How Western Cultural Norms Blind Us to Understanding Grace


“Grace” is a loaded word. Grace, as Paul notes in Romans 6:23, is a free gift, yet each one of us approaches the idea of a gift with a set of culturally informed assumptions about what qualities a proper gift should have. Those of us living in the West attach certain expectations to gifts based on our modern individualism; the perfect gift is heartfelt, spontaneous, and cannot possibly be repaid. Different cultures, however, attach different expectations to gifts.

What are we to make of grace then? A proper understanding of grace depends on answering two questions: 1) how the 1st century Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds viewed gifts and 2) how Paul’s understanding of gifts conformed and differed from this cultural background.

Thankfully for us laymen, scholars John Barclay and David DeSilva have both produced work attempting to answer these questions. If you are weird like me and enjoy academic writing, DeSilva’s paper on patronage and reciprocity (leading to his book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity) can be read for free here. Meanwhile, John’s Barclay’s book, Paul and the Gift, can be bought and read or generally understood through the countless blog posts and reviews that have popped up concerning its content within the last two years. I relied on both of these authors to write this.

The Patronage and Gift Economy

First off, according to DeSilva, “grace” (charis) was a word regularly used in the context of patron-client relationships. Patron-client relationships were a way for clients to obtain favors from patrons—ranging from public works to entertainment to private aid—and a way for patrons to increase their public reputation through the gratitude and public praise of clients along with needed services. These favors often included goods, protection, or even employment and advancement.

This system also largely served as an ancient form of welfare, funneling money from those who had it to those who needed it. Unlike our welfare system, however, this system also served to create relational ties. Within this patronage system, grace could refer to either the willingness of the patron to grant favors, the actual gift itself, or the grateful response of the client. Understanding ancient gifts is thus paramount to understanding God’s gift.

The Six “Perfections” of Gifts

In an effort to contextualize gifts, John Barclay lists six qualities of a gift that people throughout history have argued over, debated, and/or assumed a perfect gift should possess. These qualities are:

  1. Superabundance—a gift is perfect if it is lavish or extravagant
  2. Singularity—a gift is perfect if it flows from a spirit of benevolence and goodness
  3. Priority—a gift is perfect if it is initiated solely by the choice of the giver
  4. Incongruity—a gift is perfect if it ignores the worth and merit of the recipient
  5. Efficacy—a gift is perfect if it accomplishes what it intends to
  6. Non-circularity—a gift is perfect if it escapes repayment, it requires no return

Using this list, answers to the original questions of how the 1st century Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds viewed gifts and how Paul’s understanding of gifts conformed to and differed from this cultural background yield two significant insights.

First off, Paul broke away from his culture when he regarded God’s gift as incongruous, that is, grace is given to unworthy recipients. In the patron-client system, gifts were regarded as something you tried to give to worthy recipients, to those who possessed grateful hearts and were likely to give you something in return. (Somewhat paradoxically, patrons were supposed to not judge clients based on their ability to give something in return, yet it was acceptable to judge clients based on whether they returned favors to clients in the past. A grateful heart was a major determinant of worthiness.) Understanding God’s gift as incongruous served a sociological purpose for Paul, as he was able to bring together Jews and Gentiles under the same faith. Before Jesus, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles was often one of moral worth, for gentiles were regarded as morally unworthy of God’s blessings. This distinction is undone by God’s extension of grace toward every person regardless of worth. This incongruous grace even extends in a horizontal direction: the church should be a radical social experiment, a new creation, where everyone gives love to each other mutually and without distinction. The incongruity of grace is yet another reason why Jesus was hated so much; he dared to show love to sinners considered unworthy of God’s blessings.

Second, and this point is mightily controversial, Paul did not depart from his culture regarding the circularity of gifts. Paul never challenges this assumption; rather, he reinforces the notion that gifts always require a response from the client. Concerning the culturally ideal response to a gift, DeSilva notes that it was one of gratitude involving three major components: public honor, loyalty, and gifts and services. Regarding public honor, clients were held liable by unwritten social rules to increase the fame of their patron by proclaiming their patron’s generosity to others. If the client failed to do this, they risked breaking apart the friendship and incurring dishonor upon themself. Regarding loyalty, clients were required to show loyalty to their patron. This meant maintaining one’s association with the patron even if this association became costly for the client. In practice, this kind of loyalty was not always shown when the patron faced political troubles or diminishing wealth, but the principle remained. Regarding gifts and services, clients were expected to return the gift with a gift or service of their own whenever the opportunity arose.

This same relationship between gift and response exists throughout Paul’s letters. God is our patron, and we are his clients with Jesus as the sole mediator. God bestows his gift of salvation and his blessings (graces) on us, and we are expected to return the favor through public honor of God, loyalty to King Jesus, and acts of service to Jesus’s church. In this patron-client relationship, right belief (orthodoxy) and right behavior (orthopraxy) cannot be separated. Orthodoxy should always lead to orthopraxy because the cultural assumption was that one should return grace with grace. To not do so was to forfeit the relationship.

In the eyes of Protestants still caught up in the 16th century reformation, writing this may be akin to admitting heresy, but God expects us to work. God demands that we work. This statement is not out of line with what Paul writes elsewhere. In fact, this idea becomes stunningly clear when one stops trying to interpret the entire Bible through the doctrine of “by grace alone through faith alone”. In Galatians 5:19 for example, Paul warns Christians (not non-Christians nor even non-Christians who mistakenly believe they are Christians) that those who choose to live sinfully will not inherit the kingdom of God. In other words, one’s behavior affects one’s final salvation. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul gives a stern warning to the believers about falling away using the example of the Israelites who, after crossing out of Egypt, fell away in the wilderness to idolatry and sexual immorality. Only two people made it into the Promised Land. Again, one’s behavior affects one’s final salvation. In Philippians 12:12-13, Paul exhorts the believers to work out their salvation because God supplies the energy and the ability to work. In Romans 1:5 and 16:26, Paul implies that “the obedience of faith” is the end goal of the gospel. If you still doubt, Paul even comes right out and writes explicitly in Romans 2:5-11 that we will be judged by our deeds:

But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (NRSV)

James, Jesus, and John all agree with Paul. James tells us that faith without works is dead and that “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (2:24). Jesus, in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25, discusses the temporal judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome (albeit with cosmic-level apocalyptic imagery), providing a hint about the nature of the final judgment of the world. The parable of the gold bags indicates that it is those who make a return on God’s gift who will be saved. The parable of the sheep and goats indicates that it is those who serve their brothers and sisters in Christ whenever they are in need who will be saved. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus makes it clear to his audience that one must do the will of God the Father, not just any works, to enter the kingdom of heaven (7:21). The criterion for salvation in all of these instances is not faith alone but rather faith plus the right works. Even in Revelation 20, John writes that, at the final judgment, all people will be judged by their deeds.

There are additional examples to the ones I have given that demonstrate this dynamic. The Bible may say we are declared righteous by our faith, but it never says we will be fully saved entirely through faith alone. Both faith and works are necessary components of the proper response to God’s grace.

A Brief Note on Luther and Protestant Theology 

The modern idea of a perfect gift being one that is given freely without any expectation of return would have been foreign to Paul’s ears. Sadly, Martin Luther, by assuming that God’s grace could never merit a return, harmed the church’s understanding of grace just as much as the Catholicism he left behind. This assumption led to Luther’s belief that works were only significant as far as they were proof of authentic faith, and this belief was passed on to Protestant theology where it remains a foundational truth today. On the contrary, when working with Paul in the context of 1st century assumptions, a “free gift” is one that is incongruous, not non-circular. Recipients are free from having to possess any qualities or fulfill any prior conditions to receive it.

Where Does Justification By Faith Fit Into This?

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I agree with those who think Paul’s point in Romans and Galatians is that fulfilling the Torah will not merit God’s favor nor let one become a member of God’s people due to the innate sinfulness of every person and the inability of one’s works to secure forgiveness; only Christ’s atonement can secure forgiveness and acceptance.

That being said, I do not agree with those who say this necessarily pushes out any room for works after one has been “counted as righteous”. James 2 makes this clear enough, and Paul also warns believers about falling away and of a coming judgment by works. I like how the Catholic Church (hmm…or this is Wesleyan?) explains this tension: initial justification through faith, progressive justification (sort of like sanctification, but synergetic) through God’s energy and humans’ works, and final justification based on whether we remain faithful and what kind of return we deliver on God’s gift.

Sanctification is where human effort comes in, and this process affects our eternal destiny. In other words, initial membership in the people of God based on justification by faith is no guarantee of future salvation (just ask the Israelites!). It may lead to final salvation, but it is not the whole story. Works still factor into the time between, and we may still choose to walk away from everything God has given us. Using John’s terminology, we remain free to walk right back through the door and pass from life to death. Not being Catholic, I probably butchered this, but I think this better explains the general sense of how salvation is an “already but not yet” process than explanations that see works as the necessary result or proof of faith but not a determining factor in salvation.

An image I find helpful for explaining this process is that of a man born with a disabled leg. God, in justifying this man and counting him righteous, sets his leg right thus enabling him to live as he should. The man must then begin to limp along, gradually becoming healthier until, one day, he takes off in a full sprint. God, meanwhile, provides everything the man needs to get better throughout his habilitation. Then, at the end, God judges the man based on how he responded to the initial gift of healing. To be fair, not everyone learns to run in this life, but I believe God will judge us fairly…whatever that may entail.


God’s grace results in the creation of a community of believers who are tasked with displaying God’s grace to the world. Demonstrating God’s grace necessarily involves a response of gratitude that is practiced through public honor leading to praise, loyalty leading to obedience, and service to both Jesus and his church. Though we cannot merit God’s grace, how we respond to God’s grace will influence not only whether we remain in Christ during our time on Earth but also God’s verdict at the final judgment.

2 thoughts on “How Western Cultural Norms Blind Us to Understanding Grace

  1. I found this post to be extremely insightful. I never considered what a gift meant then. It’s always refreshing to review Biblical concepts in their historical context. Thanks for sharing!


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