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Ask a Theologian: Grace

Dear Theologian,

What is the theological meaning of the word “grace?” I notice that we refer to it often in our prayers and hymns. And when we ask God for “grace,” what do we hope to be given?

In Search of Grace

Dear Searcher,

In both the story of Israel and the story of Jesus, the word “grace” conveys a quality of God that has been experienced. It means that God is good, kind and generous to all human beings, blessing them beyond what they could ever “earn” or deserve.

It is not immediately evident to the human mind that “ultimate reality” is gracious. This needs to be discovered through experience. As we human beings live our finite lives in space and time, we reach out in faith to the Infinite. We wonder, sometimes anxiously, about the nature of the ultimate reality on which we depend. Is it to be trusted? Is it to be loved? May we safely abandon ourselves to it? Is God “good”?

The long tradition in which we stand answers these urgent questions with a firm “Yes.” We believe that, beginning with the remote figure of Abraham, God has been creating and forming a people to know God’s name (“what God is like”) and to live in intimate relationship with God. The revelation given to Israel, preserved in the sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible, is summed up in this text from the Book of Exodus:

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘... you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you.’ ... The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation.’” (Ex 33:17-19; 34:6-7)

We Christians believe that the story of Israel culminated in Jesus of Nazareth, in whom we recognize the definitive revelation of “what God is like.”

His parables challenged people to believe in a God who is generous and merciful to the undeserving. He acted out the mystery of divine generosity and mercy by accepting and associating with the unacceptable people of his day. He ate and drank with “sinners,” and healed the wretched of their physical and emotional disorders. In all this, he was consciously showing the gracious goodness of God, the “in-breaking” of God’s blessed “rule” or “kingdom.”

But the greatest revelation of God’s graciousness came in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Only in that final, unexpected “turn” of the story do we receive the ultimate disclosure of what God is truly like, and what we may expect from God.

Out of mankind’s tragic rejection of God’s love as it was embodied in Jesus, God made a new beginning that went beyond any revelation that had been given before. The No of human beings was overcome by God’s decisive Yes.

In the risen Jesus, God was revealed as the One “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom 4:17) A new possibility for human life was opened to believers, a way of living in trusting intimacy with God, set free from sin and the fear of death.

This is why the New Testament writings are pervaded by a joyous awareness of “grace.” St. Paul, in his letters, stresses the gift-quality of the “righteousness” that comes through faith in Christ. No one can earn or deserve God’s approval by what they do, but everyone can, by faith, humbly receive the gift of God.

The term “grace” is often used to name the gracious, freely given power of God that enables people to believe, to bear witness, and to serve. This is especially noticeable in the story of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles.

In a profoundly true sense, “all is gift.” To live by this truth is to enter into the peace of God, which passes all understanding. At the same time, we are left free to accept or reject the gift that is constantly being offered. We are not saved without our own responsible involvement in God’s purposes.

This is the great paradox that is at the heart of Christian existence. On the one hand, all is grace. On the other hand, we are free and responsible. St. Paul’s exhortation to his people at Philippi gives clear expression to both sides of this paradox:

“Therefore, my beloved... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13)

In another place, St. Paul acknowledges the same truth in very personal terms, as he recognizes both his own effort and the surpassing gift of God:

“By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Cor 15:10)

And in our Anglican liturgy we recognize that even our “good works” are enabled by God’s grace:

“We humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may... do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”[1]

This brief explanation of the “doctrine” of grace is addressed to the mind. But for all of us there is another, much deeper level of assimilation. We can come to know something “with our heart.” This kind of learning comes only through life experience and prayerful reflection. The paradox of grace and freedom, though it can never be resolved by rational thought, can be lived in direct faith-encounter with the living God.

The Theologian

[1] Post Communion Prayer, Rite One, BCP p. 339.

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here