Have you noticed that theological discussions about grace almost always tend to include questions about conversion? What I mean is that they often center around the process by which someone moves from hostility towards God to desiring him. In particular, the Christian understands this as coming to faith in God and his gospel.
In Protestant circles the debate about the “doctrines of grace” is about the extent and nature of man’s inability to turn to God by himself, God’s supernatural act to overcome this inability, and the relation all of this has to free will and predestination. In Roman Catholic circles we see something similar, albeit with slightly different distinctions and approaches. St. Aquinas, for instance, speaks of grace as that by which God supernaturally moves man inwardly to the assent of faith. Naturally, such language raises questions of man’s free will in the matter which led to much debate — most notably between the Banezians and the Molinists — and which continues to be discussed today. We can take it back even further: St. Augustine also discusses grace and free will in these terms, and he was around all the way back in the 4th century.
Why do I raise this? Well, because it seems to me that when St. Paul talks about grace he is rather indifferent to questions about conversion. Now technically, there’s nothing wrong with certain debates throughout the centuries using slightly different vocabulary to Paul in the first century; so long as we make the necessary distinctions it won’t get in the way of our understanding of Scripture. The problem, however, is that we don’t make these distinctions, and so it does get in the way of our understanding.
Before we proceed I should make the following disclaimer: I’m in no way discrediting the topics mentioned above as legitimate and important avenues of theological discussion. I myself have drawn much value from them. I’m just interested in the exegetical question.
It should not be forgotten that Paul was a Jew and so his theology was informed generally by Jewish thought, and particularly by the Old Testament. There is sometimes a tendency to separate New Testament from Old, but unless we have some principled reason for doing so I see no reason why we should. Jesus and the apostles did not understand Jesus’ ministry to have overthrown the old covenants, but rather as something that fulfilled them.
Now, in the Old Testament God’s sovereignty — his guidance of human actions and history — is taken for granted and considered as something obvious and foundational, without much need for exposition. God’s actions are primarily depicted in more “external” terms, such as judging Israel or the other nations, and attempting to convince Israel to return to him. Generally the Old Testament authors focus on human motivations and responsibility for their actions, and only every now and then do they add a throw-away comment about God’s sovereign activity in the background. And only a handful of these could be construed as God’s sovereign role in Israel’s turning to him from their sinful rejection of him. These just aren’t considered pressing questions for these authors.
What is a pressing question — and one which comes up all the time — is whether God will accept them back if they choose to repent. Whether, after rejecting him and returning, he will accept them again and forgive their earlier offense. There’s nothing saying he must forgive them, of course: just as someone who commits a crime is not absolved of it merely by choosing to act like a respectable citizen from that moment onwards, so neither is someone who turns to seek God thereby absolved of their previous sin.
With this we’ve stumbled across an important distinction, the blurring of which is at the heart of our tendency to include questions about conversion with questions about grace: on the one hand someone turns to seek God, and on the other God forgives and accepts them. It seems to me that when Paul discusses grace and related topics he follows the Old Testament in being primarily interested in the second of these issues. We, on the other hand, are often interested in the first. In this sense, then, it seems we’ve gotten things backwards.
Before we continue, let’s try get more clear on what we’re talking about. Grace is the solution to a problem, and we’re trying to get at what the authors of Scripture thought this problem was. On the one hand there’s the problem of how someone converts, that is how they turn from rejecting God to desiring him. On the other hand there’s the problem, even once someone has turned to God, of how they become reconciled to him. Let’s call these the inability problem and the alienation problem respectively.
Now we restate everything I’ve been saying with the help of this clarification. For a long time now discussions about grace have had the problem of inability at a fairly central place, while the authors of Scripture seem to be more interested in the problem of alienation.
We can begin to see all of this from a number of interconnected perspectives. Grace is closely related to a number of important notions at the center of Christian theology, like justification and the work of the Holy Spirit, and so a complete discussion would need to include something on these other notions. Here we will confine ourselves to what Paul says more or less directly about grace, with the hopes of looking at the other notions in more depth some other time. We’ll focus our attention here closely on what Paul says in two of his letters: Romans and Ephesians.
Starting with Romans, a brief summary is in order. In the opening chapters Paul seeks to establish that everyone is under sin and thereby alienated from God. By itself this wouldn’t have been surprising to his Jewish audience, who were familiar with the notion that the nations were alienated from God. They were the exception to this, however, because they were God’s chosen people: God had made a covenant with them (the sign of which was circumcision), and given them the law by which they could know and do his will. To their surprise, though, Paul goes on to include the Jews in his indictment. It is indeed to their advantage that they had all these things (3:1ff), but the law and circumcision themselves are not sufficient. Paul here echoes the prophets (cf. Micah 3, Isaiah 58) in criticizing the tendency to presume upon these Jewish sacraments without actually following through on them in their actions. The fundamental thing needed is a change of heart — returning to God — which we trust will be graciously accepted by God (cf. Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 51, Hosea 14). The law and circumcision are not unrelated to this, of course: circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and the law gives the expression and end of this changed heart. But neither of these things in themselves are the grounds for their right-standing. Indeed, of itself, the law does not solve the problem of sin but only casts it in clearer light. (3:19-20)
It’s important for Paul in these opening chapters that everyone be found in the same boat. The Christians in Rome were divided over the place of the law and circumcision in the Christian life, since up until recently these had been defining features of God’s people. Paul’s point is that they of themselves do nothing to make one part of God’s people.
This sets the stage, then, for Paul’s proposal. While the law is not the solution to universal human alienation from God through sin, it does point to the solution: the person and work of Jesus the Christ. As he goes on to say, both Jew and Gentile “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:23-25)
The first thing to notice is that the grace Paul has in mind is received by faith, as opposed to being the cause of faith. Second, it would miss the overall thrust of Paul’s argument to think of this grace as that which causes some kind of desire for God. The Jew who mistakenly boasts in God on the basis of the law (2:17) desires God; his problem is his basis for boasting in God. Paul’s point is that because the law (and circumcision) does not form such a basis, it should also not be causing these divisions in the Roman church. Both Christian Jew and Gentile are right with God for the same reason: not because the Gentile has been circumcised and started following the distinctively Jewish laws (which would the just make him a Jew), but because both are justified through faith. Thus he continues, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (3:28-29) To cast this in terms of conversion just misses the point. His point is that if a Gentile seeks God he needn’t become a Jew, for this would make God the God of only the Jews. By grace, God overcomes the alienation of both Jew and Gentile through faith. That the person seeks God is assumed; it’s not taken to be the result of anything (at least not here).
The interpretation of these verses ripples through the remainder of the letter to the Romans. This is natural since Paul is starting in these early chapters the line of thought he will carry on through to the end. For our current purposes, perhaps one of the most interesting passages to look at in chapter 7:
Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (7:13-25)
There is much discussion about how best to interpret the perspective Paul is taking here. One option is that he’s talking about the Christian experience of the struggle with sin. It’s unclear, however, why sin would still produce death in a believer. Another option is that Paul is talking from the perspective of a Jew prior to the coming of Christ. It’s unclear, however, why Paul would speak in the present tense and why only now he takes this perspective (presumably he’s been speaking from the Christian perspective since at least 6:1).
I think both of these options are getting at something, but missing it slightly because each assumes the grace in question involves something like conversion. If we apply the correction we were talking about earlier, a nice third option becomes available: Paul is speaking from the perspective of the person who desires God — and who sees his law as good — but who is nonetheless alienated from God because of their sin. At this point he’s bracketing out the grace he’s mentioned before so that he can situate it as the solution he sees it as: the way a person who has turned to God but remains stained by sin, can be reconciled with God.
Put another way, we might say that Paul is considering two logically distinct stages in someone being made righteous through faith: the stage at which the person turns to God but is still under sin, and the stage at which God graciously accepts him and forgives his sin. The former stage takes up most of the space, and is summarized with the exasperated question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The latter stage let’s loose the solution Paul has been discussing for the past few chapters whereby he is able to exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
This passage is pivotal in Paul’s argument in chapters 5-8. In it he comes to the end of a dialectic he’s been following since the beginning of chapter 5, getting ever and ever more detailed about the relationship between notions like the law, grace, sin, death, and life. In chapter 8 he’ll address all of these in reverse order, “redressing” them appropriately in his account of God’s work at the cross. Take, for example, 8:31-39. Sometimes v35 is read in terms of inability, and so taken to be talking about Christians persevering in their faith. But if we consider the surrounding context as well as the context of the quote in v36, it becomes clear that it should be read in terms of alienation. The love of Christ, here, is expressed in his interceding for us, and Paul’s point is that nothing will get in the way of his doing this. This section “redresses” 5:1-2, in which Paul explains that through Christ our faith is enough to be right with God.
One more example of Paul’s focus on alienation: most of the discussion in Romans involves correcting the error of some of the Jewish Christians who were saying that something in addition to faith was necessary to deal with the alienation from God. Paul’s point is that this grace from God directly connects faith to reconciliation with him, so that nothing additional is needed and so there is nothing aside from God’s mercy that we can point to as the means by which we dealt with it. In Chapter 11, however, Paul briefly addresses an erroneous thought that might enter the Gentile’s mind as a result of this. He says,
… do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (11:18-23)
It is because we continue to trust in his dealing with the alienation, as opposed to us having fixed it somehow, that we continue to be grafted in. Notice towards the end that the grafting occurs logically after the belief, which doesn’t make sense if the problem in view is one of inability. The power (and grace) of God in focus is his ability to graft those who believe back in, ie. address their alienation from him and his people.
Let’s turn now to consider Ephesians more briefly. The passage I have in mind is Ephesians 2:1-10. Here Paul tells us that previously we were “dead in our trespasses” but that “by grace through faith” God has saved us. Here it is common to see people interpret the phrase “dead in our trespasses” as meaning that we are like corpses, incapable of turning to God. That is, they interpret the phrase to be a statement of the inability problem. In this case, God’s saving us “by grace through faith” refers to him giving us faith.
It seems to me, however, that this way of reading the passage divorces it from the broader Pauline context to which it belongs. When Paul talks about death in relation to sin or grace he has in mind a judgment or consequence, not an inability. Indeed, our from Romans 7 above is a clear example of this. To be sure, there are cases where Paul does use death to refer to inability — he speaks of Abraham as considering his body “as good as dead” in Romans 4 — but these cases are not discussing death in the context of sin or grace. Biologically speaking Paul understands that death is the greatest of all inabilities, but theologically speaking he uses it to refer to judgment or consequence, both of which are part the problem of alienation.
On an alienation reading, then, when Paul says that we were “dead in our trespasses” he means something like we were “under the reign of death” or we were “on the track to death.” And, importantly, this is true even if we’ve turned back to God since the stain of sin still alienates us from God. But he graciously saved us from this through Jesus, a grace we receive through faith. Paul is not here interested in our conversion per se, but in our movement from being worthy of judgment to being reconciled with God.
Besides making more sense in the broader Pauline context, there are three other reasons to prefer this alienation reading to the inability reading. First, Paul uses the phrase “dead in our trespasses” interchangeably with the phrase “children of wrath,” and the latter clearly refers to judgment. Second, Paul contrasts us being dead with us being “seated in the heavenly places” (v6), which is what we’d expect on the alienation reading, but not on the inability reading. Third, when Paul uses the phrase elsewhere it clearly refers to the alienation reading. In Colossians Paul says,
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. (2:13-14a)
Notice how God made us alive in this passage: by forgiving our sins. It is not by supernaturally enabling us to turn to him or by infusing us with faith, but by forgiving the thing keeping us alienated from him.
Coming back to the Ephesians passage, we have one more thing to comment on. Paul says towards the end that,
… by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (2:8-9)
On the inability reading, the gift is the faith. On the preferred alienation reading, the whole process is the gift: God’s grace in Jesus is received through faith. This has the advantage of cohering well with the parallel phrase in Romans 3 we discussed earlier, as well as connecting this gift in v8 with the discussion of the preceding verses about God’s grace. Paul is explaining to these people who desire God in their faith, that God has made a way for this to be enough to overcome the alienation of their sin. Nothing they did achieved this, it is was a gift from God.
We’ve examined two passages where Paul is talking explicitly about grace and seen that in neither case is he particularly interested in the question of conversion or the inability of us to turn to him. Paul is talking to people who now desire God and, reflecting on the Old Testament reassurances, is explaining how God has overcome the stain of sin in them and thereby reconciled them to himself. Just like the criminal’s repentance does not by itself undo their crimes, so neither does the sinners repentance by itself undo their sin. This is the problem Paul sees God’s grace solving. It is only because of God’s grace shown in the cross that this barrier can be overcome, and repentant sinners can be declared sons of God.
Had God not shown this grace, people might turn to him in faith but this would be in vain since they would still stand alienated from him. Indeed, there’s nothing they could do to change this since it’s a result of past sins and no-one can change the past. God’s grace bridges this gap and undoes the alienation for those who turn to him in faith. Now he waits for us to so turn. In this way, we receive this grace in faith.
- Contemporary authors that jump to mind are people like Michael Horton, John Piper, Roger Olson, and Kenneth Keathley.
- “Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.” (ST II-II Q6 A1 corp.)
- See, for instance, Bernard Longeran’s incredible (and equally intense) book Grace and Freedom, Harm Goris’ Free Creatures of an Eternal God, and Alfred Fredosso’s God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes.
- See, for instance, his De libero arbitrio, his De natura et gratia, and his De gratia Christi et de peccato originali. See Eleonore Stump’s Augustine on Free Will for a nice contemporary discussion on all of this.
- See, for example, Genesis 50:20, 1 Samuel 2:25, and Isaiah 63:17.
- Many of us will be familiar with the promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy 28-29, but we forget that after all this, in chapter 30, Moses reassures the Jews that after they’ve failed God and returned to him that he will mercifully restore their fortunes: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you… return to the Lord your God… and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you…” (30:1-3) Allusions to this promise from God appear throughout the Old Testament. See, for example, Psalm 32:1-2, 51:9, Isaiah 64:9, Ezekiel 18:21-23, and Zechariah 1:3.
- This the same problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. An example that jumps to mind is his criticism of the traditions of the Pharisees that were established under the pretense of serving God, but ended up merely undermining this purpose (cf. Mark 7:1-13). See also, this blog post.
- Perhaps people think in terms of conversion because in chapter 1 we have someone hostile to God. But this ignores chapter 2, where both Jew and Gentile seek to do Gods will.
- See, for example, Romans 1:32, 5:12, 6:21, 7:13-25, and Colossians 2:13-14. Note that in Ephesians 4:17-18, while he doesn’t use the word “dead,” he talks about “alienation from the life of God,” which fits well with my point here and plausibly refers back to what we was talking about here in Ephesians 2.
- This is not to say he is never interested in the question of conversion. It’s just not as prominent as some have come to think, and he doesn’t even use the word “grace” when discussing it. For example, in 1 Corinthians he talks about how the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (2:14)