God’s grace is amazing—he offers it freely to the poor, the broken, the sinful. It is the basis for salvation as Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
The only problem we have with grace is knowing what it is. Is grace, for instance, the quality of goodness offered to us by God—as well as by any departed saints who have a surplus—as something of a commodity that we engage through sacraments? Or is it an energy source—as in an “enabling grace” or “infused grace”—that helps us to start being more godly just as a battery helps to start a car? Or is grace relational—a summative expression for God’s care towards us? Or is it something else?
This is not an arcane question. Differing answers produce very different forms of faith, some of which Christ himself would never believe in. And fights among Christians over the meaning of grace have been never-ending. Yet you may be thinking, “Huh? When and where have there ever been fights over grace?”
Actually, the fights have been about salvation: over what constitutes salvation. But the underlying issue in any salvation debate is a disagreement over how grace is defined. Salvation is, after all, the product of grace. It’s just that the link between grace and faith is not always kept in focus.
So the product of grace—salvation—is what usually captures our attention. And by not keeping the full sequence of sin-grace-faith-and-salvation in view some participants among the competing versions of Christianity then fail to spot the deepest tensions. Indeed, when many people think about salvation their own understanding of grace is assumed to be true and reliable—not something that calls for real reflection. They are wrong.
Even when grace is noticed in some salvation debates the definitions used are not always carefully developed. For instance, the debate of some years ago between John MacArthur and Zane Hodges was, at one level, about grace. But it was ultimately about who is saved and who isn’t—of what it means to have Christ as lord and savior. Yet neither faction was careful in tracing the different definitions of grace used by the church through her history. Some historical awareness would have illuminated for them ways in which their separate readings of key Bible texts had been shaped by assumptions from earlier debates over sin, grace and salvation.
Let me suggest that one big problem is that the definition of grace has migrated through the centuries with the result that competing definitions are now available—with some that are Biblical and some not. So a person’s particular view depends on what definition and what era of history he or she applies.
With that as a warning let me offer a snapshot tour of history.
The early church—in the New Testament era—understood grace to be God’s goodness. Grace was, in effect, a matter of “who” and not “what”. And from the God who is full of grace came graces: in his charis he produced charismata. Salvation was by his grace and that grace was then extended through gifts given to one and all—extended in order to allow each of us to care for others in wonderful and unique ways. We receive grace and, in responding to his grace, we offer our own graces to those around us.
In Romans 5, for instance, the milieu of faith and grace are unpacked by Paul. He starts with faith—the basis for our righteousness before God—as the great benefit we have in Christ. He even wrote of how faith is the entry point “into this grace in which we stand” (v. 2) so that it sounds as if faith precedes grace. Yet it’s clear that the context is that we are justified in Christ—the meaning of “this grace”—and that the prior event that accounts for this justification is our relationship with Christ. And the source of that relationship comes into view only in verse 5: “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Paul, that is, understood what Jesus had told Nicodemus (John 3:6): “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” It is only in the coming of the Spirit that we are “born again”—and that is God’s grace! It is expressed in the great act of Christ on the cross of restoring what Adam discarded: a love relationship with God.
For the young church the wonderful celebration of God’s grace was memorialized in the shared meal each Sunday—the day of the resurrection—as a response to the sacrificial love of Christ and his power over death in the resurrection. This, the “Lord’s supper”, was the proper focal point of church life. Yet it soon took on a hypostatic quality—with a tangible reading of John 6 in view. Hypostasis—the Greek term for “being”—was the label given to the manner in which Christ became incarnate: the Word who became flesh and lived among us. His existence is now acknowledged to be one of “hypostatic union”—of being fully God and fully man while being fully one in that union.
The church began, then, to extend the union of the unseen God to the seen expression of God in the bread and wine of the weekly remembrance. That is, the elements of the meal came to be seen as objects of God’s grace: of Christ’s body and blood hypostatically present. And with that began to grow a notion that grace is “something”—the elements—that we consume and rely on to have more and more grace. And with that there grew the notion of sacramental grace—that all the acts of obedience we find in faith are carriers or instruments of grace.
But that was not all. The question of what is meant by grace became even sharper late in the 4th century through a debate between Augustine of Hippo and a Brit named Pelagius. In a nutshell the Brit was scandalized by the low moral standards he found among believers in Italy. True faith, he believed, is demonstrated by real godliness and it was time for every so-called believer to clean up his or her act. He even quoted Augustine’s teachings on the human will as offering a way to be godly: start using your god-given free will to make godly choices!
Augustine, however, didn’t buy the Pelagian line even though Pelagius had quoted him accurately. The problem for Augustine was that both his own conversion and his deeper beliefs about sin and salvation didn’t line up with what had once written about the moral power of the human will. So he corrected himself. Sin and grace were, Augustine began to teach, matters of love. Sin is self-love: “concupiscence”. Grace is God’s love that, alone, can overcome self-love.
So while both men held that salvation is by grace through faith alone, Pelagius viewed grace as external: as God’s teachings about right and wrong in Scripture that people are then able to affirm or to ignore. Augustine held that to be nonsense because, biblically, the heart is said to be distorted by sin and will never choose the good. Instead grace is God’s love that draws us out of false love. So God alone gets credit for salvation!
Augustine’s views were affirmed by the church as trustworthy and Pelagius was dismissed. But soon after that debate another teacher, John Cassian, insisted that grace is present in each soul—as a capacity for goodness—that God then matches once it is used. In effect it was a premise that God helps those who help themselves.
Later on, in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas dismissed that idea by insisting that grace is a spiritual energy for good that God infuses in the souls of some but not all. This gave room for a continuation of the hypostatic view of grace—of grace as “something”—and it also supported a sacramental theology. In some respects it was similar to Cassian’s view in that it elevated human responsibility for offering God faith in order to be saved. But Aquinas held that only some were given this grace and that, once given, it is certain to be effective. So God “creates” and controls such grace but only certain humans have it and are then obliged to use it.
It was this objective view of grace and its corollary of human-initiated faith that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others utterly rejected at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Once again they returned to the New Testament premise that grace is ultimately a “who”—the triune God, revealed to us in Christ—and not a “what” that we control. Yet within a few decades a new version of Protestant faith—”federal theology”—reverted to the model Thomas Aquinas had used and grace was again defined by many as a newly created capacity: the enablement of our wills to do good.
So it is that today we happily sing about God’s amazing grace but, amazingly, we have very different views of what we mean by it!
Let me suggest that we all return to the New Testament conviction that grace is God’s love for us, as in Romans 5:8-9—”but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” And then in 5:20—”Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more . . .”
Faith, then, is our response to the one who loves us and who sets us free from our sin. His gracious love is, indeed, truly amazing!