Here’s an excerpt from my new book on grace titled, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace Toward Us (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014), pp. 25-28. The book will be released July 1, 2014.
Grace has no leash. It’s untamed, unbound, and runs wild and free. Some Christians believe that we’ve got to have some sort of balance—we need to keep grace under control. When it snaps our leash and runs loose around our gated community, we get nervous.
In many ways, the word grace has lost its stunning beauty, and perhaps through overuse, it’s become just another Christianese buzzword. We use the word grace in flat ways. My students ask for “grace” when they turn in assignments late. “Come on, Professor. Give me grace.” But divine grace is more than leniency, more than allowing exceptions to a rule.
Others say that grace means “unconditional acceptance.” God accepts people even though they have not met his standard. This is true. Sort of. But it’s still a decaffeinated definition. It fails to capture the divine aggression that invigorates grace and causes it to lurch upon the unworthy.
Grace is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. Divine grace is God’s relentless and loving pursuit of His enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable. Grace is not just God’s ability to save sinners, but God’s stubborn delight in His enemies—yes, even the creepy ones. Grace means that despite our filth, despite the sewage running through our veins, despite our odd addiction to food, drink, sex, porn, pride, self, money, comfort, and success, God
desires to transform us into real ingredients of divine happiness.
We demean grace by reducing it to another Christianese buzzword. The original Greek word for grace is charis (with a hard “ch,” like karis). Charis was not invented by Christians. Charis didn’t originate with Jesus, Peter, or Paul. The word charis, in fact, was used widely in the ancient world where Jesus grew up. When Jesus walked through Palestine talking about God’s charis, His hearers knew what the word meant. When Paul traversed the Mediterranean world heralding a message of charis, he would have been readily understood by anyone who spoke Greek. If Paul talked about charis in the marketplace, the vendors would have understood him. If he got into a debate with Greek philosophers, they, too, would have grasped the meaning of charis.
That’s because charis simply means “gift.” When we say “gift,” the ancients would have said “charis.” It means the same thing. Rich people in the ancient world often gave charises, or gifts, to other people. They would donate charises to their hometown: a fountain in the city square, a statue of Zeus next to the courthouse. They would give a charis to someone in need of food or shelter. The wealthy were eager to give gifts to people. Why? Because the ability to give a charis showed (or showed off) that they had the means to give.
When rich people gave a charis to this person and a charis to that person—“here’s a shekel to buy some food”—they didn’t give it indiscriminately. The ancients gave charises only to those who were worthy to receive it. Charis was given to people who were worthy of charis: those who had a high status or who were morally upright, intellectually astute, or physically impressive. After all, we wouldn’t want to squander our charis on some bum in the gutter who’s unworthy of our gift. A rich person wouldn’t waste charises on outcasts, the unappreciative, or thugs who had nothing to offer in return.
But Jesus did.
Jesus and His followers gutted the word charis and infused it with fresh meaning, with life-giving power. Jesus did more than give charis to the unworthy dregs of society. He made it His mission to seek them out. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He didn’t just give charis to the beggars who crossed His path. Jesus hunted them down and showered them with gifts. The same Jesus who overturned tables in the temple overturned the social norms for dispensing charis. Naturally, Jesus would be especially drawn to cannibalistic fornicators with a sick attraction to dead people, like Jeffrey Dahmer—the man who killed, had sex with, and then ate (in that order) 17 young men before Jesus rescued his soul from hell in 1994.
That’s the stuff I’m talking about. That’s grace. That’s charis.