Grace in Christianity
This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (April 2020)
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In Western Christian theology, grace is "the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it". It is not a created substance of any kind. "Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life." It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to people – "generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved" – that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.
It is an attribute of God that is most manifest in the salvation of sinners. Christian orthodoxy holds that the initiative in the relationship of grace between God and an individual is always on the side of God.
The question of the means of grace has been called "the watershed that divides Catholicism from Protestantism, Calvinism from Arminianism, modern [theological] liberalism from [theological] conservatism." The Catholic Church holds that it is because of the action of Christ and the Holy Spirit in transforming into the divine life what is subjected to God's power that "the sacraments confer the grace they signify": "the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through [each sacrament], independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them." The Sacred Mysteries (sacraments) are seen as a means of partaking of divine grace because God works through his Church. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants agree that faith is a gift from God, as in Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." Protestants almost universally believe that grace is given by God based on the faith of the believer. Lutherans hold that the means of grace are "the gospel in Word and sacraments.” That the sacraments are means of grace is also the teaching of John Wesley, who described the Eucharist as "the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God". Calvinists emphasize "the utter helplessness of people apart from grace." But God reaches out with "first grace" or "prevenient grace". The Calvinist doctrine known as irresistible grace states that, since all persons are by nature spiritually dead, no one desires to accept this grace until God spiritually enlivens them by means of regeneration. God regenerates only individuals whom he has predestined to salvation. Arminians understand the grace of God as cooperating with one's free will in order to bring an individual to salvation. According to Evangelical theologian Charles C. Ryrie, modern liberal theology "gives an exaggerated place to the abilities of people to decide their own fate and to effect their own salvation entirely apart from God's grace."
Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible
"Grace" is the English translation of the Greek χάρις (charis) meaning "that which brings delight, joy, happiness, or good fortune."
The Septuagint translates as χάρις the Hebrew word חֵ֖ן (ẖen) as found in Genesis 6:8 to describe why God saved Noah from the flood. The Old Testament use of the word includes the concept that those showing favor do gracious deeds, or acts of grace, such as being kind to the poor and showing generosity. Descriptions of God's graciousness abound in the Torah/Pentateuch, for example in Deuteronomy 7:8, Numbers 6:24–27. In the Psalms examples of God's grace include teaching the Law (Psalm 119:29) and answering prayers (Psalm 27:7). Another example of God's grace appears in Psalm 85, a prayer for restoration, forgiveness, and the grace and mercy of God to bring about new life following the Exile.
In the definition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life". Grace is a participation in the life of God, which is poured unearned into human beings, whom it heals of sin and sanctifies. The means by which God grants grace are many. They include the entirety of revealed truth, the sacraments and the hierarchical ministry. Among the principal means of grace are the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), prayers and good works. The sacramentals also are means of grace. The sacraments themselves, not the persons who administer or those who receive them, are "the means of grace", although lack of the required dispositions on the part of the recipient will block the effectiveness of the sacrament.
The Catholic Church holds that "by grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works." Both the Council of Orange (529) and the Council of Trent affirmed that we are "justified gratuitously, because none of the things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification".
The Council of Trent declared that the free will of man, moved and excited by God, can by its consent co-operate with God, Who excites and invites its action; and that it can thereby dispose and prepare itself to obtain the grace of justification. The will can resist grace if it chooses. It is not like a lifeless thing, which remains purely passive. Weakened and diminished by Adam's fall, free will is yet not destroyed in the race (Sess. VI, cap. i and v).
- We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. Justification takes place solely by God's grace. When Catholics say that persons "cooperate" in preparing for and accepting justification by consenting to God's justifying action, they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities.
Sanctifying and actual grace
According to a commonly accepted categorization, made by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, grace can be given either to make the person receiving it pleasing to God (gratia gratum faciens) – so that the person is sanctified and justified – or else to help the receiver lead someone else to God (gratia gratis data). The former type of grace, gratia gratum faciens, in turn, can be described as sanctifying (or habitual) grace – when it refers to the divine life which, according to the Church, infuses a person's soul once he is justified; or else as actual grace – when it refers to those punctual (not habitual) helps that are directed to the production of sanctifying grace where it does not already exist, or its maintenance and increase it where it is already present. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.
The infusion of sanctifying grace, says the Church, transforms a sinner into a holy child of God, and in this way a person participates in the Divine Sonship of Jesus Christ and receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Sanctifying grace remains permanently in the soul as long as one does not reject one's adopted sonship by committing a mortal sin, which severs one's friendship with God. Less serious sins, venial sin, although they "allow charity to subsist", they offend and wound it." However, God is infinitely merciful, and sanctifying grace can always be restored to the penitent heart, normatively in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or Sacrament of Penance).
Augustine versus Pelagius
In the early fifth century, Pelagius, an ascetic who is said to have come from Britain, was concerned about the moral laxity of society that he witnessed in Rome. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine of Hippo, among others. He strongly affirmed that humans had free will and were able to choose good as well as evil. Augustine, drawing on the exaggerated statements of the followers of Pelagius rather than on Pelagius' own writings, began a debate that was to have long-reaching effects on subsequent developments of the doctrine in Western Christianity. Pelagianism was repudiated by the Council of Carthage in 418, largely at Augustine's insistence. But what Pelagius taught was likely what has come to be called semi-pelagianism.
In semi-pelagian thought, both God and the human person always participate in the salvation process. Humans make free will choices, which are aided by God through creation, natural grace, "supernatural" grace, God's restrictions on demonic influences. God continually brings the human person to real choices, which God also aids, in the process of spiritual growth and salvation. Semi-pelagianism is similar to synergism, which is the traditional patristic doctrine. John Cassian, in continuity with patristic doctrine, taught that though grace is required for persons to save themselves at the beginning, there is no such thing as total depravity, but there remains a moral or noetic ability within humans that is unaffected by original sin, and that persons must work together (synergism) with divine grace to be saved. This position is held by the Eastern Orthodox Church and by many Reformed Protestants, and in the Catholic Church has been especially associated with the Society of Jesus.
Catholic versus Protestant
In 1547, the Council of Trent, which sought to address and condemn Protestant objections, aimed to purge the Roman Catholic Church of controversial movements and establish an orthodox Roman Catholic teaching on grace and justification, as distinguished from the Protestant teachings on those concepts. It taught that justification and sanctification are elements of the same process. The grace of justification is bestowed through the merit of Christ's passion, without any merits on the part of the person justified, who is enabled to cooperate only through the grace of God The grace of justification may be lost through mortal sin, but can also be restored by the sacrament of Penance. The sacraments are, together with revealed truth, the principal means of the grace, a treasury of grace, that Christ has merited by his life and death and has given to the Church. This does not mean that other groups of Christians have no treasury of grace at their disposal, for, as the Second Vatican Council declared, "many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of (the Catholic Church's) visible structure".
Jansenists versus Jesuits
At about the same time that Calvinists and Arminians were debating the meaning of grace in Protestantism, in Catholicism a similar debate was taking place between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. Cornelius Jansen's 1640 work Augustinus sought to refocus Catholic theology on the themes of original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination, as he found them in the works of St Augustine. The Jansenists, like the Puritans, believed themselves to be members of a gathered church called out of worldly society, and banded together in institutions like the Port-Royal convents seeking to lead lives of greater spiritual intensity. Blaise Pascal attacked what he called moral laxity in the casuistry of the Jesuits. Jansenist theology remained a minority party within Catholicism, and during the second half of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was condemned as a heresy for its similarities to Calvinism, though its style remained influential in ascetic circles.
Grace and merit
Citing the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit. ...The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace."
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, grace is identified with the uncreated Energies of God. Among Eastern Christians generally, grace is considered to be the partaking of the Divine Nature described in 2 Peter 1:4. The Holy Mysteries (Latin, "sacraments) are seen as a means of partaking of divine grace because God works through his Church, not just because specific legalistic rules are followed; and grace is the working of God himself, not a created substance of any kind that can be treated like a commodity..
Orthodox theologians reject Augustine's formulation of original sin and actively oppose the content and implications of John Calvin's conceptions of total depravity and irresistible grace, characteristic of Reformed Protestantism, as well as the Thomistic and scholastic theology which would become official Roman Catholic pedagogy until the Second Vatican Council. Eastern Christians typically view scholasticism and similarly discursive, systematic theologies as rationalistic corruptions of the theology of the Cappadocian and early Desert Fathers that led the Western Church astray into heresy. Orthodoxy teaches that it is possible and necessary for the human will to cooperate with divine grace for the individual to be saved, or healed from the disease of sin. This cooperation is called synergism (see also semipelagianism and monergism), so that humans may become deified in conformity to the divine likeness – a process called theosis – by merging with the uncreated Energies of God (revealed to the senses as the Tabor Light of transfiguration), notably through a method of prayer called hesychasm.
The Protestant Reformation reacted against the concepts of grace and merit as they were understood in late medieval Catholic theology.
Luther and Lutheran theology
Martin Luther's posting of his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 was a direct consequence of the perfunctory sacramentalism and treasury doctrines of the medieval church. The act was precipitated by the arrival of Johann Tetzel, authorized by the Vatican to sell indulgences.
The effectiveness of these indulgences was predicated on the doctrine of the treasury of grace proclaimed by Pope Clement VI. The theory was that merit earned by acts of piety could augment the believer's store of sanctifying grace. Gifts to the Church were acts of piety. The Church, moreover, had a treasury full of grace above and beyond what was needed to get its faithful into heaven. The Church was willing to part with some of its surplus in exchange for earthly gold. Martin Luther's anger against this practice, which seemed to him to involve the purchase of salvation, began a swing of the pendulum back towards the Pauline vision of grace, as opposed to James's.
Luther taught that men were helpless and without a plea before God's justice, and their acts of piety were utterly inadequate before his infinite holiness. Were God only just, and not merciful, everyone would go to hell, because everyone, even the best of us, deserves to go to hell. Our inability to achieve salvation by our own effort suggests that even our best intention is somehow tainted by our sinful nature. This doctrine is sometimes called total depravity, a term derived from Calvinism and its relatives.
It is by faith alone (sola fide) and by grace alone (sola gratia) that men are saved. Good works are something the believers should undertake out of gratitude towards their Savior; but they are not necessary for salvation and cannot earn anyone salvation; there is no room for the notion of "merit" in Luther's doctrine of redemption. (There may, however, be degrees of reward for the redeemed in heaven.) Only the unearned, unmerited grace of God can save anyone. No one can have a claim of entitlement to God's grace, and it is only by his generosity that salvation is even possible.
As opposed to the treasury of grace from which believers can make withdrawals, in Lutheranism salvation becomes a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy, in which penitents acknowledge the inadequacy of their own resources and trust only in God to save them. Accepting Augustine's concern for legal justification as the base metaphor for salvation, the believers are not so much made righteous in Lutheranism as they are considered covered by Christ's righteousness. Acknowledging that they have no power to make themselves righteous, the penalty for their sins is discharged because Jesus has already paid for it with his blood. His righteousness is credited to those who believe in and thus belong to him.
Calvin and Reformed theology
Calvin and Luther believed free will does not co-operate with God's grace which, according to them, cannot be rejected (see monergism). The Lutheran Augsburg Confession says of baptism, "Lutherans teach that it is necessary to salvation and that by baptism the grace of God is offered and that children are to be baptized, who by baptism, being offered to God, are received into God's favor." The French reformer John Calvin expanded and further developed these Augustinian themes in his systematic Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.
- Total Depravity (also known as total inability, which is inexorably tied to a strong doctrine of original sin as having enslaved the human will completely)
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement (also known as definite atonement or particular redemption)
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints (colloquially known as "once saved, always saved" or, as interpreted a distinct way among Reformed or Strict Baptists as well as non-Calvinist General Baptists, eternal security)
The notion that God has foreordained who will be saved is generally called predestination. The concept of predestination peculiar to Calvinism, "double-predestination", (in conjunction with limited atonement) is the most controversial expression of the doctrine. According to Reformed theology, the "good news" of the gospel of Christ is that God has freely granted the gift of salvation to those the Holy Spirit causes to believe; what he freely grants to some (the "elect" individuals), he withholds from others (the "reprobate" individuals).
Calvin sought to provide assurance to the faithful that God would actually save them. His teaching implied what came to be known as the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, the notion that God would actually save those who were his Elect. The actual status and ultimate state of any man's soul were unknown except to God. When assurance of election was rigorously pressed as an experience to be sought, especially by the Puritans, this led to a legalism as rigid as the one Protestantism sought to reject, as men were eager to demonstrate that they were among the chosen by the conspicuous works-righteousness of their lives.
The relatively radical positions of Reformed theology provoked a strong reaction from both Roman Catholics and Lutherans.
In 1618 James Arminius departed from Calvin's theology and put forth a contrary position that sought to reaffirm man's free will and responsibility in salvation, as opposed to the immutable, hidden, eternal decrees of Calvinism. Arminius taught that God's grace was preveniently offered to all, and that all people have the real option to resist the call of the gospel. It is possible for a believer to backslide and abandon the faith, losing the salvation that believer truly once possessed. These positions came to be known as Arminianism. With respect to the Calvinist Reformed churches, they were firmly rejected by the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), and Arminian pastors were expelled from the Netherlands.
Wesley and Arminian theology
Later, John Wesley also rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. His most comprehensive pronouncement on the subject was his sermon "Free Grace",  preached at Bristol in 1740. In Wesley's position, the believer who repents and accepts Christ is not "making himself righteous" by an act of his own will, such as would alter his dependency on the grace of God for his salvation. Faith and repentance, rather, are the believer's trust in God that he will make them righteous. Wesley appealed to prevenient grace as a solution to the problem, stating that God makes the initial move in salvation, but human beings are free to respond or reject God's graceful initiative.
John Wesley believed that God provides three kinds of divine grace:
- Prevenient grace is innate from birth. "Prevenient" means "comes before." Wesley did not believe that humanity was totally "depraved." He believed everyone is born with a modicum of divine grace – just enough to enable the individual to recognize and accept God's justifying grace.
- Justifying grace today is what is referred to as "conversion" or being "born again." God's justifying grace brings "new life in Christ." Wesley believed that people have freedom of choice – to accept or to reject God's justifying grace. Wesley defined his term Justifying grace as "The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL."
- Sustaining grace. Wesley believed that, after accepting God's grace, a person is to move on in God's sustaining grace toward perfection. Wesley did not believe in the "eternal security of the believer." He believed people can make wrong (sinful) choices that will cause them to "fall from grace" or "backslide." He said it is insufficient to claim God's salvation and then stagnate, return to sinning deliberately, or not produce any evidence (fruit) of following Christ. Wesley taught that Christian believers are to participate in what Wesley called "the means of grace" and to continue to grow in the Christian life, assisted by God's sustaining grace.
Wesley's opposition to Calvinism was more successful than Arminius', especially in the United States where Arminianism would become the dominant school of soteriology of Evangelical Protestantism, largely because it was spread through popular preaching in a series of Great Awakenings. The churches of New England, with roots in Puritan Calvinism, tended to begin to reject their Calvinist roots, accepting Wesley's expression of Arminianism, or overthrowing their historical doctrine entirely to depart into Socinianism or liberal theology. John Wesley was never a student of the influential Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). The latter's work was not a direct influence on Wesley. Yet, he chose the term "Arminianism" to distinguish the kind of Evangelicalism his followers were to espouse from that of their Calvinist theological opponents. Many have considered the most accurate term for Wesleyan theology to be "Evangelical Arminianism." It remains the standard teaching of Methodist churches, and the doctrine of prevenient grace remains one of Methodism's most important doctrines.:p.100
The Protestant Reformation and ecclesiology
Protestantism in all three major schools of theology – Lutheran, Calvinist, and Arminian – emphasize God's initiative in the work of salvation, which is achieved by grace alone through faith alone, in either stream of thinking – although these terms are understood differently, according to the differences in systems. The Protestant teachings on grace suggest a question, however: what is the role of the Church in the work of grace? Such Reformation churches taught that salvation is not ordinarily found outside of the visible Church; but with the increasing emphasis on an experience of conversion as being necessary to salvation, Sola fide began to be taken as implying that the individual's relationship with Jesus is intensely individual; we stand alone before God. Since Protestants accept that men are saved only and decisively by their belief in Christ's atonement, they often rank preaching that message more than sacraments which apply the promises of the gospel to them as members of the Church. The sermon replaces the Eucharist as the central act of Christian worship. The church's authority comes from the message it preaches, practically to the exclusion of the sacraments. This is often reflected in the arrangement of the pulpit and altar at the front the church; as preaching becomes more important, the pulpit moves from the side to the center, while the altar for the Eucharist shrinks to the size of a small coffee table or is eliminated entirely.
Classical Calvinism teaches that the sacraments are "signs and seals of the covenant of grace" and "effectual means of salvation", and Lutheranism teaches that new life, faith, and union with Christ are granted by the Holy Spirit working through the sacraments. However, for a large portion of the Protestant world, the sacraments largely lost the importance that Luther (and to a slightly lesser degree, Calvin) attributed to them. This happened under the influence of ideas of the Anabaptists which were ideas also seen in the Donatists in North Africa in 311 A.D., and these ideas then spread to Calvinists through the Congregationalist and Baptist movements, and to Lutherans through Pietism (although much of Lutheranism recoiled against the Pietist movement after the mid-19th century).
Where the sacraments are de-emphasized, they become "ordinances", acts of worship which are required by Scripture, but whose effect is limited to the voluntary effect they have on the worshipper's soul. This belief finds expression in the Baptist and Anabaptist practice of believer's baptism, given not to infants as a mark of membership in a Christian community, but to adult believers after they have achieved the age of reason and have professed their faith. These ordinances are never considered works-righteousness. The ritual as interpreted in light of such ideas does not at all bring about salvation, nor does its performance bring about the forgiveness of sins; the forgiveness which the believer has received by faith is merely pictured, not effectively applied, by baptism; salvation and participation in Christ is memorialized ("this do in remembrance of me" in the Lord's Supper and baptism picturing a Christian's rebirth as death to sin and alive in Christ), not imparted, by the Eucharist. The Church to the Baptists becomes an assembly of true believers in Christ Jesus who gather together for worship and fellowship and remembering what Christ did for them.
Churches of Christ
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The Church of Christ believes that the grace of God that saves is the plan of salvation, rather than salvation itself. This plan includes two parts, 1) the perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, 2) the gospel/New Testament/the faith.
Concerning Ephesians 2:8 which states: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God", it is noted that the word "it" is a pronoun and refers back to a noun. As the word "saved" is a verb, "it" does not refer to "saved" but to grace, giving the definition of grace as "the gift of God". Furthermore, as the book of James distinguishes between a dead faith (a faith without works) and a living faith (a faith accompanied by works of obedience), it is believed that God's gift operates through an individuals living faith resulting in that individual being saved.
- Grace is contrasted with the Law of Moses (Romans 6:14; Hebrews 10:4; John 1:17) and the church of Christ believes that Paul's contrast between work and faith is as described under the Efforts to resolve the tension section, a contrast between works of the Old Covenant and obedient faith under the New Covenant.
- Grace saves (Eph. 2:5); justifies (Rom. 3:24; Titus 3:7).
- Grace can not be added to (Gal. 5:4).
- Grace teaches (Titus 2:11); can be preached (Eph. 3:8).
- Grace calls us (2 Tim. 1:9; Gal. 1:15).
- Grace is brought by revelation (1 Pet. 1:13).
- Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17)
- Grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor. 12:9)
The Galatians were removed from the calling of the gospel (Gal. 1:6,7; 2 Thess. 2:14) unto another gospel (another message) which verse 7 says is not a gospel at all but a perversion.
The church of Christ believes that grace provides the following plan, which, if followed, results in salvation:
- One must hear the gospel/word (Rom. 10:17).
- Believe the gospel (Mark 16:15–16).
- Repent of their past sins (Acts 2:38).
- Confess their faith in Christ before men (Matt. 10:32; Rom. 10:9–10).
- Be immersed in water into Christ for the remission of those sins (1 Pet. 3:21; Romans 6:3–18; John 3:3,5; 1 John 5:6,8; Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; etc.)
- Live faithfully even to the point of death (Rev. 2:10; Rom. 11:17–22; James 5:19–20).
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- For example, in when a man is ordained a priest, the Church teaches that he receives the power to confect the Eucharist (to celebrate Mass) and to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This power does not sanctify the priest per se, but rather the people who benefit from these Sacraments.
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