Re-evaluating the Bible’s teaching on grace in light of this First Century context

When the New Testament writers used the term “grace” they were doubtless aware of how the concept of grace was understood in society. They were not inventing a new theory to describe how God deals with mankind. Their audience would understand the grace that a powerful benefactor could bestow upon society, and particularly upon chosen individuals. They would readily recognise how these ideas applied to God, who is presented as a more powerful, loving and gracious benefactor than all others.

The New Testament writers speak of God as exceedingly gracious in the two main arenas in which human benefactors operated in. We read that:

  1. God gives grace to all mankind, in that he gives to all irrespective of who they are (Luke 6:32-36). Paul said, “he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). Jesus likewise said that He “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). Paul again said that God freely gave to all, even to those who lived in ignorance of him, in that He “left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
  2. God gives grace to chosen individuals, who, on the basis of their faith, enter into a type of patron-client relationship with him through his own son, who brokers or mediates this relationship. As Paul notes: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:32). Jesus himself was said to be “full of grace and truth” with John adding that “of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1:14, 16). John further adds: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12). Ultimately, this grace describes the change in a believer’s relationship with God. It is in Christ that “ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph 2:19), and by Christ we have been chosen (‘elect’ 1 Pet 1:2; 2:9, Tit 1:1) and adopted into God’s family (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:5, Eph 1:5).

    The Apostle Paul also speaks of his own special calling and ministry as a gift of grace. Christ called him “a chosen vessel unto me” (Acts 9:15, where the word ‘chosen’ is elsewhere translated as ‘election’). Paul says that God “called me by his grace” (Gal 1:15), and that his apostleship was a gift of grace and the “grace that was given to me” (Rom 1:5, Rom 15:15, Gal 2:9, Rom 12:3). In response to receiving this grace, Paul appropriately responds in gratitude when he writes: “I am grateful (charis) to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry” (1 Tim 1:12 NET).

    Paul goes on to speak of his past, when he persecuted the believers. He adds: “but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace (charis) of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:13-14). Paul then says that his experience is a pattern for others who would likewise receive mercy from God. He says “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim 1:15-16).

    Israel also should have understood this concept, as it was a fundamental element in their own calling as God’s chosen (Isa 45:4 ‘elect’) people (Exod 33:16, Jer 31:2-3). This is an excellent example of God showing favour (grace) upon those who had not earned it. Moses makes this point clear when he told Israel that God had chosen them to be an holy people to the Lord (Deut 7:6), and that He had saved them out of Egypt and was giving them the Promised Land, NOT because of their glory or their righteousness (their works), but because of His love for them and to fulfil His promises to their fathers (Deut 7:6-8 & Deut 9:4-6). Let’s emphasise this point—God called them on the basis of His purpose and love towards them, and not upon the basis of any meritorious work.

    Although Israel were not saved out of Egypt because of their own righteousness, nevertheless, they were to respond to the favour they received by being faithful and obedient. Moses goes on to make this point in Deuteronomy 7:12-16, when he says: “if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee…” and there will be an increase in the fields and in the flocks, and God will protect them from sicknesses and diseases. These national blessings would come ONLY if they remained faithful. Their gratitude and faith were to be expressed in their adherence to God’s commands something which was expressed to them AFTER they were saved out of Egypt. Obedience to the covenant was to spring from the heart in gratitude for what God had done for them (Deut 5:28-29).

    Although Israel later corrupted themselves and turned out to be unfaithful, nevertheless, God’s principles are unchanging. It should be evident then, that in Paul’s larger rationale he is explaining how God has always worked. Therefore, that which came in Christ was the full realisation and expression of God’s grace.

    The “grace” that disciples receive is a gift from God. It imposes upon them a need to respond with humility, thankfulness and gratitude (Heb 13:15). They cannot repay the grace in full, but they can honour the Father by striving to further His purpose and agenda. Like the man in the parable (Matt 18:24-35) who had been forgiven 10,000 talents by the benevolent grace of his master, disciples likewise must show the Father’s grace to others, both in word and deed. If they do not do this, then they may suffer the same fate as the man in the parable who did not forgive his fellow servant.

    James writes of the generosity of the Father and the humility required of His beneficiaries. He says that God “gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble’” ( James 4:6 NKJV ). Peter likewise counsels us to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”(2 Pet 3:18). It is clear that our heavenly Father is generous beyond measure, and he continues to give grace to His children. Like a loving Father, he wants us to grow in grace and in spiritual maturity, so that we reflect His character in our own lives—in our thoughts, words and actions.

    Moreover, grace not only comes from God but also from Christ. We find this declared in various salutations, such as: “Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (2 Tim 1:2). He and the Father have the same willingness to extend mercy and favour to all in Christ Jesus.