Grace in 3D
Did you know that there is a depth of meaning to the word “grace” which is frequently overlooked by the modern church? In my last article, we noticed the connection between obedience and grace and I promised that we would further investigate the meaning of grace. Grace is often defined as “unmerited favor,” or “getting what I don’t deserve.” Although these are accurate definitions, they only communicate one aspect of the Greek word charis (grace).
We often find that a 3-dimensional representation of something is much more effective than simply seeing it in 2-dimensional form. Hence the popularity of new 3D movies and televisions. Similarly, it is disturbing to hear Christians speak of grace 1-dimensionally (the definition noted above), when in fact the New Testament authors’ usage encompasses more. Grace has been put on a diet by many well-meaning Christians and has lost its well-rounded meaning in favor of a more slimmed-down version. This is not done intentionally; it is usually the result of a lack of knowledge of the 1st century cultural context in which this word occurs. Recovering this context reveals that there are two other important aspects to the meaning of grace. Recapturing the 3-dimensional nature of this word, strengthens what is quickly becoming an anaemic theology of grace within the evangelical church, and, most importantly, allows us to walk more fully in the grace that God has bestowed.
Grace and Patronage
The Roman world of the 1st century was a world of limited goods. This means that a lot of things necessary for existence were in short supply. There were no shopping malls, large department stores, and there certainly was no eBay. This meant that people had to depend on others who could supply whatever their need might be. These people were called “patrons.”
Patronage was a way of life in the Roman world; everyone had one or more. Much can be learned from examining the concept of patronage, but, for our purposes, the most important thing is that the word “grace” was part of the everyday vocabulary. A patron was able to supply what I could never obtain on my own. This was called an act of grace, and it is the definition that we are most familiar with. For example, Paul talks about the “grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2) which we have received through God’s act of love in sending His Son to die for us “while we were still sinners” and “when we were [His] enemies” (Rom. 5:8, 10). Because of my sin, reconciliation with God is beyond my grasp. I don’t have the necessary resources in and of myself to make reconciliation possible, but Jesus, who lived a perfect life, does (Rom. 5:18-19). In Christ’s act on the cross I receive a forgiveness that I could never obtain on my own. That is grace, and it is the good news that was preached by the early church!
However, in the world of patronage, grace was much more than the act of giving what could never be earned, it was also the gift itself. Whether the gift was food, legal help, paying off debts, etc., it was called “grace.” There are a number of examples of this usage in the NT. For instance, when Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23), the word “gift” in Greek is charisma––grace. When Paul is speaking of the “gifts” of the Spirit given to the church in Romans 12:6, the word he uses is charismata, from which we get our word “charismatic,” as in charismatic gifts. Therefore, grace is not only the act of giving; it is the gift itself.
Third, and most important for our discussion, the word grace includes the meaning of giving thanks. We still use it this way today. When we ask someone to “say grace” we mean, “Will you give thanks for the food?”
Our English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia and has entered Spanish and Italian in the forms of gracias and gratze which mean “thanks.” All these words are derived from the Greek verb eucharisto (notice the word charis––see e.g., Rom. 1:8). The important point here, is that everyone in the Roman world who received “grace” (meaning both the undeserved act, as well as the gift) would expect to give “grace” (meaning “thanks”) in return. The Roman philosopher Seneca pictured grace as a dance between 3 sisters which consisted of the act of giving (grace), the gift received (grace), and the recipient giving thanks (grace) for the gift. As long as each one of these ingredients was present, the dance of grace continued in a flowing unbroken way. No honorable person (see my article on honor under “Cross-Examination”) would ever consider not returning thanks for the gift received. This means that, although a person could never pay for the grace given, they were expected to respond with gratitude. Grace begets grace!
If a person could never repay their patron for the grace they had received, then what did giving of thanks consist of? In the Roman world, gratitude was expressed in several different ways: 1) The recipient of grace would freely proclaim the name of his benefactor and tell everyone he came into contact with about the generosity of his patron. This increased the honor of his patron. 2) Each morning a person would appear before his patron and find out if there was anything he could do for him or her that day. 3) One would always be loyal to their patron, defending them against accusations, and even going to battle with them if necessary. These, and other actions, were ways in which an individual could express thanks (grace) for a gift (grace) they could never repay (grace).
The Complete Circle of Grace
Hopefully it is not hard to see the parallels for the Christian. The Christian has received a gift (grace), they don’t deserve and could never repay (grace). This is where modern conversations about grace frequently end, but biblically speaking it is not the end of the grace-conversation. Just because we can never repay what God has done for us in Christ, doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us to do! Like the people of the ancient world, we should continually give thanks to our Patron (God). We give thanks by praising His name, and by telling others about Him (this is worship and evangelism). We seek Him out each day to see what He would have us to do, and we defend His name and even go to battle with Him, if necessary. All of these responses are ways of saying “thank you” for a gift we can never repay. Notice that all of these responses involve acts of obedience! This is why a life lived “under grace” is an obedient life (Rom. 6:14-23––see last week’s article). Why settle for a 1 or 2-dimensional view of grace when we can, and should, have it in 3D! For the doctrinal health of the church we need to restore this biblical 3D portrait of grace to our modern theology. Like love and marriage, grace and obedience go hand in hand.
Many of my insights on patronage and grace are indebted to David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Please check out his book on this link from amazon.