In anticipation of the publication of John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Power of Grace, Part One of our “Defining Grace” series begins with this essay from Jonathan Linebaugh, Lecturer in New Testament at Cambridge University and a fellow of Jesus College. He is the author of the book, God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the edited the volumes God’s Two Words: Law and Gospel in Lutheran and Reformed Traditions and Reformation Readings of Paul. 

Love in the Ruins. The title of Walker Percy’s 1971 novel captures the book’s setting and theme — Thomas More’s Utopia this is not. But the phrase also catches a moment in the marriage of its protagonist, Dr. Tom More:

“Don’t you see,” says his wife, “people grow away from each other … We’re dead.”

“I love you dead. At this moment.”

“Dead, dead,” she whispered…

“Love,” I whispered.

The poignancy of this exchange is the paradox, the surprising where, when and who of this whispered love: it is “in the ruins,” “at this moment” of despair, this dead end, and it is “love” for “you” — for the “dead.”

The gift that St. Paul calls “the grace of God” (Rom 5:15) is a similar — and so no less surprising — embodiment of love. The “ruins” are “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), the “moment” is “at the right time, while we were still sinners,” and the “you” — the me — that God loves there and then are identified, in addition to “sinners,” as “weak,” “enemies,” and “ungodly” (Rom 5:6-10).

If Walker Percy’s words give us occasion to pause, Paul’s news invited ridicule and incited riots: “scandalous and foolish,” taunted his contemporaries (1 Cor 1:23); he has “turned the world upside down,” claimed a mob (Acts 17:6).

To tune into the scandal and feel the surprise of “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18), two aspects of Paul’s language of grace need to be brought into focus: grace, as Paul defines and preaches it, is both particular and peculiar. Grace is particular because, for Paul, it is not a general truth but a specific gift: “the grace of God” is the Son “God did not spare, but sent” (Rom 8), it is “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). And this grace is peculiar because — against the grain of economies of both divine and human giving in Greco-Roman society and early Jewish theology — the gift of Christ is not given to those who are socially, morally, intellectually, or religiously worthy; rather, by contextually shocking contrast, Christ is given to the unworthy — to the slave, to the social failure, to the sinner. To speak the Pauline gospel (which is also to summarize the twofold thesis of Paul and Gift by John Barclay), is to announce a gift that is christological and incongruous: God’s grace is God’s Son given for and to you — the actual “you” with all the history and all the hurt such a pronoun can carry.

Martin Luther was especially sensitive to, and also especially grateful for, the incongruity of grace. It is only because this God gives this grace, Luther says to the weary, that there is “rest for your bones and mine.” The God whose grace is the giving of the Son for sinners is the one whose “nature” it is to “make something out of nothing.” And so, as Luther seems to sing, “God accepts no one except the abandoned, makes no one healthy except the sick, gives no one sight except the blind, brings no one to life except the dead,” and “makes no one holy except sinners.” It is, to borrow Percy’s language, “at this moment” of sin and fear and “in the ruins” of bondage and death that God gives the crucified and risen Christ who justifies and gives peace, who sets free and makes alive.

Used to describe this pattern (which is very much how Barclay conceives of incongruous grace, calling it “God’s counter-statement to the previous conditions of the possible”), incongruity points in two directions: it identifies the contradiction between the content of God’s gift and the condition of its recipients—God’s Son is given to those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) — even as it signals the impossible overcoming of that contradiction and that condition: enemies are reconciled, the abandoned and alone are adopted, those in bondage are redeemed, the ungodly are called righteous, and the dead, by grace, are summoned from the grave. In Luther’s words, “God’s love does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.” What God finds, according to Paul’s diagnosis, is the nothingness of bondage, sin, and death. What God’s love creates — incongruously and impossibly — is freedom, righteousness, and life. If Luther had read Walker Percy, he may have put it like this: “‘Dead, dead,’ whispered the law. ‘Love,’ whispered the gospel.” But this love also whispers, “Wake.” It says, “I love you dead,” and it also shouts, “rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).

Ephesians got there before Love in the Ruins: “God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive in Christ — by grace you have been saved.” This, Ephesians announces, is “the gift of God” (Eph 2:4-5, 8). Compared with first-century texts and habits, the mystery here — the miracle — is the disjunction between gift and recipient: benefits were discriminately given to those who were, according to some canon of social, moral, or religious value, worthy.[1] When Paul insists that a “reward for work” is not “grace” (Rom 4:4), he is not reciting proverbial wisdom. He is, rather, making a bold deduction, offering a strange definition of grace grounded in what he calls the “apocalypse” or the “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12).

The gift of Christ is not indexed to any human criteria of worth, and just so it creates unprecedented new conditions: the dead are raised and the “dividing wall of hostility” is destroyed by a grace that is given irrespective of the boundaries marked by tokens of value that separate the world into “us” and “them.” Where there was death, there is, by grace, life. Where there was “two,” there is, by grace, “one” (that’s Eph 2).

Downstream of Paul and Luther, the notion of unconditioned grace might seem more like a commonplace than news that turned “the world upside down.” But a gift that bestows rather than rewards or responds to worth still promises a merciful surprise. The value of a human life is not calculated as the sum of that life, of our “thoughts, words, and deeds” or of the “things done and left undone” (Thomas Cranmer). To use the language of grace, our worth — your worth — is a given. Or better: it is given, it is a gift. “By the grace of God,” Paul confessed, “I am who I am” (1 Cor 15). And it is by that same grace that you are who you are. In Paul’s words, you are a “me” whom “the Son of God loved” and for whom he “gave himself.” You are not, as Dr. Johnson felt and feared, “fettered to yourself,” chained to your past or your pedigree or your performance. You are, by the grace of God, anchored in another and — yesterday, today, and tomorrow — loved and loved and loved.

This good news is forever a surprise stronger than the shame and fear that haunts us. The question of our worth is not answered by weighing the facts of our biography; it is given to us in and through the Son who gave himself for us. In him, by grace, God says to you what God has always said to the Son whom he did not spare but sent: “You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased.” This is, to quote a sermon Bob Dylan sang, something other than the “song we usually strum,” the “weary tune” of living as if our lives are an endless audition for the love we long to know. Lay that down and listen: this is a “sound of strings” we can “rest beneath.” It is a song — the hymn of comfort and hope Paul calls the gospel — that lifts the weight of our worth off of our shoulders and gives it to the one who gave himself, the one who said, “Come unto to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

[1] Start with Seneca’s On Benefits and Wisdom of Solomon 6-10 if you need convincing. Or: read John Barclay’s book.