On Getting Grace Right…

Since it’s Christmastide, it’s a great time to explore one of the most fundamental subjects related to Christmas: Grace. Christmastide is all about God’s grace because it’s all about God the Father sending God the Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born the Messiah, to be the Savior of the world. The reason we celebrate Christmas by giving each other gifts is because Christmas is the celebration of the greatest gift ever given: God’s gift of Jesus to the world.

In this post, I’ll share a few thoughts I’ve had about grace and giving from a couple passages in Paul’s letters that have been on my mind a lot lately. I’m also going to share a few excerpts from two new resources by scholars who’ve written on grace. Let’s start in Romans 15.

20 It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. 21 Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” 22 This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, 24 I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. 28 So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this contribution, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. 29 I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.

What Paul is talking about here is what is often referred to simply as The Collection. Back when Paul was just starting out in his evangelistic missionary ministry and he began leading non-Jewish people to faith in Jesus, this raised a significant theological question. Can non-Jewish people become followers of Jesus without first becoming Jewish by conversion? There was a significant portion of the church at that time that believed non-Jewish people couldn’t be added to the people of God, the church, until they were first circumcised and vowed to keep the whole Torah (the Law of Moses). This is what the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15 was all about.

It was at the Jerusalem Council that it was decided by the pillars of the church, apostles like Peter, John, and James the brother of Jesus, that Gentiles (non-Jews) did not have to become Jewish before being accepted into the church. This was great news to Paul, because it completely validated and authorized his ministry. But there was one more thing, the pillars said to Paul. Here’s his account of it in Galatians 2:

8 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

That phrase “remember the poor” was a lot more specific than it sounds. “The poor” in this verse was a reference to the Jesus-disciples in Jerusalem who had been ravaged by famine and persecution. This qualification of Paul’s ministry, to “remember the poor,” was the command to raise an offering from among the churches Paul would plant (which were primarily made up of Gentiles) for the church in Jerusalem (which was primarily made up of Jewish disciples) because they were suffering.

This Collection is also what Paul is talking about in II Corinthians 8 when he was praising the Macedonian churches for their generosity.

1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. 8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

I rarely break out the Greek when I preach, not just because I think it doesn’t often add much to the sermon, but also because I have an aversion to preachers who use their knowledge of Greek to show off. Knowing Greek, in my experience, doesn’t often produce greater fruit of the Spirit. In fact, more often than not, I’ve seen it have the opposite effect.

But in this case, I think it’s important to point out the connection between two concepts that in English we think of as very independent but which in New Testament Greek are inextricably linked. These two are Grace and Giving. The New Testament Greek word for “grace” is charis and the word for “gift” is charisma. The two words are so closely linked that in some places (like in verse 7) the word charis is translated “grace of giving.” Charisma is so closely linked to charis, that it’s sometimes translated “grace-gift.”

So, these two concepts which are very distinct in English are actually closely connected in the language and culture of the New Testament. I actually think this difference in language and culture has contributed to a very common misunderstandings about the two concepts.

In modern Western culture—particularly in the U.S.—the concept of “grace” has been associated with “unmerited favor” or an “unconditional” gift. This is largely the result of the Protestant Reformation. Reformers like Martin Luther reacted strongly against the idea that grace was something that could be “earned” or “stored up” like store credit. He revolted against “indulgences,” which were ways to buy or pay for “grace” (so to speak).

But as is often the case, when we react strongly against something we have a tendency to go too far to the other extreme. In this case, Luther and the other Reformers swung the pendulum so far away from “earning” grace that they also rejected grace as something that bonds us to each other.

At the seminary I graduated from most of my professors were from the Reformed tradition, so they all thought about grace they way Luther taught about it. But while I was in seminary I was also doing more and more community development work in some of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in Boston, working with court-involved youth, working with low-income families, and with people experiencing homelessness. One the organizations that I often partnered with was a Christian parachurch ministry called Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC). The leaders at EGC were seasoned veterans of urban ministry. They had decades of experience, tons of advanced degrees, and time-tested godly wisdom.

One day I was talking to one of EGC’s leaders about urban ministry strategy. I was asking her about how to get more of the resourced churches in the suburbs to give to ministries and churches in the urban core who are strugglingly financially. In my mind, what needed to happen was each of the wealthy suburban churches that are building brand new multi-million dollar campuses needed to give a portion of their annual budgets to the ministries and churches in the urban core who could hardly afford to pay their pastors. I’ll never forget the word she used, because it might have been the first time I thought that about that word in the context of ministry. She said what was desperately needed was Reciprocity. I was so confused. How on earth would churches in the urban core who are financially strapped give to churches in the wealthy Boston suburbs who didn’t need it? But she helped me to see that money wasn’t the only resource. There was a lot that urban churches had to offer that suburban churches needed. And much of the resources that urban churches had was far more valuable than the checks the suburban churches could write.

That’s what I believe Paul is talking about in the rest of the II Corinthians passage:

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

Paul’s concern here is for economic equality, the sharing of resources with those in need. His theology of giving is very different from the modern concept of “charity.” Paul doesn’t view the contributions of the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem church as “unconditional” or “unmerited.” Quite the opposite! Back in Romans 15, Paul says the Gentile churches “owe it” to the church in Jerusalem. For Paul, there is a bonded relationship that is created by being part of the body of Christ that goes beyond charity.

That language of obligation hits our modern Western ears in a funny way. One of the reasons why we have a difficult time understanding Paul’s logic here is because it’s so different from our modern Western logic. Recently, while I was teaching a sermon series on the book of Romans, I read a book that helped me understand this cultural conflict much better. It’s written by a Bible translator and missionary who goes by the pseudonym Jackson W. because he serves in a “closed country” in Asia. The book is called Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes. In it, the author shows us how far removed our concept of grace is from what Paul is talking about. He writes:

“Western notions of grace lead us to misunderstand and devalue relational debt language. […] Obligation is an inherent aspect of relationships. Generally, Westerners separate grace and reciprocity such that grace is ‘non-circular,’ that is, it expects nothing in return from the recipient. But John Barclay points out, ‘This is not a common conception of perfect gifts in antiquity… it was rare to find the gift perfected as a ‘one-way, unilateral donation.’ As a result of this misunderstanding, some Western scholars even argue (mistakenly) that Paul emphasizes ‘grace rather than obligation.’ For Paul, relationships create ‘debts’ that bond people together based on identity. It is no mere transactional cost simply tolerated for personal benefit. Accordingly, even Paul is a ‘debtor’ who is ‘eager’ to preach the gospel in Rome (Romans 1:14-15). Romans 15:27 applies this logic to Gentiles, who ‘owe’ Jews ‘material blessings.’ In short, Paul’s argument for church unity and call to gospel ministry are easily misunderstood without a proper emphasis on reciprocity—that is, relational debt.”

We in the West have often misunderstood grace because we’ve conceptualized it as a ‘one-way, unilateral donation.’ But God’s grace doesn’t actually work that way. Yes, it’s true that God is not obligated to provide grace. That much is true. But what’s untrue is that God’s grace is “unconditional.” God’s Grace is Unconditioned, but Not Unconditional. There’s a difference. God doesn’t have to provide grace, but that doesn’t mean God provides grace with “no strings attached.”

God’s grace is best understood as creating a relational bond, like family. That’s what the Bible is talking about when it talks about “covenant.” God’s grace isn’t charity as we often understand that here in the U.S. today. God’s grace expects something in return. God’s grace establishes a relationship that has very clear stipulations and obligations. God wants to bring people into God’s family, into covenantal relationship.

For years this misunderstanding of grace did a number on me, confused me, and frustrated me. I still vividly remember when Osheta and I had only been married a few years and we didn’t have a clue how to do this marriage thing, since neither of our families of origin had modeled healthy marriage for us. So, when we were living in Boston we heard about a marriage retreat in Newport, Rhode Island and we jumped at the chance to get away and work on our marriage.
At one point there was a break out group just for the husbands. In that group the leader began by talking about how long he’d married and it was decades. He’d also lead these sorts of retreats for years, so he was an expert. Then he said there was one iron clad principle about marriage that we had to know. “Marriages have a love bank,” he said. “You have to put in deposits to take out withdraws. If you’re having problems making withdraws, it’s because your request is coming back ‘insufficient funds’.”

I was a first or second year seminary student at a predominately Reformed seminary, so I was sure he was desperately wrong. I raised my hand. “That’s not how God’s grace works. God’s grace is unmerited favor. If God is our model of how relationships and love is supposed to work, why is it that in marriage love is earned through deposits in the ‘love bank’?” I asked. His response was something like, “Well God’s grace is different from your wife’s grace.” You could probably already guess, I was deeply unsatisfied by his answer.

But it wasn’t his description of marriage that was wrong, it was my definition of grace that I’d learned from tradition. The tradition that taught me grace was unconditional was not aware of how distant their modern Western culture had drifted from the ancient Eastern culture in which the New Testament is rooted.

The New Testament concept of grace is rooted in the idea that gifts create a social bond and relational debt that is positive, not negative. Jackson W. quotes another author who has written about this recently, John Barclay, the author of Paul and the Gift. Barclay writes,

“What distinguishes the sphere of gift [from payment] is not that it is ‘unilateral,’ but that it expresses a social bond, a mutual recognition of the value of the person. It is filled with sentiment because it invites a personal, enduring, and reciprocal relationship—an ethos very often signaled by the use of the term charis. [By contrast] the one-way gift establishes no relation, creates a permanent humiliating dependency, and frees the recipient of all responsibility.”

I saw the false, Western concept of grace once when I was serving a church located in a wealthy Boston suburb that had a ministry to the one public housing development in that town. When they asked me to oversee the ministry, I was told this is how it worked: Someone would go to the Panera down the street from the church and collect the bread and bagels that they were going to throw out. Then all those products would be brought back to the church where volunteers would re-bag them and slap a sticker on them with the’s church name. Then the volunteers would deliver the re-bagged products to the public housing development and hand them out door to door.

When I heard this I was confused. “That’s it?” I thought. So I asked, “What’s the strategy here. Passing out bread door to door has to be a way to get to know people, so we can build relationships, and invite them into the church community. Right?”

“Oh, no!” I was told. “We’re not trying to invite those folks to church. They wouldn’t feel comfortable at our church. Our church has an average education level of a master’s degree.”

This is the opposite of Paul’s concept of grace. Paul only views giving in the context of creating a new social reality, a social bond of love. Paul would never dream of giving a gift and simply walking away. The gift for Paul was the just beginning, not the end. The gift was the start of something beautiful—invitation into family.

Thankfully, I’ve also experienced this Pauline type of grace. When Osheta and I lived in LA and I was serving a church in Downtown near Skid Row, we met a couple who attended the church. Their names are Blake and Debbie Waltman. While I was privileged to be one of their pastors, Debbie was working as a nurse in a small Christian clinic in Skid Row. Blake is a retired soldier who went back to school to learn how to run a nonprofit. They now live in Spokane, WA where Blake runs a ministry that serves homeless youth and Debbie is helping to setup a program to treat opioid-addicted patients at a local hospital.

While we were still in LA, Blake and Debbie would offer to be with our kids so that Osheta and I could get a night to ourselves. One time, they even sent us on a get-away to San Luis Obispo to a natural hot springs resort. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more relaxed in my life!

Even since we’ve moved here to Minnesota, Blake and Debbie have stay a part of our lives. Recently they came to visit and we got to spend time with them here. My eyes welled up with tears when I learned that Trinity told her friends “I’m so excited. My godparents are coming to visit!”

Over the last several years, Blake and Debbie have helped us financially on several occasions. But their gifts are not unconditional—and we wouldn’t have it any other way! Blake and Debbie’s generosity has created a social bond that we are deeply grateful for. We are debtors of the very best kind. We are indebted through a relationship of love. In reality, they are closer to us than most of our blood relatives. That is what God’s grace does! God’s grace creates a new family! Blake and Debbie are family because of God’s grace flowing through their lives into ours and though us back into theirs.

In 2020, my prayer is that the Church in the U.S. would grow in this grace that adds to our family in Christ. My prayer is that we grow deeper roots in the neighborhood in which we serve and find more ways to give to our neighbors in such a way that we create a social bond of love. And that’s what I want to ask you to pray about too.

May the Holy Spirit energize our imaginations and lead us into new and innovative ways to forge family among our neighbors. May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace that makes us family for one another so that we might be an embodiment of the greatest gift ever given—the King who is our brother and our Lord.