Is it possible that Paul’s most important and inspired treatise on God’s grace could be misunderstood by even those who through salvation believe in it? Is it best not to try an explanation but simply accept the Biblical emphasis of a salvation “by grace through faith” [Ephesians 2:8]? Could God’s gift, unearned and undeserved, still be confused as a reward for good works?
When Paul discussed this eternal truth with a mixed group of Stoic and Epicurean Greek philosophers, as far as they were concerned, he was a “babbler” [Acts 17:18] saying nothing meaningful. On the continuum of finding happiness and meaning in life (the philosopher’s quest) between seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake (Epicureanism) to seeking to live a virtuous and meaningful life in harmony with nature (stoicism) the message of grace could not be found! The word, babbler, itself, metaphorically depicts a crow going about picking what it would and flying off with it as if it had value to adorn its nest or to be eaten. To the Greeks, Paul sounded [1 Corinthians 1:23] stupid, silly, absurd, spouting useless and impractical nonsense. His puzzle piece did not fit their mental puzzle.
The message of grace was hard for the Greeks to comprehend because, even, the word Paul used to explain this divine gift in the classical sense meant a kindness which spoke of favoritism—something Paul, in no uncertain terms, was specifically not saying [Galatians 2:6; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25].
Even Peter caught this truth [1 Peter 1:17] though he found Paul, in terms of the Mosaic Law, difficult to understand. His profound honesty is noteworthy [2 Peter 3:15-16]:
“This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different.
Peter meant the Jewish deep thinkers, erroneously, understood Torah Law must be followed to gain divine favor for forgiveness. The Jews did not think Paul a fool because fools don’t believe in God and clearly Paul did. But they were offended. What he promoted was contrary to what they expected to hear him say. Paul’s teaching confused many of them because they understood God’s Law to be a system of punishments and rewards, not unearned and, certainly, not undeserved [Deuteronomy 27-30]. They argued:
“This man is persuading people to worship God in a way contrary to the law!” [Acts 18:13].
Let’s not kid ourselves here: God will take eternity to continue adding to our understanding of His grace [Ephesians 2:7] or as the NET translates “to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” But for now we must look at it as a puzzle with some pieces we have yet to put into place.
The Puzzle Frame
There is a process to putting a puzzle together—at least, we teach the children this. The first step is to identify the “frame” or the outer pieces which only attach on 3 sides, not four. This represent a border that helps complete the picture, as much as the artist intended we saw. For us, the picture of God’s grace is framed by a simple Bible truth, which, if we failed to see it as the outer boundary of our knowledge, we cannot put the picture of this beautiful truth together.
Jeremiah 17:10 NET “I, the LORD, probe into people’s minds. I examine people’s hearts. I deal with each person according to how he has behaved. I give them what they deserve based on what they have done.”
God is the “heart-knower.” [Acts 1:24 “Lord, you know the hearts of all.”]. Luke employed a new term in Acts 15:8
“And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,”
Many things we wish to know are not in this picture! How Lucifer became Satan or what life in the Garden of Eden was like before they sinned, or even what God meant calling Eve Adam’s “help” or the “oneness” God envisioned for them. These are outside the boundary of our puzzle, and like so many questions which the Bible doesn’t care to answer, these must await a fuller explanations when we sit at His feet. What we do know about Adam and Eve—to use our puzzle metaphor—is based on matching the color pattern to Christ and His church [Ephesians 5:32]. Meanwhile, if our thought is not a piece to this picture—if it has nothing to explain about God’s grace—God need not share it.