Faith, hope, and…

We have already discussed faith and hope. My guess is that most readers assume they know the third word—love. But that word has been so often discussed and most people today recognize that the biblical meaning of love is not so much about feelings and sentiment as it is about actions. How else could we “love our enemies,” as Christians are called to do? The old KJV translation has real advantages: its term “charity” may be too narrow, but at least it is action-oriented.

My third word is not love. Instead, I want to discuss “grace” [χάρις]. Grace too is a word generally used only in religious talk, although there are exceptions. One may try to stop the verbal abuse of another person by telling the abuser, “Show a little grace,” meaning “mercy.” Or we may speak of a ballet dancer having “grace.”

But just as the great reformer Martin Luther brought the word “faith” to the center of Christian theology, so also he did grace. His famous slogan “sola gratia” (“grace alone”) makes a good bumper sticker, but it needs to be explained as well as affirmed and shouted. While the English “grace” may often be the best translation of the Greek word in a particular verse of the Bible, other times the term “gift” is better. Let’s look at a few examples.

In Romans 1–3 we are taught that both Gentile and Jew are guilty before God. Gentiles should know from the creation there is a creator and sustainer and should respond with gratitude. As for the Jews, they cannot claim that being the recipients of the Torah makes them innocent before God. God’s solution to this tragic situation is set out in Romans 3:21–26.

Notice how the meaning seems clearer if we translate verse 24, “we are justified freely by his gift through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” God solved our debt problem, separation from God, with his own gift. Similarly, Romans 5:2 seems clearer, if we read it as “access to this gift in which we stand.” In both cases, “gift” brings out the sense better than “grace” does.

In I Corinthians 1:4 Paul says, “I always thank my God for you because of his gift given you in Christ Jesus.” One of the verses where gift stands out well, I think, is Romans 11:5, 6.

Romans 4:4 uses the same Greek word typically translated “grace,” but the NIV and other translations here use “gift” because it seems so obvious, since it is in contrast to wages (Rom 4:4. 5). Note the word “faith,” here too, using the idea of “trust” as I discussed in a previous post. Our acceptance by God is not from our good deeds, but solely as God’s gift.

Receiving a gift also brings with it responsibility to respond gratefully. There are “freely” given gifts, but most gifts assume some response, to manifest gratitude. Consider Jesus’ story of the 10 lepers who were healed but only one returned to give thanks (Luke 17:11–19). Our salvation is solely God’s gift, for which gratitude is needed.