Payments, Gifts and Grace

Forced to my attention is a distinction that I believe must be made in the transfer of funds and services, especially when there is a church involved and scripture has an authoritative role.


If I hire you or you hire me, the hired person does work s/he would not normally do.  That person is compensated.  We call it a pay.  It’s a commercial exchange, with negotiated expectations by both parties.

Likewise, when I take that pay and go to the store and purchase some asparagus, I will dole out some of that money in payment for those vegetables.

It’s not mysterious, we all know what a payment is.

And adults come to know that life has many payments, obligations to be met by working for a living and making a decent wage.  Again, not mysterious.


Unlike payments, gifts are one-way.  They are simply presented without any expectation or intention of receiving anything in return.

If gifts are given with such expectations then they are payments.

Now, gifts can be given in reciprocation, but they remain gifts.  That is, if I give my friend a new tennis racket and then he gives me a new winter jacket those can both be gifts if they were given freely without expecting anything in return.  And if he didn’t play tennis and I lived near the equator, our gifts would be of questionable value and our motives extra-questionable.

People get very confused with gift-giving conventions and expectations of returns for their gifts.  And they get hurt.  And they hurt others.  All because of confusion about what was a gift and what was a payment.

Now, of course there are traditions of gift-giving where gifts are expected but even at those times, the nature and expense of such gifts is at the volition of the giver.

Furthermore, a gift can be given over a long period of times, or multiple times, and still be a gift.

I’m not so sure we all know what gifts are.


Grace, when applied to exchange, is a gift used to make a payment.  That is, there is an obligation to pay that someone cannot meet, usually because of lack of resources or even bankruptcy.  And another steps in and gives that needed resource to make the payment.  It can also be forgiveness of a debt where that forgiveness is a gift.

It is important to note that there is no way to earn grace, thus making it a payment.  It is unmerited; a free gift of the one with the means of payment.

Now, in this case the cynical would accurately observe that when grace is extended like this, it can breed irresponsibility.  That is, the recipient can grow to depend upon it and never develop a work ethic to make life’s payments.  And the result is a sense of entitlement that demands such gifts.  The needy end state of the recipient is clearly worse when accompanied with attitude like that.

So, it can be seen that accompanying grace should be some instruction or coaching to keep the recipient from becoming lethargic or worse.  This does not make the gift a payment (paid back by the recipient going to school, say) but is in fact a further gift of wisdom and knowledge to actually transform the one in need to someone who can, in the future, also be a giver of grace.

Gospel-wise, God sent Jesus to pay a payment which I could not pay.  He did so on the cross.  That’s grace.  And becoming a disciple of Christ (albeit slowly sometimes) transforms me into a grace giver as well.