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For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:16, ESV)

I am curious as to the meaning of "grace upon grace." I have read this as "grace for grace" in other bible translations. Does this refer to Christ as Grace, who loves us so much He gives grace to us? Apart from a word-for-word translation, what does it actually mean?

Is the logic of this Greek phrase analogous to something like this in English—"We have received heaps upon heaps of grain"? The English analogy that I just gave is a way of intensifying the quantity of something. "Heaps upon heaps of grain" is obviously a lot more grain than just "heaps of grain". Is that what is meant here in the Greek phrase?

For ease of research and answering, I'll reproduce both the Greek and a translation.

ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πληρώματος αὐτοῦ ἡμεῖς πάντες ἐλάβομεν καὶ χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος· (NA28)

And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace. (Douay Rheims)

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8 Answers 8

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On his entry for the preposition ἀντί, Wilke (translated by Thayer) wrote,1

e. of succession to the place of another: Ἀρχβασιλεύει ἀντὶ Ἡρώδου in place of Herod, Mt. 2:22, (1 K. 11:44; Hdt. 1, 108; Xen. an. 1, 1, 4). χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος grace in the place of grace, grace succeeding grace perpetually, i. e. the richest abundance of grace, Jn. 1:16, (Theogn. vs. 344 ἀντʼ ἀνιῶν ἀνίας [yet cf. the context vs. 342 (vss. 780 and 778 ed. Welcker); more appropriate are the reff. to Philo, i. 254 ed. Mang. (de poster. Caini § 43, vol. ii. 39 ed. Richter), and Chrys. de sacerdot. l. vi. c. 13 § 622]).

Perhaps our best understanding of the Greek phrase χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος (“grace in place of grace”) comes from Philo, who was a contemporary of the author of the fourth gospel, living in the 1st century A.D.

In On the Posterity of Cain, §145, Philo wrote,

Because of this, God restrains and regulates the first graces before those who were allotted wax wanton from satiety. Thereafter He bestows other graces in place of those graces (ἑτέρας ἀντʼ ἐκείνων), and third graces in place of the second graces (τρίτας ἀντὶ τῶν δευτέρων), and always new graces in place of older graces (νέας ἀντὶ πάλαιοτέρων), then sometimes different graces, but other times the same graces once again.

διὸ τὰς πρώτας αἰεὶ χάριτας, πρὶν κορεσθέντας ἐξυβρίσαι τοὺς λαχόντας, ἐπισχὼν καὶ ταμιευσάμενος εἰσαῦθις ἑτέρας ἀντʼ ἐκείνων καὶ τρίτας ἀντὶ τῶν δευτέρων καὶ αἰεὶ νέας ἀντὶ πάλαιοτέρων, τοτὲ μὲν διαφερούσας, τοτὲ δʼ αὖ καὶ τὰς αὐτὰς ἐπιδίδωσι

For, on the one hand, the creature never lacks the benefit of God’s graces, since he would be utterly destroyed, yet he cannot bear a great and plentiful rush of them. Because God desires their use to benefit us, He measures the graces given in proportion to the strength of those who receive it.

τὸ γὰρ γενητὸν οὐδέποτε μὲν ἀμοιρεῖ τῶν τοῦ θεοῦ χαρίτων ἐπεὶ πάντως ἂν διέφθαρτο, φέρειν δὲ τὴν πολλὴν καὶ ἄφθονον αὐτῶν ῥύμην ἀδυνατεῖ διὸ βουλόμενος ὄνησιν ἡμᾶς ὁ θεὸς ὠφελεῖν πρὸς τὴν τῶν λαμβανόντων ἰσχὺν τὰ διδόμενα σταθμᾶται

After the first graces (τὰς πρώτας χάριτας), God bestows:

  • other graces in place of those graces (ἑτέρας ἀντʼ ἐκείνων)
  • third graces in place of the second graces (τρίτας ἀντὶ τῶν δευτέρων)
  • always new graces in place of the older graces (αἰεὶ νέας ἀντὶ πάλαιοτέρων)
  • yet sometimes different graces (τοτὲ μὲν διαφερούσας)
  • but other times the same graces anew (τοτὲ δʼ αὖ καὶ τὰς αὐτὰς)

In his commentary on John 1:16–17, St. John Chrysostom wrote,2

And what have we received? He said, “grace in place of grace.” What kind in place of what kind? The new in place of the old. For, just as there was a righteousness, there is also a righteousness: “According to the righteousness,” he said, “which is in the Law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6). Just as there was a faith, there is also a faith: “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17). Just as there was an adoption, there is also an adoption: “To whom pertains the adoption” (Rom. 9:4). Just as there was a glory, there is also a glory: “For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remains is glorious” (2 Cor. 3:11). Just as there was a law, there is also a law: “For the law of the Spirit of life has made me free...” (Rom. 8:2).

Τί δὲ ἐλάβομεν; Χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος, φησίν. Ἀντὶ ποίας ποίαν; Ἀντὶ τῆς Παλαιᾶς τὴν Καινήν. Ὥσπερ γὰρ ἦν δικαιοσύνη, καὶ δικαιοσύνη· Κατὰ δικαιοσύνην γὰρ, φησὶ, τὴν ἐν νόμῳ γενόμενος ἄμεμπτος· καὶ πίστις, καὶ πίστις· Ἐκ πίστεως γὰρ εἰς πίστιν· καὶ υἱοθεσία, καὶ υἱοθεσία Ὧν ἡ υἱοθεσία, φησί· καὶ δόξα, καὶ δόξα· Εἰ γὰρ τὸ καταργούμενον διὰ δόξης, πολλῷ μᾶλλον τὸ μένον ἐν δόξῃ· καὶ νόμος, καὶ νόμος· Ὁ νόμος, γὰρ, φησὶ, τοῦ Πνεύματος τῆς ζωῆς ἠλευθέρωσέ με·

Just as there was a service, there is also a service: “Whose is the service,” he said (Rom. 9:4), and again: “Serving God in the Spirit” (Phil. 3:3). Just as there was a covenant, there is also a covenant: “I will make with you a new covenant, not according to the covenant which I made with your fathers” (Jer. 31:31). Just as there was a sanctification, there is also a sanctification. Just as there was a baptism, there is also a baptism. Just as there was a sacrifice, there is also a sacrifice. Just as there was a temple, there is also a temple. Just as there was a circumcision, there is also a circumcision. And so too there was a grace, and there is also a grace. But the words in the first case are used as types, in the second as realities, preserving a sameness of sound, though not of sense.

καὶ λατρεία, καὶ λατρεία· Ὧν ἡ λατρεία, φησί· καὶ πάλιν, Πνεύματι Θεῷ λατρεύοντες· καὶ διαθήκη, καὶ διαθήκη· ∆ιαθήσομαι γὰρ ὑμῖν διαθήκη· καινὴν, οὐ κατὰ τὴν διαθήκην ἣν διεθέμην τοῖς πατράσιν ὑμῶν· καὶ ἁγιασμὸς, καὶ ἁγιασμός· καὶ βάπτισμα, καὶ βάπτισμα· καὶ θυσία, καὶ θυσία· καὶ ναὸς, καὶ ναός· καὶ περιτομὴ, καὶ περιτομή· οὕτω καὶ χάρις, καὶ χάρις. Ἀλλ' ἐκεῖνα μὲν ὡς τύποι, ταῦτα δὲ ὡς ἀλήθεια, ὁμωνυμίαν τινὰ, ἀλλ' οὐχὶ συνωνυμίαν φυλάττοντα·


Footnotes

1 p. 49–50
2 p. 92–96

References

John Chrysostom (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος). “Commentary regarding Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist” (Ὑπόμνημα εἰς Τὸν Ἅγιον Ἰωάννην Τὸν Ἀπόστολον καὶ Εὐαγγελιστήν). Homily 14 (Ὁμιλία ΙΔʹ). Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca Prior. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 59. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1862.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Trans. Thayer, Joseph Henry. Ed. Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.

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Indeed it is a strange and at a first glance an illogical passage, because it says that advent of Jesus is "grace instead of grace" (the ἀντί is 'instead of', 'substitute for'), thus intimating that before Jesus there was a grace that was superseded by a greater grace which came through His advent. But the immediate sequel (John 1:17) seems to go against this, for it says that "law was from Moses but grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ". Thus the difficulty lays in this.

I see 2 possible solutions:

  1. Moses' law was also grace in a relative sense, for it was also given by God, however it was not enough to save, to introduce the salvific ontological transformation in human essence so as to lead to discarding of the "old man", "old self" (Eph. 4:22) and becoming a "new creation" (Gal. 6:15), the latter became possible only through the advent of Jesus Christ which brought this new, salvific grace to humanity, thus "[the salvific and transforming] grace instead of [non-salvific, law-based] grace". The same logic is in 2 Cor. 3:13, when Paul distinguishes between "fading glory" of Moses from the unfading glory that those who accept Christ and working of His Spirit have, thus the semantic is the same "[unfading] glory instead of the [fading] glory".

  2. Moses brought only law, not grace, whereas Jesus brought grace, but the divine grace has a feature of initiating in humans an infinite process: a portion of divine grace makes man long and aspire for greater grace and so ad infinitum; thus Jesus brought the reality of "grace instead of grace", that is to say, he opened a path to humans towards infinite process of growth in greater and greater presence and intensity of divine grace, advancing from "power to power" (Psalm 84:7), or from "glory to glory" (2 Cor. 3:18), that is to say "from grace to grace".

The second interpretation is theologically quite sound especially in Eastern Christian theology where Gregory of Nyssa teaches about the ongoing infinite development of human being and the similar doctrine in late Byzantine theology which teaches about process of deification of human beings through divine grace=uncreated divine energies, however, so to say, objectively the first interpretation is, I think, more textually exact, even if theologically inferior.

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  • I concur fully. (+1) Great answer! In a sense, you could say it means 'we have recieved grace upon [the] grace [of the previous dispensation]'. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 13:01
  • Thanks, Sola Gratia! yes, your formulation describes perfectly the first possible variant of interpretation offered in my post. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 13:55
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Verses 1-18 of John chapter 1 can be read as a complete paragraph. At no point does John reveal Jesus' given name in this paragraph; rather, he calls him simply "the Word" and "the Light." In the section of the paragraph in which verse 16 finds itself, the mini-theme is grace.

                              πλήρης    χάριτος   καὶ   ἀληθείας
                              plērēs   charitos   kai   alētheias
"the Word became flesh . . . full of   *grace*    and    truth," John tells us (v.14).

Moreover, as you point out in your question,

". . . of His [i.e., the Word's] fullness we have all received grace upon grace" (v.16),

and

". . . grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ" (v.17).

A short but effective definition of grace (Gk. χάριτος/charitos) is "undeserved love in action."

Notice that John uses the words full (Gk. πλήρης/plērēs) and fullness (Gk. πληρώματος/plērōmatos) to describe that grace, which is his way of saying that Jesus is the source of an unlimited supply of grace. Moreover, grace precedes truth, according to verse 14. That order of grace before truth is significant, too, for according to the Law of Moses, the truth is we've all sinned by violating God's Law (see Romans 3:23, and James 2:10).

If when Jesus came onto the scene he had led with truth, all humankind would be proved guilty as lawbreakers. Jesus, however, led with grace and followed with truth. In other words, Jesus, in the fullness of God's grace, came not to judge and condemn the world

"but [so] that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:17 NASB Updated).

What, then, does "grace upon grace mean"? The words full and fullness help answer the question. The phrase means there is grace, and then there is more grace; it is grace heaped upon grace; it is an inexhaustible supply of grace, available to us 24/7. It is all these things and more.

Put differently, there will never be a time when each of us will never not be in need of God's grace; or put positively, each of us will always be in need of God's grace (see, for example, Jesus' parable of the talents in Matthew 18:23 ff. for an excellent illustration of grace demonstrated and grace withheld).

Some believers look back on their conversion experience as being the pinnacle of their experience of God's grace in their lives, and that is perfectly appropriate and commendable. As John Newton put it in his famous hymn, "Amazing Grace,"

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

As we mature spiritually, however, many Christians find their experience of God's grace becoming even more precious to them, and they begin to see they will never "outgrow" their need for God's grace. In other words, there will never come a time in their Christian experience when they will cease being "sinners saved by grace."

That, then, is what "grace upon grace" means, at least in part. There is the precious grace we experience when we are born again and have

"passed out of death into life" (John 5:24).

There is, moreover, the precious grace we experience as we

"grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).

That growth in grace involves not only a deeper appreciation for God's grace in our lives, but also an increase in our modeling of that grace in the lives of others. As John Newton expressed this truth in the third verse of "Amazing Grace":

Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come;

’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

In conclusion, there will never come a time in the lives of believers in Jesus Christ when they will never be in need of a fresh infusion of God's grace. In fact, our experience of fullness of life in Christ can fairly be described as grace upon grace.

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"Grace upon grace" is not the correct translation of χαριν αντι χαριτος here.

Grace is not somehow being added, but rather the grace of the Old Testament is being replaced - αντι means "instead of" or "in place of", an exchange or succession. Consider Theophylact's commentary on this passage:

We have received the grace of the New Testament in place of the grace of the old law. Because the Old Testament has grown old and weak, in place of it we have received the New. Why does he speak of Old Testament "grace"? Because the Jews were adopted by grace and accepted as sons. For it is written, "Not because you are numerous, but for the sake of your fathers have I chosen you [cf. Deuteronomy 7:78]." The ancient Jews, then, were accepted by grace, and we by grace most assuredly have been saved.

The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John (tr. from the Greek, Chrysostom Press, 2007), p. 24

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It implies abundance of graces.

Ver. 16. And of his fulness we all have received; not only Jews, but also all nations. --- And grace for grace.1 It may perhaps be translated grace upon grace, as Mr. Blackwall observes, and brings a parallel example in Greek out of Theognis, p. 164. It implies abundance of graces, and greater graces under the new law of Christ than in the time of the law of Moses; which exposition is confirmed by the following verse. (Witham) --- Before the coming of the Messias all men had the light of reason. The Greeks had their philosophy, the Jews the law and prophets. All this was a grace and favour bestowed by God, the author of all good. But since the word was made flesh, God has made a new distribution of graces. He has given the light of faith, and caused the gospel of salvation to be announced to all men; he has invited all nations to the faith and knowledge of the truth. Thus he has given us one grace for another; but the second is infinitely greater, more excellent, and more abundant than the first. The following verse seems to insinuate, that the evangelist means the law by the first grace, and the gospel by the second. Compare likewise Romans i. 17. The Jews were conducted by faith to faith; by faith in God and the law of Moses, to the faith of the gospel, announced by Christ. (Calmet) - Source: ST. JOHN - Chapter 1 | Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary, 1859 edition.


1. Ver. 16. Gratiam pro gratia, charin anti charitos, gratiam; so Job, (ii. 4.) pellem pro pelle, i.e. omnem pellem.

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John 1:16 grace upon grace NASB [or grace in place of grace NABRE ]

Either translation is good since the Greek allows it.

Regarding the meaning of the text. The former rendering tells us that more grace is given while the latter speaks about grace that is received in the New Covenant.

THE FULLNESS OF CHRIST

Stephen is said to be ''full of grace'' (Acts 6:8). However, the immediate context reveals that He is the recipient rather than the giver of grace.

Christ gives grace. Paul wrote about ''the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ'' in 2 Corinthians 13:14.

James 1:17 (NASB), said that ''every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.'' Grace per se is a good gift and to say that Christ is full of grace means that every good gift comes from Him. This also implies Christ's divinity since only God gives grace (''grace'' > χάριν Psalm 84:11 L xx).

...we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14 (NASB)

Furthermore, it is said that this fullness of grace and truth is the glory of the only (begotten) from the Father. That is to say, of the Son of God, who while being God himself (''God'' > Θεὸς John 1:1c, 18b) is distinct from God, the Father. See the Doctrine of the Trinity.

RECIPIENTS OF HIS FULLNESS

Christ is the source of our fullness. In him, we ''have been made full'' (Colossians 2:1NASB).

For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. - John 1:16 (NASB)

In Philippians 4:19, it is said that God supplies all our needs in Christ Jesus. How does God supply all our needs in Christ Jesus? It is through grace. It is said that ''God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything ''( 2 Corinthians 9:8 NASB). Again, another scripture says that ''God gives us more grace '' (James 4:6 NIV).

IMAGE OF HIS FULLNESS

The saints can be ''filled with the fullness of God'' (Ephesians 3:19 NASB) because they are ''the fullness of Christ'' (Ephesians 4:13) in whom ''all the fullness of the Godhead'' dwells (Colossians 2:9).

which is His (Christ's) body, the fullness of Him (Christ) who fills all in all. Ephesians 1:23 (NASB)

When Christ dwells in our hearts (Ephesians 3:17), we are being filled with God because God is in Christ. Christ said to the Father, ''I in them and you in Me'' (John 17:23 NASB). That is, our union with Christ is a union with God.

Conclusion

The Greek phrase χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος has more than one meaning. It could either be the grace which we have received through the New Covenant or the grace that we are receiving by being in the New Covenant.Either way, it shows that everything that we have whether wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption, is not of our own doing but a gift of God. ''But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption'' (1 Corinthians 1:30 NASB).

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Its all about fullness of Christ, that is , about Pleroma of Him. "For of the fullness (pleromatos) of Him we all have received moreover grace upon grace"- this is Greek interlinear. Over-abundance or superabundance is the important and unique feature of Pleroma: just remember the catch of the fishes when boats were overburdened with fish; remember multiplication of bread and fish for the thousands when so much remains after the feast and so on. Kingdom, Pleroma is superabundant, so heaps upon heaps, grace upon grace.

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Doctrine and Covenants 93:11-14 & 20-23 gives additional insight regarding this principle.

11 And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us. 12 And I, John, saw that he received not of the fullness at the first, but received grace for grace; 13 And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; 14 And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.

20 For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace. 21 And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; 22 And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn. 23 Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth;

I appreciate the comment about the ongoing infinite development of human beings and the process of deification of human beings through divine grace. Mainstream Christianity no longer teaches this doctrine, but it was widely accepted among early Christians. Since the great apostasy, many truths have been lost.

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