Paul and the Power of Grace

John M. G. Barclay. Paul and the Power of Grace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020. 202 pages. $22.00 (paperback).

In 2015, John Barclay (Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in Durham, England) changed the landscape of Pauline studies with his much-anticipated publication of Paul and the Gift. E. P. Sanders was right that grace was everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but (contra Sanders) grace was not everywhere the same. Five years after Paul and the Gift, Barclay has produced Paul and the Power of Grace, a fresh recap of his earlier work that is tailored for a broader audience.

The first nine chapters serve as a summary of Barclay’s larger work. Here readers will find an overview of Barclay’s oft-cited “perfections of grace,” a brief treatment of grace in Second Temple Judaism, and roughly eighty pages on grace in Galatians and Romans. I initially assumed that such a brief summary of Paul and the Gift would leave huge gaps in the argument. Not so with this book. Readers will not find copious footnotes and quotations, but the essence of Barclay’s brilliant, paradigm-shaping work remains intact. Moreover, Barclay has provided four new chapters: Chapter 10 applies the perfections of grace to the Corinthian correspondence. Chapter 11 looks at the interplay between grace and the “body” metaphor in Paul, a point that has significant applicational value (treated in chapter 13). Chapter 12 briefly interacts with other perspectives on Paul, including the “new perspective” and the “Paul within Judaism” school.

One of the disappointing aspects of Paul and the Gift was that its 2015 publication date made it virtually impossible to engage with N. T. Wright’s magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013). Sadly, Barclay still leaves the reader with only a little more engagement with Wright’s work in this new volume (144–45). Additionally, many Protestants will likely not be on board with Barclay’s claim that grace is transformative in the sense that it “perfects but does not abolish nature,” a position that Barclay openly states is in agreement with Roman Catholic tradition (141). Said readers may resonate more with Luther’s famous statement that believers are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner).

These shortcomings aside, Barclay’s “perfections of grace” provide a paradigm that will help prevent individuals from talking past one another. Barclay promises that “some of the longstanding disputes between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves, concerning Paul’s theology of grace and works can be reduced or even resolved” (87). This is a big promise, but it may hold true. For example, Barclay’s distinction between unconditioned grace (given in the absence of merit) and unconditional grace (grace that expects nothing in return) will help readers navigate the interplay between grace and works for the believer. Certainly, scholars and professors will delight in finding fresh insight from Barclay in a manageably-sized paperback. But this book is for more than the academy. Every pastor—and I do not say this lightly—needs to read this book. Paul & the Power of Grace is the kind of theological feast that will nourish the church with the Word of God.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. CBS book notices are not full academic book reviews. The present book notice was written by Mark Baker (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), Professor and Assistant Director of the Scarborough College Darrington Campus in Houston, TX.


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