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What Did Grace Mean to Paul?
The grace of Jesus Christ is one of the most important beliefs shared by all Christians. It is a doctrine presented in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other Restoration scripture. The ancient Apostle Paul is perhaps the most well-known early Christian who emphasized the need for the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives. He raises the topic extensively in many of his epistles recorded in the New Testament.
However, as is commonly the case in translations, the English word grace does not necessarily convey all the nuances and meanings that would have been intended by Paul and were familiar to his ancient audience. The Greek word charis, which is usually translated as “grace,” has a long history full of rich meaning in the Hellenistic world before and after Paul’s lifetime. When properly understood in its first-century context, the meaning and nature of Jesus Christ’s grace can become more cherished, treasured, and reciprocated by Christians everywhere.
Brent J. Schmidt has recently explored how the grace was viewed from antiquity through to modernity.1 Unlike modern notions that see grace as a free gift that requires little or nothing in return, Schmidt finds that ancient Greek and Roman sources refer to grace as a covenantal relationship between two parties. Like love, grace is relational. The relationship of charis that existed between a patron (benefactor) and a client (dutiful associate) included “the need for benefactors and recipients of benefactions mutually to show thanks and appreciation” and “share the gifts in a way that would honor the patron.”2 When the client received grace, or charis, from their patron, they would show their thanks through smaller gifts or acts of appreciation. Thus, true grace is understood to be reciprocal, benefitting both parties while bringing honor and showing gratitude to the benefactor. Indeed, the English words grace, graciousness, and gratitude all come from the Latin word gratia. Returning gratitude is thus at the core of grace.
Hellenistic Jewish writings—including the Greek Septuagint as well as the writings of Josephus and Philo—appear to use the word charis in this same way as classical Hellenistic writings.3 It seems, therefore, that the authors of the New Testament, including the Apostle Paul, would have been familiar with this usage. This is especially true for Paul, who was born and raised as a Roman citizen and was intimately familiar with the classical learning of the Hellenistic world.4 As noted by Schmidt, “Paul innately understood the social conventions of benefaction, and … Paul used the term charis according to its proper reciprocal Mediterranean social conventions.”5
Thus, Paul’s statement that God “called me by his grace,” is better rendered as “invited me by his grace” (Galatians 1:15). Paul “utilized the word and the idea of grace as a vehicle to teach the importance of service.” Being ordained and invited by God to spread the gospel, Paul became relationally empowered to fulfil the will of God, teaching that “the gift of God’s grace grants power and that all the diverse spiritual gifts (or powers) are received through grace.”6
This empowerment of grace has long-reaching effects for both parties involved —in this case, for God and His children. Ultimately, “the power to repent, change, and obtain forgiveness comes through reciprocal grace.” On the one side, this grace culminates in God enabling us to overcome physical and spiritual death.7 This is especially clear in Paul’s statement that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24). In the end, it is only through the grace of Jesus Christ that we are saved, after all we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23).
This does not mean that grace frees us of obligations on our part. Just as other ancient authors did, Paul originally viewed the grace of God as a reciprocal relationship that we enter. The reciprocal nature of charis, however, was unfortunately “often overlooked as later theologians placed emphasis on the ‘free’ aspects of grace.”8 Thus, Paul’s statements make more sense today when his immediate context is considered.
For example, Roman charis relationships had become highly commercialized by Paul’s time, which led many contemporary Roman writers to view charis as negatively patronizing.9 And modern notions of grace have likewise affected how readers view this gift in the Bible. For example, the teaching that we are “justified freely by his grace” in Romans 3:24 is better rendered from the Greek as “justified as a gift by his grace” (emphasis added). Modern ideas of gift giving have led many theologians to view grace as a one-time gift (instead of as one kindness in an ongoing relationship) and as being free of obligations (when no such notions of nonbinding gifts existed in antiquity).10
The reciprocal nature of charis gifts requires that each would be repaid, even if never in full. Indeed, we can never repay the Lord completely for any blessing He has bestowed upon us (see Mosiah 2:20–25). Through our words of thanks and actions of compliance with God’s wishes, however, we are able to demonstrate to Him that we appreciate what He has done for us, becoming empowered by Him to reciprocate His grace by doing His will. We access the grace and gifts of Jesus Christ as we make and keep covenants with God. We thus reap the blessings of grace through consciously living correct principles in a manner that pleases and extends our gratitude to Him.
The ancient, reciprocal nature of grace is affirmed throughout the Bible and the Book of Mormon. King Benjamin especially taught about the grace of God when he affirmed that all we have, even our own breath, is a gift from the Lord. Yet, no matter what we do, we can never fully repay the Lord for what He does for us. Indeed, “if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).
Despite our utter inability to ever repay the Lord for His bounteous goodness, the covenantal charis relationship we share with the Lord is affirmed by our willingness to follow Him. King Benjamin continues, “All that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you” (Mosiah 2:22).
The relationship we have with the Lord is one that will continue to bless us throughout our lives.11 However, if we want to secure for ourselves the highest of all the blessings the Lord desires to impart to us, we must show Him that we are willing to forego our own desires and enter into a covenant to serve Him. As we do so, we accept the Lord’s grace into our lives and maintain our relationship with Him. Thus, Benjamin concludes, “the covenant which ye have made is a righteous covenant, … and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. … For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served … ?” (Mosiah 5:6, 8, 13).
Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015), 87–114.
Brent J. Schmidt, “Grace in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 4 (2015): 119–134.
- 1. See, generally, Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015).
- 2. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 40.
- 3. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 41–49.
- 4. See Acts 22:25–28; Book of Mormon Central, “How Did Paul Interact with Greek Philosophies in Athens? (Acts 17:28),” KnoWhy 681 (July 25, 2023).
- 5. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 88. Because this is drastically different than many modern conceptions of grace, Schmidt (in pages 106–114) offers thoughtful responses to many of the issues that modern readers might initially raise when conceptualizing grace as a reciprocal relationship for the first time.
- 6. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 90, 91, 96; see Romans 12:6.
- 7. See Schmidt, Relational Grace, 97–101.
- 8. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 106.
- 9. See Schmidt, Relational Grace, 77.
- 10. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 106.
- 11. See Ezekiel 18 for another treatment on this relationship: those who maintain their covenantal relationships with the Lord will enter into His presence, and those who do not will be barred from it.
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