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Grace As a Gift (Part 2)

Paul frequently uses the language of grace and gift-giving in his letters. “All… are justified by his grace as a gift…” Gift-giving has been perceived differently at different times by different cultures. In our world, the Santa Claus model dominates: gifts are given to those who are deserving and no return is necessary — not a thank you or a relationship. This is how all government welfare and most philanthropy works. We do not write thank you notes to Santa Claus for his gifts nor to the IRS for their refunds, and both would be rather confused if we did. But how does gift-giving work in God’s economy? Paul says it is “free” — but what does that really mean? Our gifts towards one another are typically ordinary — but what does God’s perfect gift look like?

 

We said last time that we tend to perfect concepts. We might refer a storm as “the perfect storm”  — meaning everything came together exactly as it needed to in order to do some serious damage.  It occurred to me recently that we sing “My only hope is you, Jesus…” We aren’t simply saying that we hope in Jesus, we are saying our only hope is Jesus. Right or wrong, this is perfecting a concept.

 

And, this happens with grace too. Someone may speak of being saved by “sheer grace” or “pure grace” or “grace alone.” We use rhetoric, cut away the clutter, and we put something into the extreme to create tension and make a point. And, we may be right when we do that, or we may be wrong. (I perfected the concept of love in a sermon on God’s love two years ago, and in retrospect, I’m not sure it was very accurate or helpful.)

 

Last time, we saw that God’s grace or gift of Christ is prior — he gave before we gave —  and superabundant — he gives favor in lavish, abounding quantities — but grace or favor is not God’s only, singular attribute. Today we will see that God’s gift giving is not always effective — it doesn’t always effect the transformation God intends — and it is incongruent — the gift is given without respect to people’s social or cultural or moral worth — and it is not non-circular — meaning God’s gift is intended to form a relationship and we are under obligation to make some return.

 

Not Always Effective (Not Always Irresistible, Don’t Always Persevere)

When we give gifts, we hope to have a positive impact on that person: in the future they or others will look back and say that my gift made their day or perhaps their life better. And certainly, we can see the God’s gift of Jesus has effected change for the better in individual lives, families, communities, and in the world. But some might perfect this aspect of God’s gift in Christ and say that God is the only person at work in someone’s life when it changes for the better, and in fact that God’s grace always powerfully transforms someone and brings them to salvation. Maybe God’s grace is so powerful that it is irresistible to those who receive it and those who receive it will always persevere — the positive change will last forever. Augustine and John Calvin are two famous Christian teachers who perfected the efficacy of God’s grace. In my opinion, this is based on a faulty read of Romans 8. In fact, I would say Calvin has made Romans 8 very hard to understand for even the most knowledgeable of us. While there is not time today, I may offer my read on it sometime if there is interest.

 

But we know grace is not always effective, irresistible, and does not always lead to transformation and perseverance because numerous texts say the opposite. Paul speaks in Galatians 5:4 of people being “severed from Christ” and as having “fallen away from grace.” In Romans 11:22 Paul speaks of how we will be “cut off” from Christ — from God’s family — if we do not continue in his kindness. Hebrews 6 urges us to see there’s nothing we can do to restore those who fall away and in chapter 10 he says that those who trample the blood of Jesus that sanctified them will be severely punished.

 

On the contrary, Paul urges the Christians in 2 Corinthians 6:1 to “not receive the grace of God in vain.” He also gives God credit in 1 Corinthians 15:10 (ESV): “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” I suspect some people may have been tempted to call him a legalist for this hard work of his, but he was determined that God’s grace wouldn’t be a vain, empty gift, so he worked even harder than any of the other apostles. God’s grace should produce lasting transformation in us, but it doesn’t always do that.

 

Always Incongruent (Given to unworthy — w/o regard to social, cultural, or moral worth)

Barclay explains like this: “To give lavishly and in advance is one thing, but it is quite another to give to unworthy or unfitting recipients.” Throughout history, it has typically been seen as wise and just to be discriminating in how one gives gifts. And, in fact, this is the way Santa Clause operates — he’s making a list, checking in twice, finding out whose naughty or nice, and — supposedly — the naughty don’t receive gifts (though, if you ask me, Santa’s not always the best judge of character).

 

It might sound cruel to have conditions for a gift, but it wasn’t conceived of that way at all in ancient days. The thought was that you shouldn’t waste your resources on just anyone because of the risk. If you give indiscriminately, many of your gifts may not be effective, or you might be hitching your wagon to people who will give you a bad name.

 

In fact, it is possible we are even told in some situations to be discriminating in situations. Matthew 7:6 — don’t give to dogs what is holy, you don’t throw pearls before swine. 1 Timothy 5 — don’t enroll any woman for regular church support, but only older widows who have raised children and who have a reputation for good works.

 

But Barclay argues, and I agree, that the incongruent nature of God’s gift in Christ is the hallmark perfection of grace that was so shocking and controversial in Paul’s day.

 

Rom. 5:6–8 is one of many examples, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Titus 3:5 is another example, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness…”

 

And while we typically only think of how grace was given without regard to moral worth, Paul was also very concerned — because of the tension in Jew-Gentile relationships — to demonstrate that God’s gift is given without regard to one’s social or cultural worth either. Rom. 3:28–30 is one of many examples, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” There was concern from the Jews in the early church that if Gentiles wanted full incorporation into God’s family and promises, they needed to renounce their cultural distinctiveness and keep the Law: especially to become Jews by being circumcised, keeping Sabbath, and eating only clean meats. After all, the promises are for Israel, so you need to become a Jew outwardly. See, the Law was not only a righteous moral standard, it also served as a culturally dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. But, Paul argues that Jesus Christ is the true Israel, the true Son of God, and by trust and allegiance to him anyone can share in God’s great promises. To be made right with God in Christ apart from the Law of Moses is to break down that dividing wall and any precondition for receiving God’s grace and coming into God’s family (cf. Eph. 2).

 

Why is God willing to give so lavishly to such unworthy people? One reason is because he wants to cut out all opportunity for human boasting. God is concerned that someone might puff out their chest and take sole responsibility for who they are. But no one can boast of a national heritage or of social standing or of moral worth that conditioned God’s gift to them. He wants the glory for bringing life from death, and worth where there was none. Do we participate in that? Yes. But his gift is not because of our worth.

 

Two notes. First, while a good number of Jews appear to have disagreed with this in Jesus day, their writings make it evident that many fully agreed with this even before Jesus — they saw they were unworthy. Hence, in Luke 18, a tax collector begged for mercy despite his sinfulness, while a Pharisee boasted of his obedience — some saw they were unworthy, others did not. This leads to an important conclusion so often misunderstood: the Law of Moses was not a system by which someone earned right-standing with God. In fact, the Law was never a means to right-standing. While this Pharisee and others didn’t get the point that they were unworthy, others like the tax collector did.

 

Second, to us, it seems unthinkable that grace would be anything but a gift given to the unworthy, but that’s because when we think of grace we only think of forgiveness. And it is true that forgiveness — or, better, pardon or justification — is one of the first and foundational gifts we are given in Christ, but it is not the only benefit of being put in Christ. Remember from last time in Psalm 8 and Romans 8: the reason we want to be forgiven and have right-standing with God and his people is because he’s promised that those who are in his Son will inherit all things — reigning with Jesus in the age to come over the world to come. I would even say that God’s gift of salvation in Christ was not necessarily shocking because merely God is forgives unworthy people; all who are forgiven of sins are unworthy by that definition; rather, it is shocking because when he forgives unworthy people, he’s showing his intention to give all things, the future world, the inheritance to these people who currently unworthy.

 

Not Non-Circular (There is obligation to make return)

In the modern West, there is a notion of “pure” or “disinterested” or “altruistic” gift-giving — meaning that if you can benefit in anyway from the gift then it’s not really a gift. In fact, if you respond to someone’s kindness with some sort of return, some might even accuse you of trying to earn the gift. “Pure” gifts are completely one-way, never two-way. You give and you never receive.

 

But this was not typically the case in the ancient world. When someone gave you grace, you always returned grace at some point — whether in the form of a hearty thank you, public praise, a service, or even a gift in kind. And, without some form of reciprocity, both the gift and the relationship were seen to be dead. In fact, in that world, you might even decide to turn down a gift because you don’t want to be associated with the giver and you don’t want to be on the hook for any sort of return. And, some did abuse this culture of gift-giving: they gave to pervert justice or to put people in their debts. But this was not considered at all virtuous — I think of how Jesus tells us to not have people over to our homes to be repaid by them (Luke 14:12-14).

 

But how does it work in Christ? Is God like Santa Claus? Does he give expecting nothing in return?

 

Rom. 6:1–2 ESV, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

 

Titus 2:11–14 ESV, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Paul makes it so clear here that God’s gift is not just a present that we are free to use however we desire; rather, the gift is intended to train us as part of God’s plan to make a people who are zealous for good works.

 

And, in fact, Paul and others warn that if we don’t continue in God’s kindness, we will be cut off from Christ.  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.” We must continue to walk in God’s kindness. Jude 4 warns against people “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.”

 

According to modern standards, God is not a good gift-giver, because, according to Ephesians 1, why has God been so gracious? Paul says three times: “To the praise of his glorious grace.” God has given that his grace might be praised before all. That’s not very altruistic. Maybe we could say altruism — or at least the modern version of it — isn’t all that virtuous. Please don’t misunderstand: this is not at all to say God gives selfishly. It’s to say that God has given us a lot, so he has an interest in us, and he should. He didn’t give us a gift in hopes that we’d bury it in the ground or to squander it, but that the gift would transform us into useful, fruitful people.

 

Paul says it perfectly in Eph. 1:4: “He chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” He didn’t choose us because we were holy or blameless, but that we would be.

 

We might be tempted to hear this as a negative — “Oh no, I’m on the hook!” But don’t. And it’s not how I heard it when walking through Galatians and Romans with Barclay this last time. In fact, I was struck by overwhelming appreciation for our God who is such a good gift-giver that in Jesus he really has given us the perfect gift. He hasn’t just given hungry people a fish, he’s taught us to fish. His gift doesn’t leave us as powerless poor people. He’s given a gift that raises us out of our poverty to be both wealthy and generous. He gives us right-standing and he makes us righteous too. “The grace of God … train[s] us to renounce ungodliness… and to live godly lives…” Jesus is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Conclusion

There is so much more I would like to explore about God’s grace and even about our gift-giving in the church and wider society at this point, but this is not the last word on God’s grace, so I’ll stop here. The global body of Christ is very fractured and sometimes it’s just because our language gets in the way — may these semantics encourage peace-making conversations. And may God’s free gift towards us not be in vain.

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