Of course, when it comes to these issues of understanding ancient writings the bible is no different. In our last edition of Burning Book we saw this issue with the word "faith." This week, we're taking on the word "grace."
One of the most common ways that Christians describe God's grace is that it's a "free" gift. That is, it cannot be earned, merited or repaid. And it's given to undeserving people and there's nothing that they can or should do in return for it. It is non-circular.
The problem, according to John Barclay in Paul and the Gift, is that that is not what the Apostle Paul or his contemporaries meant when they used the word charis, which we translate as "grace!" In Paul's world "grace" could refer to many things, including:
1. A superabundance of something given ( a gracious gift could be a big gift)
2. The benevolence of the giver (a gracious attitude)
3. A gift that was earned but was still a gift (not an agreed upon payment, like an MVP award)
4. An undeserved gift (think of a judicial pardon as an act of grace)
5. A gift that was effective in obtaining its goal (usually a relational change)
6. The initiative of the giver in seeking to give the gift (grace belongs to the one who initiates)
However, you'll notice that what grace DID NOT mean in the ancient world was a gift that required no return. There was no such thing as a non-circular gift in the world of Jesus, Paul and the apostles. Every gift required a return, if not in material reciprocity, then in honoring the giver with recognition, elevated social status, and social and political loyalty. The ancient world, and certainly the Roman world, were built on this understanding of reciprocity in gift-giving and honoring.
Barclay says, "As depicted in this letter [Galatians], the grace of God is "unconditioned"(without prior conceptions of worth) but not non-circular or "unconditional," if that means without expectation of return. To the contrary, practice arising from and aligned to the truth of the good news is integral to what Paul means by "faith." (446)
God's gift to us (the undeserving) in the death and resurrection of Christ is the ultimate gift. This gift cannot be earned, but requires a return. We must renounce our own lordship over our lives and our own status, and give our loyalty to God (through Christ) in order to rightly receive the gift which is offered. The scandal of the cross is not that it's an unconditional gift with no strings attached, but that's it's offered to undeserving people (everyone!).
Obviously, this has some significant implications for how we think about evangelism, salvation and discipleship. If grace demands a return (hello repentance) then just getting someone to "accept" grace in one moment is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to help them take hold of the gift which is offered through a life of discipleship, meaning, a life of obedience to Jesus.
Barclay's book has some tough parts. But considering that we have more access to information and education than practically anyone who has ever lived, I challenge you to take on Paul and the Gift. It might take a while to work through, but is well worth the effort.