Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Paul’s Letters Assure Us of God’s Grace

By CLIFFORD M. YEARY, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published March 26, 2009

There is some debate as to whether babies learn to recognize a smiling face very early in life, or are in fact born with the capacity to recognize it as part of their genetic makeup.

In either case, a baby’s joy in recognizing a smiling face seems to be an important part of a bonding relationship between mother and child. This puts the baby on the path toward forming healthy relationships with other humans throughout life. Greeting a smiling face first thing in the morning is a joy at any age, and can be experienced even by those who live alone, if they possess a mirror!

In a letter addressed to the Christians of Philippi, perhaps as early as the year 55, Paul greeted all who would read or hear it with words meant to cheer them: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In every letter he wrote, Paul prayed for the recipients to receive the blessings of “grace” from God.

Of all the words that might characterize Paul’s thought, few could compete with grace and the many ways he used it. On a surface level, the Greek word for grace simply means “favor.” But from its deepest roots in the Old Testament, where there is more than one Hebrew word that would be translated into Greek as grace (charis), there is a very warm picture drawn for us of what it means to enjoy God’s favor.

In Psalm 31, a supplicant begs of God, “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your kindness” (verse 17). In Numbers 6:25, the blessing of God is pronounced upon Israel in this way: “The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!” The graciousness of God, the grace of God, begins with the image of a face benevolently shining upon those who are humble of stature. It is hard to imagine a face shining without a smile.

Imagine how a shining face might have been an experience of unexpected and unearned joy in ancient biblical times. A servant in a large household has dropped a clay pot on the floor, shattering it and spilling its precious contents in the master’s presence.

Looking up in fear of the master’s response, the servant discovers that his master is smiling, his face shining graciously. The servant has found “favor” with the master, at a time in which he might have only expected punishment.

Grace is God’s favor. Grace is discovering that God welcomes you into a loving, life-giving relationship without you having done anything to earn that favor. In fact, for any one of us who might examine our lives carefully, it is quite evident that God’s favor is undeserved.

Grace is not, however, an act of indulgence on God’s part. God is not a doddering old uncle who finds everything we do, no matter how careless or offensive, something to reward with his famous smile.

For Paul, God’s grace comes to us through the violent infliction of an unjust death: the crucifixion of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. “While we were enemies,” Paul tells us in Romans, “we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (5:10b).

In Romans 5, Paul traces the history of sin in the world. He tells us how death — which is far more than just the fact of our mortality, but rather the ultimate reality of our estrangement from God — came into the world through an original act of sinfulness.

Beginning with the first sin and extending to our own most recent sins, the deadly effects of sin have contaminated the entire human race.

Death reigns victorious everywhere because of sin. Despite the multitude of sins and the universality of death, by the grace of God, a single righteous act of one man, Jesus Christ, will bring all who believe to eternal life (verse 17). This act was Jesus enduring his crucifixion, which was a direct result of his obedient faithfulness to God.

Paul was personally convinced that grace is the power of God to transform us into the image of Christ even as we struggle with our weakness and imperfections in this life (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Paul gives thanks that the grace given the Corinthian Christians is such that there is no spiritual gift they will ever need, from now until the Lord’s return, that will be denied them.

This grace is something extremely powerful in our present lives as well. We, like the Corinthians, are assured that the One who gave us the Son will give us anything needed to reach our inheritance as children of God.

This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, Oct. 11, 2008. This is the fifth in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.