In anticipation of the publication of John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Power of Grace, Part Six of our “Defining Grace” series concludes with my own post on grace and circularity. 

In his classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein tells the story of a young boy who is befriended by a tree. The tree simply wants to make the boy happy. As the boy grows, the tree gives of itself more and more until it is nothing but a stump. The tree gives and gives while the boy takes and takes. This gift relationship is decidedly one-sided, but the tree is happy nonetheless.

If the first-century philosopher Seneca were to read Silverstein’s parable of divine love, he would have been appalled both by the boy’s disregard for the tree and the tree’s imprudent choice of friends. Many modern readers have similar reactions. For Seneca, gift-giving should be analogous to a ball-catching game, where gifts relay back and forth between participants.[1] It is by the movement of the ball that the game is played, so the failure to repay the giver with a return gift breaks the bonds of reciprocity that constitute a relationship. Gifts must be circular, lest the relationship be destroyed, and for that reason gifts carry an obligation for a return.

The expectation that gift-giving be mutual or reciprocal is not exclusively an ancient practice; the expectation is alive and well today. Thank-you cards, phone calls, or (at a minimum) texts are usually obligatory. If your friend is always your dinner guest but never the host there is often resentment. If a Christmas gift is unreciprocated, you lie about the slowness of the postal service. We tend to expect to receive some return from our gifts, either through a sign of thankfulness or an exchange in kind.

In his recent book Paul and the Power of Grace, John Barclay notes that “in most cultures and at most times, gifts are part of a circular exchange, an ongoing cycle where the gift is intended to create or maintain a social relationship.”[2] But does God give with the expectation of a return? Is grace given conditionally — with strings attached — placing an obligation upon the recipient? There are several places in the New Testament that might lead one to think so.

The unmerciful servant whose debts have been forgiven will be thrown in jail (Mt 18:21-35). Those who accept circumcision will be cut off from Christ (Gal 5:2-4). Those (Christians?) who sow to the flesh will reap corruption on the last day (Gal 6:8). It seems that God not only expects, but requires the ball to be thrown back to him for the relationship to continue.

But is the “good news” of Christianity a game of catch? If grace is purely circular, containing within it the demand for a return gift, then perhaps grace and works, divine benevolence and demand, law and gospel, might dissolve into one another as one and the same thing. The proclamation of the good news of Christianity would be indistinguishable from the pronouncement of an obligation to God. This gift might be more akin to a loan.

While notions of reciprocity can be found throughout the New Testament, its “perfection” is inhibited by, or reconfigured in light of, the other aspects of grace previously discussed in this “Defining Grace” series. When it comes to God, there is no such thing as a purely circular grace. If grace is always prior, always incongruous, and efficacious, then the nature of grace’s circularity is so highly asymmetrical that it undermines the concept of circularity itself.

What appears to be the circularity of grace is rather a consequence of grace’s efficacy, arising from the lived experience of Christians whose lives have been upended by grace. If grace works in a profound manner through its reception in faith, then the rejection of grace looks like unfaithfulness and apostasy. Even still, the faith which receives grace is itself a gift (Eph 2:8, Rom 4:16). As Martin Luther himself contended,

When God works in us, the will, being changed and sweetly breathed on by the Spirit of God, desires and acts, not from compulsion, but responsively, from pure willingness, inclination, and accord; so that it cannot be turned another way by any thing contrary, nor be compelled or overcome even by the gates of hell; but it still goes on to desire, crave after, and love that which is good; even as before, it desired, craved after, and loved that which was evil.[3]

God gives in such a way that it engenders a response; it is an act of love that moves the sinner’s heart. Grace does not necessarily establish bonds of obligation, but bonds of affection whose reciprocity arises precisely because it is not compulsory. The gospel creates new life that arises from the promise itself. Abraham believed God’s promise and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. It is Christ who makes the disciples fishers of men. The faithful activity of the Christian might appear to be circular, but it always depends upon the work of God — just as grapes depend upon the vine for vitality.

The circularity of grace is more radically skewed by the New Testament’s more fundamental insistence on the incongruity and priority of grace. God gives righteousness to the ungodly, life to the dead, forgiveness to the undeserving. God’s mercy is given precisely to those who are unworthy and before any movement of the recipient toward the giver. God does not give on account of works, but gives to the helpless and sinful.

Such a grace is not simply an entrance requirement for “kingdom living” but is life’s daily sustenance provided by the One who will never leave or forsake his beloved. Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. The same Peter who abandoned Jesus to die alone is the one to whom the resurrected Jesus appears in Galilee.

God gives of himself to humanity in order to create and maintain a relationship with the world he has created. It is a gift that is received in faith and returned with thankfulness and praise. This exchange can be said to be circular, but is the relationship itself intrinsically circular?

Created and perpetuated by grace, the relationship between God and creation is genuine relationship, but one that is inherently asymmetrical. This interaction between God and humanity is characterized by a number of different motifs throughout scripture: God is a king, shepherd, judge, or craftsman. But the familial language used for God is fundamental.

God is not a ball player waiting for us to throw back what has been given, but a parent who still calls his wayward offspring his sons and daughters. The unbreakable bond between God and his children far exceeds the conventions of reciprocity. Before God was ever a law-giver or a king he was simply a father. This God is not the kind of father who disowns his children, but so wished to be with his children that he was willing to do anything to bring them home — even if it cost him everything in the process.


[1] Seneca, De Beneficiis, 2.17.

[2] John Barclay, Paul and the Power of the Grace, p 3.

[3] Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, p 98.