The hymn writer John Newton published his first edition of the Olney Hymns in 1779, which he arranged into three books. He states in the preface that, ‘In the first I have classed those which are formed upon select passages of scripture, and placed them in the order of the books of the Old and New Testament1 His most famous hymn, ‘Amazing grace’ is, surprisingly, placed by him under 1 Chronicles chapter 17 verses 16 and 17, with the title, ‘Faith’s review and expectation’.2 In his earlier sermon notes for this hymn for New Year’s day 1773, Newton explains the significance of this Biblical text in relationship to his hymn by stating that these verses, ‘lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us’. This is precisely how we should respond when we think of the grace of God so exemplified in the Greek word charis, which can be viewed as a state of delight that either causes or accompanies joy. The word is, in fact, multifarious, hence its widespread use in Greek philosophy, especially the writings of Plato, where ‘it has the meanings “good pleasure”, “goodwill”, “favour”, “pleasure”, “what pleases” and “thanks”’3
In the Septuagint (LXX), charis usually translates the Hebrew word chen,4 which was used by writers to speak of the blessing that a superior conferred on an inferior who had no claim to any right from the superior. For example, in Genesis chapter 6 verse 8, God extends His favour, or His unconditional goodwill, toward Noah. Interesting to note in passing, that the name Noah in Hebrew is the Hebrew word for ‘favour’ spelt backwards! Similarly, men can exercise such favour as in Genesis chapter 33, which records the reconciliation of Jacob with his brother Esau. Although Jacob seeks to placate Esau’s wrath, how he prevails is not on the basis of his flattery, but Esau’s gracious forbearance towards him. Ruth expresses her deep gratitude towards Boaz, who had singled her out and extended his favour towards her even though she was an outsider, Ruth 2. 10. The word can also be used in a negative way, where a wife fails or ceases to please her husband, Deut. 24. 1. Generally, in the Old Testament most of the references to grace relate directly to the intervention of God on men’s behalf, e.g., Exod. 11. 3; Jer. 31. 2.
Turning then to the New Testament, we find that the word charis occurs around 150 times, and predominantly it is a Pauline word. It rarely occurs in the Synoptics, being limited to Luke both in his gospel narrative and then later in the book of Acts. The nature, of course, of Luke’s narrative emphasizes a gospel that is freely dispensed to an undeserving world; hence, he highlights the grace, or the graciousness of God, in various situations, e.g., to Mary, 1. 30. It is used of our Lord Himself in chapter 2 verse 40, where the phrase means literally, ‘God caused His favour to rest upon Him’ (my translation), see also 2. 52, and compare with 1 Sam. 2. 26. John uses the word sparingly in his narrative, but to great effect when he reveals to us that the incarnate Christ was not only full of charis, but it is this charis (and truth) in Jesus Christ that displaces all previous forms of revelation, e.g., the Mosaic law, John 1. 14ff.5 In the book of Acts, charis is used to describe the favour bestowed upon Joseph by God, ‘which so commended him to Pharaoh king of Egypt’, Acts 7. 10 NEB. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after their first missionary journey, we read that it was from this city that they had ‘been commended to the grace of God’, Acts 14. 26 ESV. This charis enabled them to successfully complete the first part of the work that they had been earlier set apart for by the Holy Spirit, 13. 2-4. So charis here reflects what can be achieved for God when His favour is bestowed upon us.
But by far the emphasis placed upon charis in the New Testament from Acts chapter 13 onwards belongs, as J. Armitage Robinson rightly observes, ‘to the narratives which deal with the extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles: see especially xv 11. The surprising mercy of God, by which those who have been wholly outside the privileged circle were now the recipients of the Divine favour, seems to have called for a new and impressive name which might be the watchword of the larger dispensation’.6 It is the apostle Paul who takes up this challenge and makes the word charis the hallmark of Christianity. It becomes so embedded in his mind-set that it ultimately drives his theology, and makes the grace of God universally attractive, 2 Thess. 1. 12. To Paul, whose Apostolic credentials were confirmed to a Gentile world, Gal. 2. 7; Titus 2. 11, it must have been a truly remarkable experience as a converted Jew to constantly stress that free, unmerited charis alone through faith, the antithesis of works (boasting definitely excluded by him! Rom. 3. 27), was sufficient to save individuals, Eph. 2. 8,7 and justify them freely by grace, Rom. 3. 24. But if it was sufficient to save then it would also be sufficient for everyday situations, irrespective of the prevailing circumstances, 2 Cor. 12. 9. In fact, the grace of God was accentuated in Paul’s life through weakness. Grace also gave him confidence to live for Christ knowing that he was strengthened to accomplish God’s will, 9. 8. This encouraged him to counsel others to place their dependence in the grace of God, 2 Tim. 2. 1. If grace had abounded to the chief of sinners, Rom. 5. 20; 1 Tim. 1. 15, then the whole world was now Paul’s parish, Rom. 15. 15-16; Phil. 1. 7. Almost, without exception, when Paul put pen to paper he thought of the grace of God, e.g., Rom. 1. 7; Gal. 1. 3 et al, directly linking the word charis to the word ‘peace’. So, for Paul, grace became the basis of peace with God, and peace with God became the result of grace in his life. No wonder he eulogized about the grace of God, especially when he thought about the greatest gift of grace, even our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 Cor. 9. 15. When we reflect upon grace today may our desire be to ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’, 2 Pet. 3. 18.
that gives what I don’t deserve,
pays me what Christ has earned,
then lets me go free’.
Olney Hymns in Three Books – Facsimile of the First Edition, The Cowper and Newton Museum, pg. xi.
Ibid. pg. 53
H. Conzelmann in TDNT (Abridged), pg. 1301.
There is only one occasion in the LXX where χάρις translates the Hebrew word hesed, and that is in Esther chapter 2 verse 9.
For a comprehensive survey of the difficult Greek expression ‘καὶ χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος’ (‘and grace for grace’) in John chapter 1 verse 16 see: D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, IVP, pp. 131-134.
J. Armitage Robinson, Commentary on Ephesians – Exposition of the Greek Text, Kregel Limited Edition Library, pg. 224.
I take the gift of God in this context to be salvation by grace since it is the subject of the clause.
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