Essay / Theology

God as Gift: 3 Questions for Kelly Kapic

One of my favorite books from last year was Kelly Kapic & Justin Borger’s God So Loved He Gave: Entering the Movement of Divine Generosity (Zondervan, 2010). It’s a meditation on divine generosity, and it reaches from the very nature of God (that high!) all the way down to financial decisions in daily life (that low!). This book puts giving into perspective, situating it in the comprehensive story of God’s will to save his world.

With Christmas coming, I’ve been thinking about gifts and generosity. Typical academic: I probably should have been making gifts and being generous! Instead I was thinking. And of course I was thinking Trinity thoughts as well. So I asked Kelly some questions about his book, some of them trinitarian questions. He sent back the following answers, which are a great introduction to the big ideas in the book.

First, Kelly’s own short summary of the main idea in God So Loved He Gave:

The God who created a good and perfect world, but whose world turned from him, has brought restoration through gift: The Father loved the world and gave the Son, and the Father and the Son pour out the gift of the Spirit into the hearts of humanity, bringing about praise, hope, and new creation. Those united to the Son by the Spirit then find their lives caught up with the glorious gift of God’s coming Kingdom.

In other words, the gospel is shaped by giving: God’s generosity buys us out of bondage and brings us into all the blessing of belonging to him. But the good news is not only that God has made us to be recipients of his grace but also participants in the movement of his divine generosity.

Living in God’s gifts we are free to give ourselves. And so the cross and resurrection of Christ now come to reshape this new life of faith, hope, and generosity—a life that is best lived not in isolation but as a community. By placing the practice of giving within this larger story of God’s generosity, we want to encourage readers not simply to “give more,” but to step into the powerful current of God’s great gifts to the world.

Which raises the following three questions:

Q1. In this book you talk about God giving himself to us. Is that a biblical way to talk? I know that God gives us blessings, but what are you getting at by saying that what God gives us is himself?

I certainly think it is a biblical way of thinking. In many ways, this is the heart of the book. I have come to believe that how one unpacks this question actually has huge ramifications for all manner of things, including how to view God, grace, the relationship between faith and works, life in the Church and world, etc. Only when we begin to appreciate fully the reality of God’s self-giving in his Son and Spirit can we rightly understand our place within the movement of divine generosity.

Biblically, we cannot help but see that God so loved the world that he gave his Son – this is the wonder of the incarnation and the cross. But to see and receive the gift of the Son is to see and receive the Father who sent him in the strong fellowship of the Spirit. And much of the way the NT unpacks our experience of this reality is in terms of the Spirit.

Readers may recall Augustine’s concern that he might love the ‘gifts more than the Giver.’ As Augustine came to understand, the stunning truth is that the great Giver is also the great Gift, leading him to proclaim: “How great a God is He who gives God!”

Q2: Here is a trinitarian question: You have chapters on the gift of the Son and the gift of the Spirit. Which of these two persons of the Trinity is most properly called “God’s gift?”

When God gives, he gives nothing short of himself. As the one who alone is called “the gift of God” (John 4:10; Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17; Eph 4:7; Heb 6:4), the Spirit is given by all three persons of the Trinity, not only proceeding to us from the Father and the Son (John 14: 26, 15:26, 16:7), but also freely giving himself and distributing his gifts as he wills (Heb 2:4).1 When the Father gave the Son, this was not his final gift. In his Triune generosity, God continues to give in ways that his disciples could not have asked or imagined. Encountering the resurrected Jesus confirmed the reality of God’s presence with the disciples through the Son. Receiving “the gift of God” meant the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the Triune God — now abides within all who believe.2 By the Spirit, God gives himself in such a way that he is not only with us, but in us.

In seventeenth century England John Biddle created great controversy because of his rationalistic readings of scripture. One of Biddle’s claims was that the Spirit spoken of in the Bible cannot logically be God. His argument was simple: “He that is the gift of God, is not God.” Later he expanded his point. “He that is not the giver of all things, is not God. He that is the gift of God, is not the giver of all things.” Therefore, since the Spirit is “given” by God, he cannot be God himself — the Giver of all things.

Although we reject Biddle’s rationalism, we should note that he wrestled with what we far too glibly accept. This man was dumbfounded by what we take for granted — the deep paradox and seeming impossibility that the Almighty God himself could be given.

Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit we receive is God himself — a person of the Trinity. The Spirit is no mere wind or breath, but biblically he is a person, since he comforts (e.g., John 14:16-18), can be grieved (Eph 4:30), sinned against (Matt 12:31-32), and he teaches (Luke 12:11-12, Jn. 15:26), he speaks and reveals (Acts 6:10, 13:2, 2 Pet 1:21), gives gifts as he wishes (1 Cor 3:16, 12:7, 11), and he intercedes for us (Rom 8:26).

Furthermore, throughout scripture the Spirit is recognized as having divine identity: to lie to the Spirit is to lie to God (Acts 5: 3-4), he possesses the divine attributes (e.g., Ps 139:7; 1 Cor 2:10, Heb 9:14), he participates in divine works as only God can (e.g., Job 26:13, 33:4, Gen 1:2; Ps 33:6, 1 Cor 6:11, 12:4), and he receives divine honors. Christians are baptized not only in the name of the Father and the Son, but also of the Holy Spirit (Matt 20:19; cf. 1 Cor 12:13, 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:1-2). There is only one God, and that God reveals himself as eternally the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, worship and glory is rightly directed toward the Spirit of God.

Not surprisingly, St. Augustine anticipated Biddle’s type of argument against the Spirit’s divinity by concluding, “He is given as God’s gift in such a way that as God he also gives himself. You can scarcely say he is not his own master,” since this is the one who blows where he wishes (Jn. 3:8) and gives as he wills (1 Cor. 12:11).4 Augustine’s point is that the Spirit’s own self-giving is a proof of his divinity (cf. Phil 2:5-11), not of his inferiority to God. While the Spirit is sent, he also comes. So, there is never any division or disunity in the one true God who eternally exists as Father, Son, and Spirit. What we discover here is the pattern of divine movement and grace. The Spirit, who is given by the Father and the Son, freely comes even as he is sent, and in this freedom he remains eternally understood as the Gift of God, and as the eternal gift he draws people into God’s triune life.

Q3: You spend several chapters talking about the value of good works. Do you have to turn in your Protestant card in order to glorify good works so wholeheartedly?

Great question. I certainly don’t want to turn in my Protestant card when I speak about the joyous place of ‘good work’ for the Christian. I am unapologetically Protestant. But sometimes Protestants like me are prone to say very negative things about the value of human works. In some ways this is understandable, since we long to highlight God’s free and radical grace. There is nothing you need to “do” to be saved, since Christ has completed that work (Heb 9: 12, 26). On the cross Christ took our sin and put it to death, casting our transgressions as far from us as the east is from the west: by his grace he makes us whiter than snow and draws us into his holy love.

Salvation is an unearned gift from God. As the Reformation slogan goes, “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” That is a liberating truth, and one I believe the scriptures clearly teach — in fact, this is central to the idea of the “gift” that runs through the entire book. Yet, in our zeal to celebrate God’s grace, we can make deeply faulty, even untrue, claims about the significance of “work” in our lives. Therefore in this book I wanted to revisit the how we understand faith, work, grace, and action.

What may surprise folks is that I try to approach this discussion in light of Christ’s resurrection. While I cannot unpack the details here, I would just say that the way we are prone to pit grace against works, faith against action, word against deed, evangelism against mercy ministry, etc., all point to an underdeveloped doctrine of creation and re-creation. In truth, however, I think the Reformers themselves often understood this in ways we have forgotten. Our temptation to reductionism can create problems. For example, I think if you read enough Luther you will be amazed at what you find on this very issue.

While Luther did say many negative things about “good works,” it is a profound misunderstanding to conclude that he believed our actions are irrelevant to God or others. It was Luther, after all, who pronounced: “we do not, therefore, reject good works; on the contrary, we cherish and teach them as much as possible.” How does that come from the mouth of the man who also wrote, just pages earlier: “This is the height of folly and utter ignorance of Christian life and faith, that a man should seek to be justified and saved by works and without faith”? It wasn’t that doing “good” was evil; it was the attempt to gain God’s approval through one’s works that was hopeless.

Luther rejects the idea that one can gain God’s love and acceptance by working for it. Yet this monk also understood that we are all called to good work, not just the spiritual elite or full time ministers. But those of us who are soaked in religion sometimes try to do good apart from Christ and devoid of faith; when we do this, the results are deadly. Yet, I fear for some of us, our temptation is not legalism or self-righteousness, but a dehumanizing view of salvation and sanctification that misunderstands the dynamics of gift.

We may know the slogan that we are ‘justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.’ But do we really understand the theology behind this catchphrase? Do our preaching and practice reflect a healthy view of how true Christian liberty not only frees us, but also empowers us? Through a chapter on “Resurrection Faith and Work,” and then one on “Resurrection Life in Action,” I try to navigate through these waters in hopefully a fresh (but not really new!) way.

Kapic’s book really is a fresh way of looking at the main things in the Christian message. He and Borger have evidently been thinking about this for quite a while, because the book chases its thesis out into all the most important biblical connections, and quotes from a wide range of theologians through the ages.

Go on over to the book’s website,, to read the first chapter for free, see the amazing endorsements, and decide where to buy it. Because you know you want to buy it. In fact, get a couple extras and, you know, give them away.

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