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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, May 02 2024

How 'Grace' was understood in the time of the Apostles

The word ‘charis,’ is often translated as grace in the Bible. Understanding what it, and other related words mean, helps us comprehend what our response should be to the grace and love God has shown towards us.

Authors Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien in their book “Misreading Scrip-ture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible” describe what charis involved at the time the New Testament was written: “....A good patron solved the problems of his or her clients: assisting with trade guilds, business disputes, refinancing loans and easing tensions with city elders….The patron did ‘favors’ for his clients who then fell under his circle of influence and protection. In return, the client was expected to be loyal (faithful) and was sometimes asked to do things for the patron” (pp. 162-164).

The Apostle Paul uses this well-understood cultural norm to help us grasp the greatness of God’s love and kindness toward us in extending His charis or “grace”—the forgiveness of sin, the gift of eternal life and all His other blessings. In return for the priceless gift of God’s grace, we become the equivalents of God’s clients—obligated to show loyalty and faith to Him and to do whatever He asks of us. In biblical terms, this is what the Bible refers to as pistis—translated as faith or faithfulness. Like charis, Paul uses this word more than 100 times in his letters.

Authors, Richards and O’Brien, go on to summarize the relationship between these words and what it means for a Christian’s relationship with God: “Patronage had its own vocabulary. Words we usually consider particularly Christian terms—grace and faith—were common parlance…. The undeserved gifts of assistance the patron offered were commonly called charis (‘grace’ and ‘gift’): The loyalty the client offered the patron in response was called pistis (‘faith’ and ‘faithfulness’)....When Paul sought to explain the Christian’s new relationship with God…one of the ways he did so was in terms of the ancient system of patronage—something everyone understood.” (p. 166).

Dr. David deSilva, professor of Greek and the New Testament and an authority on first-century culture, emphasizes the obligation of the recipient of grace to act in ways that demonstrate thankfulness and appreciation for what he or she has received: “The greater the benefit bestowed, the greater should be the response of gratitude. In the ancient world gratitude involved first the demonstration of respect for the benefactor… acting in such a way as to enhance his or her honor ... .Gratitude also involves intense personal loyalty to the patron…. This is the level of gratitude and loyalty the New Testament authors claim should be given to Jesus and, through him, to God. “Grace,” therefore, has very specific meanings for the authors and readers of the New Testament . . .” (An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation 2018, pp. 103-104).

Dr. DeSilva continues: “God’s favor seeks a response of faithfulness (pistis) and service from God’s clients. Paul speaks, for example, of the “obedience of faith” (Rom[ans] 1:5; 16:26) as the goal of his mission, calling forth the proper response of those who have benefited from God’s gift…The recipients of God’s favor are called to offer up their whole selves to God’s service, to do what is righteous in God’s sight (Rom[ans] 6:1-14;12:1). This response centers not only on honoring God but also on love, generosity, and loyal service toward fellow believers (Rom[ans] 13:9-10; Gal[atians] 5:13-14; 6:2)....While God’s favor remains free and uncoerced, the first-century hearer knows that to accept a gift also meant freely accepting the obligation to respond properly” (pp. 106-107).

Grace is an incredible gift from God—a gift we can never fully repay, and a gift that obligates us to commit our lives to serving God and living in a way that pleases Him. We, who are the recipients of God’s incomparable gifts of grace, are obligated in turn to become people who personify grace, willingly and gratefully extending that grace to others for the benefit and blessing of all.

Many of Paul’s comments about grace or charis are consistent with this view that was common at the time. For example, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:8, “God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work.” He notes here that since we have been the recipients of God’s abundant grace, we should extend that grace to others in the form of “every good work.”

In 2 Corinthians 8:7 Paul, encouraging the church in Corinth to give generously to a collection for famine relief he was organizing for Christians in Judea, writes: “But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Paul reminds them that since they have received so much from God, they should generously share with their fellow believers who were suffering.

The Apostle Peter, writing about spiritual gifts, tells us, “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). His point is that we express our thanks to God for His gifts by using what He has given us to serve others. As these and other passages note, we who are the recipients of God’s gifts of grace are obligated to become people who personify grace by willingly and gratefully extending that grace to others for the benefit and blessing of all. In this way we come to develop and reflect the nature and perfect character of a grace-giving God.