Grace: Can we make God love us more?
Two apparently independent (though both Baptist) speakers I heard this weekend emphasised the fact that we cannot earn God’s grace, that we cannot make God love us more. I was intrigued by the vehemence with which this point was emphasised, and because I think that this point makes a serious theological mistake.
Can we make God love us more? I wish to make clear for a start that I am quite happy to agree that the answer to that question is “no”. We are told God loves everyone (Mat 5:43-48), that God is love (1 John 4:7-8), that God loves the world (John 3:16) so much that he died for sinners (Rom 5:7-8). God loves us, yes. And it is true that many Christians do need pastors to bring that to their attention, and who do need to learn and accept that God loves them.
However there is another similar point, which is all too often wrongly confused with the idea that God loves us. The question of whether God is pleased with our lives, whether God is pleased with us, whether God is pleased with how we are living. God isn’t pleased with us when we sin, God is pleased with us when we do good. So the second question is: Can we make God more pleased with us? The answer is yes. What we do matters to God, we can please him (1 King 14:3, Gal 1:10, Col 1:10, 1 Tim 5:4, Heb 13:16) or we can disappoint him or make him angry (Mat 25:24-30, Eph 4:30). We can make him think “well done, good and faithful servant” (Mat 25:21,23) or we can make him think “I wish I’d never made man in the first place” (Gen 6:6) .
The two points are not difficult to reconcile: It is like a parent and a child. The child always has the unconditional love of the parent. The parent loves the child, and that’s not dependent upon anything the child does. However, the parent can be pleased, disappointed, angry, made sad, made happy or proud of the child, and that will be based entirely on what the child does. We see this in everyday life, that’s just the way it is. So too, in the Bible we see the same ideas being said of God: His unconditional love, and his conditional approval. Confusing the two is just a short-cut to total silliness.
Sadly that is exactly what I often see happening in churches. The confusion goes by the name “grace”. It is God’s grace, we are told, that makes him love us even though we are sinners, God’s grace that means that we don’t need to do any works to earn God’s approval, God’s grace that makes our works and sins meaningless in light of the boundless love and approval that God has for Jesus that gets transferred to us through him. Heresy! That’s just a blatant and fundamental confusion between God’s love and God’s approval. It is this deep-rooted confusion of the two fundamentally and importantly different ideas which I think is one of the most serious theological errors ever in terms of theological consequences.
The vehicle of the error is God’s “grace”. This word seems to be used as justification for conflating God’s love and God’s approval and the idea that the whole thing cannot be earned by anything we do. Grace, we are told, means “unmerited favour”. In fact, checking a few Greek dictionaries and examining a few occurrences of the word shows us that this is wrong.
“Charis” (the greek word that is translated “grace”) originally meant “something that is pleasing”. It could refer to both aesthetic beauty (eg something charming, graceful, beautiful etc) or things causing general happiness (gifts, the favour of fortune, kindnesses). The central theme was that it denoted a gladdening effect. Important is the fact that it equally refers to the giver and receiver of any gift or favour or blessing. The giver gives a “favour” (Charis) and the receiver has “thanks” (Charis). This can be confusing and lead to ambiguity as we will see later. Looking at the meaning of the word by New Testament times, we see that the ideal translation of Charis is “favour” and that it means almost exactly what the English word favour means. There is an important distinction to be made between having someone’s favour and doing someone a favour. Having someone’s favour is an earned thing: you do something that pleases them, and you are then said to have their favour. There is no difference between the Greek and English here: Making someone pleased with you/gaining their favour (Charis) virtually always happens for a good reason and is not “unmerited”. However, “doing someone a favour”, is by definition unmerited in the sense that it just wouldn’t be a favour if it was earned. But important to note is that the Greeks had, like in English, the idea that a favour done merited the return of a favour - the whole “now you owe me one” idea. It should also be clear that if someone is pleased with you they are more likely to grant you favours! ie If you have earned their favour, they will grant you favours: Merited favour naturally leads to unmerited favours - Greek’s exactly the same as English in this regard.
The Roman social system was actually heavily structured around the idea of favours. In what gets called a client-patron system, the average joes (“clients”) would find a rich and powerful person they liked the look of (a “patron”) and pledge their loyalty (ie “faith”) to that person, thus gaining the favour of that person who would then provide blessings and assistance (ie favours - charis) if ever it was needed and the client would be thankful (charis) and respond with greater loyalty (faith). It is this system that is in Paul’s mind as he writes to his Gentile converts: God our patron responds with to our loyalty with his favour, and out of his favour he grants us favours.
What then can we say about “grace”? Firstly that it’s a really bad word to use, and that we should be using “favour”. Secondly, that it in no way gives us justification for confusing the love vs pleased-with distinction that was outlined earlier. Thirdly that there are two types of favour – the state of having someone’s favour which is merited, and the individual favours they do you which are unmerited.
Having got the Biblical meaning of “grace” clear, let us turn to a bit of highly-complicated exegesis of one of the most interesting passages in the bible on charis, in which Paul gets himself into a complicated knot of confusion due to the ambiguity in the word (because it applies to both the giver and the receiver): Ephesians 2. I get sick of seeing Eph 2:8-9 quoted in support of a theology it simply doesn’t support, so I’ll attempt to explain what it does say here.
Eph 2:4-10. The NRSV renders it:
“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
I don’t much like their translation here, it’s okay up to near the end of verse 5…
Vs 5b. “By grace you have been saved”. I doubt this is the correct rendering of that phrase. It ought to agree with the translation of the same words in vs 8 which as we shall see should be read as “into (a state of) favour you have been saved”.
Vs 7. “the immeasurable riches of his grace”. Grace, charis, should really be translated “favour” of course.
Vs 8a. “For by grace you have been saved through faith”. Here it is “by grace” that is ambiguous – the Greek dative can have various different meanings. The question that needs to be dealt with here is whether it’s the state-of-favour or the one-off-favours that are being referred to. There are two reasons to prefer the former, contrary to the NRSV’s rendering: 1. the “you have been saved” is in the perfect tense which is a state based tense, literally meaning “you are in the state that was reached by a past occurrence of salvation”. Thus “favour” becomes the description given of this state. 2. The double causality of “by grace… through faith” is bordering on incoherent: Are we saved by grace or by faith? Much better would be “into grace… by means of faith”. Hence I think it ought to be read “Into (a state of) favour you have been saved by means of faithfulness”.
Vs 8b. “and this is not your own doing”. Here the punctuation the translators have added is causing problems. The “this” here is in the neuter (Greek words have genders which need to agree), and nothing in verse 8a is in the neuter. It’s actually a reference back to the word “riches” in verse 7 which is in the neuter. We see that 8a should be understood to be in parentheses like the end of verse 5 - both times the “by grace you have been saved” phrases are parenthetical in the middle of a sentence. So the sentence in vs 7 continues in 8b: “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus… and this is not your own doing”. So what is the “this is not your own doing” meaning? It’s the ambiguity of the charis (favour) – charis (thanks) come back to bite Paul. What he’s just said could be read two ways: either God is doing the favours (charis) and we are thankful (charis), or we are doing the favour (charis) and God is thankful (charis). Verses 8b and 9 are a clarification of this ambiguity. Verse 8b says “and this (the blessings of the favour) is not your own doing (ie it’s not us giving the blessings); it is the gift of God (God’s the one giving the blessings)”
Vs 9. “not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” This is just a repetition of the point made in 8b – we should not imagine that we are doing God a favour by doing good deeds and boast that we are doing God favours.
Vs 10. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” Rather, good deeds are simply what God created us to do (so we ought to do them).
To summarise, how I might translate Eph 2:4-10
“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (you were saved and now have God’s favour) 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his favour in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus 8 (for by means of your faithfulness you were saved and now have God’s favour) and this is not your gift to God, but his to you, 9 not the result of you doing God a favour, or else you could boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”