ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πληρώματος αὐτοῦ ἡμεῖς πάντες ἐλάβομεν καὶ χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος - John1:16 (original text)
Once again it has been necessary to set out the verse as John wrote it, and for the usual reason: variable translations. The (New) King James Version is again on the money: “And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace“.
The Greek preposition ἀντὶ can mean a number of things, “upon” not being one of them, yet that is how most modern versions of the Bible render the verse, i.e. as grace upon grace in the sense one would say blessings upon blessings – more of the same. But that is something the preposition ἀντὶ would never portray. ἀντὶ expresses the idea of substitution or replacement – in this case one form (or source) of grace replacing or enriching another, not more and more of the same commodity; that sense would utilize the preposition ἐπί (upon). Again, expertise in biblical Greek is not required, the matter can be ascertained in this page from Biblehub carefully observing the 17 occurrences of ἀντὶ in the Bible and comparing it with the use of ἐπί (HERE). You will observe that only in this verse has the preposition been translated in the sense of more of the same. Arguably the NIV has the clearest rendering: Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. Even that is ambiguous: ἀντὶ is more typically used as in 1Peter3:9 – “Do not render evil FOR evil”, i.e. one person’s evil replacing another – clearly a different meaning from “Do not render evil upon evil” which would entirely miss the point of the teaching.
There are obvious theological motivations for translating the verse as most versions have, namely the post-Augustinian perspective that man by nature is devoid of any grace or God-given enlightenment until and unless he receives the celestial variety via conversion to the Christian faith. My previous post indicates why that is not the case. It requires an understanding that a part of man, even in his fallen state, is received directly from God/Christ – that spiritual part which survives the body and brain at death and returns to its Creator: “Then the dust will return to the Earth as it was and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Eccles12:7). What God provides is rarely if ever devoid of grace, albeit “the exceedingly abundant grace which is in Christ Jesus” (1Tim1:14) is required for those who are to be saved from the ravages of “the body of this death” whilst still incarnate (previous post) so as to be fitted for the glory that awaits them as joint-heirs of Christ. I am contesting that this is what the Bible and Paul in particular actually mean by “being saved” rather than “going to Heaven when you die” (cf. Mt25:31-46; Lk16:25). I am aware that such proof texting is quite inadequate to make the case – a fuller, more coherent analysis is set out in my book, but note also the witness of the earliest Church Fathers (see NOTE below).
As to what the Bible actually means by grace – more often than not it is referring to God’s favour and kindness towards human beings, but also His enabling power to do what pleases Him. The issue in this context is whether man by nature has any of that commodity such that he is ever able to please God by his actions. The majority of Christians since the time of the Pelagian controversy (4th/5th century) would answer a resounding “NO” as did I for the first 25 or so years of my Christian life, but now my response is more positive. That is not wishful thinking on my part but, humanly speaking, the result of my biblical and (very) early Church history studies, not to mention 50+ years as an adult observing my fellow human beings. I say “humanly speaking” for the new understanding came during what I believe to be a week-long extraordinary encounter with the Holy Spirit that I testify to in my book.
And applying some simple reasoning: does not a true Christian have the mind of Christ? (1Cor2:16) – what pleases him or her in the behaviour of others pleases Christ and His Father. But surely, some will say, “You or I may delight in the noble or compassionate exploits or well-spent life of a non-Christian who leaves the world a better place than he or she found it, but God is different – He is infinitely more holy than we are.” How true – but if you think being more holy means being less tolerant of sin and human weakness, less compassionate, less magnanimous indeed less gracious than man at his best, you haven’t begun to understand the nature of holiness or indeed the Nature of the God whom Scripture defines as love personified (1John4:8) – and then goes on to define love itself (1Cor13).
We can also learn from the testimony of the Christian writers of the 2nd and 3rd century who were not wholly dependent on biblical exegesis but in some cases had received the Faith from the apostles themselves or their immediate appointees. In particular Irenaeus, Justyn Martyr and the Church historian Eusebius affirm my positive view of natural law and the tripartite nature of man (comprising body soul and spirit) – concepts which Augustine came to reject [see NOTE below]. But most importantly as far as I’m concerned is the testimony of Scripture as a whole as I endeavour to demonstrate in these blogs and have set out more coherently in my book, a free PDF of which is available HERE.
 The major theologian of the second century Irenaeus recognised that God in His providence is present with all “who attend to moral discipline, paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified” [“Irenaeus against heresies” Book IV chap 13 para 1]. In a previous post I show how Irenaeus gave witness to the unity of essential doctrine within the second century churches. These were clearly not just his own views but the understanding of the churches as a whole. From the same period Justin Martyr spoke of God’s benevolence towards those who walk uprightly and in accordance with right reason ; “a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him” [first apology of Justin chaps. 43 & 46]. Such a perspective on free will and a role for natural law is affirmed by the witness of Eusebius (AD260-340). Known as the Father of Church History, Eusebius documented the succession of the earliest Christian communities in East and West, commenting on the faithfulness (or otherwise) of some of their bishops, providing in the process an invaluable perspective on the doctrinal understanding of his time. In view of his own perspective on the matter, Eusebius indicates that natural law was subsumed within the theological/anthropological perspective of the early Church:
“The Creator of all things has impressed a natural law upon the soul of every man, as an assistant and ally in his conduct, pointing out to him the right way by this law; but, by the free liberty with which he is endowed, making the choice of what is best worthy of praise and acceptance, because he has acted rightly, not by force, but from his own free-will, when he had it in his power to act otherwise, As, again, making him who chooses what is worst, deserving of blame and punishment, as having by his own motion neglected the natural law, and becoming the origin and fountain of wickedness, and misusing himself, not from any extraneous necessity, but from free will and judgment. The fault is in him who chooses, not in God. For God has not made nature or the substance of the soul bad; for he who is good can make nothing but what is good”. [quotation from “The Christian Examiner”, Volume One, published by James Miller, 1824 Edition, p. 66 – my highlighting]. These early Christian viewpoints and no doubt my own own will appear arcane if not positively heretical to many Christians these days. As I trace in my book, I believe one man is primarily responsible for this ancient seismic shift in doctrinal understanding particularly in the West – Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (AD354-430), aka “the Doctor of Grace”, or from my perspective, Sustainer of the Providential Mysteries.