Learning More About Covenant Grace

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.

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Are You Proud of Your Christianity?

Have you ever caught yourself thinking it’s great that you aren’t like all those people who don’t know the Lord? Ever patted yourself on the back, glad you have a special truth most other people don’t know about? Or been proud that you’re one of the few God chose to make a Christian?

The truths God has revealed to us are precious. But God didn’t give them to us because we’re anything special or because we have some innate ability to live a holier life than other people. He’s not out to make us proud of our moral or spiritual superiority. In fact, pride is hateful to God (Prov. 6:16-17; 16:5).

I’m sure most of us don’t go around with an attitude that intentionally says, “Look at me! I’m such a very good Christian and I’m better than other people.” But I also think that it’s easy for us to slip into a habit of acting as if we think something very similar. We set up an “us versus them” in our minds where we’re the ones with special knowledge and all the people who don’t believe what we do are in some way less than us. And that’s not a good place to start if we want to reach out to people in a godly way. Read more

Thanksgiving and Praise

There really isn’t a word for “thank” in the Old Testament. When worlds like “thanks” or “thanksgiving” appear in English versions of Hebrew scripture, they’re translated from words with the primary meaning of praise and/or confession. It’s a different thing than what we mean when we say “thank you” in English.

Much like we saw last week in the New Testament connection between thanksgiving and grace, the concept of thanks in the Old Testament is inextricably linked to confession, praise, and sacrifice. There’s something more/different going on in these words than we might think just reading it in translation.

Confession, Praise, Sacrifice

The Hebrew word yadah (H3034) is a root with the primary meaning of “to acknowledge or confess.” It is used in three main ways: to confess individual or national sins, to proclaim or declare God’s attributes and works, and to convey man’s praise of men. Its derivative todah (H 8426) has a similar meaning and it is also used of the sacrifices connected to praise and thanksgiving.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving (todah), his courts with praise. Give thanks (yadah) to him; bless his name. (Ps. 100:4, LEB)

Yadah and todah in relation to God are about confessing or acknowledging something that is true. We can confess that we are sinful before God, as all are (Rom. 3:23). We can also confess that God is worthy of all praise, exhalation, and thanks (2 Sam. 22:50). In fact, yadah “is one of the key words for ‘praise'” in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s rendered thanks only because “praise leads regularly to thanksgiving” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 847). Read more

Thanksgiving And Grace

There’s a deep scriptural connection between thankfulness and grace. While it’s obvious that we should be thankful for God’s grace, what’s not so obvious in English is how closely the two concepts are linked by the Greek language that God picked for writing the New Testament. Here’s an example:

the service of this ministry is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but also is overflowing through many expressions of thanksgiving (eucharistia) to God. Through the proven character of this service they will glorify God because of the submission of your confession to the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your participation toward them and toward everyone, and they are longing for you in their prayers for you, because of the surpassing grace (charis) of God to you. Thanks (charis) be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:12-15, LEB)

The Greek word charis (G5485) is typically translated “grace.” We usually define it as “unmerited favor.” It can also indicate what grace causes – joy, favor, gratification, acceptance, benefits, thanks, and gratitude. It’s etymological relatives eucharistos (G2170), eucharisteo (G2168), and eucharistia (G2169) are the words for thanks, thankfulness, and thanksgiving.

Direction of Grace

As I read through the Bible verses where charis appears, a pattern emerges in the translations. If charis is shown by God to man we call it grace (e.g. John 1:16-17). If charis is shown by man toward God we call it thanks (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:57). If charis is shown between men it’s a favor or credit (Luke 6:32-34; Acts 24:27), thanks (Luke 17:9), or occasionally a chance to minister grace (Eph. 4:29).

Receiving the grace of God should make us respond with something so similar, so closely connected, it can be called by the same word, charis. More commonly, though, “thanks” is translated from a word made by combining “eu” and “charis.” The word eu (G2095) means “good” or “well.” Literally, the combined word means “well favored,” though we usually take the implied meaning “to be grateful” or “thankful” (Strong’s on G2170, eucharistos). Read more

Approaching The King: Keys To Entering God’s Presence

Suppose you’ve been invited to meet the Queen of England. You don’t just walk in, wave, and say, “Hey there Elizabeth.” There are rules, protocol, and etiquette. You should bring a gift, remember to use the right form of address (“Your Majesty” first, then “ma’am”), and not turn reach out and touch her. These days, you won’t get in too much trouble for a slip in convention. But there have been many countries and many times throughout history that approaching royalty in the wrong way could get you killed.

Traditionally, people have recognized something special about royalty. Part of this was religious — rulers were seen as gods, or representatives of the gods, or appointed by God. It’s also a matter of recognizing and respecting an authority role.  Even in countries without a monarchy, we’ll still tend to recognize that some social positions command a certain amount of respect (i.e. you won’t talk with your boss the same way as a close friend and you’d probably show the President even more respect).

Approaching The King: Keys To Entering God's Presence | marissabaker.wordpress.com
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A Question From God

The Bible applies several titles to God that demand respect, including Father, Master, Lord, and King. But do we take them seriously? Historically, God’s people have fallen short in this regard.

A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, then where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? Says Yahweh of Armies to you, priests, who despise my name. (Mal. 1:6, WEB)

Yes, God loves you and He wants to be your friend. But we’re not to forget who He is and the respect due Him. “‘For I am a great King,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘and my name is awesome among the nations’.” (Mal. 1″14, WEB). God deserves more respect than worldly authority figures, but do we even give Him that much? Read more

I’m A Christian … Now What?

What do you do after becoming a Christian? You’ve acknowledged your need for a savior, repented of your past sins, confessed Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and received the gift of God’s grace. The foundations are in place. Now what?

There are some Christians, even Christian teachers, who don’t really know how to answer this question. Those who teach we have no role to play in our salvations and that nothing’s expected of us after conversion are left in a tough pickle. One could, according to this theory, have someone convert to Christianity then go out lying, sleeping around, and stealing but still be considered saved as a part of God’s family. And even the good people who wouldn’t dream of doing something like that are still left with the question, “What do I do now?”

God answers this question for us in the pages of His Bible. You can’t do anything to make God owe you salvation; it is a gift that He chooses to give freely to those who respond to His call. But once you’ve been given this gift your life is supposed to change. Salvation transforms the way you live and gives us a purpose.

I'm A Christian ... Now What? | marissabaker.wordpress.com
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Choose A Way

In Acts, Christians are described as people who follow “the way” of the Lord (Acts 9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). It’s a metaphorical use of the Greek word hodos (G3598), meaning “a course of conduct.” When used literally, hodos refers to the roadway you travel on a journey. In both cases, use of this word implies motion, travel, and activity.

Christians aren’t meant to stagnate. They’re meant to walk through life in a certain way. We get to choose whether we’ll walk in the ways of men or the way of God. And God’s instructions in the New Testament for how to walk look a  lot like His laws about how to behave from the Old Testament. The law can’t bring salvation and it was never intended to. But it was a revelation of God’s character and He hasn’t changed. Our conduct still matters to Him.

Ephesians is a fantastic place to start diving deeper into this topic.  Here, Paul reminds his readers that they “once walked according to the course of this world.” They were “children of disobedience” influenced by God’s adversary and acting in ways contrary to God’s teachings (Eph. 2:2-3, WEB).

But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)(Eph. 2:4-5, WEB)

Trespasses — sin — kills people. That’s why the choice of whether or not to follow God has always been presented as a choice between life and death (Deut. 30:15-18). Grace lets us choose life even after we’ve done things worthy of death. But it doesn’t give us license to sin or permission to sit around twiddling our thumbs. Read more