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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xlvii. χάρις, ἔλεος.

There has often been occasion to observe the manner in which Greek words taken up into Christian use are glorified and transformed, seeming to have waited for this adoption of them, to come to their full rights, and to reveal all the depth and the riches of meaning which they contained, or might be made to contain. Χάρις is one of these. It is hardly too much to say that the Greek mind has in no word uttered itself and all that was at its heart more distinctly than in this; so that it will abundantly repay our pains to trace briefly the steps by which it came to its highest honours. Χάρις, connected with χαίρειν, is first of all that property in a thing which causes it to give joy to the hearers or beholders of it, as Plutarch (Cum Princ. Phil. Diss. 3) has rightly explained it, χαρᾶς γὰρ οὐδὲν οὕτως γονιμόν ἐστιν ὡς χάρις (cf. Pott, Etym. Forsch. vol. ii. part 1, p. 217); and then, seeing that to a Greek there was nothing so joy-inspiring as grace or beauty, it implied the presence of this, the German ‘Anmuth’; thus Homer, Od. ii. 12; vi. 237; Euripides, Troad. 1108, παρθένων χάριτες; Lucian, Zeux. 2. χάρις Αττική. It has often this use in the Septuagint (Ps. 45:3; Prov. 10:32), the Hebrew חֵן being commonly rendered by it; yet not invariably; being translated by ἀρέσκεια (Prov. 31:30); by ἔλεος (Gen. 19:19); by ἐπίχαρις (Nah. 3:4). Χάρις has the same use in the Apocrypha (Ecclus. 24:16; 40:22, χάρις καὶ κάλλος): nor is this altogether strange to the N. T.; thus see Luke 4:22, and perhaps Ephes. 4:29.

But χάρις after a while came to signify not necessarily the grace or beauty of a thing, as a quality appertaining to it; but the gracious or beautiful thing, act, thought, speech, or person it might be, itself—the grace embodying and uttering itself, where there was room or call for this, in gracious outcomings toward such as might be its objects; not any longer ‘favour’ in the sense of beauty, but ‘the favour’; for our word here a little helps us to trace the history of the Greek. So continually in classical Greek we have χάριν ἀπαιτεῖν, λαμβάνειν, δοῦναι; so in the Septuagint (Esth. 6:3); and so also χάρις as a merely human grace and favour in the N.T. (thus Acts 2:47; 25:3; 2 Cor. 9:19). There is a further sense which the word obtained, namely the thankfulness which the favour calls out in return; this also frequent in the N. T. (Luke 17:9; Rom. 6:17; 2 Cor. 8:16; though with it, as we are only treating the word in its relations to ἔλεος, we have nothing to do. It is at that earlier point which we have just been fixing that χάρις waited for and obtained its highest consecration; not indeed to have its meaning changed, but to have that meaning ennobled, glorified, lifted up from the setting forth of an earthly to the setting forth of a heavenly benefit, from signifying the favour and grace and goodness of man to man, to setting forth the favour, grace and goodness of God to man, and thus, of necessity, of the worthy to the unworthy, of the holy to the sinful, being now not merely the German ‘Gunst’ or ‘Huld,’ to which the word had corresponded hitherto, but ‘Gnade’ as well. Such was a meaning to which it had never raised itself before, and this not even in the Greek Scriptures of the elder Covenant; for the Hebrew word which most nearly approaches in meaning to the χάρις of the N. T., namely חֶסֶד, is not translated by χάρις, one occasion only excepted (Esth. 2:9), but usually by ἔλεος (Gen. 24:12; Job 6:14; Dan. 1:9; and often).

Already, it is true, if not there, yet in another quarter there were preparations for this glorification of meaning to which χάρις was destined. These lay in the fact that already in the ethical terminology of the Greek schools χάρις implied ever a favour freely done, without claim or expectation of return—the word being thus predisposed to receive its new emphasis, its religious, I may say its dogmatic, significance; to set forth the entire and absolute freeness of the lovingkindness of God to men. Thus Aristotle, defining χάρις, lays the whole stress on this very point, that it is conferred freely, with no expectation of return, and finding its only motive in the bounty and free-heartedness of the giver (Rhet. ii. 7): ἔστω δὴ χάρις, καθ᾽ ἣν ὁ ἔχων λέγεται χάριν ὑπουργεῖν τῷ δεομένῳ, μὴ ἀντὶ τινὸς, μηδ᾽ ἵνα τι αὐτῷ τῷ ὑπουργοῦντι, ἀλλ᾽ ἵνα ἐκείνῳ τι. Agreeing with this we have χάρις καὶ δωρεά, Polybius, i. 31. 6 (cf. Rom. 3:24, δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι; 5:15, 17; 12:3, 6; 15:15; Ephes. 2:8; 4:7); so too χάρις joined with εὔνοια (Plato, Legg. xi. 931 a; Plutarch, Quom. Adul. ab Amic. 34); with φιλία (Lyc. 4): with πραότης (Adv. Col. 2); opposed to μισθός (Lyc. 15); and compare Rom. 11:6, where St. Paul sets χάρις and ἔργα over against one another in directest antithesis, showing that they mutually exclude one another, it being of the essence of whatever is owed to χάρις that it is unearned and unmerited,—as Augustine urges so often, ‘gratia, nisi gratis sit, non est gratia; ’—or indeed demerited, as the faithful man will most freely acknowledge.

But while χάρις has thus reference to the sins of men. and is that glorious attribute of God which these sins call out and display, his free gift in their forgiveness, ἔλεος has special and immediate regard to the misery which is the consequence of these sins, being the tender sense of this misery displaying itself in the effort, which only the continued perverseness of man can hinder or defeat, to assuage and entirely remove it; so Bengel well: ‘Gratia tollit culpam, misericordia miseriam.’ But here, as in other cases, it may be worth our while to consider the anterior uses of this word, before it was assumed into this its highest use as the mercy of Him, whose mercy is over all his works. Of ἔλεος we have this definition in Aristotle (Rhet. ii. 8): ἔστω δὴ ἔλεος, λύπη τις ἐπὶ φαινομένῳ κακῷ φθαρτικῷ καὶ λυπηρῷ, τοῦ ἀναξίου τυγχάνειν, ὃ κἂν αὐτὸς προσδοκήσειεν ἂν παθεῖν, ἢ τῶν αὐτοῦ τινά. It will be at once perceived that much will have here to be modified. and something removed, when we come to speak of the ἔλεος of God. Grief does not and cannot touch Him, in whose presence is fulness of joy; He does not demand unworthy suffering (λύπη ὡς ἐπὶ ἀναξίως κακοπαθοῦντι, which is the Stoic definition of ἔλεος, Diogenes Laërtius, vii. 1. 63),1 to move Him, seeing that absolutely unworthy suffering there is none in a world of sinners; neither can He, who is lifted up above all chance and change, contemplate, in beholding misery, the possibility of being Himself involved in the same. It is nothing wonderful that the Manichaeans and others who desired a God as unlike man as possible, cried out against the attribution of ἔλεος to Him; and found here a weapon of their warfare against that Old Testament, whose God was not ashamed to proclaim Himself a God of pity and compassion (Ps. 78:38; 86:15; and often). They were favoured here in the Latin by the word ‘misericordia,’ and did not fail to appeal to its etymology, and to demand whether the ‘miserum cor’ could find place in Him; compare Virgil, Georg. ii. 498, 499. Seneca too they had here for a forerunner, who observes in respect of this ‘vitium pusilli animi,’ as he calls it (De Clemen. ii. 6), ‘Misericordia vicina est miseriae; habet enim aliquid trahitque ex eâ.’ Augustine answered rightly that this and all other words used to express human affections did require certain modifications, a clearing away from them of the infirmities of human passions, before they could be ascribed to the most High; but that such for all this were only their accidents, the essentials remaining unchanged. Thus De Div. Quoest. ii. 2: ‘Item de misericordiâ, si auferas compassionem cum eo, quem miseraris, participatae miseriae, ut remaneat tranquilla bonitas subveniendi et a miseriâ liberandi, insinuatur divinae misericordiae qualiscunque cognitio:’ cf. De Civ. Dei, ix. 5; Anselm, Proslogium, 8; and Suicer, Thes. s. v. In man’s pity there will always be an element of grief, so that by John of Damascus ἔλεος is enumerated as one of the four forms of λύπη, the other three being ἄχος, ἄχθος and φθόνος (De Fid. Orthod. ii. 14); but not so in God’s. We may say then that the χάρις of God, his free grace and gift, displayed in the forgiveness of sins, is extended to men, as they are guilty, his ἔλεος, as they are miserable. The lower creation may be, and is, the object of God’s ἔλεος, inasmuch as the burden of man’s curse has redounded also upon it (Job 38:41; Ps. 147:9; Jon. 4:11; Rom. 8:20-23), but of his χάρις man alone; he only needs, he only is capable of receiving it. 1

In the Divine mind, and in the order of our salvation as conceived therein, the ἔλεος precedes the χάρις. God so loved the world with a pitying love (herein was the ἔλεος), that He gave his only begotten Son (herein the χάρις), that the world through Him might be saved (cf. Ephes. 2:4; Luke 1:78, 79). But in the order of the manifestation of God’s purposes of salvation the grace must go before the mercy, the χάρις must go before and make way for the ἔλεος. It is true that the same persons are the subjects of both, being at once the guilty and the miserable; yet the righteousness of God, which it is quite as necessary should be maintained as his love, demands that the guilt should be done away, before the misery can be assuaged; only the forgiven may be blessed. He must pardon, before He can heal; men must be justified before they can be sanctified. And as the righteousness of God absolutely and in itself requires this, so no less that righteousness as it has expressed itself in the moral constitution of man, linking as it there has done misery with guilt, and making the first the inseparable companion of the second. From this it follows that in each of the apostolic salutations where these words occur, χάρις precedes ἔλεος (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; 2 John 3; Zech. 12:10; cf. Wisd. 3:9); nor could this order have been reversed. Χάρις on the same grounds in the more usual Pauline salutations precedes εἰρήνη (1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; and often. On the distinction between the words of this §, see some excellent words in Delitzsch, An die Ebräer, p. 163.


1 So Cicero (Tusc. iv. 8. 18): ‘Misericordia est aegritudo ex miseriâ alterius injuriâ laborantis. Nemo enim parricidae aut proditoris supplicio misericordiâ commovetur.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1656,G5485.]

Return to the Lexicon Entry for G5485

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