In anticipation of the publication of John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Power of Grace, Part Four of our “Defining Grace” series continues with this essay from Madison Pierce, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is the author of the book, Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and co-edited the book, Muted Voices of the New Testament.

This year a natural phenomenon has exposed the unnatural and monstrous truths of our world. Like hurricanes and earthquakes and floods before it, the coronavirus has taken a spotlight to inequity. This time, the privileged can stay home until they choose, venturing out only to do what they must — socialize — while those typically marginalized, but now deemed “essential,” continue to work, to stock, to serve, to hope that they remain well because insurance and sick leave are not for them. This year, we’ve also seen (more) horrific and unjust acts of brutality against Black men and women, cruel and horrific violence against immigrants, and mounting tensions among those with opposing views.  But while the virus reveals these preexisting conditions within our societies, the virus does not discriminate. It kills the rich and poor alike. It isolates us all.

Looking to the patterns of Ecclesiastes 4, this is a time to die, a time to uproot, a time to tear down, a time to weep, a time to mourn — and maybe a time to give up. Sure, Qohelet promises us laughing and dancing will come, but when? Good news seems scarce. God, when will you show us your grace?

This question is reasonable — we see similar pleas across the psalms — and yet, to the extent that we merely look forward and not around in our current time to see God’s grace, we fail to recognize its magnitude. The perfect gift of God is superabundant.

“Superabundance” refers to the scale of God’s gift. For Paul, the gift is “indescribable” (2 Cor 9:15) and “overflowing” (Rom 5:15). But this perfection of grace typically is “presupposed” in the work of Paul. He can assume that his readers accept this premise because Scripture and other authors writing around this time (e.g., Philo, the author of Wisdom) highlight the abundance of the gift. Paul’s conversation is with his audience, but both he and his readers hear the chorus of his contemporaries as he expounds his theology. Here he undertakes an ancient form of “subtweeting” in a practiced way, but he is not calling out a random “hot take.” Paul’s care for the earliest Christians stems from his knowledge of their world — and for all that he must correct, his readers know of the “boundless and illimitable wealth” of God’s gift (Philo, Leg. 3.163–64; Sacr. 124).

But do we? Have we moved from presupposing superabundance to taking it for granted?

Because while the question above (“God, when will you show us your grace?”) is reasonable, especially in this time of profound suffering, this is not the question that can carry us through. It is not the question that can restore our hope and help us maintain trust in the goodness of God.

The question is not when God will act graciously; it’s: when has he ever not?

We do well at anticipating more grace, and reflecting backward on a time when we felt God’s grace in abundance, but we have lost sight of how the graciousness of God permeates every moment of our lives. God did not merely create the world, but he continually sustains it (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17; cf. Wis 8:1). He keeps Death and Chaos at bay. For all the ways that God’s gift is perfected in the Christ event, its superabundance extends back to Creation, both in the goodness of the initial act of creating and in his sustaining work even after the Fall. (Bear in mind that superabundance was prevalent among Paul’s Jewish and pagan contemporaries.) 

We blame God for the difficulties that he “fails” to shield us from. We treat him like an umbrella — aggravated when we’re hit by a few drops of water, forgetting the thousands that we’ve been spared. We think this is a sign that God is uncaring, even sadistic. This reflects a deficiency in our protology — our theology of creation. We look forward to a time when all things are renewed, but forget the myriad of things that always work as God intended. The sun always rises and sets; the tides go out and return; gravity keeps us anchored.

And still the gift of God is more abundant than that. God does more than mere maintenance. He gifts us with more than a world that is inhabitable. He even gifts us with more than release from the punishment we deserve. Although Augustine’s interpretations of Paul do not highlight superabundance, in other writings, we see this perfection reflected. For example, when Augustine expounds upon Revelation 21 in City of God, he says:

This city is said to come down out of heaven because the grace by which God made it is heavenly […] And it has been coming down from heaven from its beginning, since its citizens grow in number continually to the end of the present age by the grace of God that comes down from above through the new birth of baptism with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. (XX.17; Greene, LCL)

For Hans Boersma, this is Augustine’s vision for our own “heavenly participation.” We stand now in both cities. In Hebrews, we see a less attended portrait of the relationship between the two — there represented by two mountains (Heb 12:18–29). After a thorough contrast, the author tells us what is on the horizon for them. God will shake the heavens and the earth, and what remains will only be the unshakable kingdom (12:26–27). This image assumes that the shakable and unshakable occupy the same space, which coheres with Augustine’s interpretation of Revelation 21, but where Hebrews goes beyond this reading in Augustine is his reminder that we are not mere citizens in that city. We will inherit the unshakable kingdom (Heb 12:28). The powerless will be queens and kings. 

This is of course not to say that all we’re currently experiencing is “heavenly.” (Most of us might forego heaven if 2020 was a true foretaste.) Returning to Augustine, as he continues his reflection on Revelation 21, we see his response to this potential misunderstanding: 

For who could be so absurd, so mad in obstinate polemic, as to dare maintain amid the woes of this mortal life that not only the holy people but every one of the saints who lives this life or will live it or has ever lived it does so without tears or sorrows … ? (XX.17; Greene, LCL)

A new creation has come (2 Cor 5:17), and still the old creation is hanging about wreaking havoc. But its ongoing presence does not mean that God has forgotten us. Death still stings. People and their unjust systems still serve at its pleasure. To the extent that we allow the ongoing presence of evil to extinguish our hope, we have forgotten the superabundance of God’s grace. The presence of ongoing evil may extinguish our hope, but God’s grace exceeds all that we can ask for or imagine.