God's grace requires our ongoing response

April 24, 2023

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"Grace" is a common word in modern Christian vernacular, but had a preexisting meaning in Greco-Roman society before Jesus and Paul. In this short teaching video, I discuss how it would have been understood in the first century and what it means for disciples of Jesus today.

Dr. David deSilva's "Patronage and Reciprocity": https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf

A short summary I wrote on Dr. deSilva's article: https://www.joshuahawkins.com/blog/2022/03/what-makes-grace-truly-grace/


Hey friends, Josh here. It’s been a little while since I’ve made a teaching video like this, I’ve been making a few shorts and been focusing on getting my cycling disciple videos off the ground where I’m trying to reach a bit of a different group than these talking head, more in-depth teaching videos. So if you’re watching this as a subscriber of my cycling content, this is just who I am, a road cyclist and a pastor, so - don’t click away - stick around and you can learn something.

Today I want to spend a few minutes talking about “grace”. There are a number of really weighty words like this one in the Christian tradition. Grace, faith, repentance, cross, righteousness, just to name a few. Just think of the number of Christian songs that use the word… Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, a popular older one. Or “If grace was an ocean, we’re all sinking”, a popular newer one. Or think of all the churches that have the word “grace” in the name. I grew up attending “Grace Fellowship Church” and even today, my local church here in Texas is called “Grace Bible Church”. So there’s no shortage of the word in common Christian vernacular.

Of course the reason why this is a weighty word in the Christian tradition is because it’s a Biblical word. Jesus never uses it according to the Gospel authors, even though some say it might sound like when you read John 1 that nobody ever heard of grace until Jesus came. And the word is all over the place in Paul’s letters. Not because he invented the concept or used it as some loan word from another obscure tradition or something - no, Paul used it often in his letters because the word grace, or “charis” in the Greek, was actually a really significant word in the Greco-Roman culture of the time.

Dr. David deSilva has written and lectured a lot about the historical context of this word, “charis”, and I want to work through a little bit of that with you, because if we want to rightly understand such an important concept like grace - as Paul’s recipients would have heard it and understood it, we’ve got to rewind back before the reformers like Luther and Calvin in the 16th century and back before Augustine in the 4th century.

Dr. deSilva points out that “charis” had a preexisting meaning in the ancient world, and he shows that it was primarily a secular word, as opposed to "religious" word, and was used to speak of reciprocity and mutuality both among humans and between humans and the Greek and Roman gods. So what does he mean by reciprocity and mutuality?

Well, he describes it in a more generic way as a “patron/client” relationship, where there’s a patron, someone who gives support or help to someone else, and there’s a client, someone who receives that help or support. He says that “patronage” is a system in which access to goods, positions, or services is enjoyed by means of relationship. The key takeaway point is that this wasn’t impersonal like a contract, it wasn’t like “hey, I want your herd of cattle, here’s 500 pieces of silver for it” - this system of reciprocity, this idea of “charis” or “grace” was not transactional. What was implied in Greco Roman culture was that grace involved an ongoing relationship between the patron, the giver, and the client, the recipient of the help or aid or support.

Dr. deSilva points out that there are a number of ancient authors, some well before the time of Jesus and Paul, that wrote about this idea of grace - like Seneca, the Roman philosopher, or Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, or Demosthenes, the Greek statesman. Seneca, in fact, said that this idea of grace, this patron/client relationship, was the “practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society”. In other words, it’s like the glue that holds civilization together. Much like today, the ancient world had marketplaces where you could go to buy and sell the things you needed for daily life, but for anything else outside of the ordinary, you’d need access to the person who had what you needed - you would need a favor. Seneca said this would be things like getting started in business, like credit, or gaining more influence in society, or getting sound wisdom and advice. The one in need would seek out the patron, and deSilva says that if the patron granted the petition, the petitioner would become the client of the patron and a potentially long-term relationship would begin. He goes on and says “This relationship would be marked by the mutual exchange of desired goods and services, the patron being available for assistance in the future, the client doing everything in his or her power to enhance the fame and honor of the patron (publicizing the benefit and showing the patron respect), remaining loyal to the patron, and providing services whenever the opportunity arose.”

So did you catch that? This concept of grace was so central to Greco Roman civilization that, as Seneca said, was like the glue that held society together. In fact, Seneca also comments on a common image from both Greek and Roman mythology, and that’s the picture of the Three Graces - three sister goddesses dancing together in a circle, holding hands. Maybe you’ve seen this at some point. Seneca said that this picture represented how grace functioned in society. He wrote this:

Some would have it appear that there is one for bestowing a benefit, one for receiving it, and a third for returning it …. Why do the sisters hand in hand dance in a ring which returns upon itself? For the reason that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course in anywhere broken, and it has most beauty if it is continuous and maintains an uninterrupted succession

So let’s break that down a bit. Seneca is saying that grace is like a common image of his day, 3 sisters dancing together in a circle, holding hands. The first part of grace is when a ruler or powerful man looks at someone who needs help, who needs the favor. And that starts the dance. Then the actual gift and the receipt of it, that’s the second part, is also called “grace”. And the third part is when the recipient of the gift returns charis or grace back to the patron, the one who gave them the gift. And the point Seneca makes is that if the hands in this dance are broken, if one of these parts doesn’t occur, civilization falls apart.

Now of course the client, one who received the help or the gift from the patron can’t return the same kind of favor back to the patron, right? He was the one in need in the first place. But what he can return, and what deSilva points out so clearly in his writings and lectures on this, is loyalty, thanks, and allegiance. In other words, the recipient of the grace returns grace by being loyal, by outwardly demonstrating commitment, and by showing deep gratitude to the giver. Demosthenes and Seneca would indicate that ingratitude was like the worst crime you could commit, because these three graces were considered goddesses - he says that ingratitude “so effectually disrupts and destroys the harmony of the human race”

So what should a follower of Jesus do with all this?

Well, when we come to read the letters of Paul and he uses this word “charis” or “grace”, we’ve got to have this preexisting cultural concept in mind. Paul wrote to people all around the Roman Empire who would have been very familiar with these ideas. We tend to read Paul’s words with a more modern understanding of grace as a “free gift”, without any strings attached. As it goes, we just have to say the prayer to accept Jesus and we get the gift of salvation, and then we’re good. But for Paul and the recipients of his letters, an ongoing response is required: “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. As Dr. deSilva said, it was not sufficient to just “receive” and not respond appropriately if someone wanted to maintain the relationship with a patron or benefactor. I’ve heard pastors say “God doesn’t require anything from us other than that we accept his free gift. That’s the gospel.” But if we lived in the Apostle Paul’s day, we’d see how that’s not the complete picture of how he would have understood the idea of grace.

Now before you write in the comments down below “stop preaching salvation by works!”, understand that’s not what I’m saying at all, and it’s not what Paul said or what his recipients would have heard - we just have a filter or lens that comes from the 16th century when we hear the word “grace”. “Doing works” didn’t cause a patron to be favorable toward a client, it was the petition of the client and the patron’s favorable disposition that caused them to dispense the gift in the first place. What is often missing from the modern conversation is the reciprocity aspect - the pledging of the client’s loyalty, thanks, and allegiance back to the patron. This was native to the conversation of grace in Paul’s day, not a separate subject altogether.

So this video is getting long and there’s much more to say - maybe one of my friends will say it on one of their upcoming videos, maybe I’ll come back for more - but the takeaway point is this: More than just accepting the free gift that God offers us, an ongoing appropriate response is required. To continue to benefit from God’s past and future gifts and for grace to be truly grace, his generosity must be met by our loyalty, thanks, and allegiance. May the Lord help us not to fall short in responding fully to the grace of God.

Maybe next time we can look at some passages where this response of loyalty, thanks, and allegiance back to God is super clear, but for now, I’ve linked a Dr. David deSilva article and a small summary I’ve written in the description down below. Amen. If this has been encouraging or if you have questions, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try to respond. God bless, see you in the next one.

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