The See-Saw God

By Grace: gratia; τῇ χάριτί. Look it up in a dictionary and you’ll see why people are confused. “Simple elegance or refinement of movement” – what does that have to do with salvation? Or “a period officially allowed for payment of a sum due or for compliance with a law or condition.” So you get a “grace period” on a loan – is that salvation? God gives us “extra time” to make up what we owe him? Or how about this: “a short prayer of thanks said before or after a meal.” We are saved by our little prayers?

The word is confusing in English, and it was confusing at the time of the Reformation. Is salvation “by grace,” that is, by God giving us a something, a gift, that makes us favorable to him? We then are able to do his will, and having done his will are then “saved”? Or does “by grace,” mean that we are saved because God has shown mercy and acted graciously toward us. Think in terms of a see-saw. Is grace the see-saw itself, that the work of Christ puts us on the see-saw and our job is to do enough to make the see-saw tilt in our favor? And when (if) it does, then we receive God’s blessing and salvation? This animation depicts, visually, this kind of “grace”:

Notice, if “grace” is the see-saw, it never settles. There is no certainty, because we constantly move (away from God).

Or, is “grace” not the see-saw itself, but grace is what God does in Christ that causes the see-saw to tilt, inevitably, in our favor? Something like this:

Notice, it inclines toward us, and does not move. “Grace” is not the see-saw, it is the incline.

At the time of the Reformation, this encapsulated the essence of the debate regarding salvation. The former, that grace is God providing a see-saw, was the Roman position. The latter, that grace is something in God himself, was the Evangelical (Lutheran) view. Which one is correct? The challenge at the time of the Reformation (and still today) is that “grace” (χάρις) can mean both – and more besides – in the New Testament. How do we sort this out?

The Greek NT uses the word χάρις, which is usually translated as “grace,” in at least five distinct ways, with a few subcategories under these. The standard Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (BDAG) lays out these categories of usage (slightly re-ordered here):

1) “A winning quality or attractiveness that invites a favorable reaction.” So Col 4:6: “Let your speaking always be gracious (ἐν χάριτι), seasoned with salt [not “salty”]; or Luke 2:52: “Jesus grew in wisdom and in [to use the KJV] stature and grace (χάριτι). In this sense, “grace” is a quality that a person has, a possession, which shows itself in the way one talks and lives. Notice that this kind of “grace,” something along the lines of the way most speakers of American use it, does not require any divine intervention. We can talk of a “gracious” host, or a “graceful” dancer, or acting with “grace” under pressure. Not much, if anything, to do with salvation here.

2) A “practical application of goodwill,” i.e., a “gift.” If grace is shown, what is given by grace can itself be called “grace,” what we in American would call a “gift.” So in 1 Cor 16:3, Paul says: “When I arrive I will send, by means of letters, whomever you approve to carry your gift (χάρις) to Jerusalem.” Here χάρις refers to the result of the gracious disposition which the Corinthians had toward their fellow saints in Jerusalem, which became tangible in the offering which they were delivering as a gift (freely). This is used in the greetings of almost all of Paul’s letters as part of the familiar “grace and peace to you from God the Father . . .” God’s “favorable disposition” toward us results in his giving something tangible, real, which is shared among his people: a gift, a grace, and along with it grace’s partner, peace.

3) An “exceptional effect produced by generosity.” This doesn’t differ much from the previous usage, except that God’s “favor” (χάρις) is shown in his giving “gifts” (χαρίσματα) that are then used for the good of others. So in Rom 12:6, “having gifts (χαρίσματα) that differ according to the grace (χάρις) given to us.” Notice, however, that χάρις here is not salvation, but God bestowing, in a sense, additional responsibilities that are to be used for his purposes. Paul is an apostle “by grace” (Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 3:10). This is not a “bonus” of extra Holy Spirit power or something of the sort; rather, with this “gift” comes additional responsibility and even, on the last day, judgment for what one did with this “gift.” This should get us off all the goofiness with “spiritual gifts,” as if they are necessary for salvation. They are simply manifestations of God’s choosing to give to certain people his gift of service for the sake of others. So these gifts are never for the benefit of the one who receives the “gift,” but always for the benefit of the church (see esp. Eph 4:1-16).

4) Oddly to us, perhaps, the word χάρις can also mean a “response to generosity or beneficence,” i.e., “thanks.” This is fairly common in Paul: “Thanks (χάρις) be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:25). The entailments would run like this: God gifts us with something, and so our response is to acknowledge this as gift and thereby attribute gift (thanks) to God. Again, not much that deals with salvation here.

5) The complicated last category (in BDAG it is entry “2”) is where sola gratia finds its home. The definition given is “a beneficent disposition toward someone.” Put that into American: Someone bends toward someone else; God is “favorably disposed” toward us; in Christ, God inclines himself toward us, and so the see-saw is tipped (by him) in our favor. Notice how this shifts the focus. “Grace” is not something that we have, or something that we are given. It is not something that we take and then do something with. It is not inside of us. Rather, grace is, if you will, outside of us and inside God. In Christ he looks at us and acts towards us by grace – always for our benefit. “Grace” is not a “thing” from God, it is God’s turning toward us.

Try this out, contextually, in a few key passages. Eph 2:8 is a familiar “proof passage” (I hate that phrase, but you get what I mean). In 2:1-3, our situation is made known: we were “dead in trespasses” (2:1) but God is “rich in mercy, through his great love with which he loved us” (2:4). Notice that it is something inside of God (love) that makes the difference, not something inside us (because we were dead). But even though we were “dead in our trespasses” (2:5) “he made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him” (2:5-6). All this is God’s action, focused in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In order to emphasize this, twice in this section Paul repeats the “by grace you are in a state of being saved” (χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι – note the perfect middle participle). What is “by grace”? It is God’s disposition toward us which caused him to send Christ and raise us with him, thereby resulting in our salvation. “Grace” is God’s characteristic, his attribute, his disposition. It is simply the way God is toward us now, in Christ.

The Small Catechism nails this: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel . . .” Notice how the subject of the verb changes: If “I” do it, I will fail. If the “Holy Spirit” does it, he succeeds.

Now reflect again on a text that you may heard preached yesterday (or even today): “All (Jew and Gentile) sinned and lack the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24). There is no more see-saw, only God, bending himself to us, because on account of his grace he acted in Christ. All we do is receive his χάρις. Better than a birthday, Happy Reformation Day!

[credit for the animated gif]





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