The abuse of the concept of grace began early, only a few decades after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and the founding of the early Church. False teachers spread the idea that God’s grace made obedience to God’s law unnecessary. Because God’s grace brings forgiveness, they argued, we can continue in sin and God will forgive no matter what.
But this was a hideous perversion of God’s grace! Jude, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, blasted this lie in his epistle to believers: “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” he wrote regarding those who had twisted God’s grace into a different and dangerous message. “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 3-4, NIV).
These “godless men” were abusing the mercy and forgiveness that comes through God’s grace, turning it into “a license for immorality”—permission to sin. By continuing in sin rather than abandoning an evil lifestyle, and teaching others to do the same, they denied Christ by their actions—turning their back on the sacrifice of our Master and Lord who gave His life for the sins of all mankind.
Clearly this is not what God and the New Testament writers intended by grace. As explained in the previous chapter, accepting God’s grace placed serious obligations on the recipient (see “How ‘Grace’ Was Understood in the Time and Culture of the Apostles”). These included, as scholar David deSilva notes, “demonstration of respect for the benefactor . . . acting in such a way as to enhance his or her honor and certainly avoiding any course of action that would bring him or her into dishonor . . . [and] intense personal loyalty to the patron, even if that loyalty should lead the client to lose his or her physical well-being, wealth, reputation, or homeland” (An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation, 2018, pp. 103-104).
Put simply, in thanks and gratitude for receiving God’s grace, we are expected to live a godly life of humble obedience, surrender and total dedication to Him, regardless of the cost.
Other recent scholars have come to see the real meaning of grace as understood by the biblical authors, placing it in stark contrast to the erroneous view that has permeated religious thinking for centuries. One of these is Dr. Brent Schmidt, who in his 2015 book Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis summarizes the problem and the correct view of and response to God’s grace:
“A number of Christian intellectuals, scholars, and priests have taught that grace is something freely bestowed by God with no particular relationship with, or dependence upon, the actions of the person receiving it. Ancient documents, however, provide evidence that this particular notion of the term charis is at variance with the understanding of grace before Christ and during the first few centuries after Christ. The meaning commonly understood by a broad range of cultures up until the fifth century was that grace was the essence of a two-way, unequal, reciprocal, binding agreement between two parties in which both were obligated to each other. In other words, grace was not ‘free’ [—at least in the sense of having no conditions for continuing grace].
“The practice in the ancient world of high-ranking people granting favors to their subordinates served New Testament authors as a model for God’s loving bestowal of his benevolence and mercy on humanity through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. On reception of God’s gift, humanity becomes vertically obligated to God and accepts a reciprocal duty to do everything possible to demonstrate gratitude, including keeping his commandments.
“Both God and humanity are bound by this relationship of grace, which is known as a covenant. Charis in ancient Greek texts and in the New Testament denoted covenants in an ideal state of equality that obligated recipients to express joy, thankfulness, and generosity in the spirit of justice. Unfortunately, this ancient understanding of grace was somewhat obscured by Augustine and other early medieval theologians who were heavily influenced by neo-Platonic philosophy. These authors recast the notion of a reciprocal form of grace to something which was freely bestowed by God and did not depend on or expect any reciprocity in terms of service to God.
“During the history of Christianity, a few figures challenged this tradition of free grace, but were dismissed, so their notions of reciprocal grace were downplayed within the larger Christian tradition. Misunderstanding the classical meaning of grace in the modern era has led to much confusion. This medieval and modern understanding of grace—‘free grace’—is one used today by several Christian groups . . .
“Passages in ancient Greek and Roman literature, inscriptions, and papyri demonstrate charis’s reciprocal connotations in the Mediterranean ancient world . . . There is not one use of charis that unmistakably reflects the aforementioned view of free grace in any ancient Greek text, including the letters attributed to Paul. Although prominent scholars for centuries have anachronistically translated charis as completely ‘free’ and without obligation in their translations, there is no ancient evidence to support . . . claims of nonobligatory, free, or unconditional grace. In contrast . . . charis/grace is obligatory.
“Some popular, modern notions of grace have drifted far away from the ancient context of grace, which always implies reciprocity, obligation, and various forms of covenants. Thankfully, a number of Christian theologians have sought to understand the ancient meaning of charis and advocate at least questioning the popular understanding of grace today” (pp. 201-203, emphasis added).
Grace encompasses many things, but as seen here it is foundational to a life transformed by God’s gifts and built on a relationship of gratitude, surrender and commitment to God. A close reading of the Bible’s many mentions of grace shows this to be the true understanding of the biblical writers and their first-century audience.