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Does grace despise virtue?

gift-givingIn our mid-size group in our church we are using the Pilgrim Course to study the Lord’s Prayer. This week we were reflecting on ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’, and we were directed to explore the so-called parable of the Prodigal Son (really, the parable of the Forgiving Father) in Luke 15.11–31. Because the passage is very well known, instead of reading it and sharing our thoughts (as we were told to do) we decided to act it out, with individuals taking the parts, and others imagining themselves in the roles as they watched.

Someone who was inhabiting the perspective of the father pointed us to the restless compassion that he felt towards both of his sons, reflecting the way that Luke actually puts the word ‘compassion’ at the centre of the story. But the responses of the sons were perhaps the most unsettling. The person in the role of the elder son commented ‘I couldn’t really hear what the father was saying to me, since I felt so angry at the younger brother, the way he had acted and the fact that he had been received back.’ And the person in the role of the younger son was also aware of this; this person was struck by the ‘unfairness’ of the situation; after all, the younger son had simply asked to come and work as a servant.

This is exactly the challenge of grace, and it is one that John Barclay highlights in his substantial volume Paul and the Gift and in his forthcoming Grove booklet on Paul and the Subversive Power of Grace, which I will return to more fully in a future post. Barclay makes this comment on gifts and worth:

It was very common in Paul’s world to speak of the worth of the recipient. Gifts should be given lavishly but discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients. ‘Worth’ could be defined in different ways, according to a number of criteria—ethnicity, social status, age, gender, moral virtue, beauty or success. Just as, today, prizes might be awarded on different grounds (for musical, literary, sporting or academic achievement) but keep their value only if they are given discriminately, to people worthy of them, so the good gift in antiquity was normally given according to some criterion of worth. And this was true also of the gifts of God (or the gods). God would hardly waste gifts on the unfitting, or confuse the moral or social order by giving to unworthy recipients. It was obvious to ancient philosophers that God’s best gifts would be given to those who are free (not slaves), to the educated, the male, the virtuous and the grateful. If you receive a divine gift, it is ‘because you are worth it.’

For this reason, the most subversive gift is the gift given without regard to worth (what I described above as the fourth possible radicalization of grace, ‘incongruity’). If you expect God to give the best gifts to the freeborn adult and educated male, but if you find that, in fact, these gifts are given both to the free and to slaves, both to adults and to children, both to the educated and to the uneducated, both to males and to females, your whole notion of worth, and thus your social values, is thrown into disarray. It might be thought exceptionally generous of God that his gifts go, as it were, all the way down these various scales of worth, but this would also make you wonder if God has any standards at all, or if God’s scale of values is different from your own. And if you find, in practice, that God has singled out people at the ‘bottom’ of your system of worth, it undercuts all that you have taken for granted as symbols of value. If the Pope takes time from meeting ‘important’ people to visit prisoners in a Philadelphia jail (as in September 2015), that challenges your assumptions as to who counts as ‘important.’ If an Oscar is given to an older actress, common notions of the superiority of youth are undercut. And if a literary prize is given to someone who has written only in Urdu, that overturns widespread assumptions about the cultural superiority of the West. (pp 6–7)

In other words, the whole notion of God’s grace appears to threaten our notions of fairness, and undercut our sense of moral order—and we felt this keenly in our engagement with Luke 15.


But it is also worth noting exactly how this has been received within the reformed tradition of Christian theology, at least in popular devotion. Because God disregards our lack of moral worth in order to bestow his grace (so our logic goes) then God also disregards any presence of moral worth that we have. Within this tradition, one of the go-to verses is Is 64.6:

All our righteous acts are like filthy rags…

This position assumes that grace despises virtue—or at the very least is blind to it, both before and after conversion. Firstly, our ‘good deeds’ have no importance to God prior to our conversion, despite what we might have thought, and, secondly, our acts of virtue (so the logic goes) have little significance before God after conversion either. For us to vest them with any importance either before or after coming to faith is to undermine the ‘offence’ of God’s grace.

These two assertions (the ‘before’ and the ‘after’) are, in fact, a misreading of grace. In response to the second, Barclay himself highlights the fact the, whilst grace is unconditioned in that it is offered without regard to the worth of the recipient, it is not in fact unconditional, in that it does ask for a response. In response to the first, I was recently struck by Jesus’ (and the gospels’) estimation of virtuous people. According to the kind of ‘reformed’ view outlined above, Jesus ought to respond to people of virtue by telling them that their virtue counts for nothing, and they need to repent and believe just as the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ need to. Is that in fact how he responds?


There is no doubt that Jesus reserves severe words for those ‘who supposed they were righteous’, and Luke is particularly clear on this. In Luke 5:32, Jesus explains that ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 is, Luke tells us, directed at a particular group:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable… (Luke 18:9)

Yet Luke himself has a distinct interest in virtue. The birth narratives a full of people of virtue, who are waiting expectantly for God. Zechariah and Elizabeth are ‘righteous before the Lord, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly’ (Luke 1.6). Simeon was ‘righteous and devout’ (Luke 2.25). Matthew echoes some of this in describing Joseph as ‘righteous’ in Matt 1.19.

Luke sustains this distinct interest at some key moments in the gospel and in Acts. In the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, Luke includes an emphasis on the virtue of the centurion and the good deeds he has done, an emphasis that Matthew omits and instead focusses on the man’s ‘faith’. In a curious (perhaps not coincidental?) parallel, in Acts 10 Cornelius the centurion is also presented as virtuous:

The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God–fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people.” (Acts 10:22)

There are other examples, too, including the scribe in Mark 12, who questions Jesus and answers with insight, and receives Jesus’ approval and commendation: ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12.34).


Grace might indeed challenge our assumptions about its intent and target—who is ‘worthy’ of this incomparable gift of the love of God in Jesus. But in terms of its goals, perhaps grace is less chaotic than we think, or than we might like—perhaps uncomfortably so.


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10 Responses to Does grace despise virtue?

  1. Mat Sheffield June 23, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    “….whilst grace is unconditioned in that it is offered without regard to the worth of the recipient, it is not in fact unconditional, in that it does ask for a response.”

    And therein lies the problem with the church today I feel. I cannot think of the last time I heard a “gospel presentation” or went to a lively and charismatic evangelical church where these two ideas were thought of, or expounded in preaching, together. Grace is freely given and undeserved. Yes. But it puts us under obligation as a result. It is not the Gospel if there is no incentive/challenge/provocation to live differently as a result of receiving the gift….

    Good Article, I’m a big fan of Barclay’s work.

  2. John Percival June 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    You make some excellent points here, similar to what Kevin DeYoung (The Hole in our Holiness) and Mark Jones (Antinomianism) wrote a few years ago against the ‘lutheran’ views of Tullian Tchividian (One Way Love). Kevin’s book at a popular level and Mark’s at a more academic level demonstrate the way reformed writers have traditionally spoken about these matters.

    http://www.reformation21.org/articles/the-hole-in-our-holiness.php
    http://www.reformation21.org/articles/my-offer-to-publicly-debate.php
    https://theweeflea.com/2013/10/30/boring-grace-a-review-of-one-way-love-inexhaustible-grace-for-an-exhausted-world/

  3. Rick Stordy June 23, 2016 at 5:14 pm #

    Ian – and others! – you might be interested to see that many ‘Reformed’ would agree with you! That bastion of Reformed evangelical orthodoxy, the Gospel Coalition had a helpful article on just this pony a while ago – and particularly with a better exegesis of Isa 64:6 – check out https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/ministry-god-does-not-view-your-labors-as-filthy-rags!

  4. Rick Stordy June 23, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

    That should have referred to a point rather than a pony (apologies). A fun typo however…

  5. David Shepherd June 23, 2016 at 10:42 pm #

    The real problem here is discovering exactly what Paul meant by righteousness. Certainly, ‘diikaiosunes’ is not focused on virtue (arete), but on avoiding offence and according due honour to God.

    So, Cornelius and other NT characters were considered righteous because their intentions and gestures, however imperfect, expressed a heartfelt intention to honour to God. God’s response was to send His servants to help them along that path.

    Righteousness of faith is as Paul explained to Felix: ‘So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. While desirable, that resolve to avoid offence and to show God reverence doesn’t amount to merit.

    In the parable which Ian mentions, behind the Pharisee’s self-flattery was the sin of presumption. It is this self-affirming presumption which Paul probes so sharply in Romans 2.

    As I’ve stated before, I would really recommend reading Eric A. Havelock’s ‘The Greek Concept of Justice’.

    He writes of Homer’s Odyssey and Ilead:
    ‘Both epics, however, are very far from identifying “justice” as a principle with a priori foundations, whether conceived as the necessary “rule of law” or as a moral sense in man. These “justices” administered in the plural by kings (archaistically) or by magistrates (realistically) are processes not principles, solving specifics, not applying general laws; they express themselves in negotiated settlement of rival claims. They operate to restore proprieties in human relationships’

    That last sentence is very significant to the NT. As an example of dikaiosunes, Havelock describes King Menelaus’ grievance with Antilochus’ obstructive cornering in the chariot race at the Funeral Games (Ilead book 23). After the race, Menelaus demands that Antilochus should declare under oath that he did not race obstructively.

    Antilochus promptly declines to make such an oath, but in seeking reconciliation, admits that his youthful impetuosity was the cause of his audacious and dangerous manoeuvre. As a conciliatory gesture, he offers prize (a mare) for second place to Menelaus.

    In the same spirit of reconciliation and with his honour restored, Menelaus graciously returns the horse to Antilochus,, thereby concluding the dispute. He says: ‘so all may know my heart is never over-proud or unyielding’.

    Instead of relying on self-exoneration, Antilochus simply relied on Menelaus’ to exercise leniency. It was a righteousness of faith

    Dikaiosunes is not an exercise in averting a judge’s criminal penalty, but in dissipating grievance by publicly mediating the dishonour and injury caused, instead of allowing it to be ignored or trivialised.

    The cross of Christ is the horrific reminder that, despite God’s desire to forgive, offense against God is neither ignored or trivialised. In fact, grace should teaches us: ‘to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, (Titus 2:12)
    :

  6. Clint Redwood June 24, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    I think I am only just beginning to understand the full implications of grace, and I realise that this is a subject that the church in general understands very little, and the vote to leave the EU perhaps suggests that the broader public understands it less.

    I think it’s interesting that you use the word “obligation” in regard to the recipients of grace. What I have recently understood, is that there are two kinds of obligation, and we have to be very careful how we phrase this.

    Grace received is a free gift, and comes with no “legal” obligation to do anything, otherwise it would not be grace. There can not be any strings attached. Unconditional is unconditional.

    However, when we have received grace, there should be an response – an increase of love in the receipent. Jesus said of the woman who washed his feet, that those who have been forgiven much have much love. This love then, is what should drive an obligation towards virtue of all kinds.

    We as a church have been very poor at explaining grace in unconditional terms. We talk of grace, but only if you then follow our rules. Thus the recipients of grace do not fully understand the radical nature of that grace, and have a sense that their forgiveness, worth and love is conditional on following the “church’s way” then they have not fully received the grace thy have been given through Christ, and as such the love response is often retarded.

    Thus we do not serve the poor out of love, but out of a fear that to not do so is somehow wrong.

    When James talks of a faith without works being worthless, I suspect he means that he means that if you have not been motivated to virtuous acts out of love and gratitude for the grace given to you, then you have not fully understood your faith.

    • David Shepherd June 24, 2016 at 2:46 pm #

      Clint,

      I suspect that the bone of contention here is the nature of the redemption. Does the gift of God offer just unconditional redemption from the penalty of sin, or does it also redeem us from the power of sin?

      In the parable of the Sower, Christ warns of those who might misunderstand what His unconditional offer accomplishes: ‘Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.” (Luke 8:18)

      So, while we all may falter (cf. Ps. 73), when properly understood, redemption unconditionally engenders spiritual perseverance against sin and towards fruitfulness, through the agency of divine insight, character-forming hardship and instruction.

      Absent such evidence of perseverance towards fruitfulness (from sorrow over sin to sheer delight in our restored and sustained fellowship with God and reconciliation with others) and the mere assertion of an alternative salvation which unconditionally engenders persistence in self-indulgent willfulness is bogus.

      This is why, in respect of the ancient Israelites, St. Paul explains to the Corinthians :

      For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

      Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ,b as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

      These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Cor. 10:1 – 12)

  7. Will Jones June 24, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

    Thanks Ian, helpful discussion. This is such a thorny, recurring issue, especially for Reformed Christians. The moral implications of grace and virtue can often seem in tension and leave Christians sharply disagreeing over the correct response to a moral lapse.

    Sorry to go off topic but I wanted to let you know about something I became aware of yesterday.

    I was at the CofE national HR network gathering at Church House, and I was in a session with two of the top HR figures at the NCIs. They were talking about culture change at the NCIs and finding a common vision and values. I was concerned by what I heard. There appears to be a strong move to construe the National Church Institutions as an ordinary secular employer. While they were clear about the need to be committed to furthering the aims of the church, they studiously avoid any reference to God, faith and prayer, for example. There was a clear desire to emphasise not just that you don’t have to be a Christian to work there (obviously true) and that all should be made welcome (equally obvious) but that it doesn’t in any way help to be a Christian (how can a sound theology possibly allow this?), and that we should be indifferent to how many Christians work there and how much influence they have. They seemed uncomfortable that I should even raise this as a question. There was a clear desire to limit the number of positions with a faith Occupational Requirement, and to see the workforce be ‘more representative’ of the country in order to be ‘more relevant’. They had taken steps to ensure that it was clear that important meetings (e.g. about finance) did not need to start with prayer. They even happily reported that a junior administrator had been disciplined for offering to pray with someone who was distressed on the phone, saying that it was unprofessional (when pressed they added that they didn’t have a DBS check and said that if people wanted prayer they should go to their priest). The list of values to which as an organisation they now say they are committed includes curiosity but not faith, prayer or worship. When I enquired about this they said those are not inclusive, and were unmoved by the point that values are things we aspire to and wish everyone to aspire to, and that as Christians we do aspire for all to be prayerful, have faith and worship and that we can be inclusive while still having these as values in the workplaces we are responsible for, especially ones running churches. It was clear that there was a strong drive for the National Church Institutions to be conceived as solidly secular workplaces. Yet these are the institutions which play a big role in how the Church is run, and it is surely true that while you don’t have to be a Christian to work for them and be committed to their vision, it really helps. They wouldn’t agree with this statement when it was put to them.

    Anyway, you may well disagree, but as a member of Archbishops’ Council I wanted to let you know what I’d heard and my concerns. Hope that’s ok.

  8. Simon Foster June 26, 2016 at 8:45 am #

    I find ‘grace’ a word for when God works in ways I can’t imagine. That makes grace a concept that’s useful in discernment of experience, and in preparing oneself to see Gods action when one might otherwise miss it.

    I fear that codifying how it works necessarily limits it to what we can imagine, rather than what God can do? I always assumed this was one reason why Jesus and the gospels work with stories – like the Prodigal Son – so much.

  9. Paul June 29, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    An aspect of this emerged on Sunday morning whilst preaching from Revelation 19, and it was good to remind ourselves that the Church, as the Bride of Christ, is beautified by the righteous deeds of the saints. Our ‘good works’ are like a bride preparing herself on her wedding day, that she might be delightful for her husband, and these good works were prepared in advance for us (Ephesians 2:10 …straight after the ‘grace not works’ verses 8-9!)

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