Theology Matters

Faith Virtue Knowledge


Grace #3: From slaves to sons and daughters!

For a while now, I have been thinking about the immense subject of God’s grace. My first post in this series outlined the need that I see to ‘beef up’ our teaching of God’s grace. The amazing grace of Jesus does not say to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you, I couldn’t possibly,” as the emaciated and far less amazing modern virtue which we call ‘tolerance’ might have done. Neither does it say “go and leave your life of sin so that God can accept you,” as cold pharisaic legalism might wish. God’s amazing grace said then and says now “neither do I condemn you, go and leave your life of sin.” My second post introduced the idea of an obligation that a gift creates, even if freely given. I suggested that while God’s grace saves us freely, we are saved for a purpose, and thus God’s grace invites us rather than obligates us. However, I promised to wrestle further with the notion of obligation in the current post so, here goes. The question of obligation is essentially how ought we to live as a result of God’s grace? The answer to this question will be found in the answer to two more basic questions. What exactly is grace why do we need it?

What is grace?

The Greek word which is translated ‘grace’ in the New Testament is charis[1]. This word refers to favour, or to a favour, and calls to mind the ancient system of reciprocity that operated in the time the New Testament was written. This system is best understood as a never-ending web of mutual obligation, and although some of its unwritten rules survive even to our own day—if you do me a favour, I “owe you one” in return—it was a much more significant part of life in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. Favours, when exchanged between those of equal standing, equal resources, or equal power, were returned in kind. It was this system that Jesus was referring to when in Luke 14:12–14 he urged his followers not to do favours (such as giving a dinner party) for people who could repay them, but instead for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…”. Favour could, of course, also be shown by a wealthy or powerful person to somebody of little power. In this case, the favour is returned, though not in kind. A poor or powerless person, if shown such favour, returns the favour by giving honour, loyalty, service and gratitude to the person who showed them favour. This is why charis is also the Greek word for ‘thanks’ as in Romans 7:24, 25 “Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[2] God’s grace to us is obviously in this latter category. We bring nothing to the table, but we remain indebted to him for the kindness that he has shown us.

Why do we need it?

Romans 6:15–23 characterises sin not just as acts that lead to death (cf. Heb 6:1), but as a master that we are obligated to obey. Here it is in full with the ‘grace’ language in bold:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace [charis]? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks [charis] be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In other words, we are born into servitude to a ruthless master called Sin. God sets us free from this slavery, not by merely turning us loose and allowing us to fend for ourselves. Such a heartless act would be unthinkable, for without a master we are without protection. Rather, he sets us free by purchasing us for himself. At great expense mind you—the exchange literally bankrupts heaven! Now that he has purchased us, Sin is no longer our lord and we are no longer its slaves. But Christ is our Lord, and we now belong to Him. We are no longer under (that is in bondage or servitude to) law, but under grace. That means that we are under the covering of God’s favour. It does not mean that we are now our own masters, free to do as we please. Our freedom is the freedom from our old master, but it comes at the expense of allegiance to the new master. But the greater truth is this. This master has not purchased us in order to subjugate us but to bless us. Because his purpose is to adopt us, who were both slaves and orphans, into his own family.

This means that we enjoy the privileges of the household, and the blessings of the Father’s love. But it also means that we ought to act like members of the household. Paul puts it this way in Romans 8:12 “Therefore brothers and sisters [that is, thos who like him have been adopted into the Father’s household] we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it.” 

Here are some other ‘obligation’ scriptures (note that obligation, owe, ought, debt all come from the same Greek root):

Romans 13:8 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another”

Romans 15:1 “We who strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.”

John 13:14 “You also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

1 John 3:16 “…Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

1 John 4:11 “Since God so loved us, we ought to also love one another.”

Ephesians 5:28 “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.”

OK, this list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. The obligations that we have are family obligations—to love as we have been loved; to forgive as we have been forgiven. For surely that is how a person who has been blessed and graced in this way ought to act. Love one another. Lay down your lives for one another. Love your wives. Wash one another’s feet. Walk as Jesus did—that is, using the blessings and privileges we have as sons and daughters of the Father, to bless and privilege others.

Bottom line. We have been shown incredible favour. We who were orphans and slaves have been invited to be part of a family. I don’t know about you, but I’m in. I’m grabbing this gift with both hands!

[1] Augustine (rightly, I think) understood the hope-filled answer to the apostle’s anguished cry as “The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

[2] This is related to the verb charizomai, which means to give or to show grace towards, and hence also to charisma which is the word used of gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament. This is an important connection, though beyond the scope of the present post, because it reminds us that spiritual gifts, like the gift of salvation, are also operations of God’s grace.