What Did “Grace” Mean in the First-Century World?

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What Did “Grace” Mean in the First-Century World?

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What Did “Grace” Mean in the First-Century World?

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“And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8 2 Corinthians 9:8And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work:
American King James Version×
).

Words have meaning. Some words are difficult to understand when they have been far removed from their original context. In contrast to its meaning today, the term grace—springing from a translation of the Greek word charis—held quite a different meaning in its original usage in Greco-Roman times, the era in which Paul and the other apostles and New Testament writers lived and worked.

Paul wove the word charis more than 100 times into his letters to individuals and different congregations around the Roman Empire. Greek and Roman converts reading or hearing this word would have understood it in a considerably different context than we would in the 21st century. And their understanding of what Paul and others meant by the “grace of God” could have potentially been quite different from ours. Understanding this first-century context helps illuminate what being under grace actually means to a follower of Jesus Christ. Let’s see why.

Charis (grace) as a standalone word in the Bible could be used as a greeting with high meaning (“Grace and peace be upon you”), as a descriptor of how God conveys powerful favor, as an expression of an undeserved divine act of goodness, and more. That may not sound foreign to us. But to the ears of a Greco-Roman citizen or a Greek-speaking Jew who would be hearing or reading this word in a biblical context, the meaning would describe something we probably don’t typically consider today—a powerful relationship between a giver of gifts and the recipients of those gifts. The point? Paul and other New Testament writers often reflected this meaning when they mentioned the word charis (grace). Learning more about this relationship gives us greater insight into the meaning of grace in Scripture.

Patrons and clients

Here’s some critical background. In the time of Jesus and the apostles, a system known as “patronage” existed in the Roman Empire—the physical and cultural setting in which much of the New Testament was written.

In the 21st century, the word patronage often evokes a sense of vulgar nepotismor underhanded gifts obtained in an unsavory way (as in “political patronage,” where gifts may be bestowed in exchange for illegal or inappropriate acts).

However, while such political patronage also existed in Paul’s time, patronage generally meant something far different then. When they heard the word charis, citizens of the Roman Empire would have understood it positively. In addition to meaning gifts of an undeserved nature, a situation involving charis (grace) would typically have been regarded as a goodrelationship with lasting mutual benefits, expectations and a new set of powerful dynamics.

Here’s a contrast to consider: In today’s modern world, if someone wanted to start a business or build a home, he or she would probably go to a commercial bank (or similar institution) to secure a loan. The expectation would be for the loan to be paid back with interest. In the Greco-Roman world of the first century, sophisticated commercial banking as we know it today didn’t exist. Wealth in Roman society was concentrated among about 4 percent of the population. These people were the upper-class wealthy aristocrats known as patricians. The poorer common citizens were called plebeians.

Often wealthy moneylenders would take advantage of others in charging high interest. But there was a better way for help in getting ahead in life. A commoner seeking financial assistance or similar help, such as securing a job, could perhaps find a wealthy person to enter into a relationship with involving charis (grace)—the giving of an undeserved benefit or gift from the greater person to the lesser. The person providing the money, sup-port or benefit was known as a patron (Latin patronus). The person receiving the money or support was then known as a client (Latin cliens).

Such patronage was even part of the life of the early Church. For example, no separate physical “church” buildings existed during the early decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some early Church members served as spiritual and physical patrons by opening their private homes to provide meeting spaces for gatherings and Sabbath services.

Paul actually refers to the deaconess Phoebe as “a patron of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2 Romans 16:1-2 [1] I commend to you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: [2] That you receive her in the Lord, as becomes saints, and that you assist her in whatever business she has need of you: for she has been a succorer of many, and of myself also.
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, ESV)—indicating her generous attitude and service to him and others. Luke’s writing of the books of Luke and Acts was evidently supported by a patron named Theophilus (see Luke 1:1-4 Luke 1:1-4 [1] For as much as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, [2] Even as they delivered them to us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; [3] It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus, [4] That you might know the certainty of those things, wherein you have been instructed.
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; Acts 1:1 Acts 1:1The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,
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).

A lasting relationship with defined roles

Becoming the client of a patron in Greco-Roman society was not a light commitment. According to societal rules (recorded by a number of influential citizens of the day, including Roman notables such as Tacitus and Cicero), when a new client entered into a relationship of dependency with a Roman patron, they entered an agreement and relationship “based on mutual trust and loyalty” (Paul Sampley, editor, Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, Vol. 2, 2016, p. 206).

Once that social contract was established, a new set of dynamics came into play. The new client “was expected to show respect and gratitude to the patron, to render certain services to him . . . and to support his political, economical and social activities” (ibid.).

What did the patron do for his client? “The influential patron protected the client’s economical, social and legal interests by letting him profit from the patron’s social connections and by allowing him access to the patron’s resources” (ibid.).

In short, the new client might receive needed funding or other important benefits, but he was now in a lifelong relationship with the patron, who expected a certain mindset from his clients, as well as acts of gratitude (works) in return.

The book Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis, explains it this way in its cover introduction: “Charis (grace) is the word New Testament authors, especially Paul, sometimes used to explain Christ’s gift to people. But what is the nature of the gift? Since the fifth century, a number of Christian scholars have taught that grace is something bestowed by God freely, with little or nothing required in return . . . [Yet] ‘free grace’ is not what Paul and others intended.

“The practice in the ancient world of people granting and receiving favors and gifts came with clear obligations. Charis served New Testament authors as a model for God’s mercy through the atonement of Jesus Christ, which also comes with covenantal obligations . . . 

“Being saved by grace means coming to Christ, being baptized and joining the community of saints [or Christians], and continually living with thanks and praise for God’s gift. All of these expressions of grace are found both in the Greek and Pauline use of the word. Knowing what charis means helps us understand what God expects us to do once we have accepted his grace” (Brent Schmidt, 2015, back cover).

Grace and faith

What were the benefits in this relationship to both patron and client? The charis (gift of good, translated grace) would be made with the understanding that the gift could never be repaid (in the sense of simply repaying a loan). The expectation of the patron was that the client would maintain a high degree of loyalty and gratitude toward the patron. That aspect of the relationship is contained in the Greek word pistis, which is the same word translated faith and faithfulness in the English versions of the New Testament.

In other words, a client under the Roman patronage system would receive a gift (charis) that likely could never be fully repaid in money or goods. The client’s role was to exhibit and demonstrate faithful loyalty (pistis), including public demonstrations of gratitude. The exercise of pistis reflects grateful trust—a powerful, energetic, living belief—that the patron will actually do what he promises to do. This charis relationship was important for survival and advancement in the first-century Greco-Roman world—and, as historians confirm, the practice was widespread.

What might be a challenge for a 21st-century reader of the Bible to grasp is this: Any first-century Roman or Greek or even Jewish Christian in that world who read or heard a letter from Paul or other apostles mentioning the Greek word charis would have instantly understood that word in the relationship of a patron and a client.

So it’s important to distinguish the first-century meaning of grace in terms of patron-age from the 21st-century definition.

It’s also important to understand that the complex relationship formed in the giving of charis or grace was not a mere transaction.

A first-century giving and receiving of charis created a powerful and dynamic relationship—a positive connection that lasted a lifetime. In the New Testament, this charis relationship is underlined by faith or trust on the human side, as expressed in Hebrews 11:6 Hebrews 11:6But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
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, that we “must believe that he [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (English Standard Version)—and there must be continuing faithfulness. (To understand more about this, be sure to read “How ‘Grace’ Was Understood in the Time and Culture of the Apostles”).

The proper response to receiving grace

When the New Testament speaks of grace it reflects elements and applications of this patronage system. This understanding brings out the real power and obligations of a grace-filled relationship with God. The cultural analogy is plain and translates well into our time today: God serves as our divine patron, providing us with undeserved forgiveness, favor and the matchless gift of eternal life, gifts we cannot possibly repay.

What should we do in return as clients? Dr. David deSilva, professor of Greek and the New Testament and an authority on first-century culture, explains in the article “Grace” in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible what was expected of the clients of a patron then, and how it applies today:

“. . . The proper response of those who have benefited from God’s gift . . . involves the offering up of the believers’ whole selves to God’s service, to do what is righteous in God’s sight (Romans 12:1 Romans 12:1I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
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; Romans 6:1-14 Romans 6:1-14 [1] What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? [2] God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? [3] Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? [4] Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. [5] For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: [6] Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that from now on we should not serve sin. [7] For he that is dead is freed from sin. [8] Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: [9] Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death has no more dominion over him. [10] For in that he died, he died to sin once: but in that he lives, he lives to God. [11] Likewise reckon you also yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. [12] Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in the lusts thereof. [13] Neither yield you your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin: but yield yourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. [14] For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace.
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). As in the [Old Testament], this response centers not only on honoring God, but on love, generosity, and loyal service toward fellow believers (Galatians 5:13-14 Galatians 5:13-14 [13] For, brothers, you have been called to liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. [14] For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
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; Galatians 6:2 Galatians 6:2Bear you one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
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; Romans 13:9-10 Romans 13:9-10 [9] For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [10] Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
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). The giving is free and uncoerced, but the ancient hearer knew that to accept a gift meant accepting also obligation to the giver” (2000, p. 525).

Putting this together with what we have seen earlier, a Christian is expected to commit to becoming a new person, casting off old sinful ways in this new relationship formed from charis (grace). As Paul wrote in Romans 12:1 Romans 12:1I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
American King James Version×
(NIV): “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

The pathway leading toward the righteous behavior God wants from us is illuminated by His law, which serves as the divine standard of conduct. We as fallible human beings often violate this standard of conduct, no matter how well-meaning we are (Romans 7:18 Romans 7:18For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
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). We also constantly face the unrelenting spiritual pressure of an adversary, Satan the devil, who wants us to step off the path.

But the application of charis (grace) saves us when we stumble and fall. When we repent, we are cleansed of sin and restored to a right relationship with our divine patron, God. Thus, reciprocating in divine faith (pistis)—trusting belief and faithfulness—toward our divine patron, we are truly “not under law [under its penalty] but under grace” (Romans 6:14 Romans 6:14For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace.
American King James Version×
, ESV).

Not abolished in the slightest, the law of God—summarized in the moral code of the Ten Commandments—retains its authority and, as Paul states, is “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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, ESV). And as Jesus Christ Himself affirmed, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 Matthew 4:4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
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; Luke 4:4 Luke 4:4And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
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; quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3 Deuteronomy 8:3And he humbled you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD does man live.
American King James Version×
).

God’s law thus points the way for us to act in faith and faithfulness—pistis—in our relationship begun by our patron who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19 1 John 4:19We love him, because he first loved us.
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). Paul tells us that “when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 6:10 Romans 6:10For in that he died, he died to sin once: but in that he lives, he lives to God.
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).

Paul profoundly understood that “by grace [charis] you are saved through faith [pistis] . . . it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 Ephesians 2:8For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
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, ESV). Anyone hearing these words or reading them in the first century would have made an instant connection to the powerful relationship implied, which requires trust and a response of remaining faithful. (For more on the historical context of this language, see “The ‘Three Graces’: a First-Century Perspective on Grace in Action” and “‘Free Grace’—Is It Biblical?”).

So grace, we see, is not contrary to God’s law in the slightest. Grace requires God’s law to define the standard of conduct for the deep relationship inherent in a bond established by charis. In fact, it is through grace that God has given His law, forgives us for breaking it and empowers us to continue in it. The relationship of charis is evident in God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:19 Ephesians 1:19And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,
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, NIV).

What a fantastic illumination of the profound depth of a grace-powered relationship with God Almighty, one that will last for all eternity! No wonder then that the Bible itself closes with this encouragement from Revelation 22:21 Revelation 22:21The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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(NLT): “May the grace [charis] of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people. Amen.”

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