There, but for the grace of God, go I!” has become, in some circles, a “proudly humble” way of calling attention to another’s unfortunate (or otherwise degraded) condition. The obvious but unspoken (and unwarranted) assumption that such “grace” is absent in the experience of that “other”, and the consequent air of condescension, seem totally to escape the notice of the speaker. This is evidence of a serious misunderstanding of the nature, purpose, and expansiveness of the “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” so enthusiastically, but narrowly, and, sadly, quite selfishly celebrated in song and sermon.
Are you bothered by the inclusion of “selfishly”? Count the occurrences of “I, me, my” in that and other similar songs! That is diametrically opposed to New Testament attitudes!
A more accurate understanding of “grace” would move such a speaker to action (mercy! See W.S.#59), rather than to a piously superior sort of pity!
Grace – charis – was a very common word, with a long list of classical uses, including “outward beauty, grace, or favor; kindness or good will; thankfulness, or an expression of gratitude; a favor (personal or political) done or returned; a grant made in legal form; gratification; homage or worship; majesty; something done for the pleasure or “sake” of someone.” Its mythological personification was worshiped as the wife of the Greek god Hephaestus, and the attendants of Aphrodite (“the Graces”). (L/S). Bauer adds “gracious care: the action of someone who volunteers to do something to which he is not bound or obligated; the practical application of good will by gods or men; the condition of a person so favored.”
It is probably the “lack of obligation” idea that has given rise to the popular evangelical phrase “unmerited favor”, although no etymological data includes any analysis of whether a favor is deserved or not.
New Testament usage is also quite wide-ranging. Charis can refer to a simple “thank you” (Lk.7:19, 6:32,33,34) to a person or a group (II Cor.4:15); to giving thanks for a meal (I Cor.10:30), or profound thanksgiving to God (Rom.6:17, I Tim.1:12, II Tim.1:3, I Cor.15:57, II Cor.2:14, 8:16, 9:15, Col.3:16).
The aspect of “favor” or “good will” appears in Lk.1:30, 2:52; Ac.2:47, 7:10, 7:46) and political maneuvering in Ac.24:27 and 25:9.
Charis can describe that gracious attribute of God seen in his calling of people to himself and his Kingdom, and enabling their conversion and transformation of life (I Cor.1:4, 15:10; Gal.1:15, I Tim.1:14). This “grace”has observable results: when Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the apostles to check out the new group that had formed there, he “saw the grace of God” (Ac.11:23), and welcomed them as true brethren. We aren’t told what he “saw” – but he clearly recognized it as a “family trait.” Charis was also recognized as the active force in people becoming faithful in Achaia (Ac.18:27), and Paul urged the newly faithful in Pisidian Antioch (Ac.13:43) to continue (W.S.#58) in it, despite bitter opposition.
In Eph.2:5-7, Paul waxes eloquent about the results of being “rescued” (W.S.#5) by God’s graciousness: being made alive with Christ, and identified with his resurrection (W.S. #35) and seated together with him, as a demonstration of his gracious kindness! Notice how quickly the narrative moves away from their former, alienated condition, into the glorious, gracious provision of God! Why is it now more in vogue to dwell on people’s degradation? As one student observed, “It doesn’t say that I need to be – or pretend to be – total scum in order to experience grace!”
Somehow, sadly, in subsequent centuries, the balance has tipped strangely, and what was supposed to be the beginning of a lifelong process of transformation has been placed on hold, until the final consummation! Not so in true New Testament teaching! The focus here is on the grace that enables Kingdom living! Charis is the fuel that runs the “engine” of the transformation of life among those who are faithful! It involves “being made just” (W.S.#3) (Ac.15:11, Rom.3:24, and chapters 4 and 5); enabling honest behavior (II Cor.1:12), enabling service, both to the brotherhood and to those outside (Eph.4:7, Heb.12:28). It includes both generosity, and the means with which to express it (II Cor.9:8 and 14), confidence in prayer for help (Heb.4:16), and “coaching” (W.S.53) when needed.
The faithful are admonished to let charis motivate and regulate our speech (Eph.4:29, Col.4:6), and to be careful stewards of such a gracious gift (I Pet.4:10, Rom.12:6), using each manifestation of God’s grace to serve one another.
Both James (4:6) and Peter (I Pet.5:5) paraphrase the statement they had heard from Jesus himself (Lk.14:11) that God actively opposes (the same word that James uses in the next sentence to tell his readers how to treat the devil!) the arrogant, but gives grace to the unassuming (“humble” W.S.#14).
The expectation of faithful living as a response to God’s grace (II Cor.6:1, II Pet.3:18, Titus 2:11-15) is carefully and deliberately distinguished from the establishment – or defense – of the Law. This was obvious already in Johns prologue statement (1:17), “The law was given through Moses, but grace/graciousness and truth (came into being) through Jesus Christ!”
There are many warnings (Rom.4:4, 4:16, 11:6; Gal.1:6, 5:4; Heb.13:9; Rom.5,6,and 11) against trying to combine the new life with the old legalism, and also against the opposite problem, interpreting freedom from law as an excuse for licentiousness (Jude 4), which, he notes, actually amounts to denying the Lord Jesus! Heb.10:29 and 12:15 have a similar tone.
Luke, Paul, and the writer to the Hebrews frequently represent charis as not only supplying the enablement for an assignment (W.S.#55), but view the very assignment itself as a gift of grace (Ac.14:26, 15:40, 20:24; Rom.1:5, 12:6; Gal.2:9, Eph.3:2,7,8; 4:7; II Tim.1:9; Heb.2:9, 12:28).
In II Cor.8 and 9, especially 9:8 and 9:13, virtually everything connected with the offering for famine relief is included under the rubric of “grace”.
Paul urges Timothy not only to “be strong” in the grace that has come to him, but to be careful to pass it on (II Tim.2:1,2) to faithful people who will do likewise. This should be seen as the primary responsibility of every person entrusted/gifted with a task in the Body! (See Chapters 6-8 of Citizens of the Kingdom). “The grace/graciousness that is in Christ Jesus”, like the “mercy” we studied in the last post (#59), is not a treasure to be hoarded and admired, but a trust to be shared!
The final paragraph in Paul’s letter to Titus (2:11-14) provides an excellent summary of the effects and expectations that accompany the grace of God – who is called, in deliberate defiance of the Roman emperor’s edict, “our Savior / deliverer” (W.S.#4) in v.11. The application of the same title to Jesus, “our great God and Savior”in v.13 is not a contradiction, but a reiteration of that designation.
“His grace/graciousness was revealed (aorist tense: already accomplished) to all people (v.11); teaching/educating us (present participle: continuous action) to deny (aorist participle – a definitive act) ungodliness and worldly desires/longings, in order that (purpose clause) we may live (aorist subjunctive – purpose) sensibly and justly in the present age (v.12)while we are waiting (present participle – continuous ) for our blessed expectation/hope, and the appearance of (or from) the glory, of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (v.13) (all the nouns are genitive – possession or source).
He gave himself for us [on our behalf], in order to (purpose) ransom us from all lawlessness, and to cleanse for himself a prepared people, eager for good deeds [things to do]!” (v.14).
In short, his purpose is to establish his Kingdom among us!
“Thanks – charis – be to God, for his indescribable gift!” (II Cor.9:15)