” (deSilva, 61)

For more, I’d highly encourage you to read this article from David deSilva entitled Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament. Dr. DeSilva is a New Testament and Greek professor at Ashland Theological Seminary.

This post was slightly expanded from a Twitter thread. Read it here.

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About the author

Joshua Hawkins is a pastor, Bible teacher, and content creator for disciples of Jesus from College Station, Texas. He co-hosts The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, a weekly audio show exploring how a first century Jew would have understood the Gospel. He's also an all-around tech nerd and enjoys road cycling.

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