Empty grace is an odd but widespread feature of Christianity. It offers a form of Christianity based on information about Christ but it lacks any power. The faith it produces affirms many social values and laws taken from Christianity while missing Christ’s most central invitation to know him by responding to his love.
Living grace, on the other hand, is relational and produces the sort of transformation we rightly associate with authentic faith.
As a reminder, grace is a word rooted in human relations: “You have been very gracious: thank you!” Grace, however, can also be portrayed as objective and functional: a supernaturally created disposition for good that God gives to the elect.
In the latter sense grace is the cash in a spiritual transaction: God supplies it to help the elect become godly. But Christ himself is not present in this grace. In that sense it is empty. It supports behavioral religion but fails to change hearts in the way a living relationship allows for.
Empty grace expanded in the Western church when Thomas Aquinas—a defining figure in medieval theology (d. 1274)—was faced with a question about grace. Peter Lombard had asked whether love is God’s personal or impersonal grace: “Is the love by which we are saved a gracious habit of our soul, or is it the very person of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us?” [cited in Ozment, Age of Reform, 31].
Lombard affirmed the latter—as did Martin Luther at a later date—but Thomas chose the former. Why did Aquinas turn away from Lombard’s view? In part because he saw creation as distinct from the Creator—incommensurability—and he also sided with Aristotle’s premise that morality only exists through the free will of an independent moral agent.
Aquinas explained why grace is not the Spirit’s love [“charity”] present in the soul: “It would mean that active charity [love] rises from the Holy Spirit so moving the mind that we are merely passive, and not responsible for our loving or otherwise. This militates against the character of a voluntary act.” Centuries earlier Aristotle had made this point: an active choice between right and wrong is required in order for morality to exist.
Thomas knew Aristotle’s premise and he allowed the philosopher’s view to override a Bible claim that we love only because God first loved us (1 John 4); and that apart from our abiding in Christ and his love we can do nothing (John 15). That is, we are dependent creatures made to be lovers of God, and are not independent moral agents.
The decision by Thomas had dramatic ramifications in that it charted a course for most subsequent teaching in Thomistic settings—first in the Dominican wing of the church and, after the Council of Trent (the 1540s), in the Roman Catholic church as a whole. It also took hold in Protestant schools through the wide expanse of post-Reformation Protestant scholasticism in the mid- to late-1500s. In theological jargon the label for grace as a created quality is “a habit of grace” or “habitus” in Latin.
I know most Christians today find the historical features of the question less-than-compelling. The applied question—what it means for us today—is what is important. So here is the bottom line: if we treat grace as a created disposition given by God then we “own” it and have a responsibility to use it. This habitus model treats our connection with God like a mobile device that needs continual charging in order for us to serve him.
If, on the other hand, grace is God’s communing presence within us, with ongoing benefits included (“graces”), then our call is simply to respond to him in a Person-to-person bond. Grace in this sense is like the free exchange of love between mutually devoted spouses. The Spirit quietly and persistently tells us of God’s love so that our faith works through love.
Let’s return now to the comparison between an empty grace and a living grace. What needs to be underscored is that habitus calls for Christians to function as semi-autonomous beings. We are meant to focus on our personal capacities to behave properly. Love becomes a function of the will rather than an affection; and God is external to us, often seen as a demanding figure.
When we properly view grace as God’s love poured out in our hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) we then share in God’s own life: the Son makes us one with the Father even as the Son is one with him so that we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
Here’s a challenge, then: read through the Bible in the next few weeks and see which view is assumed. But be sure to invite the Spirit along in the process.