Paul and the Power of Grace
“Paul and the Power of Grace” is a shorter, and updated version of John M. G. Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift.” It is written for a wider audience (being less technical) and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last three years. In my opinion it is a must read. According to Barclay, “. . . this new book as a whole offers both an accessible summary of Paul and the Gift and an extension and development of that work (Paul and the Power of Grace, p. xi).
What Does It Mean to Say Grace is Free?
Barclay asserts that the New Testament concept of grace is not only understood by examining the Greek word charis, but is bound up in the idea of gift-giving. All Christians would assert that grace is a free gift. But, as Barclay points out, that assertion means different things to different people. He cautions that, “We should beware of labels such as “free” and “pure,” lest they carry the connotations of modern ideologies of gift (Paul and the Power of Grace, p. 5). Barclay contends that, “What we associate with ‘gift,’ including its definition in our dictionaries, may be a product of modern cultural shifts, and it would be anachronistic to retroject these connotations onto the past or to take them for granted in our reading of Paul (Paul and the Power of Grace, p. 11). The tendency, according to Barclay, is to “perfect” a concept. He argues that we push our definitions of gift to an extreme, especially in relation to a divine gift or grace. As a result, Barclay has identified at least six perfections of gift/grace.
The Six Perfections of Gift/Grace
1. Superabundance–A superabundant gift is perfected in scale, significance, or duration: it is huge, lavish, unceasing, long-lasting.
2. Singularity–benevolence or goodness is the giver’s sole or exclusive mode of operation. The giver is of such a character as only ever to give benefits: he/she would never do anything in a contrary mode, such as harm, punish, or judge.
3. Priority–Priority concerns the timing of the gift, which is given before any initiative taken by the recipient.
4. Incongruity–Incongruity concerns the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and maximizes the mismatch between the gift and the worth or merit of its recipient.
5. Efficacy–Gifts that achieve something, that change things for the better, might be regarded as better than gifts with limited positive effect.
6. Noncircularity–As we noted in the last chapter, Western modernity is inclined to perfect the gift as “pure” only when there is no reciprocity, no return or exchange.
(Paul and the Power of Grace, pp. 13-16).
The Significance of Recognizing the Six Perfections
For further elaboration on the meaning of the above “perfections” see Paul and the Power of Grace. My point here is to note Barclay’s contention that throughout the centuries people have used various combinations of these perfections, resulting in different understandings of grace. As Christians, we may all insist that grace is free, but our doctrine may look different from others based on the perfections we have consciously, or unconsciously accepted. Barclay states, “. . . different interpreters of this concept have tended to operate with different clusters of perfection. Nonetheless, they have often regarded their interpretation as the “correct” interpretation of grace, such that any other is not just different but wrong”. . . Disagreements may arise, not because one side emphasizes grace more than the other, but because they perfect the term in different ways” (Paul and the Power of Grace, p. 17–author’s emphasis).
Furthermore, Barclay maintains that if we want to see which perfections of grace Paul is in agreement with, we should compare these six perfections to what we find in his letters. By this means, we can arrive at a biblical (or at least, Pauline) definition of grace. This discussion alone was worth the price of the book!
What Paul Means By Grace and What He Doesn’t
There are two results of Barclay’s investigation of the Pauline concept of grace that I would like to highlight. One Pauline perfection differs from the Roman world, while the other differs from our world.
Grace for the Unworthy
As believers, we are very used to the biblical idea that God extends His grace to those who don’t deserve it. Paul writes in Romans 5:6 that “Christ died for the ungodly.” He continues by stating that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We recognize that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23), and therefore, we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
Barclay notes that this concept of grace is counter-cultural. In the Roman world, grace was only to be bestowed on people who were considered worthy. Since the giving and receiving of a gift meant a social bond, one would not want to be associated with a disreputable giver. Neither would one wish to bestow a gift and connect themselves with an unsavory individual. Afterall, “Who would wish to degrade their reputation by tying themselves to people without worth?” (Paul and the Power of Grace, p. 7).
Receiving Grace Obligates the Receiver
Barclay traces the history of gift-giving by pointing out that in the modern Western World a gift is not considered a gift unless it is given without obligating the other person. Nothing could be farther from the truth in the first century Roman world. While a gift could not be earned, the receiver was obligated to the giver. As noted above, a social bond was created. While the recipient might not be able to repay the gift-giver, he/she was obligated to them and expected to express gratitude in various practical ways (See my post on Grace in 3D for a further explanation). This is no less true of the concept of grace in the New Testament. The church has frequently erred in modern times by communicating that grace is free, meaning there is no obligation on the part of the receiver. To put it in Barclay’s words, New Testament grace is unconditioned (it is given without regard to worth or capacity), but it is not unconditional (a response is expected because a relationship has been established between the believer and God). The gift of grace transforms the believer because he/she is now in a relationship with God.
Barclay’s, Paul and the Power of Grace, contains much more than this short review has covered. I have sought to highlight aspects that enriched me as I read. In some cases, Barclay confirmed and fortified things I already understood about the New Testament concept of grace. In other ways his treatment enhanced my understanding of this key biblical concept. Barclay’s treatment will hopefully lead to greater understanding among all Christians about the meaning of grace as we uncover the ways in which we have perfected grace in comparison with Paul and the New Testament.