What Paul Meant When He Chose the Word “Grace”

“Grace” is a difficult word for us to define today. Sometimes it means graceful, like in the smooth movements of a ballet dancer. Sometimes it means to say grace (thank you) at a meal. But mostly for Bible readers today it means the gift of salvation in Christ, as explained by the Apostle Paul in his letters.

Not well recognized in later history, grace had special meaning in the Greek world of Paul’s time. Charis is the Greek. We get the English grace through the Latin for gratia.

All this background is to say that in the Greek world of Paul’s time charis had special associations with Greek mythology, that loose and shifting network of major gods, goddesses and especially of the minor goddesses considered to be muses. These muses were regarded as the sources of inspiration for writing about beauty, language, poetry, and for doing music and dance. Three especially important muses were the Charity sisters, represented in art as three women dancing. These three particular muses represented joy, the word for which is char, basic to charis.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he reminded these Christ followers, “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved through faith. It is the gift of God”(Ephesians 2:4).

This gift is much more than a present of some clothing you get at your birthday. His listeners would have thought of it as something you get from a muse: a new idea, a new sense of beauty, a source of joy. For Paul this muse is the Almighty God who loves his people. This God is not like the Greek gods of mythology who needed to be feared and appeased, lest they jinx any plans you were making.

A favorite way of looking at the transaction that happens in Christ is that our sinfulness, our transgressions, are replaced by Christ’s merit. We are justified. This is a Latin way of thinking with the Roman emphasis on justice. It misses the Greek emphasis on a gift from above (from the muses) that gives you joy, that changes you, that makes your world beautiful.

The Christian God “is rich in mercy.” Basically, mercy is the opposite of grace. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve for your sinfulness. Mercy is very important in a world that revolves around justice, as it did in the Latin-based Roman worldview. Grace, on the other hand, is when you do get what you do not deserve. In Christ you get a new life of joy and beauty. This new life from above would fit especially in the Greek perspective.

Paul is well recognized as the apostle of grace. He used that word 106 times in his letters. We are re-discovering his greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Spirit. He refers to what the Spirit does 169 times in his letters.

The Holy Spirit is not necessarily present in a view that focuses on our justification before God, our being made right with God. The Latin language-based Reformation was all about the role of “good works” in a Christian’s life. They don’t make us righteous before God. But what then is the role of good behavior? Usually that Latin-based discussion goes in the direction of living a virtuous life, which we are on our own to try to live. Empowerment by the Spirit does not fit into that worldview, resulting in a church life where the Holy Spirit stays mostly confessed but not felt as necessary.

The Greek Paul of Tarsus invites us into the church life where the power from above, the Holy Spirit, calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies all those gathered in Christ’s name. Without the power of the Spirit, Christian churches are just social organizations on their own trying to respect God and do good works in his name. Such secularized churches do not have much staying power in the new American culture that does not share a biblical worldview.

What is your understanding of God’s grace?  Does it mean more than mercy?

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