Paul & the Power of Grace

John M. Barclay

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020. 202 pages. Paperback. $22.00.

Reviewed by Paul Deterding on 05/18/2021

John M. G. Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, England, presents this volume as both a compendium of and a further elaboration of his earlier work, Paul and the Gift (2015). He focuses not simply on the Greek word charis and its synonyms but broadens his view to the variety of ways in which the apostle speaks of the concept of grace. His major focus (three chapters each) is on the letters to the Galatians and to the Romans.

Early on, he notes six possible meanings to the concept of pure grace or grace alone (he uses the term perfections): (1) Superabundance—Grace is without limit. Certainly, any understanding of grace in the Pauline sense must include this (2 Corinthians 9:8, 14; Romans 5:15–20). (2) Singularity—Grace is the only characteristic of God; this, of course, would give us a caricature of God and might even lead to universalism. (3) Priority—The gift of grace is given before any initiative is taken by the recipient. This would certainly be in harmony with passages such as Romans 4:10–12 and Galatians 3:15–17. (4) Incongruity—Human gifts are ordinarily given to those who in some way are deemed worthy of a gift. God’s grace is given to the undeserving. This is the “perfection” to which Barclay (rightly) gives the most emphasis. (5) Efficacy—The gift of grace produces a change in the recipient. This raises the question as to why God’s grace produces change in some but not others. Taking note of the dogmatic distinction that God’s word/grace is always efficacious but (due to mankind’s ability to reject God’s grace) not always effective would have been helpful here. (6) Noncircularity—A gift is given without any expectation of reciprocity on the part of the recipient. Is that true of God’s grace, or is there an “expectation” of the recipient responding with thanksgiving and renewal of life? More emphasis on the truth that God’s grace, given freely and without any expectation/requirement of any return, changes the spiritually dead into spiritually alive people who then become willing and able to respond with thanksgiving and holiness of life would have been helpful here (distinguishing justification and sanctification).

We Lutherans often use grace language, including language about the “perfect” nature of God’s grace (“grace alone,” “sheer grace,” “pure grace,” perhaps even “perfect grace”). Barclay provides much food for thought here. What do our listeners hear when we speak of grace? Do we speak in such a way that our listeners hear in our proclamation all of the correct “perfections” (and none of the incorrect ones)?

Although I believe that the author’s language could have been clearer, he does point out that the incongruity of God’s grace in Christ does produce a change in the believer, so that the Christian “gives back” the appropriate response of thanksgiving and sanctified living. I found the connections Barclay draws between the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 with Paul’s further instruction in chapter 6 of that same letter to be particularly helpful.

For its clarifying what the Scriptures mean (and do not mean) by grace, I found the reading of this book rewarding. The author guides his readers to greater precision in their own preaching and teaching.