What does it mean to say that grace is a gift? What does grace as gift have to do with justice? When I was growing up I was told that we are all sinners who are unable before God to pay the price of our sins, and so God graciously pays on our behalf by sacrificing Jesus in our place. God is gracious because God paid on our behalf, and grace is a gift because we are undeserving.
In the epistle to the Romans, Paul offers a different view from the one summarized above. In the text Paul tries to draw a distinction between a transactional relationship (like that of a worker and their boss) and a relationship established on the basis of grace. The latter provides the appropriate language with which to understand the gift of God’s grace as disclosed in the gospel. Paul points to the figure of Abraham to explain what it means for God’s grace to be a gift and how this grace is tied to justice. In Genesis, when God promises many descendants to Abraham, Abraham’s trust in this promise is reckoned as justice. This is explicitly contrasted with the relationship between a worker and their boss: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5) Abraham does not give something to God and receive justification in return, nor does Abraham’s faithful response to God’s promise count as a gift to God, for God need’s nothing. Grace is the form of all of God’s actions. It is a gift because it is free.
Despite his aging, failing body, Abraham trusted God’s promise to make him the father of many nations. He did not doubt God’s power as the sole creator of all things, the power to give “life to the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). In doing so, Abraham does the opposite of those Paul describes in Romans 1, who have not recognized or abided by the qualitative distinction between God’s eternal power and majesty and their own finitude and mortality, but instead have raised the latter as an idol. This is opposed to justice which exists in relying on God’s power. To trust God’s promise is to rely on God’s power, and by implication accept one’s own limitations. Idolatry may mean here making things which obscure our own limitations, and instead cast creaturely life as God. In the process we do great harm to others. Trust in God’s power is linked to justice because in trusting/recognizing divine infinity, we recognize our own finitude and relate to fellow creatures on that basis. That God alone holds the power to create out of nothing and to raise the dead implies a creaturely solidarity, stemming from the gift of grace—God’s free action. And just as Abraham was justified in trusting God to give life to his aging body, so “it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4:24). Resurrection discloses the justice of God because it reveals God’s freedom. Jesus trusted God without fail and his faithfulness was affirmed by his resurrection.
For us, trusting in God’s power to raise him from the dead entails recognizing the difference between God’s creative power and our own limitations. We are not to take the place of God, and we are to treat others as our similarly limited, fellow creatures. This disposition is justice.