Everybody knows “grace” means God’s unmerited favour. This is emphasised in Romans 3:24, which literally says that despite the fact everybody has sinned, they are all “justified freely [dorean without cost to the human] by his [God’s] grace”.
Indeed, it’s true that grace means favour in the New Testament. The Greek word for grace (charis) is often translated with the English word “favour”, as for example, in Luke 1:30, when Mary is said to have found “favour with God” (KJV, NRSV, etc; see also Luke 2:52; Acts 2:47).
True, grace is a gift given to us by God, without any account of our merit. But the point that is so often missed, according to the custom of the ancient world, is that accepting this unmerited gift places significant obligations on us.
Let me illustrate by describing the relationship between a patron and a client in ancient Rome. A patron would do something significant for a prospective client. The range of such gifts was enormous. They could include a gift of money, sorting out a legal problem, influencing business deals, arranging a marriage etc. By accepting the gift, the client became part of the patron’s extended family. They would often meet with their patron at the beginning of the day (with the other clients), and at that time, the patron would inquire as to the needs of his clients. But the gifts and favours did not only go one way. While the client could never give back to the patron what had been given to him (and it would be a mortal insult to even try to do so), there were things a patron needed that the client could provide. For example, they, their family and all those who they could influence, would vote for the candidate of the patron’s choosing. Indeed, if there was any service the patron needed, the client would hasten to do it. Prestige and influence was built upon the size of the gifts that a patron could give and the number of clients they had. The largest patron of all was the emperor, whose gifts could be extraordinary in terms of value.
The style of patronage I’ve been describing belongs to Roman culture, not necessarily the culture of the earliest Christians—although they would all know about it, given that they lived in the Roman empire. Roman patronage is just a well-developed example of a relationship that existed everywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world, including Judea and Galilee. In those cultures, the relationship between a patron and client was a reciprocal one. Clients received an enormous favour or gift, but in return, gave back to the patron anything within their power.
Those who wrote the New Testament, and those who first heard it read, lived in a world where they would naturally understand what it meant to receive a large, unmerited gift. It established a relationship, in which the client did everything within their power to fulfil the wishes of their patron.
Now we understand the reciprocal relationship that is established by accepting a large gift in the ancient world, we can see something important in the way the New Testament speaks of grace. God has given us an enormously costly gift. We have been redeemed by nothing less than the cost of the death of God’s Son (Romans 3:24,25). If we accept God’s gift of salvation, we gain enormous benefits: justification, forgiveness and eternal life among them (Luke 24:47; John 3:16, 36; 5:24; Acts 2:38, 10:43). But accepting this wonderful gift, provided by God at such cost, places significant expectations on the Christian. They don’t live moral lives to become saved (salvation is a gift, freely given to them), but they live moral lives because they are saved. Paul puts it this way. He asks, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” and provides this answer, “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1,2).
Robert McIver is Professor of the School of Ministry & Theology at Avondale University College.