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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, October 14 2021

What did 'grace' mean in the first century?

In the time of Jesus and the Apostles, a system known as ‘patronage’ existed in the Roman Empire. Members of the wealthier class gave gifts or assistance to those who were less well-off called charis —which is the Greek word translated as ‘grace.’

The Apostle Paul wove the word charis more than 100 times into his letters, with Greek and Roman converts understanding the word in a considerably different context than we do today. What the Apostles meant by the “grace of God” was potentially quite different from our modern concepts.

A Greco-Roman citizen or a Greek-speaking Jew reading the word charis in a biblical context, would conceive of a powerful relationship between a giver of gifts and the recipients of those gifts. In addition to meaning gifts of an undeserved nature, a situation involving charis (grace) would typically have been regarded as a relationship with lasting mutual benefits and expectations.

Such patronage was common in the early Church. For example, no separate physical “church” buildings existed during the early decades and some Church members became spiritual and physical patrons by opening their homes to provide meeting spaces for church services. Paul refers to the deaconess Phoebe as “a patron of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2)—indicating her generous attitude and service to him and others. Also Luke’s writing of the books of Luke and Acts was evidently supported by a patron named Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1).

“The influential patron protected the client’s economical, social and legal interests by letting him profit from the patron’s social connections and by allowing him access to the patron’s resources” (Paul Sampley, editor, Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, Vol. 2, 2016, p. 206). The new client in return “was expected to show respect and gratitude to the patron, to render certain services to him . . . and to support his political, economical and social activities” (ibid).

The book Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis, explains charis or grace this way: “Since the fifth century, a number of Christian scholars have taught that grace is something bestowed by God freely, with little or nothing required in return... [Yet] ‘free grace’ is not what Paul and others intended. The practice in the ancient world of people granting and receiving favors and gifts came with clear obligations. Charis ... also comes with covenantal obligations . . . Knowing what charis means helps us understand what God expects us to do once we have accepted His grace” (Brent Schmidt, 2015, back cover).

Dr. David deSilva, professor of Greek and the New Testament and an authority on first-century culture, explains in the article “Grace” in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible what was expected of clients of a patron, and how it applies today: “. . . The proper response of those who have benefited from God’s gift . . . involves the offering up of the believers’ whole selves to God’s service, to do what is righteous in God’s sight (Romans 12:1; Romans 6:1-14)... the ancient hearer knew that to accept a gift meant accepting also obligation to the giver” (p. 525).

When we repent, we are cleansed of sin and restored to a right relationship with our divine patron, God. A Christian is therefore expected to step out in faith and commit to becoming a new person, casting off their old sinful ways in a new relationship where they “not under law [under its penalty] but under grace” (Romans 6:14).