When debating Gothardites on the topic of grace, often the first text they cite is James 4:6b: “‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,’” (ESV). It is also usually the one text they keep coming back to in support of their assertion that grace is not freely given, unmerited favor, but rather is a desire and power to do God’s will that is earned or merited.
When someone rightly tells them that biblical grace is actually defined as “unmerited favor,” they simply quote James 4:6b. When someone replies that “merited grace” or “earned grace” is a contradiction in terms, they quote James 4:6b. When someone points out that the entire biblical teaching on salvation becomes a system of works-righteousness if their understanding of this one verse is correct, they continue quoting James 4:6b.
It is their magic bullet. It is their number one proof-text. In fact, it’s their only proof-text since the entire weight of biblical teaching opposes the notion that grace can be earned by anything we are or do. So they retreat into James 4:6b as if it were an impregnable refuge against every other biblical text and against every theological argument. As if this one statement in this one half of this one verse is the keyhole through which we must read everything else that the Bible has to say on the subject of grace.
To them, the text is a neat and tidy summary of their view: you supply the humility and in response God will supply the grace—which, by the way, in their view is not God’s attitude of loving favor in spite of your sin, but rather His spiritual jet fuel, His sanctifying caffeine, His Heavenly Red Bull®, simultaneously motivating you and empowering you to solve life’s problems and achieve success in life.
And who doesn’t want to solve their problems and be successful? There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?
Nothing Succeeds Like Success
Now, Gothardites will come back at you here and say something like, “We’re talking about success in God’s terms, not the world’s.” And that sounds all well and good until you see how they put their interpretation into practice.
Your business went bankrupt? Well, it’s obviously not God’s perfect will for Christians to go bankrupt, so you must have violated Gothard’s “non-optional” principles of life that all lead back to humbling yourself so you can get “the desire and power to do God’s will” (cf. Basic Seminar Textbook, page 6).
Your marriage fell apart? Ditto.
So where did you go wrong? Well, for starters, if you were really humble you would have followed God’s chain of command. Perhaps you missed the diagram on page 18 of the Basic Seminar Textbook which shows how humility is linked to the chain of command, along with the exposition that follows on obeying God’s delegated authorities in your life. God would have protected you from all these problems if you’d only humbled yourself and done what you were told.
You get the idea.
This approach to grace not only takes our eyes off its biblical purpose, which exposes our fundamental problem as a condition of utter moral failure that is so hopeless that in ourselves we have neither the desire nor the strength to do anything that is good, including humbling ourselves in order to see our real problem (Romans 3:10-18), but it also shifts our focus to the same criteria of success in solving our perceived problems that is the obsession of every unbeliever.
In other words: Gothardism is worldliness. But then, all legalism is.
Watch Your Steps
There is a parallel to this in the 12-Step recovery groups that were spawned by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 20th century. The first step in the AA program is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.” Now I’m not saying that there is nothing beneficial in AA, or that it hasn’t helped anyone. I’m simply asking the question: what is the criteria of success for AA? Well, technically speaking, it cannot be that you are successful once you are no longer powerless over alcohol, because one of AA’s central tenets is that you will always be powerless over alcohol: “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” So, the only criterion of success that’s left is for your life to become manageable again. That’s a pretty low bar.
This is a case of your starting point determining your ending point. If you begin with the assumption that your biggest problem in life is that you can’t manage it, then you’re likely to feel quite successful once you’ve solved that problem. So, you can achieve success in every step of the AA program, even making a list of people you’ve harmed and making amends to them, and never even hear about your desperate need of forgiveness from the God of all creation. It’s not part of the program.
A Gothardite might respond at this point that Gothard certainly teaches that we need God’s forgiveness and that we can only get it through Christ. And I would reply by saying that I was not trying to press my AA analogy so far as to deny this about Gothard.
On the other hand, it’s no exaggeration to say that forgiveness in Christ, the core truth of the Gospel, is far from the central focus of Gothard’s teaching. It’s also no exaggeration to say that Gothard does not treat forgiveness in Christ as the one, central thing that motivates and guides each step in our lives. He does not treat our growth in understanding and appreciating Christ’s forgiveness as the standard by which our spiritual maturity is measured, because it is the root from which all spiritual growth springs. Instead, he’s replaced it with an endless list of principles and procedures that put the focus on our ability to generate humility and obedient conformity to an unbiblical chain of command. Is it any wonder that the more deeply people go into Gothardism, the more tightly the chains of spiritual bondage constrain them?
So What About the Text?
Because Gothard has been so successful in misusing James 4:6b to advance his system of legalistic bondage, this text requires careful study. The first thing to notice about it, particularly the most relevant portion, its second half (“[God] gives grace to the humble”), is that it says none of the things that Gothardites want it to say. It does not say that grace is “the desire and power to do God’s will.” It does not even define what “grace” is.
Nor does it say that grace is given to the humble because humility earns or merits grace. There is no talk here of us supplying the humility so that God can supply the grace. All the text does is identify the kind of people to whom God is gracious. It does not indicate how they came to be that way.
So, first of all, how do we define grace? We can begin by looking closely at what James wrote in the context of both the language he used and the language in which his quote originated.
Looking at the Original Text
In the original Greek, James 4:6b (“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”) is virtually identical to the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text of Proverbs 3:34b, which is found in the Septuagint. The only difference is that James substitutes “God” (Greek: ho theos; ὁ θεὸς) where the Septuagint has “Lord” (kurios; κύριος). (Note: Peter also quotes Proverbs 3:34b in 1 Peter 5:5, and his wording is virtually identical to James’s wording.)
The Septuagint, in turn, provides a rather loose translation of the first half of Proverbs 3:34b, but a more precise rendering of the latter half. The original Hebrew is accurately translated as, “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor,” (ESV). It is the latter half, which is very precisely rendered, that concerns us here.
The word translated “favor” from the Hebrew here is chen (Hebrew: חֵן; the “ch” is pronounced as in “Bach”). The Septuagint translated it into Greek as charis (Greek: χάρις; again, “ch” as in “Bach”), which is normally rendered “grace,” and that’s the rendering that appears in James 4:6b.
It is important to note that neither the Hebrew chen nor the Greek charis are defined as “the desire and power to do God’s will.” You will not find these definitions in any of the standard lexicons. But you will find both words defined as “favor,” which in turn is defined as “a beneficent disposition toward someone” (Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich [BDAG] Greek-English Lexicon, page 1079). This, in fact, is what both words mean when they speak of God’s relationship to His people: His persistent, habitual inclination to love His children and to meet all their needs. That’s what God’s grace is.
Yes, God does give us the desire and power to do His will (Philippians 2:13), but He does not give us those things as His grace, but because of His grace. It is as easy to understand this as it is to understand the distinction between “favor” and “favors.” If I “favor” certain people, that means I am positively disposed toward them. I like them. And if I like them, I want to do things to show them that I like them—things called “favors.”
But this still leaves us with the question of how we get God’s grace. How can we hope to be on the receiving end of His favor, His inclination to love and care for His own? Do we have to earn it?
Irony of Ironies!
The answer to this question begins with understanding the significance of the word “humble.” I’ve already noted that the word humble identifies the kind of people to whom God is gracious. So what kind of person are we talking about?
In both Hebrew and Greek, the words translated “humble” mean to be “brought low,” or “bowed down.” Our English word, derived from the Latin humilis, had the same meaning in its etymological history. In relation to God we are brought low, and thus humbled, when we realize the gravity of our sinfulness.
In other words, the humble person is the one who knows the evil of his own heart well enough to realize that he can’t earn or merit anything from God. Ironically, the fact that grace is not only God’s attitude of favor, but unmerited favor, is staring at us in the face every time we read the word “humble” in James 4:6b. After reading all the Bible has to say about our sinfulness, it takes a very arrogant form of spiritual blindness to miss this.
But there is even more irony here. One of the ways we know that the word for “grace” in the New Testament, charis (χάρις), is purely unearned and unmerited is because it is a close relative of one of Paul’s favorite words for “gift:” charisma (χάρισμα). In fact, the word so strongly emphasizes the unearned nature of the gift that it is often translated “free gift” (e.g., Romans 6:23 ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NLT). It is “that which is freely and graciously given” (BDAG, page 1081).
As Douglas J. Moo comments on this text: “God’s gift of sustaining grace is enjoyed only by those willing to admit their need and accept the gift,” (The Letter of James, page 191). And a gift, by definition, cannot be earned or merited, or it would cease to be a gift.
And that’s exactly what happens to God’s grace in Gothardism.
God Humbles the Proud
One final point needs to made. God does not wait for us to humble ourselves before he moves in our lives with His saving grace. He did not wait for the proud and arrogant Saul of Tarsus to stop “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” and humble himself before He brought him low by knocking him to the ground and blinding him to get his attention (Acts 9:1ff.). God humbled Saul, and that in itself was showing Saul unmerited favor. Saul had earned God’s wrath for what He was doing, but he received His salvation.
Going all the way back to the beginning, God established a pattern of humbling those to whom He wants to show grace. Before they entered the Promised Land, Moses reminded the Israelites who, in a previous generation had arrogantly refused to believe that God would protect them that, “…he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna…” (Deuteronomy 8:3, ESV). God Himself had declared that they merited complete destruction, and had even offered to start over with Moses as the father of a new nation to replace Israel (Exodus 32:10). But now that they were humbled by God they would receive even more grace as they took possession of the land (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
Yes, it’s true that we are commanded to humble ourselves (James 4:10), but that’s a command given to believers who have already been humbled by a gracious God. And the purpose of the command is not to show us how to earn grace, but how to be lifted up from the misery of our sin by His unmerited favor into an eternal, loving relationship that can never be lost by anything we do, because it was never earned in the first place.
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