On Patronage & Grace: The New Testament Perspective

A few hundred years ago when Martin Luther lashed out at the Catholic Church he did so, in large part, because freely accepting the grace of Jesus Christ had somehow been turned into a work of righteousness. Luther commented, “When we ought to be grateful for benefits received, we come arrogantly to give that which we ought to take!” In other words, he was suggesting that while God has freely given humanity gifts, humans, in all of their self-righteousness, instead of receiving the gifts, try to give them back to God and get credit for doing God works. Luther saw this ultimately as spitting in God’s face; a rejection of God’s grace.

While I don’t want to get into the whole Reformation era here, I do want to use it as a launching pad into a discussion about grace. In particular, I want to argue that in a much different way, many Western Christians have abused grace. I think that whereas Luther went to the extreme on one end with it, many evangelicals have gone in a whole other direction with it—unfortunately. In doing this, I think that they have really cheapened God’s grace and taken the relational aspect away from it.

In the New Testament era, the term “grace” (charis) was a financial term (much like our modern phrase “grace period”). As many of you are probably well aware, the entire ancient Mediterranean culture was wrapped up in the “Patronage System.” Now, the patronage system was a financial structure that coursed thickly through the veins of all of society. In fact, it gave the entire culture a type of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality and lifestyle. So, for instance, in all of your relationships, when someone did something for you, something was always expected in return—no matter what! There was really no such thing as a freebie; something was always expected in return.

This whole patronage system was organized in such a way that in each relationship there was a benefactor and a client. Many times, benefactors would have scores of clients. The benefactors were the wealthy and elite while the clients were usually peasants or lower class. Every morning the client would go to the benefactor’s house to receive their daily wage. After that, they would spend the day spreading the benefactor’s fame throughout the towns. They would tell everyone how good their benefactor was and build up the benefactor’s honor. Such was the nature of that society; a society out of which the Church and the New Testament writings arose—a fact that cannot be overlooked.

This is important to know because what it does for us is that it reveals how the Early Church (and even Jesus), thought about grace. Even though God freely gave grace, no New Testament writer would have said, “Okay, God has given you grace, you don’t owe Him anything in return.” Yet, that is the mindset of so many Christians today!!! We have lost the New Testament teaching on grace; the two-sided teaching of grace. God’s grace is always two-sided: He gives it freely but expects something in return, namely, your life lived to reflect Him and to spread His glory. God is the Benefactor—the giver of grace—and we are the client—the one who lives to bring honor and glory to our God. When we receive grace from God, this is what is expected of us. The New Testament writers affirm this over and over again.

Just as it would be wrong to suppress the spiritual gifts that God gives us or even worse, to use them for our own personal gain, the same is true for grace! When God gives us spiritual gifts, He expects something in return: To build up the Body of Christ and to exalt Him. When God gives us grace, as I’ve said, He also expects something in return: for us to live lives to His honor and glory. As Bonhoeffer has reminded us, God’s grace isn’t cheap. Yet, we are close to making it that way (at least in our own lives) when we only focus on receiving it and not doing what is expected in return.

How we desperately need to recover this understanding of grace. Even when the New Testament says that God has “freely given to us,” in the same breath it implores us to “freely give to others.” Paul and James both remind us that, “faith without deeds is dead.” (And that is one way to tell when you are spiritually dead, if you’re not doing Christian deeds! Next time you feel spiritually dry, ask yourself, “When did I last serve someone in the name of Jesus?”) Paul even says in Ephesians that our sole purpose for living is to do good deeds to glorify our Benefactor who has lavished upon us His wonderful grace. I wonder why “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2.8), is always separated from verses 9 and 10 when cited? Together, the 3 verses read:

“For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by your own works, so that none of you can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, [which was God’s plan for His people all along.]”

Paul teaches (and yes, I believe that he wrote Ephesians) that we were in fact “created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” In other words, when we experienced the saving grace of Christ, there came with that an expectation, an expectation to do good works! Friends, now is the time for us to recover this understanding of grace. For too long it has been too one-sided; we’ve lost the fuller and deeper meaning of it. If you have accepted God’s grace then you are expected to do something in return for Him—to make it known to everyone else!

May we get a better understanding of grace in our Churches and in our lives and may we strive, as clients of our Benefactor, to please Him. And on a side note, in our technically and economically savvy culture today, I would argue that this understanding of God’s grace relates to a large portion of people! For too long, people have wondered, “Why, if I can abuse God’s grace as a professed Christian, could I not just stay how I am and abuse it, what’s the difference?” Well, there is a difference and we need to share it! After all, that’s what God’s clients are supposed to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment