Salvation is a gift. The righteousness of justification (Romans 5:17) and eternal life (Romans 6:23) are gifts freely offered.
According to Risto Saarinen (God and the Gift), “God is directly called the giver 104 times [in Scripture], of which 42 are in John’s Gospel and John’s Letters. In addition to these, the so-called divine passive . . . often occurs as an indirect reference to divine giving. Jesus Christ is presented as the giver 68 times, of which 26 are in John. Moreover, Jesus is portrayed as the receiver of what God gives 28 times in John.” The God revealed in the cross, in the resurrection, and at Pentecost is the God who gives. He is, as James calls Him, the “giving God” (James 1:5, 17).
But the gifts of God are not limited to redemption. Creation itself is a gift, and all of God’s providences are also gifts. Luther’s Small Catechism asks, What does it mean to believe in God the Father? The answer is, to believe is to recognize Him as giver, and to respond with thanks, service, and obedience: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.”
Even this doesn’t go far enough, since God did not begin to be a giving God when He created the world as a recipient of His gifts. God has eternally been the giving God. The inner life of God is revealed in the fact that He gives us good gifts; and the inner life of God is especially revealed in the way that the Father, Son, and Spirit interact in the economy of redemption.
The Father gives His Son to us, and the Son whom He gives is the Son to whom He has given all things, the Spirit without measure (John 3:34-35); the Father has given Jesus life and authority to judge (John 5:26-27). By His resurrection and ascension, Jesus receives from the Father headship over the Church and over all things (Ephesians 1:22). Through the resurrection the Father has given Jesus glory (1 Peter 1:21), glory that He had shared with the Father from all eternity. Specifically, at the baptism of Jesus, the Father poured out the gift of the Spirit on the Son, and this economic event suggests that the Spirit is the gift mutually exchanged by the Father and Son, whose fellowship and love are constituted and eternally new because of the eternal reciprocity of the gift of the Spirit.
As Saarinen says, Jesus is set in all three positions in the gift exchange: He is the giver, the gift itself, and the recipient of gifts from the Father. This is just another way of saying that Jesus is the mediator: That is, He is the one midpoint, the one who both receives gifts from the Father, and passes on, hands over (paradidomi, traditio) those gifts to His people.
Human beings are made in the image of this giving God, and this suggests that giving, reception, and return are part of the cycle of human existence as well. Man is created as a recipient of gifts; Adam’s very existence is a gift that God is not constrained to give, a gift that does not meet any lack in God’s being. Man is fundamentally a recipient – “what do you have that you did not receive?”
The radical character of the reception here must not go unnoticed: As Milbank points out, creation is an utterly unilateral gift, in that there is no recipient prior to the gift. At the human level, “gift” and “obligation” are contrasted: Repaying a debt is not the same as giving a gift. Because God is God, self-sufficient and transcendent, this logic does not apply. As Milbank says, “gratuity arises before necessity or obligation and does not even require the contrast in order to be comprehensible. The creature as creature is not the recipient of a gift, it is itself this gift. . . . since there is no preceding recipient, the spirit is a gift to a gift and the gifting of giving oneself to oneself, which is the only way consciously to live being as a gift and so to be spirit.”
And this, Milbank argues, means that human existence, insofar as it is human reception and response, is simply gratitude: “one knows that one is not all of possible knowing and willing and feeling and moreover that, since our share of these things is what we are, we do not really command them, after the mode of a recipient of possessions. Hence to will, know, and feel is to render gratitude, else we would refuse ourselves as constituted as gift. Such gratitude to an implied infinite source can only be, as gratitude, openness to an unlimited reception from this source which is tantamount to a desire to know the giver.” Later, Milbank emphasizes that the gift of a created being is “so unilateral that it gives even the recipient and the possibility of her gratitude.”
For human beings, gratitude is always prior to gift; gratitude is the stance from which gifts are given. Human beings are made to stand outside ourselves, to mimic and to seek another. We are a social being, made in the image of a Creator who is eternally gift and giving. Hence, our life is bound up with gift exchange. Created as recipient of gift, created as gift, man’s primary stance in the creation is to return thanks for what he received from God. Paul characterizes original sin as “refusal to honor God as God” and refusal to “give thanks” (Rom 1:21). Man was created to gift thanks, created as a priest – as Schmemann puts it – for a cosmic Eucharist, a grateful return of the gift given by creation. Idolatry is a form of ingratitude, or at best grossly misplaced gratitude, as gifts and thanks are offered to beings who are not responsible for our existence or for anything else for that matter.
Redemption, then, is the gift of God by which man is restored to the proper stance of a creature, the response of gratitude. Abraham by faith gives the glory to God that Adam refused to give (Rom 4). Paul’s collection for the needy Christians of Jerusalem is not merely for the sake of the needy, nor merely to permit the Gentiles to be bound together in an exchange with the Jews (returning material blessings for the spiritual blessings received), but also abounds with thanksgiving to God (2 Corinthians 9:10-12). Christian living is continuous thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:20; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Hebrews 13:15).
Insofar as redemption takes a social form, it takes the form of a society bound together by gift exchange. The church is a gift, the Father’s gift to the Son (John 17:6). But the church is also constituted, nourished, and maintained by gifts. There is, first of all, the gifts exchanged between the head of the church and His body (Ephesians 4), preeminently the gift of the Spirit from Father and Son, which binds the church in a communion of gifts with the Triune God. But gifts received from the Spirit are re-given in service to the other members of the church. What edifies the church is the deployment of the charismata of the Spirit for the common good of the body (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
And this is all ritually manifest in the sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist. As Luther insisted, the Supper is preeminently the gift of God to His people, the Father’s gift of His Son in and by the Spirit. This is the church’s potlatch, where the Chief distributes His gifts, and we are to offer our sacrifice of praise.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.