In a State of (Confused) Grace

Grace is one of the most powerful and evocative words in Christian lingo, but if you ask Christians to define it properly most of them will scratch their heads. Very likely, they’ll try to use it in a sentence. In my experience, three types of use emerge.

The first (and most evangelical) is to speak of grace as forgiveness. We see this in prayers that begin with the words, “Our Gracious Heavenly Father;” we see it when people claim, “If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s present when others reflect that “there but for the grace of God go I.” In each of these phrases, grace means something like forgiveness. We pray to the God who is forgiving, we acknowledge that if it weren’t for forgiveness we wouldn’t be here, and we claim that without the experience of forgiveness we might be a lot more rotten. Grace is forgiveness.


The second (and most Catholic) is to speak of grace as a state of sinlessness. We use grace this way when we hear about someone being “in a state of grace.” Mary, addressed by Gabriel, is called “full of grace,” and Catholic theology typically interprets this to mean that she possessed a special sinless state (which made it possible for her to carry the Christ child). Formally, sacramental theology holds that the performance of the sacraments (eucharist, baptism, etc.) are visible signs of invisible grace. The performance of baptism removes the stain of original sin (restoring the infant to a state of grace); the regular performance of the eucharist restores the person to union with Christ and the state of grace that is consonant with that union. Grace is sinlessness.

A third (and more universal) way to speak of grace is to evoke a kind of goodness, generosity, elegance, or noblesse. Perhaps you’ve heard someone exclaim, after experiencing some unexpected good, “Well, that’s a grace!” Or perhaps you’ve seen an excellent dancer and remarked, “What grace!” You may have heard someone describe another person as a gracious host, or a house as a gracious house. The word ‘grace’ in each case evokes this sense. Interestingly, the word noblesse originally referred to nobility from a foreign country—in this respect, the grace of Christian persons is the representation of their foreign (heavenly) manners and sensibilities. Such a person embodies a goodness, a generosity, and an elegance that is otherworldly, therefore gracious.

Amy Adams as "Julie Powell" in Columbia Pictures' Julie & Julia.

There is enough variety between these three conceptions of grace to suggest that none of the three captures the essential heart of whatever ‘grace’ means. Sinlessness, forgiveness, and noblesse are similar, but not the same thing. So, what definition of grace gets at the heart of grace, without excluding these other interpretations?

A classic, Protestant, Sunday School definition of grace can be found in the following acronym: Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. I must admit that I’ve always found this definition somehow lacking. First of all, it is difficult to conceive. What are the riches? Are they all at Christ’s expense? Was no grace possible before Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead? It also seems conceptually cumbersome to plug it into scripture that utilizes the word grace. Consider the opening prayer: “Our [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] Heavenly Father.” This now seems strange and redundant. Or, to speak of a host, “He’s a very [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] host.” This seems to render excessively theological the duties of hospitality. The most sensible exchange, perhaps ironically for Protestants, would be Gabriel’s: “Hail Mary, full of [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense].” On this reading Mary, somehow, receives the merits of salvation prior to Christ’s death and resurrection.

A friend of mine alerted me to another common definition of grace—this time in contrast to mercy. It goes like this:

–> Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.

–> Grace is getting something we don’t deserve.

gavel_2To a degree, this is fair enough—on account of God’s mercy, humans in Christ are not punished for their sins. On account of God’s grace, humans in Christ receive an unmerited salvation. (Grace as “unmerited favour” is another classic definition of the term.) But I want to observe that these definitions rely quite heavily on their situation within a law court. Mercy and Grace are given tactile meaning by means of their interpretation with exclusive respect to sin and forgiveness. Is there no grace where there is no sin? If graciousness is an attribute of God, does our lack of sin limit His capacity to express that attribute? If mercy is an attribute of God, does it depend on sinners—on human failure—to activate? The law court appears to rely too heavily on a temporary human state to provide a suitable basis for our definition of grace (and of mercy as well).

In the New Testament, of course, the word we translate grace is charis, and its definition is ‘favour’—and yet it is favour in a very specific sense of social exchange. In the patronage system of the ancient world, to receive the favour of a superior often meant the reception of a gift, in exchange for which the recipient would render service. The link between the two concepts is further enshrined in the relationship between the words “charis” and “charismata”—the first is favour, the second is the explicit gifts given in favour (explicitly in the New Testament, the gifts of the Spirit). We still retain a semblance of these meanings when we remember that the Latin translation of charis becomes gratis, from which we derive our words grace, gratitude (thankfulness for a gift), gratuity (a gift given in exchange for service), and gratuitous (a gift exceeding what is required or expected). Gifts, and gift giving, in relationships with obligations, are at the heart of the meaning of the word grace. In view of this, a passage such as Ephesians 2:8 may take on some interesting nuance: “For by grace (charis) you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift (doron) of God.” God, in patron relationship with His people, offers them favour in the form of a specific gift. We get salvation, God gets something in return.

Viking Gold_

Famously, ancient tribes would trade gold for service. You can read about it in Beowulf, and then remember that Christian covenants aren’t all that different…

I am convinced that the primary frame for understanding the nature of grace is not the law court, but covenant. John Levenson has written compellingly in his book The Love of God about the nature of Hebrew (and ancient near eastern) covenants, how they make explicit the terms and conditions of relationship between suzerain lord and vassal. The Lord offers certain benefits to the vassal—protection, companionship, financial benefits, and in exchange it is quite common for the vassal to promise love in return. In a covenant context, God offers His people gifts (charis, charismata), and the people offer God love and service in return.

This situation seems to make a great deal of sense out of the New Testament account of God’s grace and the human response to that grace. God, in Christ, has established a new covenant with the people of the earth. God will be our God, and we will be His people. He, showing the favour of a liege lord to His people, gifts us with forgiveness (so that we can stay in His presence), with his Spirit (so that we can be equipped for His service), with new hearts (so that we can fulfill the covenant stipulations), and He effects all of this through the gift of Himself through the Son (Who makes all this possible). In a covenant frame, grace is the favour and gifting of God which, being received by His covenant people, demands a response of covenant love and obedience.


Grace, then, is favours/gifts from God which demand love and obedience. It follows that all things have the potential to be grace, if they are received rightly. Life itself, as a gift from God, is a grace the acknowledgement of which demands new love and obedience. Every instantiation of beauty, received as grace, is an apprehension of something which demands love and obedience. And, if we are to take Job as our guide, in an astonishing way every experience of horror—so received as if from God—can also be interpreted as a demand for love and obedience (“Shall we accept good from His hand, and not ill?” Job 2:10). Furthermore, a covenant frame for grace can contain all of our common understandings of grace—within the covenant, of course forgiveness is a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); sinlessness is also a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); and noblesse is a mode of grace (the witness of which also demands our love, obedience, and imitation).

Fuzzy definitions make fuzzy Christians. A good definition of grace should equip us to better fulfill our obligations as recipients of God’s favours. And, if we believe that all of life is a gift, then to live rightly in response to it is to embody the very nature of grace—covenant people receiving gifts and returning love, obedience, and gratitude.

The Good and Bad News of Christmas: A Meditation on Mary’s Magnificat

Edman ChapelIt is 1999, and I am sitting in my first course at Wheaton College. It is Greek 101, and I am in an obscure classroom in the Edman Chapel tower. Dr. Scott Hafemann is energetically bouncing around the front of the room, brilliantly inhabiting the dikaiosune of God, the power of the Reformation, the thrill of Greek, and the abundant joy higher learning. I am hooked.

The “verse of the year” was Psalm 103:1, and our Greek professors jointly agreed that we should memorize it from the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament). I’ve forgotten many things, but those words are emblazoned in my mind: Eulogei he psuche mou ton kyrion kai panta ta entos mou to onoma to hagion autou—Bless the Lord, O My Soul, and all that is within me bless His Holy Name.

It is 2013, and I am sitting in my office, preparing a sermon on Mary’s Magnificat. I take out my Greek Bible, well-used, and turn to Luke 1:46. Suddenly, reading Mary’s song, I’m back in that obscure tower reciting verses in Greek, because Mary begins her song like this: Megalunei he psuche mou ton kyrion kai egalliasen to pneuma mou. Echoes, references, allusions. I check, and every major translation offers some version of, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” but what was self-evident to me—what is self-evident to me—is that Mary is clearly quoting, or referencing, the Psalms in her song. It should read, “Magnify the Lord, O My Soul,” because Mary is adapting Psalm 103 as she praises the Lord in Luke 1.

As I looked closer, evidence mounted that this was the right line of inquiry. In verse 50 of her song Mary quotes Psalm 103:17. Then in verse 53 she quotes from Psalm 107:9. And this means that whatever meaning we draw from Mary’s song must be intimately linked to the message of the Psalms.

When we look closer at these two Psalms, the shape of Mary’s praise becomes even more clear. Consider the message of Psalm 103. You can read the first fourteen verses of it here (NASB):

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.

The Lord performs righteous deeds
And judgments for all who are oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses,
His acts to the sons of Israel.
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
14 For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.

The God, Mary claims, Who does these things is doing them in me. The God Who pardons, heals, redeems, crowns, and satisfies, is performing those actions in me. The God Who works mighty deeds, rescues the oppressed, has revealed Himself in history, is compassionate, gracious, slow in anger, abounding in love, Who removes our transgressions from us and restores us to Himself, is performing these actions in me. This God, who does These Things, is doing them Right Now. And this is profoundly Good News. So Mary sings a song about it.

Psalm 107 gives Mary even more reasons to praise the Lord. Below are the first nine verses (NASB):

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary
And gathered from the lands,
From the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south.

They wandered in the wilderness in a desert region;
They did not find a way to an inhabited city.
They were hungry and thirsty;
Their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble;
He delivered them out of their distresses.
He led them also by a straight way,
To go to an inhabited city.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
For He has satisfied the thirsty soul,
And the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.

Psalm 107 opens with a statement about the love and power of the Lord, Who redeems His people, and gathers them back from their adversaries. In Scripture-speak, to gather is always good news; it is the opposite of scatter, which is the horrible business of losing your home, your king, your people, and your temple because of God’s judgment upon your infidelity. It is, in summary, the language of exile. Mary, in other words, voicing the heart of a first century Jew, sees herself as in the land but still in spiritual exile. She and her people are back home, but still not right with the Lord (otherwise, how could Herod, an Edomite, be king? And those Romans?!).

Jesus Calming the Storm

Hint Hint.

After this opening statement Psalm 107 walks through a series of four cycles—four groups of people who find themselves in trouble. Wanderers in the wilderness (verse 4—exile!), prisoners who have rebelled against God’s word (verse 10), the sick who are afflicted because of their rebellion (verse 17), and those who go in search of wealth on the seas (verse 23). Each group is brought to frustration, and at their point of despair each group “cried out to the Lord in their distress” (verses 6, 13, 19, and 28). Upon crying out, the Lord rescues them.

Mary’s message? The God who does this—the God who rescues His people, even from their own folly and rebellion, is rescuing them even now in her. This God, the rescuing God, the God Who hears the cries of His people, the God Who answers the afflicted, is answering His people once again, right now, in me. The God who returns His people from exile and restores to them their rightful king is bringing about the birth of that king, the agent of perfect justice and righteousness, in me. Mary has good reason to praise the Lord, and so her soul magnifies the Lord, and does it in a profoundly psalmic kind of way.

I wanted to capture the ‘psalmic’ quality of Mary’s song—which I think is missing startlingly from modern translations—so I’ve made a pass at retranslating the Magnificat. Naturally, I’ve had to take a couple of liberties for the sake of clarity, but I think this version, both in format and content, captures nicely the essential and psalmic message of Mary’s song. I offer it to you below.

Magnify the Lord, O my soul!
Rejoice, O my spirit, in God my Savior!
Because He regards the humility of His servant girl;
For behold! – from now all on all generations will bless me
Because He has done for me great things,
      The Mighty One
      And His Holy Name
      And His mercy to generations and generations of those who fear Him.
Power works through his arm
     He scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
     He removes rulers from thrones
     He exalts the humble
     The hungry He fills with good
     The wealthy He dismisses empty
     He is helping His child Israel, remembering mercy,
          Just as He said to our fathers
          To Abraham and his seed for eternity.

The rhetoric of the “mighty arm’ stretches across the Ancient Near East. This Pharaoh even had his arm-deed engraved in stone!

Observe how the two parts of Mary’s Psalm echo nicely the two Psalms that are her source material. In the first part she speaks to the compassion of the God who saves, uplifting His character as the God Whose mercy is to generations of those who fear Him. This God has ordained that He will accomplish His mighty works through the womb of Mary, and because of this all generations will call her blessed. Then, in the second part, Mary documents some of the mighty deeds of God—echoing the mighty acts of rescue performed in Psalm 107. The word for “power” in Greek is kratos—it denotes not merely power, but the working of mighty deeds. They are worked en—that is through, or by means of—God’s arm. What follows, then, is the list of these actions performed through God’s arm, a documentation of God’s mighty deeds: God’s power scatters, removes, exalts, fills, dismisses, helps, and remembers.

Why, then, does Mary sing this song? What is the Good News that makes her burst into song? It is, in short, the Good News that the God who does these things—the God who has delayed, the God who has promised—the God of compassion and restoration from Psalm 103 and the God who answers human need from Psalm 107—is finally accomplishing those promises. What is more, this God, Who does these kinds of things, is doing this good work in Mary. Everyone, from now on, will be affected by what God is doing in Mary. So Mary sings about it.

This prompts a more serious question. Is this Good News to you? Are you the kind of person who gets exited about these promises? Can you see yourself in this song? In short, is the gospel Good News for you?

Look closely at Mary’s song for a moment:

Because God scatters the proud, the Gospel is not for those who are proud.
Because God reduces rulers, the Gospel is not for those who rule.
Because God exalts the humble, the Gospel is for the humble.
Because God fills the hungry, the Gospel is not for those who are full.
Because God sends the rich away empty handed, the Gospel is not for the rich.
Because God rescues His people, the Gospel is for those who call on God as their Lord.

Do you qualify?

At this point I am reminded of Jesus’ fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

Not blessed, in other words, are those who are rich now.
Not blessed, in other words, are those who sit in power now.
Not blessed, in other words, are those who are content now.
Not blessed, in other words, are those who are proud and self-satisfied in their hearts now.

The Gospel, in sum, is not for people who are content with the status quo.

The rich, the proud, the rulers—they are people who have adapted themselves and their ethics to the status quo. They have found their place in the world. They have a vested interest in preserving that space, in holding on to their territory, in keeping what they have. To such people the coming of King Jesus is a threat, an unsettling, a shuffling about. His arrival is world-changing, wealth-changing, power-dynamic shifting. And to any person who has accommodated his life to the status quo, the coming of Jesus will be profoundly judging.

I studied under and worked for Darrell Johnson while I was at Regent College, and he used to talk about his time as a pastor at Union Church in Manila. He was there during the Marcos Dictatorship, and several pastors and high ranking military officers advised him to stay away from preaching the Magnificat. Why? Because they understood, implicitly, that the words of Mary’s song challenge the status quo. These are fighting words against the existing power of the world.

Do you have power now? Jesus is coming to take your power away.
Do you have wealth now? Jesus is coming to redistribute your wealth.
Are you self-satisfied now? Jesus is coming to destroy your contentment.
And all of this because the Good News is bad news to people who like the status quo.

The true exposes the false.

The true exposes the false.

Consider it this way—the coming of Jesus is the revelation of the true. His revelation reveals what is real. When we see him it is like seeing a perfectly straight line—the only one of its kind. A friend of mine likes to say that the plumb line of Jesus Christ exposes the scoliosis of our souls; in light of his standard, every one of us comes up crooked. However, if you like being crooked, if you have made a life’s habit of telling yourself that crooked is really straight… in that case, Jesus’ Good News is going to be terribly Bad News for you.

Ultimately, what this means is that the Good News is for the needy. It is for those who need God; for those who are unhappy with the status quo. The Good News, echoing Psalm 107, is for those who cry out to the Lord in their need—not for those who can trust in their power, their fullness, their self-sufficiency, and their wealth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—those who choose to suffer for what is right; those who refuse to compromise with what is wrong in the world. Blessed is the man, woman, and child who willingly embraces neediness for the sake of God’s justice.

And so I ask again, is the Gospel Good News for you? Are you able to hear Mary’s song and enter into it with celebration? Or does Mary’s song place you on the judgment side of the coming of Christ?

If the answer is ‘yes’—and for most of us living in North America it very well may be yes by default—then we’re not without hope. God is faithful, according to Psalm 107, even to those who by their own ignorance and foolishness have crafted their own prisons. What can we do, then? How do we get on the right side of the gospel?

1. We can reject pride and self-sufficiency.

This is the beginning of the Gospel. The First Beatitude states that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Blessed, in other words, are those who are needy for God. How can we become needy? We can fast, pray, give sacrificially, serve, and abandon self-righteousness. Through and alongside these, we can recognize a critical fact: if you have power, acknowledge that power and use it for the benefit of others. Power is never yours to possess and hoard; power must always be employed in obedient service to God.

2. We must Fear the Lord

Honor Him Who is Holy with your life and conduct. Honor Him with your whole mind, body, soul, and strength. Make the Fear of God the guiding principle of every action, choice, belief, meeting, deed, and so forth. Am I fearing God when I drive? When I type? When I talk to my wife? When I discipline my kids? When I’m online? When I’m at the water cooler? When I watch movies or television? When I visit with friends? When I spend my money? When we reverence the Lord like this it changes our perspective, especially because questions of conduct are not based on what is expedient, but rather on what is God-honoring. Am I doing what is convenient, or what is right? The answers will be life-altering.

3. Believe

Belief changes you. It is the place where God’s power invades and manifests itself in your life. In this, Mary is a paragon of faith. Consider her prayer at Luke 1:38, after the angel Gabriel had announced his marvelous news: “May it be to me according to your word.” We believe after the pattern of Mary. We are exposed to the word of the Lord—both His words of judgment and of grace—and we say in response to His revealed word, “May it be to me according to your word.” In this kind of belief there is a fundamental acceptance of God; a foundational confession that His way is true and right; an existential self-anchoring on the revealed salvation and work of God in Christ Jesus. In this way we allow God to do the work of making you the kind of person for whom the Gospel is Good News.

Then, rejecting pride, fearing the Lord, and believing—Christ is born in us anew, as he was born in Mary all those years ago, to reign as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords forever. May he be born anew in all our hearts both this day and every! Hodie Christus natus est!