What is Grace? Defining the One Word Everyone Needs to Know

On John Barclay’s landmark book, Paul and the Gift

Todd Brewer / 10.6.20

If you’re not a Christian, “grace” isn’t one of those words you come across every day. It’s not in advertisements, street signs, on the news, and it’s certainly not on Twitter. It’s a pretty churchy word, really. The typical 5-year-old knows over 2,000 words, but “grace” probably isn’t one of them. Adults will know the word, but more circumstantially than anything. We might call a dancer graceful. My student loans are now in a grace period before repayment (thankfully). Dukes and Duchesses are addressed as “Your Grace” when they grace the commoners with their presence.

These expressions bear only a passing resemblance to the many ways Christians speak of grace, which can mean favor, benevolent disposition, or something like divine power. “God, give us grace to …” is a fairly routine prayer. Grace is used interchangeably with weighty terms like mercy or salvation: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound …” It could also be a synonym for the Holy Spirit. Because grace is most frequently associated with God, it assumes an abundance of qualifiers: free grace, unconditional grace, sovereign grace, or grace alone.

When the New Testament was written “grace” was a word everyone used with regularity. For them, it simply meant “gift” or “favor,” an action that benefits someone else. As in, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what ‘grace’ is that to you” (Lk 6:34) or “the ‘grace’ you sent for my birthday was wonderful” — even 5-year-olds would have know what grace was. “Grace” could have appeared on ancient street signs or emails, and it would have made the local news reports. Grace was just another routine word for gift-giving, both small and big.

When the apostle Paul (and other New Testament authors) wrote about grace/gift, they did so within a variety of existing assumptions about how gifts were to be given, just as our own gift-giving practices are governed by expectations and taboos. Should a giver anticipate the needs or desires of the recipient, or is it better to give a return gift? To whom should a giver direct his or her benefaction — friends, neighbors, or those able to return the favor? What does a gift imply about the giver? Should gifts be modest or lavish and abundant? When does a gift become a bribe?

As outlined in John Barclay’s landmark book, Paul and the Gift, these questions of what did and did not make for a “good gift” were very much a matter of debate in antiquity, particularly when it came to discussions of God’s grace/gifts to humanity. Barclay classifies the ideal “good gift” according to a number of different possible characteristics that clarify what kind of giver God is. Christians tend to assume they know what “grace” means, but its peculiar features tend to be more assumed than explicit. The one word everyone needs to know is also the word everyone assumes they understand.

When viewed from the perspective of gift-giving conventions, the profile of God’s grace/gift appear in sharper relief. God gives in a reckless and indiscriminate fashion. He does not give to the worthy, but the unworthy. God does not respond to human initiative but gives before it happens. God’s grace is not miserly but excessive and generous. Grace is not given in vain but is generative.

The good news of the grace of God is multifaceted: melodies and counter-melodies woven together into a beautiful symphony.

Paul and the Gift was an innovative academic accomplishment — the most significant work of its kind in decades. Like most Christians, scholars have assumed and simply taken for granted that they knew what grace was. In the years since publication, Barclay has been adapting and expanding his original insights into a more readable, popular-level book, Paul and the Power of Grace.

Leading up of its November 10th publication, Mockingbird will feature a number of articles from New Testament and theology scholars writing on the grace of God and its significance for everyday life. Using Barclay’s now foundational classifications, each essay focus on a different aspect of grace and its revolutionary character.

Tomorrow, Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh of Cambridge University kicks off the series with his post, “I Love You Dead: The Good News of Incongruous Grace.” The weeks that follow will feature additional articles by myself, Orrey McFarland, Wesley Hill, Madison Pierce, and Simeon Zahl.