(Un)Distorting a Theology of Grace

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 9.24.27 AMWhen it comes to theology and to practice, grace is sometimes ignored. Yes, of course, those who ignore grace believe in it but either their theology or the practice ignores it. Others use grace against others, what I call grace grinding. That is, grace is used to drive home and drill in to another that they are not worthy of God’s grace. Instead of having a positive theology grace here is entirely negative. Others see grace as a religion in that for them it’s all about (a very often fuzzy, ill-defined, tolerant, softened sense of) grace. The word “holiness” or the word “discipleship” are never heard among those whose religion is grace (so defined).

In his recent book, Paul and the Gift, John Barclay demonstrates beyond pushback that grace has largely been unexamined in the Christian tradition. No kidding, and he says this because for many grace is locked down to one idea and then the rest of the themes of grace (he calls them “perfections” — see below) are ignored because grace has been unexamined in Bible in its historical context. I believe the most common definitions of grace are “grace religion” or “grace grinding.” The latter can be seen in the following four statements, where the entire focus of grace is upon our unworthiness:

B.B. Warfield: “Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.”

Jerry Bridges: “[Grace] is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against Him.”

Paul Zahl: “Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it.”

Wayne Grudem: “God’s ‘grace’ means his ‘unmerited favor’.” Or in another location “God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.”

True enough; we need to speak clearly of what Barclay calls the incongruity of grace: God reaching out to sinners and incorporating Gentiles into the one family of God. But grace reduced to incongruity either becomes grace grinding or in a softened form becomes grace religion. Notice how South African pastor Trevor Hudson defines grace:

God’s grace is the Holy Spirit acting in our lives helping us to accomplish those things that we cannot accomplish in our own strength (Holy Spirit Here and Now, 24-25).

Barclay examined the term “gift/grace” in the ancient world with exemplary comprehensiveness and offers this definition of gift:

“Gift” denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship. In accord with the anthropology of gift, its scope includes various forms of kindness, favor, generosity, or compassion enacted in diverse services and benefits, with the expectation of some reciprocating gratitude or counter-gift. Ancient languages articulate this field of relations in a rich variety of terms, which often overlap in meaning but may also contain subtly different connotations (575).

What Barclay has shown is that in the ancient world various authors drive grace to a perfection: “the tendency to draw the theme of gift/grace to an end-of-the-line extreme, especially for polemical purposes and in relation to God; and we have observed the variety of forms that this “perfecting” tendency can take” (185).

He finds six such perfections. Authors are not stuck on one; they all seem to have various mixtures of these perfections. The question is, Which of the perfections present in a specific text in the NT?

  • superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
  • singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
  • priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient’s initiative;
  • incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
  • efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
  • non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity.

Here is an “analytic” that will enable readers of the Bible to form a more comprehensive, less reductionistic theory of grace.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.