But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.
“The doctrines of grace.” This phrase is one of those phrases that ring so deeply of Calvinism every time I hear of it. I remember one of my college roommates using the phrase to describe the sermons and theology of a preacher, with me getting the impression that “grace” is what these doctrines espouse. Grace had been treated as referring to a system of salvation that was essentially taken to be described by the Calvinist TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
This way of understanding grace has had the effect of turning grace and salvation within the Western Protestant mind as a theological system and process, even for those who do not embrace TULIP. Once grace was understood as a system and process, then it becomes the provenance of theologians who in their desire for systematicity and orderliness began to push towards understanding salvation as if it is an assembly line process, where people who are saved go through specific experiences in a specific order and that those who successfully go through the process of salvation say, think, feel, and do specific things that are litmus test either for their salvation for the spiritual growth. The theological impulse is to define grace and its significance with specificity and minimal ambiguity.
Part of the reason for this tendency to define grace such is perhaps explained by John Barclay in his work Paul and the Gift:
On occasion, Paul appears to offer some defining, or at least limiting, description of χάρις: if something is by χάρις, it is not “from works,” “otherwise χάρις would not be χάρις” (Rom 11:6; cf. 4:4-5; 1 Cor 15:9-10). In these cases, χάρις is χάρις because it is not something else. This definitional gesture has encouraged Paul’s interpreters to seek the essence of “grace,” to define its core or proper characteristics.1
If one thinks of Paul’s letter to the Romans to convey a systematic exploration of the Gospel, rather than as I take it to be as a less abstract philosophical reflection on the nature of the Gospel, then statements like Romans 11.6 may certainly inspire approaches to understanding grace as principally a set of ideas or doctrines about what God does in salvation. Yet, there are reasons we should perhaps rethink this whole way of thinking.
Barclay has been responsible for inducing new reflections on the concepts of gift and grace. Yet, even Barclay’s work may be guilty of treating “grace” as a set of ideas or beliefs. According to the count I have from my Kindle version of Paul and the Gift, he uses the phrase “theology of grace,” as if Paul is expounding a specific set of ideas in association with grace. Nevertheless, his conclusion on Paul’s theology grace does have some merit to it:
Paul’s notion of the incongruous Christ-gift was originally part of his missionary theology, developed for and from the Gentile mission at the pioneering stage of community formation. Since God’s incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and uniting them in their common faith in Christ. The starting point is the framing of the Christ-event as gift. Christ’s death “for our sins” (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3-4) is interpreted by Paul in the language of gift (God’s gift of his Son, or Christ’s gift of himself). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are thus, for Paul, the focal point of divine beneficence: the witness of Scripture and the history and identity of Israel are interpreted in this light. Grace is discovered in an event, not in the general benevolence of God, and its focal expression lies not in creation nor in any other divine gift, but in the gift of Christ, which constitutes for Paul the Gift.2
The strength of Barclay’s conclusion is that he personalizes grace to the person of Jesus Christ. Yet, this personalization is not complete: grace refers to the “gift of Christ” in connection with the event of Christ’s death and resurrection as if the events of Jesus’ life something we make use of like an object. Yet, this manner of objectification is not so much exploitive as much as it is something to used to make a cognitive, rational conception that brings a theological coherence:
The Christ-gift thus provides the basic soteriological shape for Paul’s theology of calling and of sin — his configuration of the story of Israel and his representation of the plight of humanity. The integration of these theological matrices is Paul’s distinctive achievement.3
At the end of the day, however, grace, alternatively referred to as the Christ-gift, still seems to be understood by Barclay as fundamentally cognitive, as something that makes sense of Paul’s thinking, with a specific cognitive content being the understanding of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Grace has a fundamental cognitive, theological shape in Barclay’s analysis. The mistake in Barclay’s analysis in part seems to be treating the concepts of grace and gift as functionally synonymous, with very little evident differentiation between the two. Yet, the term of grace was used more to characterize persons, particularly socially superior and wealthy patrons who gave help to socially inferior and needy clients. Grace was often used to describe the way privileged individuals came to the need of those who were less privileged. Typically, grace characterized a person, whereas gift describes the benefits given. In some occasions, grace could have been used as a metonym where the benefits conferred are referred to by the character that motivated the gift, but this would be a feature of pragmatics and not the primary, semantic meaning of the term grace. For a couple of analogies, grace is to gift as love is to a kiss and joy is to celebration: the linguistic concepts and meanings are related to each other but the former terms principally describe persons whereas the latter terms describe something that is done or given. By treating grace and gift more as functionally synonymous, rather than operating within a larger semantic domain, the effect of Barclay’s analysis is to think of grace as a ‘something’ that is then understood as a theological understanding.
Yet, this will not do. In Romans 5.15, χάρις (“grace”) is used in relation to two genitives: τοῦ θεοῦ (“God”) and τῇ τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“the one human Jesus Christ”). The terms are used to describe personal beings. Meanwhile, ἡ δωρεὰ (“the gift”) is said to be metaphorically located ἐν χάριτι (“in grace”). Similarly, we see a linguistic distinction between gift and grace in Romans 5.17 in the reception of τὴν περισσείαν τῆς χάριτος καὶ τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς δικαιοσύνης (“the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness”). While the two concepts are tightly related to each other, they are best seen to profile distinctly different things.
We see the prologue to the Gospel of John used grace similarly to Romans 5.15. In John 1.14, the Word and the only-begotten Son is referred to as πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας (“fullness of grace and truth”). Then, in 1.16, this same fullness of the Word is said to be received by others, which is described as χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος (“grace upon grace.”) In both cases, grace is used in relation to Jesus as the Word, and more particularly to describe the way he is the visible representation/glory of His Father, which is to say that the grace of Jesus is also the grace of the Father (cf. grace used to describe both God and Jesus in Rom 5.15).
Yet, grace is also relational in that people receive from Jesus’ fullness in John 1.16, much as Paul talks about the reception of the abundance of grace and gift of righteousness in Romans 5.17. However, this receiving is not simply a receiving of an object or thing, but it is to receive a person. The grace of God and Jesus Christ is not something we obtain for ourselves, but it is the character of God and Jesus which motivates us to receive them in our lives along with the benefits such grace comes to provide.
To that end, grace is not itself about our salvation or how we get saved or any idea about those things, but about the One who as the one with power and status saves us who are weak and helpless (Rom 5.6) and the One who we receive because of this grace. What saves us is that we receive He who is full of grace to help us in our time of need. In the end, grace characterizes the way God relates to people as One who mercifully helps us in our weakness through the same grace that His only-begotten, incarnate Son also has. Thus, it makes sense to speak of the reign of grace (Rom. 5.21) as an alternative way of saying Jesus in Lord.