The nature of Grace

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As Jeremy has already noted, Rebecca and I have been continuing the conversation on atonement.

Currently, Rebecca is stating that the same action cannot be both Justice and Grace to the same person. This is because Justice is getting exactly what you deserve, and Grace is getting better than what you deserve. For the sake of the conversation on that thread, I am accepting those definitions of Justice and Grace (mostly because I think our disagreement will end up not being over these terms).

However, I feel that there is something wrong with those definitions, but I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it. I think that the Justice definition is probabky OK. However, the Grace definition is a bit worrysome. Without a doubt, this is how Grace has been defined in dictionaries and seminaries. But I think that there is something more to it.

Grace is not so much an action or a transaction like Justice. Rather it is an attitude towards the recipient--an intention on the part of the giver. This invariably translates into action, so Grace is not without an action component. But the action is related to Grace the same way that Works are related to Faith--not part of the actual definition, but an inevitable result and companion of Faith.

When you hear that someone is gracious, you don't generally think of someone who is coldly unfair in your favor. You think of warmth of attitude and intention. That attitude results in you getting better than you deserve.

On the flip side, if someone gives you more than you deserve, but does so in a hateful manner, you are unlikely to call that "Grace". For example, if you are arguing with a Customer Support person who is cursing you out and finally gives you what you want plus a coupon just to shut you up all the while holding you in contempt and derision, that just doesn't feel like Grace to me.

What do you guys think? Is grace only about the action disregarding the attitude? Or does the attitide and intention play a role?

31 Comments

Grace is God's givingness, which seems quite obviously a trait that God can manifest while acting out of justice. Consider a good many of the cases of justice in the OT. It involves God treating the enemies of God's people (or of certain of God's people) according to how they deserve. Thus those who oppress the poor, persecute the godly, and foster unrighteousness will get what's coming to them. That's justice in the OT, and it's primarily an attitude toward God's people and not toward the immediate recipients of God's wrath, which is an attitude toward those who will punished.

I'm not sure how that should affect this, but I think you're right to see justice and grace primarily as character traits in God and not as effects in the recipient, and I don't think we can ignore this more expansive sense of justice when thinking about God's salvation, which ultimately traces back to OT passages about deliverance, always deliverance from someone or something.

Just a thought in these ongoing discussions about justice/grace/wrath etc. I think it is absolutely crucial that we define what we mean by these terms. There is certainly some merit in unpacking the original Greek/Hebrew words, but ultimately these concepts are ultimately defined in a context.

For example - surely it is easier to see how God acts and then define what justice and mercy are etc, and surely it makes more sense to be Christ-centred in understanding what God is like. For example, Jesus is full of God's grace and as God is also completely just - so how does he bring divine justice to sinners?

Another thought - whatever God is in himself, he must surely also be to us, the recipients of his actions? God is love, so he cannot be anything but love to us. God is faithful, so he cannot be unfaithful to us etc...

I appreciate that these thoughts might not actually have anything to do with any of the preceding posts, but they made me think so I just had to jot my thoughts down somewhere ;)

I also noted the appalling grammar in the preceding post. I don't know what came over me.

Wink,

I'm really interested in the discussion on atonement, but as I'm coming late to the game I'm going to wade into the discussion very slowly!

I think you are both right when it comes to a proper understanding of grace: It is both action and attitude. Grace is God's action of unmerited favor towards us, and it is also His attitude that prompts this action. Grace operates from the love of the Creator, so a full understanding of it must consider both the attitude and the action.

I would also suggest that when we can show grace -- such as to a customer service rep on the other end of the phone -- it is in a different category than God's grace toward us. It is as a child trying to mimic what he sees his father doing. Our plastic lawnmowers don't cut the grass, but they teach us important things about taking care of the lawn -- and, more importantly, things about our father.

Without a doubt, this is how Grace has been defined in dictionaries and seminaries.

And there's a reason for that. The scholars that do the lexical work are defining how the word is used in scripture, because this is one of those words that seems to be used in very specific ways there (specifically by Paul) apart from how it was used generally. So when Paul says that if election is by grace, then it can't be by works because then grace would no longer be grace, they take that (given the way Paul uses the word "works" to mean "something that builds up merit with God") to mean that there is something definitional in grace that means it can't be extended on the basis of merit or desert. If something is given because we deserve it (or by works), then it can't be "grace" in the specific way that Paul uses it. So then, grace has to be receiving something better than we merit.

And then there is Ephesians 2, where the parallels give us an idea of the definition:

grace/not of ourselves
gift of God/not of works

Grace has a parallel meaning to "gift of God". If something is deserved or merited (or is of ourselves, or in response to our works), then it is does not come to us as a gift, rather it is comes as retribution. It's only a gift (or from grace) if it is something given that is not deserved.

These clues to the meaning of grace, along with others, are what's behind the definitions that say that to receive grace is to receive something better than we deserve, or something for which we are unworthy; and that put it in contrast then, to receiving justice, which is receiving exactly what is deserved, or receiving injustice, which is receiving less (or worse) than is deserved.

Grace is not so much an action or a transaction like Justice.

I'd agree that it's not a transaction. Justice is by definition a transaction--it's retributive. Payment where payment is due. Grace by definition is not.

It can be an action, though. Scripture uses the word that way, as a verb--God "graces". The word is also used as a commodity (I can't think of a better word)--God granted us grace before time began.

You think of warmth of attitude and intention. That attitude results in you getting better than you deserve.

Absolutely, and scripture uses the word "grace" for both of these things--the kind intention and the action that results from it.

On the flip side, if someone gives you more than you deserve, but does so in a hateful manner, you are unlikely to call that "Grace".

But we're talking about God here, and specifically in the way grace is used in scripture in relation to God, so I think this statement is irrelevent. God doesn't give people more than they deserve in a hateful manner. He gives people more than they deserve from kindness. The two things, in relation to God, are inseparably intertwined.

Grace is God's givingness, which seems quite obviously a trait that God can manifest while acting out of justice.

Absolutely. When God destroyed Israel's enemies, as you've illustrated, it was an act of justice toward the enemies, but grace to Israel. The enemies got payback, but Israel enjoyed benefits from God that were not due to Israel's works or merit, rather they were on the basis of God's gracious choice. Different recipients received different things--one justice and the other grace--through the one act. Can you find an example, however, where both justice and grace are received by a single recipient through one act?

And I forgot this:

(mostly because I think our disagreement will end up not being over these terms)

Ha! I think it's exactly over these terms. This is the sticky wicket. You say that we receive both justice for our sins and grace from God in the same act, don't you? I say that's impossible because it's a contradiction, and that's why the atonement had to be substitutional--Christ received the justice for our sins when he took them upon himself, and we receive grace by being spared the justice for our sins. All one act--justice to a sinbearing Christ, grace to us.

Here I am cluttering up your comments. I read that last response, and realized it might sound angry. It's not. It's just me having a lot of fun, actually.

I'm hiccupping a bit on the �more than we deserve� part. More seems to indicate a step ladder sort-of-deal for instance: You deserve death but I gave you something better�a step up from that. For some reason it�s not tasting right. Rebecca is onto it I think with that whole unmerited favor bit. Nothing dealing with deserve or a step up from what we deserve, but something completely apart and other. I�m sure I�m making no sense whatsoever. Something like Precept and Punishment being the modus operandi of every day life. Grace isn�t a step up from that, but rather something completely around and aside from that by which the condemned can be acquitted (wrong word, I�m sure).

Justice and Grace at the same time maybe the following (don�t hurt me theologians):
Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden, punished, and doomed to die yet they were able to live and the promise of the Seed given.

Israelites sin and being killed by the fiery asp and God instructs Moses to build a fiery serpent by which men can be saved upon looking at it.

Christ accursed on the cross (hanging on a tree) Jesus Christ�s grace by not wiping out the human race and all of creation at that instance.

The Jews sacked by the Greeks as part of their punishment for their grievous sin and the grace of the preservation of the Word of God for all people?

(okay, now hurt me theologians. By the way, I read the discussion over at Rebecca's but I couldn't speak...seemed not-right).

There are definitions which estabish the essence of a word and then there cutsy definitions which are pithy, poetic, mnemonic or something else which help catch a key idea. Let's not subject those definitions of rhyming or poetic form to the same types of rigor as those of a more academic nature.

GRACE - God's Riches At Chirst Expense
GRACE
oithx
dc rp
'h ie
se sn
s ts
'e
s

It looked better when I typed it.

Rebecca I have to disagree with your statement that 'justice is retributive.' God's justice is the removal and correction of injustice, and the bringing about of what is right. The kind of justice you're describing is eye for an eye, not loving your enemies justice.

In any case, Jesus was prophesied as being the one who would 'judge the needy' and 'with justice give decisions for the poor of the earth,' so how does Jesus model this justice in his ministry to sinners, by enacting retribution on them?

In any case, it's no simple matter to say that God's justice is dished out towards the perpetrators of sin - what about the victims of injustice, how will God judge them?

God's justice is not eye-for-an-eye retribution, it brings about what is just/ God's judgements ultimately are to bring about peace and righteousness. God's justice brings about reconciliation and shalom, in the kingdom where his justice reigns, the lion lies with lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares.

God certainly does judge, but the purpose of this punishment is instructive and transformative, not retribution for the sake of revenge.

I think you have to broaden your definition of what justice is quite considerably. Justice and mercy are not opposites or in conflict, they belong together (Zech 7:9).

Sven

Ha! I think it's exactly over these terms. This is the sticky wicket. You say that we receive both justice for our sins and grace from God in the same act, don't you?

Actually, no I don't. As I keep trying to say in the comments of your post, in my model the Justice and Grace are distinct events. The Justice is in our Union with Christ's death, and the Grace is in our Union with Christ's resurrection.

Because these are distinct events in the larger category of "Union with Christ", I don't see how your supposed contradiction poses any problem for my model.

A quick note (forgive me if I'm repeating a point previously made)re the attributes of God:

As we think about God we, being finite, have to analyze His attributes individually. Such is the case with justice and grace: YHWH is a God of both justice and grace.

But God does not act through one attribute here and another attribute there: all attributes are operative at the same time. When God acts in grace, He also acts in justice - this is what made the atonement necessary. His acts are loving, gracious, just, merciful, sovereign, omnipotent, etc., all at the same time.

Thus, the contention that the same action cannot be both just and gracious to the same person depicts (1) our limited, human, experiential perspective, and (2) a distorted and mistaken perception of the Godhead (from which we all suffer, even in our very best moments). Perhaps in heaven - although we have no guarantee of this - we will be able to understand this more accurately, but for now we are restricted by our finitude.

Proverbs 31:9 ESV
"Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy."

Another comment on the nature of definitions. Don't forget we often use words where the definition changes by context. Grace and graceful have related etymology but don't confuse the two. Grace is not like a gymnast; rather a gymnast has qualities which show elegant movement and thus graceful. A graceful gymnast may be saved but not through the balance beam.

We can NOT impose a single definition grace nor of justice. Judge the orphan and widow has everything to do with them however the action is against those who oppress them.

Sven, was not God the author of "an eye for an eye"? God's justice is also retributive. Paul said that the wages of sin are death. This is divine, righteous retribution of a holy God. God is a vengeful God, but it is a righteous vengence, not one perverted by sin like ours always is. We should NEVER anthropamorphise him! The God of the Old Testament never changed.

Deuteronomy 32:35
Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.�

Deuteronomy 32:41
if I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me.

...and on and on.

But this holy God says in the same sentence about the wages of sin that the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Because of God's justice, yes vengeance, poured out on Christ's head, we who believe and trust in him have the same standing of favor that Jesus has. How marvelous is that?! It boggles the mind!

Rey,

Justice and Grace at the same time maybe the following (don�t hurt me theologians):

I think that all of those examples you gave involve either separate actions or separate recipients.

Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden, punished, and doomed to die yet they were able to live and the promise of the Seed given.

I would see God's punishment of A and E as a separate action from his preservation of them.

Israelites sin and being killed by the fiery asp and God instructs Moses to build a fiery serpent by which men can be saved upon looking at it.

Once again, separate action. Same story, of course, and closely related, but distinct actions.

Christ accursed on the cross (hanging on a tree) Jesus Christ�s grace by not wiping out the human race and all of creation at that instance.

Separate recipients. We receive grace, and Christ recieves the justice due us for our sin.

The Jews sacked by the Greeks as part of their punishment for their grievous sin and the grace of the preservation of the Word of God for all people?

Once again, I would see separate recipients--the ones for whom this act was an act of retribution are different from the ones for whom this act turned out to be gracious.

Now, did that hurt? :)

Mike,

As we think about God we, being finite, have to analyze His attributes individually. Such is the case with justice and grace: YHWH is a God of both justice and grace.

I agree with this, but I don't think the discussion is primarily about these things as attributes of God, but rather as actions of God. God is always omnipotent, but he does not always act "out of" his omnipotency. When God chooses to not intervene in something, he remains omnipotent, but that particular choice does not show his omnipotency. When God's final wrath comes upon sin, even though God will remain a loving God, that particular vengeful action won't show (or be "out of") his love.

Thus, the contention that the same action cannot be both just and gracious to the same person depicts (1) our limited, human, experiential perspective, and (2) a distorted and mistaken perception of the Godhead (from which we all suffer, even in our very best moments).

I don't think so, and I don't think so based on what Paul said in Romans 11. If something is "by works", in other words, if it's getting what our works demand as right repayment--or JUSTICE, then it can't be "by grace". Paul is the one who puts them in separate categories. He also contrasts vessels of wrath (which in the case of sinful beings, is just) to vessels of mercy (which, in the case of sinful beings, is gracious). There is a contrasting nature in the way Paul sees these things.

Okay, I tried to change the last sentence out of that last response, but I was too late, and it had already posted. I was afraid the use of the word "nature" would be confusing, as if I was saying that God's nature is contrasting. What am saying is that Paul sees a contrast in the nature of actions (in respect to sinful people) that come from pure justice and that come from grace.

We can NOT impose a single definition grace nor of justice.

I think we can define them, but we have to define them as they are used in scripture in that are supposed to be based on scripture. We may even have to define them differently as we move from author to author....I'm not sure, I haven't really looked into that much. I think I do understand, at least a little bit, how Paul uses them, generally speaking.

Bill,

(Long time, no see....)

Because of God's justice, yes vengeance, poured out on Christ's head, we who believe and trust in him have the same standing of favor that Jesus has.

Yes, exactly. Justice on Christ, grace on us.

The Justice is in our Union with Christ's death, and the Grace is in our Union with Christ's resurrection.

Aha! How did I miss that?

I think you are making a distinction that can't be scripturally made. Christ's death is an expression of grace to us. Off the top of my head: The redemption we have "through his blood" (or through his death) is "according to the riches of his grace." The "chastisement for our well-being fell on him." His suffering was well-being (or grace) to us.

I think at least part of what Sven was saying is not only true and not only biblical but derived particularly from the Old Testament. Most instances of justice in the OT are not about people getting what they deserve. They do involve that on the part of the enemies of the oppressed, but the prophets, for instance, seem to emphasize that the oppressed are no longer being oppressed and that they are even elevated to a higher state than they previously occupied. This is part of justice. It's very hard to read Amos, Hosea, certain parts of Isaiah, etc. without seeing justice as more than giving the evildoer what the evildoer deserves. It also seems to involve righting the wrongs that the evildoer had perpetrated, which is not only mercy but grace.

Oh, and one more for Rey :) :

I'm hiccupping a bit on the �more than we deserve� part.

and

Rebecca is onto it I think with that whole unmerited favor bit.

In my dictionary deserve and merit are synomyms. (So is to be worthy.) If unmerited favor is the same thing as undeserved favor, isn't it the same thing getting some thing good that we don't deserve? Isn't it the same thing as getting something better (or more, but I prefer to use better. Better is better than more.) than we deserve?

Maybe it would have been better if I'd used the word "worthy" in the first place. To receive grace is to recieve good that we are unworthy of. To receive perfect justice is to receive exactly what we are worthy of.

It also seems to involve righting the wrongs that the evildoer had perpetrated, which is not only mercy but grace.

I'm not really disagreeing with your point. But the evildoer who recieves retribution does not himself receive mercy in the same act.

It's merciful (or gracious) toward those who had been unjustly treated at the hands of the evildoer, and in the sense that it rights past wrongs done to them, it's obtaining justice for them. But the vengeance, or the outpouring of God's justice, or what we call his retributive justice, doesn't fall on them.

I think it's specifically in respect to God's retributive justice that we are speaking when we deal with the atonement, and in the case of sinners, that pretty much = wrath. It's speaking of God righting the wrongs done against him by exacting judgment upon them. We are the evildoers in this case, not innocent victims.

I think I like worthy better for some reason. I think it has more to do with common usage. "Deserve" has a distinctive American feel to it that seems too...I don't know...Constitutional(?)

Anyway how about Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit? A) They were judged for eating the fruit but B)they were given the ability to tell right from wrong. Am I fishing here?

Rebecca - Aha! How did I miss that?

I dunno.

Christ's death is an expression of grace to us.

I have three responses to that to show how Christ's death is grace to us without (hopefully) contradicting what I've already said:

1) The Grace shown to us by our participation in Christ's death is on a different level than the Justice shown to us in our participation of Christ's death. That is to say that I'm using grace in the more expansive sense that I tried to set forth in the main body of this post. God's grace to us is in His attitude and intention towards us, not necessarily in the "giving more than we merit" sense. Thus the Grace and the Justice do not contradict. In this point, I'm not sticking to your definition of Grace.

2) The word "death" or "blood" or "cross" is frequently used in the Bible as shorthand for the combined events of the crucifiction/resurrection/ascension. Thus when you say that the Bible says that Christ's death or blood is grace to us, it is talking about more than the crucifixion. It is also talking of the resurrection and ascension. Thus, calling the combined event "Grace" does not lead me into a contradiction between Grace and Justice as Justice is focused only on the event of the Cross, while the Grace is focused either on the larger compined event, or in the Resurrection which is part of the event. In this point I am accepting your definitions.

3) I still do think that Grace and Justice can be expressed to the same person in the same action. Even using your definitions. Suppose there are two legitimate punishments to an offence. That is to say that both punishments are equally just given the offense. However, one punishment is more preferable to the recipient of the punishment than the other. To give the recipient the preferable punishment is to be Gracious as well as Just.

For example: The penalty for sin is death. There are two ways we can pay this penalty. We can die on our own. Or we can die in Christ. The latter is utter ruin for us. The latter results in Eternal Life (because of the Grace of Union with Christ's Resurrection). That God gives us the latter is completely Just, yet also Gracious. (In this point, I am also accepting your definitions.)

In all three of these views, the narrow focus of the Cross is Justice, but the larger sense of the Cross (either intent/purpose, larger scope of event, or seeing the Cross as one of two options) is Grace. Because Grace and Justice are working in different contexts, even though they are applying to the same event and person, they do not contradict.

Bill,

Yes God does exercise retribution, but the'wages of sin death' does not makes this point particularly well. Sin and death are inseparable, it is actually sin that kills and destroys you, and sin is its own punishment. They are two sides of the same coin.

Another thought, stolen from Karl Barth: In Christ, our great High Priest and the Last Adam, God says 'No' to us on the cross and reveals what we deserve, but in the resurrection, Christ is still our high priest and the Last Adam, and ultimately it is God's 'Yes' to humanity. Hidden in every judgement and retributive act of God is his ultimately desire to save and restore his creation, and even behind his wrath is his love.


Seriously though, I wish we would not simply get stuck in abstract legal metaphors and imagery for describing the atonement, because it is ultimately a relational reconciliatory act, and I think this is one of the weaknesses of the western tradition. Even the OT law presupposes a covenantal union with God before you get to any of the legal stuff.

Sven

Sven, the legal metaphors and imagery are clearly present in Paul, Peter, John, and Hebrews, and I think they're there in Jesus' own teaching. The relational ones are as well. You might argue that there's too little talk of the relational elements (though I don't know how you can accuse Wink of that), but you can't argue that the legal descriptions are merely from western developments of the NT. This particular discussion is simply about the legal aspects of the atonement, so telling someone that their discussion about the legal aspects of the atonement focuses too much on the legal aspects of the atonement seems a little strange.

I'm not accusing Wink of that.

In my view, the legal aspects of sacrifice/reconciliation/atonement presupposes a relational/personal aspect, not vice-versa.

Of course there is legal metaphor in the NT, but my problem with the western tradition is that it gave legal ideas too much prominence with the result that salvation tended to become about avoiding a penalty for sin, whereas the eastern view focused more on salvation as theosis, and (in my view) more strongly retained the NT eschatological hope that all things would be made new and God would be all in all, which the fully intended scope of salvation.

Not related to Wink specifically of course, but it's a wider concern about atonement discussions in general which never seem to get beyond debates on punishment/justice/wrath etc, though they are of course important.

I'm gonna have to agree with Sven here. The legal presumes the relational. Or to put it another way, we must understand the legal in terms of the relational. That's why I've tried to use a more expansive meaning of Grace and have tired in the past to emphasize a more expansive view of Justice.

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