“We are saved by grace through faith.” A common Christian phrase pulled from Ephesians 2. “Grace” is a common buzzword, used to describe everything by Christians from getting your sins forgiven to being positive and accepting. As the identity of Protestantism was defined around the doctrine of justification by grace, grace became a pervasive part of our forensic and moral vocabulary. For instance, you might have heard someone opine about the difference between grace and mercy where “mercy is not getting what you deserve, whereas grace is getting what you didn’t deserve.” Such understandings of grace are drenched in the notions of merit and relationships.
However, this is not the only way we use the word grace. Sometimes we talk about grace without moral and forensic thoughts in the background, but a sense of beauty, such as describing the graceful movements of a
These two different aspects are not unrelated. The forgiveness of a person toward someone who has offended them can also exemplify the beauty of the person who forgives. Feeling accepted by someone makes us associate that person with the positive feelings we have when around them; in a sense, we project our own subjective feelings about someone as an objective characteristic of the person. However, in Christian circles, we have had a tendency to define grace by what is received first, then we may talk about the characteristics of a person who has some grace. Whether it be forgiveness,
In the Greco-Roman world in which the Apostle Paul inhabits, grace is commonly a personal characteristic of a higher status person and defines something about a gift they give to others. For them, there were people who had some high status, some elegance, some sense of charisma or charm, some embodiment of some ideal. This could even be invested some political significance. Then, these people would act towards others with grace by the kindness and favor they showed them; grace characterized the actions of a high-status person to another person, typically of a lower status. In fact, the language of grace was connected to the patron-client system of the Roman milieu, in which higher status and affluent persons would come to the aid to those of lower status and in need; while the language of patron and client had a negative connotation in the early Roman Empire, the language of grace/gratia/χάρις had a much better connotation.1
Hence, the understanding of grace was commonly, but not exclusively, used to describe the relationship between people of unequal status. Thus, when Paul refers to God’s grace, he is referring to the characteristic of God as a person who is of an eminently higher status than human persons coming to the aid of those with lesser status.
The embedded nature of grace into concerns of social class and status in the Roman world contrasts with much of conventions we have about God’s grace. Particularly in Reformed circles, God’s grace is construed in very individualistic terms where it describes something God does rather than someone a person does. As a consequence, one can do nothing to contribute to one’s own salvation because grace is about God’s action with no room for any human response; that is the meaning of boasting in the Reform tradition: to think you did had any effect. But this is an alteration of status in the Roman world; Paul’s concern about not boasting isn’t about saying “Don’t think highly of yourself.” Rather, it is to say: “You didn’t get where you are by who you are; you’re future in God’s kingdom was because of God’s reaching down to you.” Grace is not code-word for a causal metaphysics that allows no role for the human response in event and process of salvation; rather, it refers to something that God grants that other people did not have in their possession.
This is seen in Romans 5.2, describing grace as something that people are given “access” (προσαγωγή) to. People of higher status have access to resources, material or social, that people of lower status would not have, so when a social superior is gracious towards a social inferior, they were providing access to some important resource that the people could not acquire. Commonly, this would occur in a time of need for the social inferior. Thus Paul goes on to say “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5.6) Through the death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, God was providing access to something people could not access at the time of an imperative need (“at the right time.”).
Against this backdrop, Paul’s language of justification can be understood. Rather than a forensic or moral backdrop to Paul’s usage, it was actually about a status that God bestowed on believers. They were regarded by Him as part of the “righteous” and thus given access to the privileges that came with such a status. Furthermore, this
Hence, the constellation of grace, faith, and status terminology in the form of justification would not be particularly novel for Paul; this would not have been anything resoundingly unfamiliar to his Greek and Roman audiences. They would have understood this in echoes from the Greco-Roman culture. So, when we as Protestants have been trained to take “we are justified by faith” and “we are saved by grace” as the center of Paul’s Gospel, we are unwittingly defining the Christian faith by what Paul’s expression largely shared in common with the Greco-Roman culture.
What was novel for Paul wasn’t the relationship of grace, faith, and a change of status for the socially inferior
While Luther and the later Protestants heard something important in the doctrine of God’s grace to justify by faith, and indeed was something they needed to hear in their day, they didn’t actually grasp at the center of Gospel that Paul preached. Rather than hearing a needed word for their own time, they also saw it as the defining word of Paul’s message about Jesus Christ. Consequently, it wasn’t until the stranglehold of older Protestant interpretations were unshackled by the New Perspective that a growing awareness has been reached by this; while I feel the various ideas contained in the New Perspective on Paul have numerous problems of their own and can sometimes throw the baby out with the bath-water of the Protestant theology, they opened up our eyes and ears to read Paul and even the Gospels afresh, much as N.T. Wright has wanted to see this occur.
Furthermore, I would suggest that the often lamented deficient pneumatology in modern Christian theology can a to not fully grasping the social significance of grace. As grace, faith, and justification pertains to matters of access, the Holy Spirit is the principal ‘resource’ that God gives to believers. Justification can not be understood apart from the bestowing of the Holy Spirit; a doctrine of justification without a pneumatology would be woefully deficient. However, our standard Protestant understanding of justification about forgiveness through Christ’s propitiating death didn’t have a natural nor logically necessary place to insert the Holy Spirit into the fray; He was someone that got put in somewhere, almost because you had to. But the Holy Spirit isn’t seen as a central role in Paul’s understanding of justification, grace, and faith, but a separate doctrine, perhaps of a more advanced form of Christianity.
No wonder then that so many of the countries influenced by Protestantism have come to have more of a spirit closer to the Roman societies, including the most Protestant country of all, America which has taken on some imperial vestiges.3 By the continued emphasis upon language that was particularly Roman along with a deficient understanding and role of the Spirit in the Christian life, one might suggest that the Protestant Reformation ended up secularizing Christian faith. Hence, grace, even in more evangelical circles, is understood as vague, shadowy notion that we somehow connect to our forgiveness and salvation and thus is readily usable to a whole variety of life circumstances, uniquely Christian or not, rather than saying the grace is what describes God as He makes Himself known in Jesus Christ and as He becomes present to us in His Holy Spirit. However, in Paul’s eyes, grace is not my forgiveness, not my acceptance, not something I take and receive for my own self; rather, grace describes something that is present with us in the form of the Triune God that impacts the directs our lives by what is made accessible to us.
- Saller, Richard P., Personal Patronage under the Early Empire. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1981) 7-39.
- Ibid., 18.
- I don’t speak about Empire in purely negative terms; this is not directly a political statement of value but a descriptive statement about the nature of political power on the geopolitical stage.