|Bible Research > Interpretation > Grace|
“We have to be on our guard against the supposition that grace is an abstract quality; it is an active personal principle, showing itself in our dealings with those by whom we are surrounded. … In the great proportion of passages in which the word grace is found in the New Testament, it signifies the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, effected through the agency of the Holy Spirit. We have gradually come to speak of grace as an inherent quality in man, just as we talk of gifts; whereas it is in reality the communication of Divine goodness by the inworking of the Spirit, and through the medium of Him who is ‘full of grace and truth.’” — Robert Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1871), p. 179.
“Against a still common view it must be stated that in Paul χαρις does not mean primarily a divine attribute (Wobbe, Charis-Gedanke, 32). It does not mean, in good Greek fashion, God’s graciousness, nor concetely his free love (Taylor). It almost always means the power of salvation which finds expression in specific gifts, acts, and spheres and which is even individualized in the charismata.” —Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 14.
“In Paul ... χαρις is never merely an attitude or disposition of God (God’s character as gracious); consistently it denotes something much more dynamic—the wholly generous act of God. Like ‘Spirit,’ with which it overlaps in meaning (cf., e.g., [Rom] 6:14 and Gal 5:18), it denotes effective divine power in the experience of men.” —James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), p. 17.
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The Biblical Use of the Term “Grace.” The word “grace” is not always used in the same sense in Scripture, but has a variety of meanings. In the Old Testament we have the word chen (adj. chanun), from the root chanan. The noun may denote gracefulness or beauty, Prov. 22:11; 31:30, but most generally means favour or good-will. The Old Testament repeatedly speaks of finding favour in the eyes of God or of man. The favour so found carries with it the bestowal of favours or blessings. This means that grace is not an abstract quality, but is an active, working principle, manifesting itself in beneficent acts, Gen. 6:8; 19:19; 33:15; Ex. 33:12; 34:9; I Sam 1:18; 27:5; Esth. 2:7. The fundamental idea is, that the blessings graciously bestowed are freely given, and not in consideration of any claim or merit. The New Testament word charis, from chairein, “to rejoice,” denotes first of all a pleasant external appearance, “loveliness,” “agreeableness,” “acceptableness,” and has some such meaning in Luke 4:22; Col. 4:6. A more prominent meaning of the word, however, is favour or good-will, Luke 1:30; 2:40, 52; Acts 2:47; 7:46; 24:27; 25:9. It may denote the kindness of beneficence of our Lord, II Cor. 8:9, or the favour manifested or bestowed by God, II Cor. 9:8 (referring to material blessings); I Pet. 5:10. Furthermore, the word is expressive of the emotion awakened in the heart of the recipient of such favour, and thus acquires the meaning “gratitude” or “thankfulness,” Luke 4:22; I Cor. 10:30; 15:57; II Cor. 2:14; 8:16; I Tim. 1:12. In most of the passages, however, in which the word charis is used in the New Testament, it signifies the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, affected through the agency of the Holy Spirit. While we sometimes speak of grace as an inherent quality, it is in reality the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit, out of the fulness of Him who is “full of grace and truth,” Rom. 3:24; 5:2, 15; 17:20; 6:1; I Cor. 1:4; II Cor. 6:1; 8:9; Eph. 1:7; 2:5, 8; 3:7; I Pet. 3:7; 5:12.
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In the English New Testament the word “grace” is always a translation of χαρις (charis), a word that occurs in the Greek text something over 170 times (the reading is uncertain in places). In secular Greek of all periods it is also a very common word, and in both Biblical and secular Greek it is used with far more meanings than can be represented by any one term in English. Primarily (a) the word seems to denote pleasant external appearance, “gracefulness,” “loveliness”; cf. the personificaion in “the Graces.” Such a use is found in Luke 4:22, where ‘wondered at the charm of his words’ is a good translation; and similarly in Colossians 4:6. (b) Objectively, charis may denote the impression produced by “gracefulness,” as in 3 John 1:4 ‘greater gratification have I none than this’ (but many manuscripts read chara, “joy,” here). (c) As a mental attribute charis may be translated by “graciousness,” or, when directed toward a particular person or persons, by “favor.” So in Luke 2:52, “Jesus advanced ... in favor with God and men.” (d) As the complement to this, charis denotes the emotion awakened in the recipient of such favor, i.e. “gratitude.” So Luke 17:9 reads literally, ‘Has he gratitude to that servant?’ In a slightly transferred sense charis designates the words or emotion in which gratitude is expressed, and so becomes “thanks” (some 10 times, Romans 6:17, etc.). (e) Concretely, charis may mean the act by which graciousness is expressed, as in 1 Corinthians 16:3, where the King James Version translates by “liberality,” and the Revised Version by “bounty.” These various meanings naturally tend to blend into each other, and in certain cases it is difficult to fix the precise meaning that the writer meant the word to convey, a confusion that is common to both New Testament and secular Greek And in secular Greek the word has a still larger variety of meanings that scarcely concern the theologian.
Naturally, the various meanings of the word were simply taken over from ordinary language by the New Testament writers. And so it is quite illegitimate to try to construct on the basis of all the occurrences of the word a single doctrine that will account for all the various usages. That one word could express both “charm of speech” and “thankfulness for blessings” was doubtless felt to be a mere accident, if it was thought of at all. But none the less, the very elasticity of the word enabled it to receive still another—new and technically Christian—meaning. This seems to have originated in part by fusing together two of the ordinary significances. In the first place, as in (e) above, charis may mean “a gift.” In 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:19 it is the money given by the Corinthians to the Jerusalemites. In 2 Corinthians 9:8 it is the increase of worldly goods that God grants for charitable purposes. In 2 Corinthians 1:15 it is the benefit received by the Corinthians from a visit by Paul. In a more spiritual sense charis is the endowment for an office in the church (Ephesians 4:7), more particularly for the apostolate (Romans 1:5; 12:3; 15:15; 1 Corinthians 3:10; Ephesians 3:2,7). So in 1 Corinthians 1:4-7 charis is expanded into “word and all knowledge,” endowments with which the Corinthians were especially favored. In 1 Peter 1:13 charis is the future heavenly blessedness that Christians are to receive; in 3:7 it is the present gift of “life.” In the second place, charis is the word for God’s favor, a sense of the term that is especially refined by St. Paul (see below). But God’s favor differs from man’s in that it cannot be conceived of as inactive. A favorable “thought” of God’s about a man involves of necessity the reception of some blessing by that man, and “to look with favor” is one of the commonest Biblical paraphrases for “bestow a blessing.” Between “God’s favor” and “God’s favors” there exists a relation of active power, and as charis denoted both the favor and the favors, it was the natural word for the power that connected them. This use is very clear in 1 Corinthians 15:10, where Paul says, “not I, but the grace of God which was with me” labored more abundantly than they all: grace is something that labors. So in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness”; compare 2 Timothy 2:1, “strengthened in the grace,” and 1 Peter 4:10, “stewards of the manifold grace.” Evidently in this sense “grace” is almost a synonym for the Spirit, and there is little real difference between “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power” in Acts 6:5,8, while there is a very striking parallel between Ephesians 4:7-13 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, with “gifts of grace” in the one passage, and “gifts of the Spirit” in the other. And this connection between grace and the Spirit is found definitely in the formula “Spirit of grace” in Hebrews 10:29 (compare Zechariah 12:10). And, as is well known, it is from this sense of the word that the Catholic doctrine of grace developed.
3. Grace in
This meaning of charis was obtained by expanding and combining other meanings. By the opposite process of narrowly restricting one of the meanings of the word, it came again into Christian theology as a technical term, but this time in a sense quite distinct from that just discussed. The formation of this special sense seems to have been the work of Paul. When charis is used with the meaning “favor,” nothing at all is implied as to whether or not the favor is deserved. So, for instance, in the New Testament, when in Luke 2:52 it is said that “Jesus advanced ... in favor with God and men,” the last possible thought is that our Lord did not deserve this favor. Compare also Luke 2:40 and Acts 2:47 and, as less clear cases, Luke 1:30; Acts 7:46; Hebrews 4:16; 12:15,28. But the word has abundant use in secular Greek in the sense of unmerited favor, and St. Paul seized on this meaning of the word to express a fundamental characteristic of Christianity. The basic passage is Romans 11:5-6, where a definition is given, “If it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.” The fact that the word is used in other senses could have caused no first-century reader to miss the meaning, which, indeed, is unmistakable. “Grace” in this sense is an attitude on God’s part that proceeds entirely from within Himself, and that is conditioned in no way by anything in the objects of His favor. So in Romans 4:4. If salvation is given on the basis of what a man has done, then salvation is given by God as the payment of a debt. But when faith is reckoned for what it is not, i.e. righteousness, there is no claim on man’s part, and he receives as a pure gift something that he has not earned. (It is quite true that faith involves moral effort, and so may be thought of as a sort of a “work”; it is quite true that faith does something as a preparation for receiving God’s further gifts. But it simply clouds the exegetical issue to bring in these ideas here, as they certainly were not present in Paul’s mind when the verses were being written.) “Grace” then, in this sense is the antinomy to “works” or to “law”; it has a special relation to the guilt of sin (Romans 5:20; 6:1), and has almost exactly the same sense as “mercy.” Indeed, “grace” here differs from “mercy” chiefly in connoting eager love as the source of the act. Of course it is this sense of grace that dominates Romans 3-6, especially in the thesis 3:24, while the same use is found in Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:5,8; 2 Timothy 1:9. The same strict sense underlies Galatians 1:6 and is found, less sharply formulated, in Titus 3:5-7. (Galatians 5:4 is perhaps different.) Outside of Paul’s writings, his definition of the word seems to be adopted in John 1:17; Acts 15:11; Hebrews 13:9, while a perversion of this definition in the direction of antinomianism is the subject of the invective in Jude 1:4. And, of course, it is from the word in this technical Pauline sense that an elaborate Protestant doctrine of grace has been developed.
A few special uses of the word may be noted. That the special blessing of God on a particular undertaking (Acts 14:26; 15:40) should be called a “grace” needs no explanation. In Luke 6:32-34, and 1 Peter 2:19-20, charis seems to be used in the sense of “that which deserves the thanks of God,” i.e. a specifically Christian act as distinguished from an act of “natural morality.” “Grace for grace” in John 1:16 is a difficult phrase, but an almost exact parallel in Philo (Posterity of Cain, 43) may fix the sense as “benefit on benefit.” But the tendency of the New Testament writers is to combine the various meanings the word can have, something that is particularly well illustrated in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. In these two chapters the word occurs 10 times, but in so many different senses as to suggest that St. Paul is consciously playing with the term. Charis is the money given to the Jerusalemites by the Corinthians (8:19), it is the increase of goods that God will grant the Corinthians (9:8), it is the disposition of the givers (8:6), it is the power of God that has wrought this disposition (8:1; 9:14), it is the act of Christ in the Incarnation (8:9; contrast the distinction between “God’s grace” and “Christs act” in Hebrews 2:9), it is the thanks that Paul renders (9:15). That all a Christian is and all that he has is God’s gift could have been stated of course without the use of any special term at all. But in these two chapters Paul has taught this truth by using for the various ideas always the same term and by referring this term to God at the beginning and the end of the section. That is, to the multiplicity of concepts there is given a unity of terminology, corresponding to the unity given the multiple aspects of life by the thought of entire dependence on God. So charis, “grace,” becomes almost an equivalent for “Christianity,” viewed as the religion of dependence on God through Christ. As one may think of entering Christianity, abiding in it, or falling from it, so one may speak of entering into (Romans 5:2), abiding in (Acts 13:43), or falling from (Galatians 5:4) grace; cf. 1 Peter 5:12. So the teaching of Christianity may be summed up as the word or gospel of grace (Acts 14:3; 20:24,32). So “grace be with you” closes the Epistles as a sufficient summary of all the blessings that can be wished Christian readers. At the beginning of the Epistles the words “and peace” are usually added, but this is due only to the influence of the Jewish greeting “peace be with you” (Luke 10:5, etc.), and not to any reflection on “grace” and “peace” as separate things. (It is possible that the Greek use of chairein, “rejoice,” as an epistolary salutation (so in James 1:1) influenced the Christian use of charis. But that “grace and peace” was consciously regarded as a universalistic combination of Jewish and Gentile custom is altogether unlikely.) The further expansion of the introductory formula by the introduction of “mercy” in First and Second Timothy is quite without theological significance.
In the Greek Gospels, charis is used in the words of Christ only in Luke 6:32-34; 17:9. As Christ spoke in Aramaic, the choice of this word is due to Luke, probably under the influence of its common Christian use in his own day. And there is no word in our Lord’s recorded sayings that suggests that He employed habitually any especial term to denote grace in any of its senses. But the ideas are unambiguously present. That the pardon of sins is a free act on God’s part may be described as an essential in Christ’s teaching, and the lesson is taught in all manner of ways. The prodigal knowing only his own wretchedness (Luke 15:20), the publican without merit to urge (Luke 18:13), the sick who need a physician (Mark 2:17), they who hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:6), these are the ones for whom God’s pardon is inexhaustible. And positive blessings, be they temporal or spiritual, are to be looked for from God, with perfect trust in Him who clothes the lilies and knows how to give good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11; here Luke 11:13 has “Holy Spirit” for “gifts,” doubtless a Lukan interpretation, but certainly a correct one). Indeed, it is not too much to say that Christ knows but one unpardonable sin, the sin of spiritual self-satisfaction—“That which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15; compare Luke 17:7-10; Matthew 20:1-16).
6. In the Old
There is no word in Hebrew that can represent all the meanings of charis, and in the Septuagint charis itself is used, practically, only as a translation of the Hebrew chen (חֵן), “favor,” this restriction of meaning being due to the desire to represent the same Hebrew word by the same Greek word as far as possible. And chen, in turn, is used chiefly only in the phrase “find favor” (Genesis 6:8, etc.), whether the reference is to God or men, and without theological importance. Much nearer Paul’s use of charis is ratson (רָצוֹן), “acceptance,” in such passages as Isaiah 60:10, “In my favor have I had mercy on thee”; Psalms 44:3, “not ... by their own sword ... but ... because thou wast favorable unto them.” Perhaps still closer parallels can be detected in the use of chesed (חֶסֶד), “kindness,” “mercy,” as in Exodus 20:6, etc. But, of course, a limitation of the sources for the doctrine to passages containing only certain words would be altogether unjust. The main lines seem to be these: (1) Technically, salvation by grace in the New Testament is opposed to an Old Testament doctrine of salvation by works (Romans 4:4; 11:6), or, what is the same thing, by law (Romans 6:14; John 1:17); i.e. men and God are thought of as parties to a contract, to be fulfilled by each independently. Most of the legislation seems to presuppose some idea of man as a quantity quite outside of God, while Deuteronomy 30:11-14 states explicitly that the law is not too hard nor too far off for man. (2) Yet even this legalism is not without important modifications. The keeping of the law is man’s work, but that man has the law to keep is something for which God only is to be thanked. Psalms 119 is the essence of legalism, but the writer feels overwhelmed throughout by the greatness of the mercy that disclosed such statutes to men. After all, the initial (and vital!) act is God’s not man’s. This is stated most sharply in Ezekiel 23:1-4—Oholibah and her sister became God’s, not because of any virtue in them, but in spite of most revolting conduct. Compare Deuteronomy 7:7, etc. (3) But even in the most legalistic passages, an absolute literal keeping of the law is never (not even in such a passage as Numbers 15:30-31) made a condition of salvation. The thought of transgression is at all times tempered with the thought of God’s pardon. The whole sacrificial system, in so far as it is expiatory, rests on God’s gracious acceptance of something in place of legal obedience, while the passages that offer God’s mercy without demanding even a sacrifice (Isaiah 1:18; Micah 7:18-20, etc.) are countless. Indeed, in Ezekiel 16; 20; 23, mercy is promised to a nation that is spoken of as hardly even desiring it, a most extreme instance. (4) But a mere negative granting of pardon is a most deficient definition of the Old Testament idea of God’s mercy, which delights in conferring positive benefits. The gift to Abraham of the land of Canaan, liberation from Egypt, food in the wilderness, salvation from enemies, deliverance from exile—all of Israel’s history can be felt to be the record of what God did for His people through no duty or compulsion, grateful thanksgiving for such unmerited blessings filling, for instance, much of the Psalter. The hearts of men are in God’s keeping, to receive from Him the impulse toward what is right (1 Chronicles 29:18, etc.). And the promise is made that the God who has manifested Himself as a forgiving Father will in due time take hold of His children to work in them actual righteousness (Isaiah 1:26; 4:3-4; 32:1-8; 33:24; Jeremiah 31:33-34; Ezekiel 36:25-26; Zechariah 8; Daniel 9:24; Psalms 51:10-12). With this promise—for the Old Testament always a matter of the future—the Old Testament teaching passes into that of the New Testament.
Most of the discussions of the Biblical doctrine of grace have been faulty in narrowing the meaning of “grace” to some special sense, and then endeavoring to force this special sense on all the Biblical passages. For instance, Roman scholars, starting with the meaning of the word in (say) 2 Corinthians 12:9, have made Romans 3:24 state that men are justified by the infusion of Divine holiness into them, an interpretation that utterly ruins Paul’s argument. On the other hand, Protestant extremists have tried to reverse the process and have argued that grace cannot mean anything except favor as an attitude, with results that are equally disastrous from the exegetical standpoint. And a confusion has resulted that has prevented men from seeing that most of the controversies about grace are at cross-purposes. A rigid definition is hardly possible, but still a single conception is actually present in almost every case where “grace” is found—the conception that all a Christian has or is, is centered exclusively in God and Christ, and depends utterly on God through Christ. The kingdom of heaven is reserved for those who become as little children, for those who look to their Father in loving confidence for every benefit, whether it be for the pardon so freely given, or for the strength that comes from Him who works in them both to will and to do.
About the author: Burton Scott Easton (1877–1950) was an Episcopalian seminary professor and NT scholar. From 1905 until 1911, he taught NT at Nashotah House. From 1911 until 1919, he taught NT at Western Theological Seminary in Chicago. He was professor of NT at the General Theological Seminary from 1919 until 1948. He served as Associate Editor of the Anglican Theological Review from 1923 until his death. Easton became a NT scholar of international repute with his commentary on The Gospel of St. Luke (1926). Among his many other publications were The Gospel Before the Gospels (1928), Christ in the Gospels (1930), and The Pastoral Epistles (1947). He also published a translation and edition of the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (1934).
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EPISTLE of St. James, chap, iv. ver. 6. — But he giveth more grace. On these words a commentator hath made this remark. — “The word charis here rendered grace, is rarely used to signify any inward motions or secret operations of the holy spirit on the mind, unless when it expresseth the extraordinary gifts, and miraculous endowments conferred on the Apostles and first Christians.”
Scripture is the best interpreter of scripture. As what our blessed Saviour saith in one place, (Matt. vii. 11.) “How much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him ?” — He in another (Luke xi. 13.) expresseth by “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the holy spirit to those that ask him?” — thus comprising all good things in one: — so the word (charis) grace, which is in the New Testament generally applied to express the free and undeserved favour of God to man through Jesus Christ, in general, doth sometimes, in a more limited sense, denote the gracious and undeserved assistance of the holy spirit; and that not only in his miraculous gifts but in his ordinary influences. In both these respects he is called the spirit (tes charitos) of grace. — Heb. x. 29. comp. with ch. 6. 45. Grace is used for such influences of the holy spirit as are attainable by every Christian. — Heb. xii. 28. In like manner, St. Peter’s admonition, 2 Ep. iii. 18. Grow in grace (en chariti) and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, must be supposed to extend to every Christian, and consequently the word grace to refer to the ordinary inspiration of the spirit of God, as distinguished from His extraordinary and miraculous gifts. There are several other passages wherein (charis) grace must be understood to include the like sanctifying influences of the holy spirit, as mentioned in Acts xi. 23. Eph. iv. 7. And St. Paul expressly says, Eph. iv. 7. “Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”
How the word grace was admitted so frequently into our Liturgy, into the writings of our Divines — and in the English language was used to denote the influence of God’s spirit, may be easily accounted for from the nature of language. The word grace is formed from the Latin gratia, in which language, after the Romans became Christians, it was used among other significations, to denote the ordinary inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Our Saxon ancestors were converted to Christianity by a Roman monk, and furnished by him with a Latin Liturgy, in which the word gratia occurs very often. The Saxons before their conversion had words in their language to express favour or good will in general, and these they could apply to God as well as to man; but as they had no notion of that particular species of God’s good will, by which he affords to man the assistance of his Holy Spirit, so they had no vocable for it, until they adopted the the word grace into their language. Hence then the primitive and correct sense of the word may be easily ascertained.
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