Grace As a Gift (Part 1)
Credit goes to author John Barclay. His framework for understanding God’s grace has impacted me recently. Today’s sermon (and the next one) is based on his work to put grace back into the context of gift-giving (despite not agreeing with every aspect of Barclay's work, it is extremely valuable).
Paul frequently uses the language of grace and gift-giving in his letters. Romans 3 is one example: “All… are justified by his grace as a gift…” Ephesians 2 is another: “By grace you have been saved… it is the gift of God.” God’s grace and the practice of gift-giving operate together. Gifts are given out of a person’s grace or favor. In fact, sometimes the Greek word for grace is even translated as gift.
God’s grace has been interpreted in widely different ways throughout Christian history, especially in the last few hundred years. These differences have been so polarizing they have led to heated debates and splits. One group accuses another group of not believing in grace. “You’re trusting in your own works!” While others are accused of being lazy, “You’re abusing grace!” The disagreements are certainly real, but why is there so much disagreement and misunderstanding?
One reason is because gift-giving can be complex and vary across different cultures and times. Different cultures may understand and practice gift-giving in different ways. For example, in our time and pace, many typically perceive that the most virtuous gift is given anonymously and with no expectation of any return, acknowledgement, or continuing relational ties. But, historically, this is a strange way of giving gifts. Until the modern west, gifts have been a way of giving a token of yourself to another person in order to build relational and communal ties — and if the gift is received, the receiver will always return grace in some way to continue the relationship: whether through thanksgiving, public praise, a gift, or some service.
These differences in gift-giving can often be the result of doing what one author (Kenneth Burke) calls “perfecting” a thing: that is, we draw out concepts to an extreme and say this is the only way to understand it. We do this usually to make a point for rhetorical purposes. For example, in marriage, a wife who loves and respects her husband in both her heart and in her actions may be accused of “not really loving and respecting” her husband. She might insist to her husband that everything she is out of sheer love and respect. But he may respond, “That’s not real love.” She might jab back, “Well, you don’t really love me.” In this situation, both husband and wife have both perfected the concept of love. They are saying that love is only love if x, y, and z happen. According to their [often narrowly] perfected definition of love, love without roses, cards, dates or a clean house and sexual intimacy is not really love.
We may perfect the concept of faith too. If I say someone lives by sheer faith — what does that mean? Does that mean they pray every day? They fast every week? They refuse to accept a salaried job? And, as in all these cases, the term “sheer faith” can make our conversation a little harder: it means we are emphatic about the presence of faith that we have defined in vague terms. There are often serious differences, but our language doesn’t help us understand those differences.
This happens in a host of topics and the same thing can happen in our discussions over God’s grace in Jesus. In fact, even before Jesus, Jews did this in their writings about grace of God. And, some of it is absolutely for good reason. After all, Paul says in Romans 11:6 that if our “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Some things must be present for grace to be grace; and the presence of some things make grace not really grace. But what is that? How does grace — gift-giving — work from God’s standpoint? Yes, we are saved by grace as a gift and that’s apparently not on the basis of works; but, as with love, faith, or any other concept, we need to drill down and ask, what do you mean by that? What does God mean?
Before we continue, I need to clarify what the word “grace” means. When talking about grace, we may often say, “unmerited favor” or insist grace is always unconditional or indiscriminately given. “God saves us by grace alone” or “ by pure grace” and it is “utterly free.” However, we are often perfecting grace in cloudy ways. In fact, even when we define grace as “unmerited favor” — which is actually not the definition of grace — we are implying that some people try to earn God’s gift and that grace is only grace if we do not try to earn it. If we aren’t careful, this can cause us to misunderstand both grace and others’ understanding of it — including the ancient Jews. Grace is simply goodwill — whether favor or a gift — shown voluntarily to another. Barclay defines grace further: “The sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship.”
With the rest of our time we will simply ask two questions. From God’s standpoint, what is grace and what is grace not? In other words, how do the Scriptures somewhat narrowly perfect and define God’s favor towards us in his giving of Christ Jesus? From the beginning, I’ll tell you we will find that God’s grace is prior (God gives first), superabundant (excessive), and incongruent (given to the unworthy); but it is not God’s singular attribute, it is not always efficacious (it doesn't always perfect us), and it is not non-circular (we are obligated to God). Today, we will cover three of these.
God’s Grace: Prior
Gift-giving is often circular — meaning there is a steady stream of gifts and services given and received. Often, you may be able to note that one party is superior: they are always the first gift-giver. Between us and God, God is always the first gift-giver. He has given to us absent any initiative from us. He created us. Before we gave him anything he gave Jesus as a gift of love. Eph. 1:4 ESV, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” 1 John 4:19 ESV, “We love because he first loved us.” God has always been the first gift-giver — before any of us chose to accept his call or give anything to him, he chose us, made us, blessed us, and gave his Son for us. No one has ever seriously tried to say anything different about God’s grace.
God’s Grace: Not Singular
If this aspect of gift-giving were perfected, it would mean that God’s sole and exclusive mode of operating is benevolence and kindness. Some will say things like this to cause God to appear very different from pagan gods: he’s always only a generously gift-giver and he never causes anything some would say is “bad” or “unsatisfactory.” Yet, consider Rom. 11:22 ESV, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” Furthermore, Revelation does not try in the slightest to distance God from judgments throughout history or at the end of history. However, some do try to perfect God in this way. As example, Marcion in the 2nd century AD argued that the god of the OT was evil, but the God who sent Jesus is only always good. Marcion’s spirit appears to sometimes be revived today — people will paint the God of the OT as only wanting obedience whereas now in Jesus he’s loosey-goosey and full of grace. I even feel tempted to distance God from any hint that he might ever judge a person or nation. But this emphasis on God’s graciousness tames God and only makes him perfect in our own eyes. God has never tried to distance himself from his severity.
God’s Grace: Superabundant
The more excessive and all-encompassing the gift-giving, the more perfect a gift-giver appears to be. This language is plainly used of God. Eph. 1:7–8 ESV, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.” Rom. 5:20–21 ESV, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Note how grace is even pitted against sin: sin is this power that has reigned and killed us off, but in Christ God’s favor towards us abounds more than sin so that God’s favor leads to us actually living righteously and having eternal life.
In order to guard against abuses of grace, the superabundance of grace has probably not been taught well in our general tradition. The concern is that if we talk about God’s kindness as abounding so lavishly, some might be careless about sin or take advantage of God’s kindness — twisting grace into license to be lazy and sin. This was actually a very real concern (See Rom. 6:1-12; Jude 4). Yet, despite this danger of abusing God’s grace, Paul insists on the lavish abundance of God’s favor towards us that abounds more than our sin. This has changed in the past decade or so, but in the past, many have often felt that maybe they would out-sin, out-fail God. But, the New Testament writings insist otherwise: God does not want us to not sin, but when we sin and confess our guilt to God, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
Since there has been a lot of misunderstanding here, let’s sit on this for another moment. Romans 8:31-39 is a favorite passage for many of us. This is where Paul lists many powers and says nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But, if you go back and read this text, you may note that rebellion against God is conspicuously missing from that list. Furthermore, when Paul boasts of his weaknesses that demonstrate Christ’s grace and power, he never boasts of his sinfulness. High-handed rebellion or resigning ourselves to wreckless sinfulness has never been okay in old or new covenants.
And yet, for those who are not engaging in that, God wants us to have confidence in his ridiculously, super-abundant kindness towards we who believe. He has lavished favor upon favor on us. When he chose us and predetestined us to adoption as his sons and daughters, he knew he was getting into a project. Our sanctification or perfection is absolutely God’s goal and we’ll talk about that next time. But just as Scripture speaks of this worsening sin being a process, it also speaks of sanctification being a process. Rom. 6:19 ESV, “Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” Heb. 10:14 ESV, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” If we want our children to grow, they need lots of love, correction, instruction, and forgiveness. We will not accept rebellion or defiance, but if we beat them down for accidents and failings, they’ll give up. Similarly, God has determined that we will be perfected, we will be holy — “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) — and so he never accepts rebellion. But, when we falter and we confess our sins, he forgives us and lavishly shows us grace as we continue to “strive for… holiness.” He knows we are not perfect — yet.
Now, there are three other “perfections” of grace we will discuss next time which, in my view, are where this gets even more interesting. But before we leave the superabundance of God’s grace, I want to expand our horizons. When we talk about God’s grace — his favor — we typically think of how he has forgiven us or redeemed us from of our sins. This is a hallmark feature of the Scriptures that I don’t want to take away from in the slightest. But, if we truly believe God’s grace is superabundant, that means it’s not just excessive, but it’s also all-encompassing. God has rescued us from his wrath and given us grace to train us in righteousness, but he has given us much more. Note Paul in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (ESV) I think we sound super spiritual if we perfect God’s gift-giving to only being Jesus — “that’s enough for me!” And certainly, I’d be content with that. But Paul reasons further here: if God gave us his Son, how will he also not also along with him, along with his Son Jesus give us all things. This likely echoes the sentiment of Psalm 8 where David reflects on how God is setting all things under our feet. Maybe we often feel that we need to balance out our thanksgiving for “things” with thanksgiving for the “spiritual blessings” given to us in his Son — but, as I see it, the Bible rarely displays that kind of dichotomous thinking. Here, in fact, Paul reasons the opposite — if he’s given us his Son, what more might he give us with him?
I have never put any emphasis on gift-giving in my life — and I’m the worse for it. But it has suddenly clicked for me — I am seeing more and more that gift-giving lies at the heart of relationships. It’s one way we give ourselves and receive others and build the happy ties of community. We do not cast aside gifts and services say, “All I want is you” — this thinking sounds nice, but it is really only needed when a relationship is in a crisis mode. We learn to love and appreciate one another, and especially God in our gifts. May our eyes be opened to the wonder of God in the many gifts and kind services he has done for us. God is certainly more than a gift-giver — may we never try to perfect God or even ourselves in illegitimate ways. But he is the superior gift-giver — choosing us and giving us good gifts prior to us ever doing anything or giving anything to him. And he is super-abundantly generous towards us — giving us his Son, his Spirit, and even one day, “all things.” May we draw near to our severe, kind, gift-giving Father.