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John Barclay on What Grace Gives

We talk about grace in a variety of ways. Wesleyans tend to talk about prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. Reformed folks focus on special grace in contrast to common grace. At times, we talk about needing more grace. Other times we talk about the scope of grace.

I'm not suggesting we shouldn't be thinking in these categories. Neither should we avoid attaching appropriate adjectives to the word "grace." I do worry sometimes, however, that these patterns of speech make us liable to thinking of grace as a thing or a substance - something that we receive as a thing in itself and something that can be had in certain quantities. But grace isn't a thing. Grace is a person. The gift that is grace is Christ's gift of himself. I've made this argument before, and that's why I was refreshed to come across this quote in John Barclay's new book Paul and the Power of Grace.

When we use gift-language, we tend to think of things given (perhaps even wrapped in gift-paper), and so the question will arise: What exactly does God give in grace? For Paul, the Christ-gift is most fundamentally not the giving of a thing but the giving of a person: "The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20; cf. Gal 1:4). This gift can be spelled out in various terms: it concerns righteousness, wisdom, holiness, and redemption, but all these, Paul says, are given "in Christ" (1 Cor 1:30). They are not gifts in given in addition to Christ, or even by Christ, but the facets of salvation that come through solidarity with Christ through participation "in" him.

Let's not forget that when we talk about types of grace, we're not talking about something that exists outside of Christ's gracious gift of himself, whether that's the work of drawing us to him (prevenient grace), or the gift of union with him and the verdict that comes with it (justifying grace), or the increased holiness that comes through the ongoing relationship with him (sanctifying grace).

This is particularly timely as Christmas approaches. Grace is not a thing that Christ gives. Grace is Christ's gift of himself.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at

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