In the Western church, our understanding of grace has been shaped decisively by Augustine, for whom grace is nothing less than God’s active, sustaining presence in all the world and, in particular, the special presence by which God moves the human heart to know and to love God. What is most striking and compelling about Augustine is the sheer gratuity of this special grace that we know as “salvation.”
Grace is given freely and without any merit on our part, and it is utterly necessary for our salvation — necessary in order to turn the bondage of our wills into true freedom and to turn true freedom into holiness of life. Still, having said this much, the matter remains far from simple. Directing someone to contemplate Augustine on grace is the same as directing one to read Shakespeare on the intricacies of the human personality. To read Augustine on grace is to read all of Western theology in its train and, thus, to embark on an intellectual and spiritual journey that never ends.
For example, many of the issues debated during the 16th century Reformation, as David Yeago has argued, were set by the itinerary Augustine’s theology had previously led the church to travel.
First, if, as Augustine so passionately urged, grace is (in part) the inner transformation of the sinner, then by what means is it to be communicated? Is it primarily by the sacraments, as some streams of medieval Catholicism had insisted? Or principally by the Word, as Martin Luther and his followers vigorously maintained? Or, yet again, is it applied by God directly to the hearts of individuals, as spiritual and mystical writers have often believed?
Second, how can we be certain that grace is ours, that the transformation we so deeply need has really taken hold to lead us into redemption? And third, what is the relationship between God’s grace as mercy and God’s grace as power, between inner renewal and the need for forgiveness? A rich set of questions, indeed.
Let us limit ourselves, for these present reflections at least, to the way Martin Luther tried to answer these three questions, and particularly the way that Luther sees grace as that which defines not just who we are but, more important, who God is.
First, grace, for Luther, is communicated by means of God’s Word of promise. As promise — and not yet fulfillment — there is something dramatic and even apocalyptic about the way grace unfolds in our midst. We cling to the promise in expectation, knowing that the story of God has not yet reached its finish. God works and is still at work to redeem.
Second, though the promise is not yet a fulfillment, our certitude that it will be fulfilled rests in the very nature of this divine promise as grace. God is not gracious in the abstract, Luther insists, but God is concretely gracious by embracing us in Christ, an embrace that provides its own certitude.
Third, the relationship between forgiveness and renewal works something like this. Through a strictly juridical action, forgiveness is ours. In God’s reckoning, the superabundant righteousness of Christ is deemed to belong to us; it is a righteousness applied to us by God’s faithfulness, and received by us through our faith. Having received forgiveness as “grace,” we also receive the Spirit’s “gift” as renewal within us, a renewal which continually equips us for ongoing struggle with sin, death and the powers of darkness. In short, by grace we are rendered acceptable; by the Spirit’s gift we come to be healed.
Of course, Luther’s solution to this set of three Augustinian questions did not end the matter, but his reflections have become decisive for what it means to be a protestant Christian. This is why I am dismayed to hear some today advocating what sounds like a strange departure from the radical narrative of grace we hear in Luther and Augustine. Whether in the questions of students struggling to understand their faith for the first time, or in the arguments heard on the floors of our governing bodies, some are insisting that if God’s grace is to be defined as truly grace, then it must be something that is not binding on God.
Grace by definition, they say, must be something that God remains free to withhold. This view is put in differing ways. Sometimes it is said that God’s “No” must be spoken first to make way for any meaningful divine “Yes,” or that God leaves some of us to our own sinful devices and, as it were, withholds from us the fruits of divine promise. Grace is given willy-nilly and hither and yon, depending on the uprightness of the recipient. This position, of course, has a certain earthly human logic. How can grace be really grace, people ask, unless it is — as one person said to me recently — “something that God can withhold.”
This understanding of a God who freely chooses to withhold God’s grace, however, rests on a desperate and injurious theological mistake — a mistake that has real consequences in the real lives of real people. God’s grace is not a “something,” but it is the giving of God’s own self. Whatever hypothetical power God may have to withhold grace is rendered beside the point in the outpouring love of Christ. This miscarriage in the understanding of grace trades on defining God’s disposition to be for human beings as though grace could somehow be decoupled from its concrete embodiment in the promise, as though it could somehow stand apart from Christ’s unreserved embrace of the Other.
What is happening here is that what theologians call the “juridical” dimension of God’s grace — i.e. grace as that which God accomplished on our behalf — is being divorced from what we might call the “character” dimension of God’s grace — i.e. grace as the measure of who God truly is. Grace is more than just a juridical act by which God saves us from our sin. Prior to any such action, grace is the very reality of who God is. Trusting the divine promise is meaningless unless we first trust the divine life by which the promise is what it is. Indeed, to receive the grace of God is to be ushered into the drama of God’s life so as to participate in the sphere of God’s reign.
If, in defining grace, we do nothing more than repeat the boiler plate statement that “grace is God’s unmerited favor,” then we may have said something true but we may have said it in such a way that it becomes another lie. Grace is more than boiler plate definitions. It is a dramatic act in which the God who is for human beings and with human beings in Jesus Christ calls us by the Spirit’s power to be for and with one another. Grace is God’s determination not to be God without us.
Nothing I am saying here is new — it is all Christianity 101. But in thanksgiving for all that God has done to embrace us in Christ it needs to be learned again and again. And not only learned; it must be lived in classrooms, in churches, and most especially in our own embrace of the Other.
William Stacy Johnson is Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary