When Christians hear the word ‘grace’, they take it to mean ‘unmerited favour’ or ‘unconditional gift’. If Christ died for sinners (so Romans 5.6-8), the grace of Christ is not a reward for merit but a gift to the unworthy, and this Christian meaning is contrasted with other religious traditions, where grace, it is commonly said, has been misunderstood as a merited reward. All this is commonly preached, sung, and applied in relation to the individual believer: what we celebrate is ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’
But sometimes it is helpful to go down to the roots: what do we mean by grace? The fact that Christians have argued about grace since the time of Augustine (4th – 5th century AD) should make us wonder whether everyone means the same thing, and it is worth recalling a basic linguistic fact: the word that we translate as ‘grace’ (charis) is a normal Greek term for gift or favour, used all over the Greek world for human benefits. It is not a special religious word, and it does not mean ‘unmerited favour’ unless it is given that special sense by people who use it in particular ways. It just means gift, benefit, or favour.
Now gifts operate in many different ways, and if you have ever crossed cultural boundaries you will know that the social expectations surrounding gifts differ greatly from culture to culture. In most cases gifts or favours are given to create social ties, and they therefore carry some expectation of return; it is only in modern times and in Western culture that we have idealized the notion of the ‘pure gift’ without strings attached. But if gifts are given to make friends, they are normally given discriminately and they represent the value-system of the giver. When you write your will, your gifts will indicate what is most valuable to you: the local home for abandoned dogs? A medical charity? The church? Your gifts are an index of your values, of what you consider worthwhile. Thus most gifts (both in antiquity and today) are in fact conditioned by the worth of their recipients – their social, ethnic, or moral worth. In Paul’s day most people assumed that God is hyper-generous, and most would think that God gives to us before we give anything back to God. But it is also assumed that God’s most precious gifts of grace are given to those who by some measure are fitting or worthy recipients. To give without regard to worth would seem arbitrary or unfair, as if one would give the Nobel Prize for Literature to any old journalistic hack.
In special circumstances, however, one might celebrate a gift given entirely without regard to worth – but that is a gift that subverts regnant standards of worth and creates new social possibilities. Paul was by no means alone among his fellow Jews in speaking in fulsome terms of God’s grace. What stood out, however, was the way he defined this notion as an incongruous gift – a gift given without regard to the worth of the recipient. This was true for him on a personal level: God’s calling in grace took no account of the fact that he once persecuted the church (Galatians 1.11-16; 1 Corinthians 15.9-10). But this was also the liberating fact at the heart of his mission to non-Jews (Gentiles). Recent interpretation of Paul (such as ‘the new perspective on Paul’) has rightly emphasized how much his theology revolves around this Gentile mission. But what is rarely noted is that the radical way in which he conducted this mission (which did not require Gentiles to adopt the cultural practices of Judaism) was founded on a deep theology of grace. What Paul discovers in his mission is what he had experienced in his own life: that God’s grace in Christ, with its accompanying gift of the Spirit, was given without regard to worth. It was given to Gentiles as well as to Jews, because former ethnic hierarchies of worth no longer applied. It was given to women as well as to men, because old gender hierarchies had been subverted. It was given to slaves as well as to free people, because the social and legal differentiations by which we create systems of social worth did not matter to God (see Galatians 3.28). In other words, grace is not only good news to the individual believer, it is also socially revolutionary, because it undercuts the normal ways by which we measure each other’s worth. Faith is the recognition that all the things that we value most about ourselves (our ancestry or nationality, our skills or achievements, our status or wealth) count for nothing before God: all that counts is the worth that we are given by the unconditioned gift of Christ.
What does this mean for us today? It certainly means giving up on our attempts to achieve or prove our worth before God, but it also means much more. Just as Paul’s mission was about the creation of boundary-crossing communities that sat light to normal social evaluations of worth, it means forming churches as creative communities that question the taken-for-granted social systems of their environment. The Christian community has its own system of worth, which challenges or disregards our pecking-orders determined by race, social class, education, or wealth. A Christian community that does not express this alternative system of worth – one that fits all too comfortably into its social environment – is in danger of losing the meaning of grace. At the same time, Paul’s understanding of grace speaks to our current crises of self-worth, where our young people, constantly exposed to the judgment of social media, are beset by anxiety and loss of self-esteem. If God’s grace in Christ is given without regard to our social or physical achievements, our body-shape or educational success, our ethnicity, origin, or popularity, we are liberated from the crushing expectations of our peers. But it takes a Christian community to say that and to practise that in ways that effectively enact God’s unconditioned grace.
Professor Barclay is the current holder of the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University and is considered one of today’s most influential New Testament scholars. One of his most recent works, Paul and the Gift (on which this article is based) has been heralded as one of the best books on Paul’s theology in the last twenty years.