Ahead of the publication of John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Power of Grace, Part Two of our “Defining Grace” series continues with this essay from Orrey McFarland. Orrey is the Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Thornville, Ohio. He also serves as a Visiting Professor of New Testament and Historical Theology at Knox Theological Seminary and is a member of the teaching faculty of St. Paul Lutheran Seminary. He is the author of the book, God and Grace in Philo and Paul

At the end of Romans 11, the apostle Paul asks a question we might assume to be not much more than a pious flourish: “For … who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” (11:34-35). Paul is quoting Job, in which God asks: “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?” (Job 41:11). Why would Paul allude to this portion of Job to ask this specific question? More than a way of showing off his knowledge of the Old Testament, this question points towards one of Paul’s primary ways of defining grace: God’s grace is prior — that is, God gives first.

For Paul, when a gift is given matters. The timing of grace says a lot about what kind of giver God is and what his grace is like. To the question: When has God given? Paul’s answer is: Before. By giving this answer, Paul has, in John Barclay’s language, stressed the “priority” of God’s grace: God’s gift is given before any initiative is made by the recipient.[1] The priority of grace sounds like a familiar enough theme, yet in Paul’s theology it has the potency to disarm our religious sensibilities.

The heart is a factory of idols, the Reformers insisted; and as Miroslav Volf argues, humans are tempted to construct two false images of God: God as the negotiator and God as Santa Claus.[2] In both images, God responds to us: either to our demands (negotiator) or to our worth (Santa Claus). Both images fit our interests: we retain power in the dynamic of giving and receiving. But to these two false images, Volf puts forth the true Scriptural depiction of God: God as creator.

For Paul, the connection between God as giver and God as creator is key. When Paul asks, “who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” the answer is given: no one, for “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36). Similarly, when God asks, “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?” the answer is given: no one, for “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 40.11). Just as no one provoked God to create, so also no one provokes God to give: his creative activity — and his creative generosity — are prior to all human demands, claims, or worth.

Few theologians have emphasized the connection between God’s grace and creative work as strongly as Martin Luther. When Luther explains the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed — “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” — Luther uses language that is typically associated with justification: the article teaches that God has created “me and all creatures” “only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” Similarly, Luther drives home the priority of God’s action in the exposition of the Third Article — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Luther explains: this article teaches that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” The God who creates without consideration of our worth — indeed, before it is possible for us to have any worth — delivers the gift of Christ to us in the Holy Spirit before we could turn to, ask, demand, beg, or plea to God for it.

The priority of God’s grace — that God gives first — is important for Paul. But grace only has its distinctive Pauline edge when it is twinned with Paul’s quintessential definition of grace as incongruous to human worth. The priority of grace serves to underscore the incongruity of grace: that God truly gives to us without consideration of our social, cultural, moral, political, or intellectual standing. Priority alone does not define what is crucial for Paul about God’s gift-giving. One can give a gift prior to any initiative on the part of the recipient, but still give a gift to the right kind of person. This is how human giving typically works. We may give before, yet to the right kind of people in need. But that’s not what Paul’s theology of the priority of grace declares. Instead, Paul hammers home that God gives before and to the wrong kinds of people. It is precisely the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17) who also “justifies the ungodly” (4:5).

That God’s grace does not fit in any way with our definitions of self-worth can be unnerving. As Oswald Bayer puts it, “The absurd desire of humans to become self-creators … is as old as humanity itself.”[3] The priority and incongruity of God’s grace undermines any desire to be self-made and self-justified, to trust that we have played some role of self-determination in ultimate matters. But God’s love does not work this way. To quote Luther again: the “love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it” — it responds to the beauty or worth in its object; the “love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.”[4] That God gives first and without regard to human fittingness might be a blow to those who are laboring to establish and validate themselves. But this blow is finally a balm to real human beings, to those worn out by the endless effort to create their own value and who, in Christ, are given a gift of infinite worth that also indicates that they, in God’s merciful eyes, are infinitely worthy.

Paul is not unique in emphasizing the priority of grace. Other Jewish thinkers could do so — and even combined it with incongruity. But none were as radical as Paul in linking priority with incongruity to define divine grace, such that grace is a creative gift given specifically to the unworthy. For Paul, grace took this particular shape because the gift was at the same time an event: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners. As Paul declares, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6, 8). God’s giving finds nothing in its recipients to make them worthy of the gift. Rather, God is a God who creates from nothing, justifies the ungodly, and raises the dead — freely and thus first.

Paul asked the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” To understand that the gift was given before gives remarkable freedom to see our life, identity, and worth as found in the prior gift, not in the self or any other culturally determined standards that pop up afterwards. We are given the confidence to find our life and salvation in the gift given to us before we could have ever asked for it.


[1] See John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 71-72.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 23-28. I am here interpreting the “God as Santa Claus” idea in a different direction than Volf does.

[3] Oswald Bayer, “Self-Creation? On the Dignity of Human Beings,” Modern Theology 20.2 (2004): 275.

[4] Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 28.