Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The 'Big Picture' series - 6: Grace

Practicality: “Grace” means favour, not forgiveness, and not kindness. We have God's favour when we are faithful to Him. “Grace” does not mean we can live wilfully sinful lives and expect God to be pleased with us, nor does it mean we can expect God to be pleased with us if we do not selflessly serve Him by loving others. Rather, God favours people whose quality of heart is like Christ’s – that of selfless service to God and love for others.



Grace is often said to be central to the Gospel. Many years of hearing Christians speak about grace has given me some insight into how most Christians think of it. Here, I will explain my understanding of the typical view, but I will try and peel back the layers of Christian jargon and catch-phrases to hopefully show the real nature and implications of “grace” as many Christians think of it.

If one thing is clear, it is that many people don’t have a clear idea of what Biblical “grace” actually is. Many see it as the forgiveness of sins that God ‘graciously’ gives us. Another idea is that it is God’s gracious bestowal of blessings on us, to make our lives more enjoyable. Still others would see God’s grace in the fact that He sent Jesus to “die for our sins”. Occasionally I hear that when we “open our hearts” to God He “works in us” to make us more like Christ “by His grace” – making “grace” a process or magical force synonymous with the idea that the Holy Spirit moulds and shapes those who accept Jesus into His likeness. Occasionally, we hear whispers that grace may be something we are to give others.

Common to all of these are a few interesting themes. Firstly, this “grace” is completely undeserved and unmerited, in that there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. This idea is very close to suggesting it is also unconditional, like it is a ‘free gift’ that we simply have to ‘receive’. Second, this idea of “grace” is perhaps described quite accurately by words like “kindness” and “acceptance” (dare I say even, “tolerance”). Finally, it is portrayed as something bestowed the ‘receiver’ not because of anything the ‘receiver’ has done, but rather the emphasis is that it is what the ‘giver’ of the grace does. It is almost like this “grace” can be passed around like a shoebox full of money – all you have to do is take it.

Are these ideas of grace are what the New Testament writers had in mind? Such ideas don’t seem to line up with the conclusions of my own study into this word, and think these ideas about grace not only dull the true and quite powerful meaning of grace in the Bible, but can also lead to conclusions that are simply unbiblical.

After reading through hundreds of verses where “charis” occurs in the greek NT and LXX, I am convinced that it means ‘favour’, and there are very few verses where this idea does not make perfect sense. We need to slightly expand the idea of favour to capture “charis”, though, because it is also used in the sense of “thanks”. In the Greek, though, both “favour” and “thanks” were described by this Greek word, and we get our two words from slightly different applications of the same idea. Now, “charis” is used in quite a distinctly different way to “aleos”, which means mercy or kindness. “Aleos” has the meaning most people associate with “charis”, but they are used in very different contexts and I am convinced they have quite different meanings. I could not find a use of “aleos” in the LXX which did not refer to a kind action or merciful deed. In contrast, “charis” is generally used without reference to any action, which could be expected if it simply means ‘favour’.

So how does such an idea fit with the gospel? To me, it means the gospel is not one of ‘cheap grace’, but describes how to have God’s favour. This is the good news – that tells us how we can have God’s favour. Now let me make it clear that God is merciful and kind, and cares for those who do not have his favour, as numerous verses describe. Christ himself told us to ‘love our enemies’, and then points to God as an exemplar of this, by caring for even wicked and sinful people who are against Him. But this does not mean God is please with them or that they have His favour. So this is quite a scary thought, that God not only is displeased with people who act against Him and His ways, but that they have quite literally “fallen from grace”. The more this idea has been mulling in my head, the more I notice verses where God states quite clearly that the wicked do not have his favour. Such verses strike quite a discord with the catch-cry of modern evangelism to this largely wicked and selfish generation that “God loves you”.

How do we gain God’s favour then? I believe the Bible clearly states it is by being faithful to Him and His commands – the type of “faith” I talked about in the first post in this series. Being faithful requires not merely warm fuzzy thinking, but actions that reflect our devotion to Him. Let me take the parable of the three servants who were given 5, 2, and 1 talents to explain (see Mat 25:14-46). The master gave his servants 5, 2, and 1 ‘talents’ respectively, which apparently was some amount of money. The ones with 5 and 2 both used them to make more money, thus being faithful to their master. The one with only 1 talent hid it and did not even make interest in the bank on it, thus being unfaithful to his master. The master was equally pleased with both the first and the second servant, but rebuked the unfaithful servant. The point is that the master’s favour was given not on how much money they had made, but rather whether they were fully devoted to serving the master in what they were doing – with all that they have been given.

Likewise, God’s favour is not given to us because of how much good we do or how little we sin, but rather whether we are serving Him completely and selflessly – not giving him merely a fraction of our devotion. Indeed, we serve him by not sinning and instead doing good, but I think it is the quality of our hearts and not the quantity of our actions that God favours. Of course, though, quality service to God will result in some quantity of good action. But we must not merely look at someone who is doing “more good” than another and think they are “more favoured”, for what matters is that they are selfless and living their lives to love God and others. The amount of good that people do is dependent not only on their heart, but also their spiritual maturity. I think God looks at a child who loves selflessly but can do little for others with more favour than an adult who could do much but hardly raises a finger to care for others.

So perhaps the most unbiblical misunderstanding is that in His “grace”, God overlooks the quality of our hearts and gives favour to people who mostly serve themselves rather than Him. This “grace” is understood as God’s toleration of our willful sin. Such an idea mistakes “charis” for “aleos”, and leads to the unbiblical conclusion that God has “favour” on the wicked and sinful. God giving favour to those who have a sinful heart and serve themselves instead of Him is the reverse of what Jesus described in the above parable. But do not misunderstand me – God is merciful and forgiving, look at David for example. We do make mistakes. But these are all our sins should be – mistakes. We cannot willingly and continually do something we know God is against and call it a ‘mistake’ – such action is willful disobedience. God looks upon our mistakes with mercy and compassion if we are faithful to Him – for faithful people have his favour - but the idea of God giving favour to people who are unfaithful to Him seems to go against Biblical teaching.

Sadly, the result of decades of Christians believing a doctrine of “cheap grace”, instead of a pure, righteous, Holy, faithful and Christ-like church it has become one full of tolerance and compromise. Gone are the days of discipline, now we are in “grace”. Even though the Bible clearly states Christians should have nothing to do with sin, we water these commands down with “grace”. The emphasis is no longer on the quality of our hearts, but on the quantity of people in our churches.

Not only does cheap grace sweep under the carpet God’s commands to not sin, but people also use it to hide His commands about what we should be doing. This sort of “grace” is given to those who do nothing. “We needn’t worry if we aren’t caring for others,” people think, “because we’ve got God’s grace so He loves us anyway – isn’t that amazing?” It would amaze me, because that’s not the God I know! The God I know cares for people and tells us to do the same, and in the Bible when people are selfish and uncaring God certainly doesn’t like it. The servant who did nothing with the one talent given him was harshly rebuked in Jesus’ parable, not given “grace”. Later in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that if we do not do the good God has commanded of us, we will be rebuked just like that servant. Not only has “cheap grace” made a church of compromise, but it has also made one full of apathy towards doing the good that God calls it to do.

Rather than quoting and explaining all the many verses I pondered over to reach my conclusions, I will end with just one short quote of Romans 5:1-2, which I have translated from the Greek into meaningful English as best I can. I will be happy to share my thoughts on other verses you may comment on.

“Therefore, we are righteous because of our faithfulness; and we have peace with God because of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of Christ we also have had access by faithfulness into this favour in which we stand, and we rejoice because of the hope of being praised by God.”

9 comments:

Katherine said...

Excellent post, though I feel as though once again you're slightly misrepresenting the opposition. Sure there are extreme cases of theology abuse, but on the whole I have never got the impression from church that God tolerates willful sin and rebellion. Rather, the point is that He is willing to forget them if and when we turn our hearts to Him and away from sin, as is evidenced by Jesus' dealings with the adulteress, for example.

I think you're taking one doctrine of Protestantism out of the context of the rest of the theological picture (which, even if you don't agree with the picture, isn't quite fair). Because mainstream contemporary theology has its emphasis on the afterlife, and observes a disparity between future salvation and present struggle and failure, and because it is believed that the inclination towards sin is our default setting as humans, it is quite compatible that God would bear with us for the time being, whilst personally helping us to gradually overcome our sinful desires, when we ask Him to and earnestly desire His intervention.

Of course I know what you'll say to these arguments, and please note they are not necessarily my own views; I just thought it was only fair to point out that there's a whole different paradigm operating, and you have to change gears completely to assess the coherence of a doctrine within the surrounding assumptions that uphold it, not just show that it doesn't fit with your own paradigm.

Katherine said...

(Hm, does this mean I'm advocating relativism? Possibly, in the sense of criticising beliefs from an internal perspective, according to whether or not they lead to logical incoherence. Which is, of course, not the same as pluralism...

And I suppose it might be argued that, in criticising the doctrine of 'grace as unmerited favour', you were establishing the coherence of your own position, rather than the incoherence of the other, and I'm just getting confused because of the overlap of content between paradigms...I shall now stop talking.)

Scott said...

I'm not sure how helpful a word study is in constructing theology. It seems that 'grace' is used in many ways in the NT because it is just a word, meaning gift or favour. Yancey's book (What's so amazing...) has probably done more to define grace as 'letting us off the hook' than any other influence in the church recently. To react against this isn't to react against the Protestant understanding of grace, because Yancey's view does not represent mainstream Protestant thought.

Generally i think grace has been understood not at God saying 'forget about it', but as God saving and redeeming people who were enslaved in sin. Grace represents a radical change, wrought by God, in someones life. It includes calling them to a holy life, giving them a task in spreading his kingdom.

Think of Israel, and the things God spoke to them about their calling. "It was not because you were more righteous than the other nations that I chose you... etc". "It was not because you were more powerful, or larger in number...".
Israel's righteousness didn't qualify them for God's favour. But at the same time, his calling to them meant holiness. It meant a changed life.

In 1 Timothy Paul asks Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel of God. A God "who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began."

This is grace: being rescued from a sinful life to serve the living God. Glory be to his name!

incognito said...

Thanks as always for your comments.

Katherine, when I make my points, I contrast my points with their opposites to help clarify my view. It is like making a photograph clearer by increasing the contrast in my mind. By stating what I disagree with I hope to make it clear where my ideas differ to other ideas. I am not attacking "the opposition", whoever they are =)

Scott, I find reading as many verses as I can about a Bibical concept to be quite useful in constructing theology - so I'm not sure if doing this is just a "word study".

Also, I'm not sure of your logic... you state how Yancey's book has promoted the "getting off the hook" idea of grace, and then say you don't think grace is generally understood like this.

"Israel's righteousness didn't qualify them for God's favour."

I must respectfully disagree. I could not find any verses that looked like the first one you quoted. The second verse you quoted seemed lacking in context - so here it is:

Deu 7:6-11 "For you are a holy people to Jehovah your God. Jehovah your God has chosen you to be His own treasure out of all the people on the face of the earth. Jehovah did not set His love on you or choose you because you were more in number than any people... But because Jehovah loved you, and because He kept the oath which He swore to your fathers, Jehovah has caused you to go out with a strong hand, and redeemed you from the house of slaves, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Because of this, know that Jehovah your God, He is God, the faithful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to those who love Him, and to those who keep His commands, to a thousand generations;
and repaying to his face those that hate Him, to destroy him; He will not delay, He will repay him who hates Him, to his face. And you shall keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the ordinances which I am commanding you today, to do them."

This seems pretty consistent with a God who does not give favour to people without reason - that reason is obedience to His commands. But He is merciful, which I have tried to carefully distinguish from the Biblical usage of the word for grace because I think they're quite different.


It seems though that I would also have quite a different interpretation of 2Tim 1:9.

2Ti 1:8b-11 "...but suffer hardship with the gospel, according to the power of God, the One having saved us and having called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace given to us in Christ Jesus..."

Your rendition has "because" where the greek uses "kata" = "according to" or "pertaining to" - which gives it a potentially very different meaning. I would interpret this as saying that God called them to do His work, not THEIR work. In other words, Paul is telling Timothy to act according to God's purpose and favour, not according to his own purposes and favour. In my opinion, he is clarifying what a "holy calling" is, not describing the salvation part.

Just to clarify on "This is grace: being rescued from a sinful life to serve the living God."

I would call that mercy, and say that when we serve God we have His favour.

Any more comments, anyone?

Katherine said...

Reubz: yeah, fair enough :)

Note: by 'opposition' I don't mean the people but the idea, which, clearly, you do oppose. And yes, I'm sure you're not meaning to attack anyone.

Scott said...

With the Yancey thing, I meant that the version of grace that he has popularised is quite a novel way of looking at it, in terms of traditional understandings. Some have better described his book as 'What's so amazing about license'.

By saying that Israel's righteousness didn't qualify them for God's favour, I am referring to God's choice of them as his people. This is in contrast to the conditional experience of blessing which depended on their obedience. You have to seperate the two, because otherwise God's interaction with them makes no sense - he based the call to obedience on his past acts of grace in redeeming them.

As in the verse you quoted, God's choice of Israel was not based on any qualities in themselves, but simply because he chose to love them. Basically, God says the reason he loved them... is because he loved them! Pure sovereign choice. So in your words, in a sense God did show favor on them without reason - or at least the reason wasn't to be found in their righteousness, but in his purpose and plan.

The other passage I was thinking of is in Deut 9 where Moses tells the people that when they have entered the promised land, (which could confidently be defined as favour/blessing) that they should not think it is because of their own righteousness. Instead God was giving them the land because (1) of the other nations' wickedness (the ones that were being driven out), and (2) to fulfill God's covanent with Abraham, which was completely based on God's purposes and plan. In fact, Moses makes it clear that it is despite their stubbornness and rebellion that he is still blessing them and fulfilling his promises.

Surely this is grace - God acting to bless humanity despite their rebellion. Isn't that the whole story of salvation history? Humanity's constant failure, but God's continual persistence and grace.

On the 1 Timothy verse, i'm no greek scholar but i can see how it could go both ways. It seems pretty clear that the whole subject of the sentence is about God's salvation though. I would say he is expanding on 'saved us and called us', the holy calling bit seems to be him describing what we're called to, but then he continues to talk about what has been 'given to us in Christ'- our salvation. I'd have to look into it more.

Scott said...

Also, surely Paul knew more than most about what grace mean in his own personal experience. He says that he was once a blasphemer and a violent man, who rejected God's chosen King Jesus. But God intervened in his life, and called him to himself. It wasn't his own righteousness than qualified him to be called to a holy life. It was so that God could display his unlimited patience - it was for God's purposes.

The mercy bit is God's sparing his life although he deserved death for rejecting God's chosen King.
The grace bit is that God gave him a calling - to serve him and futher his Kingdom. Grace is the gift of belonging to God and participating in his amazing plans.

incognito said...

Scott, just a quick thought on the Israel and promised land thing... I read through Deut 9 and I definately agree that God was not giving them the land because of their righteousness. As you say, it was because of the wickedness of the land's inhabitants AND to fulfill God's promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (v5). So if it was to fulfill His promise - why did He promise it in the first place to them? Was it not because they were faithful servants of the Lord? Was it not because they were righteous?

Scott said...

I don't see any indication in scripture that the promises to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob were given because of their righteousness. Abraham recieved the promise (Gen 12), and then he obeyed, not the other way around. Later on, by God's initiative he was promised a child, and following that he believed God which God credited to him as righteousness. The promises came first, then obedience.

Isn't this was Paul gets at in Romans 9:10-13? That God chose to show his favour to Jacob, not because of Jacobs goodness, but because of the plan that he was working out to bring salvation to the nations.

I am starting to wonder if the open theist framework tends to obscure God's initiative in salvation history. The promises of God came to a moon-worshipping, wife-prostituting wimp in the middle of nowhere, and we miss the point that it is God who is working out his plan in the pages of the OT. The amount of times we read 'and the word of the Lord came to X' is phenomenal. And from that moment, the persons life is changed and they become an instrument of God's salvation - often despite their own incompetence and wickedness.