There’s a fascinating relationship between God’s grace and the covenants He makes with people. Until the 5th century (when theologians brought Neo-Platonic philosophy into their interpretation of scriptures), Greek and Roman literature and early Judeo-Christian writings saw charis (grace) as something both relational and reciprocal (Schmidt, p. 201-202). The idea of “grace” as a free gift that God is obligated to give without having any expectations of the recipients was not originally part of the Greek language or of Christianity. Rather, there was a fuller, richer meaning to charis that Jesus, Paul, and other Bible writers used.
I’ve been reading a book on this topic by Brent J. Schmidt, who holds a PhD in classics, called Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (2015). His scholarship on the original meaning of charis is fascinating, but even without that background we can still see that grace comes with expectations. For example, Jesus said the one who “endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22, WEB) and that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20, WEB). We’re saved by God’s grace, and then He expects us to act in a certain way (with His power supporting us, of course).
The Bible talks about Christian conversion as a process and tells us that relationships with God require continued faithfulness. Yet the popular definition of grace in many modern churches still says grace is unmerited favor that God gives without expectation of anything in return. Trying to make these two ideas fit together is confusing, and it’s a problem first-century Christians didn’t have to deal with because they had a different definition for grace.
Ancient Understandings of Charis
Several centuries before Christ’s first coming and until at least the 4th century after, charis was understood as something that involved obligation and reciprocity (Schmidt, ch. 2 and 3). This meaning infused Greek, Roman, Jewish, and later Christian society to the point that everyone knew “receiving charis implied entering into reciprocal covenantal relationships” (p. 63).
Jews knew about covenantal relationships from the Bible. Every commandment was a covenant with God. Several stories, including Joseph, Moses, and David, associate the concepts of grace and mercy with covenants. Greek-speaking Jews lived in a culture that depended heavily on reciprocal relationships and understood what charis meant. When Paul taught them using the words charis, they would have understood that by accepting God’s grace they were making covenantal obligations.Brent Schmidt, Relational Grace, p. 64
When Jesus Christ came to earth, one of the things that He did was establish a New Covenant on better promises and with a different sort of sacrifice. The Old Covenant was “completely unable … to perfect those who come to worship” (Heb 10:1, NET). In contrast, Jesus took away sin completely, giving us an incredible gift for us that we could never deserve nor repay. When we accept this “charis,” we enter a covenant with Him and His Father.
For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy. And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws on their hearts and I will inscribe them on their minds,” then he says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer.” Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.Hebrews 10:14-16, NET (OT quotes bolded in this translation)
Grace is so closely connected with covenants that treating “the blood of the covenant ” as “an unholy thing” means someone has “insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). Covenants and laws don’t vanish after Christ’s sacrifice–they move to a heart and spirit level. We can see this in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where He talks about the deeper, spiritual, enduring applications of God’s law. Paul also talks about this shift from flesh-level to spirit-level in detail when he’s talking about law and covenants.
Grace in Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Shifting our definition of grace to align with the one Paul and his audience would have used gives us a better idea of how to properly interpret Paul’s letters. One of the best places to see that is in Romans 6. Here, Paul talks about how we are “not under law but under grace” (v. 14, NET). This verse and others like it are often read out of context, but if you read the surrounding text the reciprocal and obligatory aspects of charis are easy to see. This is a very long quote, but I think it’s important to look at the whole thing to get enough context to understand Paul’s words.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness. For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness.
So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:12-23, NET
Many translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave,” but doulos is best translated either as “bondservant” or “slave.” Being bound to serve the Lord in this way was seen as an “honor and a privilege” in the Jewish mindset (NET footnote on Rom. 1:1). It’s a very different sort of thing than slavery in the modern sense. In fact, at the time Paul was writing, the “asymmetrical social relationships between patron and client and between master and salve were founded on the reciprocal notion of charis” (Schmidt, p. 95). When Paul talks of slavery, he’s talking about us being obligated to God for His gifts and bound in a covenant with Him that has expectations.
Living by God’s Spirit
When Jesus healed a man in Bethesda who’d been sick for 38 years, He told the man, “Behold you are made well. Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:1-14, WEB). It’s similar to what He told the woman caught in adultery (a story that’s not in the earliest manuscripts but is traditionally included with John’s gospel): “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more” (John 8:11, WEB). In one case, Jesus provided physical healing and in the other He freed her from being condemned to death. After giving these gifts, He told both people that they should respond by doing something specific: stop living a life of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.Romans 8:1-4, NET
The Father and Son have given us incredible gifts. They’ve saved us from sin, adopted us into their family “with full rights of inheritance” (NET footnote on 8:15), and offer continued forgiveness so long as we do our best to follow Them and repent when we miss the mark. In response, “we are under obligation” to live a life lead by God’s spirit (Rom 8:12-14, NET). Being in a reciprocal covenant of grace is not about earning salvation or trying to pay back an impossible debt. It’s about having the right response of thankfulness to the incredible things God has done for us by welcoming us into His family. The more we can learn about that, the deeper relationship we can have with Him.
Featured image by José Roberto Roquel via Lightstock