January 27, 2021

John Barclay on “Dangerous Grace”

Redbird in tree (1)

What is distinctive about Paul is his emphasis that grace is not just a gift given generously or in advance, but a gift given precisely without considering [the recipient’s] prior quality or worth.

• John Barclay

• • •

One book on my wish list and reading plan for this year is John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, UK, and is recognized by his peers as one of today’s most influential New Testament scholars. In anticipation of reading his massive work on Paul’s teaching about grace, I went to Christianity Today this month and eagerly absorbed their interview with him, called “What’s So Dangerous about Grace?” — as Spencerian a title as I can imagine.

I encourage you to go to CT and read the entire article.

Wesley Hill, the interviewer, summarizes John Barclay’s thesis like this: “[Barclay] proposes that Paul’s radicalism lies precisely in his view of God’s grace—and of its potential to transform both individuals and communities.”

It is “grace” that is at the center of Paul’s teaching. That’s clear enough, but one aspect of this interview that I found curious was the assertion that this emphasis has been lacking or underemphasized in NT studies since the advent of the so-called “New Perspective.” I am certainly not as conversant with Pauline studies as someone like Dr. Barclay, but I must say that I have never found this to be true about the NP scholars I’ve read. Take, for example, the following quote from N.T. Wright:

When St. Paul says that ‘if righteousness came by the Law, the Messiah died in vain” (Galatians 2.21), he was stating a foundational principle. Whatever language or terminology we use to talk about the great gift that the one true God has given to his people in and through Jesus Christ (“salvation,” “eternal life,” and so on), it remains precisely a gift. It is never something we can earn. We can never put God into our debt; we always remain in his. Everything I’m going to say about the moral life, about moral effort, about the conscious shaping of our patterns of behavior, takes place simply and solely within the framework of grace–the grace which was embodied in Jesus and his death and resurrection, the grace which is active in the Spirit-filled preaching of the gospel, the grace which continues to be active by the Spirit in the lives of believers. It is simply not the case that God does some of the work of our salvation and we have to do the rest. It is not the case that we begin by being justified by grace through faith and then have to go on to work all by ourselves to complete that job by struggling, unaided, to live a holy life.

…God loves us as we are, as he finds us, which is (more or less) messy, muddy, and singing out of tune. Even when we’ve tried to be good, we have often only made matters worse, adding (short-lived) pride to our other failures. And the never-ending wonder at the heart of genuine Christian living is that God has come to meet us right there, in our confusion of pride and fear, of mess and muddle and downright rebellion and sin.

After You Believe, pp. 60, 62

Now, it is certainly true that NP scholars like Wright emphasize something different about grace than traditional Reformation-based teaching.

The common view that people like Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and Wright found deficient was that the Judaism of the NT era was a religion of works and not grace and that this was what Paul opposed. Their studies have shown us that Judaism was indeed a religion rooted in God’s grace and mercy, and that “works of the law” did not signify human attempts to earn God’s favor as “merit-amassing observances” (Dunn).

This was indeed the issue in Reformation times and the Reformers (I would say for the most part correctly) applied Pauline concepts of grace and faith to the situation of their day. But neither Jesus nor Paul were opposing indulgences and “works-righteousness” in those same terms. If I may put it simplistically, they were opposing Jewish teaching that the grace of God was limited to those within the covenant and to those who submitted to covenant requirements such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and kosher food laws. They were opposing a religion that offered a limited grace, not a religion which demanded meritorious works.

From what I read in CT‘s interview with John Barclay, it is the unlimited nature of grace — that it is for everyone everywhere without consideration of their social status — that he stresses.

Yes, Paul was not the only Jew of his day who talked about God’s grace. We need to shy away from caricatures of [first-century] Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness or legalism that knew nothing about divine grace. Language of God’s mercy and grace was everywhere, but it was not everywhere the same. People understood God’s goodness, generosity, and mercy differently. Compared with his fellow Jews who also talked about divine grace, Paul emphasized grace given without regard to worth. This is the root of Paul’s radical social policy.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries. This is what made Paul so controversial in his day. His mission to the Gentiles involved telling them that they didn’t have to fit within the cultural boundaries of the Jewish tradition. In his letter to the Galatians, for instance, he strongly criticizes other Jewish Christians who say you have to fit in the Jewish cultural box in order to be Christian. Paul says no—God has not paid regard to that cultural box.

This sounds very “New Perspective” to me, compatible with what I view as appropriate clarifications to the dominant theology that grew out of the Reformation. In particular, it shows that Paul’s main concern was not about “getting individuals saved” but rather in building grace-based communities of faith, hope, and love that transcended both the covenantal restrictions of Jewish religion and the idolatrous, immoral ethos of the Empire. The goal of Paul’s instruction was “love” (1Tim 1:5) and a main priority was trying to help folks see that God’s grace obliterates the walls we erect between people based on our cultural norms, loyalties, and prejudices. “By grace, Jesus is Lord of all” was his message.

What we take for granted as having worth—our place in a hierarchy, our class, our wealth, our education, you name it—does not count for anything when we are encountered by Christ. In Paul’s day, the main forms of hierarchy were built around gender, ethnicity, and legal status. Men were considered more important than women, Jews were considered more valuable than non-Jews, and a free person was considered more valuable than a slave. Paul says that in God’s eyes, none of these social boundaries matter. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Gal. 3:28).

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

This is one of the primary reasons he finds grace “dangerous.” It threatens to overturn all the cultural norms we hold dear, which keep us from living fully in the love of Christ.

Another emphasis John Barclay makes is that grace leads to new life, in which trusting obedience is the norm.

Again, to my ears this is New Perspective music. It clarifies the “faith vs. works” debate that has plagued theological discussions since the Reformation. Noting how “Luther was anxious about any language of obligation or obedience if it implied trying to win favor with God,” Barclay observes that many Christians think grace means something like “God expects nothing in return.” But Paul teaches that God’s grace in Christ raises us up into a new life, and Paul expresses the expectation that we will “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:1-4).

Even the Augsburg Confession has a section on “New Obedience,” which states that faith “is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works….” This shows me that, in their hearts, Lutherans realize that the dualism of Law and Gospel is not adequate to convey the difference God’s grace in Jesus Christ has made for believers. Even at the heart of Reformation theology we find teaching of a “new obedience” rooted in grace that has nothing to do with earning God’s favor or accumulating merit.

The radical thing about grace is not that it delivers us from having to obey, but rather that it puts us in a position where we are free to obey.

This revelation of the gift (grace) of God in Jesus Christ is Paul’s central theme, says John Barclay.

I’m looking forward to diving deeper into this ocean by reading his book.


  1. Christiane says

    there is a way out of looking at kindness to others as a ‘meretorious work’, this, from the wisdom of the Desert Fathers: to give credit to God for all the good we do . . . as all goodness comes ultimately from God, so should the ‘credit’ for our good works return to Him as the Author of any good we do . . .

    “There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end.”
    St. Gregory of Sinai

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I understand and respect this gist of this, but ultimately it still feels like the tedium of score keeping; it does not feel like freedom.

      (a) do something good/kind
      (b) go the spiritual ATM and transfer all the goodness points to the account labeled ‘God’.

      Can we really simply just not track / allocate / appropriate goodness? Because that is freedom.

      I do not believe it is ‘normal’ [or healthy] to engage in this kind of Moral Accounting; I do not believe most people do this. The impulse itself is the disease, not the form of the calculation.

      > “There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the
      > lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions.

      I do not believe in the distinction of these two kinds, I do not feel compelled to state the first nor to perform the second. In truth I cannot even say what the first statement means; nor *can* any healthy person for a moment honestly believe it – so why say it?

      One can clear the snow from the neighbor’s sidewalk for no other reason than that they, and the world, are beautiful. Goodness shows the beauty of creation to others, and who doesn’t want to do that? If in that beauty they see, or not, The Creator, that is a question within them.

      • Indeed Adam. Could this be what Jesus meant when , He said, “Do not let your right hand know what your left is doing.”

      • Can clear the sidewalk because I can and then they don’t have to work so hard and I like it. After all it pleased God to do what He had done. Why shouldn’t it? I like what you wrote. As long as I am able I will pray and feed the cats and do what I hear in my heart to give to those in need. Your paragraph encourages me.

        The one thing Paul wrote to work out your salvation in Christ Jesus. By myself I find this drudgery. Isn’t it the verse afterwards that defines it. Please correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t it God to do according to His good pleasure which is His purpose in us.

        Lately I have found that no matter how strong my will I cannot attain to the heights that divine love are. I find it is His movement in me that get me to taste it and see it and want to reach for it because love and grace can’t be separated.

        Grace…. I need to extend the same grace that has been extended me out of love( for it to have meaning). This love eludes me in the extreme demonstrated to me by Christ. I crave it like one who has run a long way and needs a drink of cool water. It’s why I come here. Most of the time I go away empty. Not today.

        I write a few paragraphs for Him as I have done for a decade or more. I struggle with if you love me you will obey me. I think if I could even get close to that height of love it would become natural not performed. Being what I desire it seems to elude me by me putting my foot in my mouth to often. Wish I could keep it closed more.

        • “Can clear the sidewalk because I can and then they don’t have to work so hard and I like it…”

          For some reason, this sentence brought to my mind the phrase “the aesthetics of grace.” Acts of kindness, the giving of time, effort, resources is in one sense simply beautiful — no matter how checkered our motivation might be. But on occasion, we do find those pure moments when we can walk in grace, share grace, perform acts of grace, create graceful things, simply for the beauty of them.

          I think that most of us, even if it is not our normal mode, manage to find this place every once in a while. And that place is in itself a gift of God.

  2. Getting out of bed,
    feed the cat, drink the coffee–
    these are my prayers

  3. Grace frees me to have faith in Jesus Christ. When I have faith in Jesus, I trust that he has done all the heavy lifting, that my life, that all life and the world, are caught up in him and the redemption that he has worked, that he is. And I trust that I can go forward without certainty in many things, without certainty that I’m right in all my deliberations, decisions and actions, because he is always present, correcting my course in visible and invisible ways.

  4. I like that, Robert.

  5. Senecagriggs yahoo says
    • Interesting, yes, and a notice to pray for the unity of God’s Church and the beautiful Anglican tradition…

      …but what does it have to do with today’s post?

    • God bless the Episcopal Church.

      • senecagriggs says

        StuartB, it’s not at all apparent that God has been blessing the Episcopal church.

        • Clay Crouch says

          How do you know if God is blessing TEC? Inquiring minds want to know if you have ever attended an Episcopal Church service or for that matter, even been inside of an Episcopal Church sanctuary?

        • Says who? Someone’s flipping the tables and releasing the animals and ensuring that the only people who are there are those who want to be.

      • From the C of E:
        O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
        our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace:
        give us grace seriously to lay to heart
        the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.
        Take away all hatred and prejudice,
        and whatever else may hinder us
        from godly union and concord;
        that, as there is but one body and one Spirit,
        one hope of our calling,
        one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
        one God and Father of us all,
        so we may henceforth be all of one heart and of one soul,
        united in one holy bond of peace, of faith and charity,
        and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you;
        through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  6. I cannot imagine voluntarily taking on a huge tome about grace. Just reading this post wearies me. I am hoping that next year observing the 500th anniversary of the “Reformation” will include a decent burial for the faith vs works debate which is long overdue. It stinketh. It seems to me that “grace” is one of those words that Christian Smith observes everyone talks about as if everyone knows what it means, but no two people agree. The eleventh commandment is, Thou shalt sing Amazing Grace at every funeral. I could stand it one more time if it was the funeral of this debate.

    >>The radical thing about grace is not that it delivers us from having to obey, but rather that it puts us in a position where we are free to obey.

    Maybe this is my rebellious ego talking, but talk of being free to obey just fills me with despair. It’s like I’m a dog going to obedience school. I’m not a dog, neither am I a worm. I’m a child of God. Rather I would like to think that grace puts me in a position where I am free to become One with God as my Father, and there is help available whenever needed. Now that to me is good news, that is a gracious gift beyond all compare. I’ll take it, thank You very much. Thank You very, very much.

    • Charles, my language may not appeal to you, but I think we’re talking about the same thing. Let me try again: Grace frees us to live in union with Christ in the fullness of what it means to be human. Any better?

    • The very concept of “work”ing out your salvation connotes both freedom and responsibility together. There is little mystery to me about this as a fundamental characteristic of Christian life. If love of God is where it starts and ends and that’s the whole ball of wax right there, there is nothing more to discuss. Work it out. Figure it out. Get on your feet and do something. Anything. That is a crazy, wild privilege that God gives each one individually, respecting their Communion with Him as the magnet that will always pull them back on course and/or the dictate, command, edict, if you will, to maximize the glory of the bloom that has been handed to us – watering, fertilizing, pruning (well that’s His job). Either way you look at it, it’s the same thing; a great freedom and a joyful, eagerly sought responsibility like a job we just landed at a phenomenal company with a sharp, quick and benevolent boss. From a foundation of love it’s just called plain old living, which is a glorious affair. Do what it is you do and do it well. When love is there the whole parse becomes silly. Regretfully, all is not love all the time in our fallen state so part of working it out is reminding ourselves by rehashing and reinforcing the truths that we seem to so easily lose sight of.

  7. I haven’t read this book yet, but look forward to it. I did read a long interview he had with Ben Witherington about the book. I think that one of the things he emphasizes (gathered from the interview, though I could find I’m wrong after reading the book) is that ‘grace’ was part of the everyday language of the culture and NOT a theological term to most people in the first century (see also David diSilva’s ‘Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity’). It usually referred to ‘gifts’ given in different contexts. diSilva notes that it was a term associated primarily with patron-client relationships. In that context, it is a ‘benefaction’, and benefactions (the word used was ‘charis’ – grace) were always seen to have obligations and involve reciprocity of some sort. One of the responses to a benefaction (a ‘gift’ from a patron to a client) was loyalty, ‘fides’, or faithfulness (the Greek word is ‘pistis’ – that we usually translate as ‘faith’), as well as public recognition of that benefaction (the words used are the same ones used for ‘praise’ in the NT). In fact, a benefaction was often requested for a would-be client by a ‘broker’, someone who had standing with the benefactor (the Greek word for this person was ‘parakletos’ – sound familiar?). Thus, it appears that the Reformers (1500 years removed from first-century culture) loaded these terms with theological baggage they would not have had to Paul’s original audience (or Paul himself). Meanings like ‘unmerited favor’ would probably appear strange to someone in the first century who was familiar with how these terms were actually used (and understood what Paul actually meant). Now where this takes us, I don’t know, but I’m becoming pretty convinced that Luther got more wrong than right (I think I’m becoming a one-string banjo about this). It does suggest that ideas of ‘cheap grace’ so common among evangelicals, might be a little off target (at the very least).

    And, as CM notes, this idea that all Christians are clients of one patron (and equal before him) certainly would have upset the highly-stratified social structure in Roman society, probably explaining why Paul was accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ and why Christianity was looked at as so dangerous (not to mention the disruptive affects it probably had on families).

    • Excellent. And thank you for moving toward Paul’s radical social perspective that grows out of grace. That’s really what the interview and today’s post stress.

      • CM, I think this unpacks in profound ways as we understand more of the collective (rather than individualistic) culture of the first century (both Jewish and Greco-Roman) and the obligations and expectations of the culture. ‘Friends’ were people of the same social status (or part of the same ‘in-group’, such as a family, or often clients of the same patron), thus could have a relationship (that also had obligations) and this friendship (based on group identity and status) was called – alas! – koinonia! (It wasn’t about potlucks and such.) In Phil 2 Paul addresses these issues directly, noting that ‘rivalry and conceit’ (terms packed with cultural significance related to status) are to be replaced by love, unity, and being of the same mind (of which Christ himself is the ultimate example). This is also behind many of the issues at Corinth, a thoroughly Roman city (See Bruce Winter, ‘After Paul Left Corinth’). It is also noteworthy that usually the closest, most affectionate relationships in the first century (certainly among Jews) was between siblings (not husbands and wives, my apologies to all the ‘family values’ ministries), thus the Christians are called ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (and are expected to relate as such). And, all this was based on a common gift (grace) received from the ultimately generous patron – God. Paul might not have openly opposed slavery or other politically correct causes of our day but he was pretty radical for someone living in the first century (enough to ultimately get himself killed).

        • Where can I find more? I’d love to know more about how the language differed from the ways we’ve been conditioned over the years.

          • David diSilva’s ‘Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity’

            Bruce Winter’s ‘Seek the Welfare of the CIty’ and ‘After Paul Left Corinth’ (and if you want to wade through it, ‘Philo and Paul Among the Sophists’, his doctoral thesis – excellent)

            Bruce Malina ‘The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology’

            These are a good place to start. One of James Barr’s complaints in his classic ‘Semantics of Biblical Language’ (1961) was that works like Kittels’ Greek dictionary (the standard reference work) loaded common terms with unwarranted theological freight. More recent research (like the books mentioned, and there are countless others, including work by N. T. Wright) have shown Barr was correct. I’m convinced that understanding the culture is the most neglected, and most important part of understanding the Bible, and one of the fastest growing areas of study today (thankfully).

  8. My gosh, the kindle version of the book is nearly 60 dollars. I know scholarly works are often pricey even on kindles, but the hardcover is only a few dollars more.

    I’ll have to settle for the CT interview.

  9. Barclay’s book and your thoughts about it sound so much like Good News…well, it’s Jesus-shaped!

  10. From R. Rohr today touching on grace vs. works dynamic;
    “In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. While God can be described as a moral force, as consciousness, and as high vibrational energy, the truth is, we don’t (or can’t?) fall in love with abstractions. So God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands” (1 John 1:1). The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says the only thing that really converts people is “the face of the other.” He develops this at great length and with great persuasion. When the face of the other (especially the suffering face) is received and empathized with, it leads to transformation of our whole being. It creates a moral demand on our heart that is far more compelling than the Ten Commandments. Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. So many Christian mystics talk about seeing the divine face or falling in love with the face of Jesus. There is no doubt that was the experience of Francis and Clare. I think that’s why Clare uses the word “mirroring” so often. We are mirrored not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the face we can’t give to ourselves. It is the gaze that does us in!”

  11. What Greg wrote above is very good – a great example of why we need to understand the terminology and problems of St Paul’s day, and that the terms did not have the same meanings with regard to the problems of the Reformers.

    The Greek word for “grace” and “gift” is the same. Because of this, I think we are meant to understand “grace” as something that is somehow “more concrete” than simply some kind of ether God created and bestows. What if grace/gift is the actual action of God the Holy Spirit within people? This is what enables people to relate in the way Greg describes, and in the way CM writes as that which “frees us to live in union with Christ in the fullness of what it means to be human.”

    While we’re talking about words, I understand that “koinonia” carries a greater sense even than “friendship” – the sense of it, as also described by Greg, is much more to do with “particpation” – also tying in to the union and sibling sensibilities.


  12. I’m putting this comment down below, trying to be tactful and also not spoil Bill’s humility.

    It seems to me that Bill’s comment is a great example of what Christiane was talking about with regard to humility as St Gregory of Sinai spoke of it. It is a difficult thing, because it seems to abnegate our humanity, and it cuts across all we are told about ourselves in the ambiance in which we are swimming. What it actually does is show forth what it means to be truly human – the perspective we need to have about ourselves that enables us, as we struggle in this life, to be fully human and love like Christ loved. This is what Bill is showing us when he writes about falling short of the love he knows he is meant for, and that if he could be in that place, that which we think of as “obedience” would be “natural, not performed” (this is exactly what CM writes in the phrase “free … to live in union with Christ in the fullness of what it means to be human), and that all he can do is pray and feed the cats.

    That is the truth of humility – exactly that. Bill is lighting the way for us, if we can see it.


  13. This is what I’m talking about – the 2 clips are each only 10 minutes long. Worth hearing/reading (in Serbian with English subtitles).

    Re terminology, remember that “repentance” in Orthodox thought doesn’t have much to do with feeling badly about something one has done, or some kind of drive to avoid punishment – it has no negative connotations. It is simply all that goes into the inner act of turning (Hebrew shuv) to God and realigning our thought process (Greek metanoia). This is not about “works” but about doing the only work we can, under the impetus of grace, esp “grace” as the action of the Holy Spirit within us.



  14. It’s been my experience that old perspective folks seem to be so tuned into their paradigm and have their heresy sensors turned up so high that anything that suggests there might be another way to look at Paul falls into “works based righteousness” and so is in opposition to grace.

    And the deeper one is within the guild, the worse the problem is.

    That’s painting with a broad brush, but it’s a trend I see in general.

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