Pauline Studies

Grace and the Gift of Christ on the Cross: Insights from John Barclay for Good Friday

One of the most important books I have read in the last ten years is John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2018). The book is widely recognized in scholarly circles as a landmark contribution to Pauline studies. In particular, Barclay, a brilliant Anglican New Testament scholar, focuses on the meaning of the term translated “grace.” Here on Good Friday, I thought it would be helpful to discuss one of my favorite insights Barclay offers in his landmark monograph, namely, the connection between “grace” and the “cross” in Galatians.

Of course, Christian theological tradition has long reflected on the meaning of grace. When gathered together for worship, Christians frequently sing about the “amazing” nature of grace. Various fathers and doctors such as Augustine and Aquinas would go on to offer detailed reflections on grace. Aquinas, for example, would parse out the different types of “grace,” e.g., “actual grace,” “sanctifying grace,” “prevenient grace,” etc.

But what exactly does “grace” mean? Barclay helps root the terminology in Paul’s first-century Greco-Roman context.

A key point Barclay makes in his work is that the Greek term translated “grace,” charis, originally had the connotation of “gift”.[1] He shows that Paul often speaks of charis in connection with other Greek words linked to gift-giving.[2] Barclay shows how interpreting Paul’s teaching about grace against this backdrop of ancient gift-giving is illuminating.

Barclay’s treatment is fascinating and I keep returning to it.

Here on Good Friday, however, I wanted to look in particular at the way Barclay unpacks the connection between the cross and grace in Galatians 1.

Paul writes,

Paul an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the deadand all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace [charis] to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Gal 1:3–5)

Galatians 1:3-5

Barclay spotlights the way Paul speaks of the “grace” given to believers in connection with “our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself“. As Barclay explains, the “grace” believers receive is “identified as a gift-event, focalized in the specific story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”[3]

Barclay goes on to focus attention on how this imagery gets picked up in Galatians 2:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave [paradontos] himself for me.”

Galatians 2:20

For Paul, the cross represents the gift of Christ–Christ gives himself as a gift of love.[4]

In other words, the “grace”–the “gift”–given by God is the gift par excellence. It is nothing less than the gift of Christ himself. He offers himself as a gift on the cross, where he gives himself for believers. However, Christ’s “giving” is not terminated with the cross. The gift has its source in the cross, but extends from there as Christ continues his giving of self in the life of believers; he gives himself to be in them to empower them to live new lives by faith.

All of this underscores why today can be properly called, “Good Friday.” From a worldly perspective, it would seem anything but “good.” The Messiah is apparently crushed and defeated. But from Paul’s perspective, today actually represents his victory. Christ gave himself on the cross and thus commenced his giving himself to believers who, by grace, share in his victory.

There is so much I would like to say about the implications of Barclay’s work. Brant Pitre, John Kincaid, and I draw from him extensively in our recent book, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 2019; see, especially, pp. 43-44, 134-35; 167-69). I also draw from him in my other new book, Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019; see especially pp. 10-11, 73). I might also mention that Barclay also gets a number of mentions in the video Bible study series that is based on my new book (Salvation: New Life in Christ, which can be watched for a limited time on Suffice it to say, I think lay Catholics can learn a lot from Barclay’s work – I think we all can. If you are interested in going deeper, you might want to check out those resources.

Have a blessed Good Friday!

[1] See John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015). See also earlier works which set the table for the discussion in this book, including, John Barclay, “Under Grace,” in Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5–8,ed. B. Gaventa (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013), 59–76; idem, “Grace and the Transformation of Agency in Christ,” in Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities: Essays in Honor of Ed Parish Sanders, eds. F. E. Udoh, S. Heschel, M. Chancey, and G. Tatum (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 384 [372–89]

[2] See, e.g., Romans 5: charis in 5:15, 17, 21; charisma, 5:15, 16; dōrea, 5:15; dōrēma, 5:16.

[3] Barclay, Paul and the Gift,352.

[4] That Jesus’ death is in view is confirmed the language of crucifixion. See, e.g.,  J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 33A; New Haven;  London: Yale University Press, 2008), 259.

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