A brief thought on the meaning of “grace”

And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the grace [Greek charis] of God was upon him. –Luke 2:40

This verse is one of the rare descriptions of Jesus’ childhood found in the New Testament. Many English translations (ESV, NIV, etc.) render the Greek word charis here as “favor,” although the standard translation of this word in other contexts is “grace.” This is understandable, given that it is hard to see how the sinless Savior could have received grace from God. The meaning of grace is a contested issue, which is complicated by the fact that the Bible nowhere gives it a precise definition. Exactly what is grace?

In truth, I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to a single definition. Within the Reformed tradition, it has been taken in the broad sense of God’s loving and benevolent posture toward all his creation. On the other hand, it has also been taken in the narrow sense of God’s redemptive response toward sin. If we limit ourselves to this narrow definition, it would be inappropriate to speak of “grace” in God’s original covenant with Adam. But if Christ as the Second Adam was able to receive grace from God (which was surely not “grace” in the sense of mercy toward a sinner), could not the first Adam have as well?

This was the perspective taken by many of the early church fathers, including those in the Alexandrian tradition like Athanasius (On the Incarnation of the Word 1.3) and Cyril (Commentary on John 1.32-33). These men acknowledged that Adam was originally created in a state of grace, although his continuation in that state depended on his perfect obedience. This in turn might have important implications for how we derive our systematic and hermeneutical categories from the text of Scripture.

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