Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Defining "grace"

     One of the most basic tenets of Christianity is that Christians are sinners who have been saved by God's grace. And it follows, that if Christians are saved by grace, they should not be controlled by any kind of law or legalism. The word "grace" is often used by Christians, but not everyone is able to fully articulate what it means. It is not so much that it is misunderstood, but that it is non-understood; rather like understanding the processes behind turning on a water faucet. We don't really know why or how the water comes out -- our grasp of the situation is quite weak. We are simply content that the water flows. We look at grace in much the same way. We feel happy that it happens and do not think deeply about it. Buy we need to grasp the substance of grace, and to begin to do so, we need to define it.
    A good place to begin when defining Biblical terms is to look at the word in the original language. The Greek word translated "grace" is charis, meaning: a gift, a benefit or favor. In the New Testament, this word took on special significance as the divine favor bestowed upon us by God when he gives us salvation. Furthermore, this favor is viewed a being undeserved. It has been freely given to us by God with no strings attached, no prerequisites for us to fulfill, and without deeds to be done to win this favor. Mercy is very similar to grace in that it rescues the troubled soul from its desperate situation. But mercy may be shown indifferently. Grace always comes through love, and in particular, God's grace is always joined with his mercy as it flows from his love. "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!" (1John 3:1) 
     Although we do not and cannot do anything to merit this favor from God, God works actively to give us grace. It comes into our souls by his power. We do not work to receive grace, but God works to give it to us. Once we receive it, its power is not drained or contained. It becomes the energizing force behind our daily experience of living the Christian life. The Apostle Paul centered his prayer for the believers around this truth: "I pray that out of his glorious riches" (one of which is grace) "he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." (Eph. 3:16, 17) Because Grace only comes from God, we are entirely dependent on him for our salvation. But this does not begin and end with the act of conversion. It is an ongoing action. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." (Eph. 2:8) We are always receiving the gift of salvation, in much the same way as we are always receiving light and heat from the sun, and we cannot live without it.
     The saving grace that Christ gives us causes us to respond in thankfulness. When the church celebrates the grace that was given to us by the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, it is called the Eucharist or Thanksgiving. Receiving it and thereby recalling the story of redemption is a response or "work" of praise. In addition, when God gives us salvation, he gives us other gifts (charisms,) which we are called upon to use in order to be administrators of God's grace to others. We do not, nor can we work to receive grace, but we take grace and its accompanying power to do God's work through the Holy Spirit who works in and through us.
     The point we must always remember about grace is that it does not stop. If we think that we have been saved by grace at such-and-such a point in time, we have stopped. If we merely feel good because of God's grace, we have stopped. If we think that grace is not associated with what we do, we have stopped. Sometimes in our efforts to emphasize that salvation is all of grace (period,) we have forgotten that anything composed of grace is also a living, active dynamo of power, and it must act accordingly.
     Today we are quite intent upon criticizing the idea of legalism -- the idea that that what one does or does not do is vital to how the Christian life is lived out. But in this mode of thinking it is very easy to gravitate to the opposite end of things -- doing nothing, just feeling the feelings. God does not intend for us to work our way to salvation, or to work to maintain or keep our salvation. The price paid for his gift of grace was too great for that. But, once we are saved, we are expected to live a life of active thankfulness, as described in 1Pet. 2:9: "[you] declare the praises of him who called you our of darkness into his wonderful light." And when we begin to do these things, to practice the power of grace, to understand its definition, it will bring about a revolution in Christian living.

some thoughts from:
Easton, Burton Scott, "Grace." from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. by James Orr, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1939 (online edition)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

St. Augustine addresses the topic of "religious pluralism"

(Equip class 4/28/2013)
     I am always amazed and often surprised by the breadth and depth of St. Augustine's knowledge and wisdom on so many divergent topics. He seems to have been the prototype of the Renaissance man, long before the Renaissance. Not only that, he possessed the uncanny ability to discuss questions that are timeless; questions that keep coming up in every generation; the ones that we think are new to our times, but which have really been here all along. The one that seemed to leap off the page for me this week is the question of pluralism -- a question that asks whether or not everyone in the world can be saved.
     Just to be clear, the topic of religious pluralism has been framed in several different ways. It can deal with who Christ died for -- everyone or the elect? It can deal with who goes to Heaven when they die -- everyone, people who have "faith," or, only those who are saved by faith in Christ? Or, it can deal with whether or not Christianity offers the only true path to God. It is this last point which St. Augustine addresses. Having discussed our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ (who both made and was the sacrifice for our sins,) he writes, "This religion (Christianity) constitutes the single way for the liberation of all souls, for souls can be saved by no way but this." (p. 198)
     In contrast to this claim, St. Augustine cites the Neoplatonic philosopher, Porphyry, who lived about 100 years before Augustine's lifetime. He says that Porphyry "...[had] not yet come across the claim, made by any school of thought, to embrace a universal way for the liberation of the soul," adding that he was not able to find such a claim in any philosophy or religion, including the religions of India and the Chaldaeans. (p. 198) St. Augustine found it interesting that, for all of Porphyry's talk about the enlightening insights he had gained from studying other religions, he still had to admit that he had found no way that could liberate (save) any soul in any place in the world at any time. But, Porphyry believed, (Augustine suggests,) that a "universal" way must exist: "he does not believe that Divine Providence could have left the human race without this universal way for the liberation of the soul...he had not yet come across it..." (p. 199) St. Augustine adds that this was not surprising in light of the fact that Porphyry lived during the time of the great persecution of the Church, and therefore did not consider Christianity because he believed it would die out. (p. 200)
     St. Augustine is telling us here that there is a way for the citizens of the earthly city to be redeemed, for their souls to be set free and for them to enter the Kingdom of God. But all who come to God must come through this one way; salvation though the death and resurrection of Christ. This way to God opened up "by divine mercy" and at exactly the right time in God's plan for the human race. It began many years ago with the promise made to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through his descendants. It continued on through the message of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke with certainty of the Deliverer who was coming to set the souls of men free. And when he did come, and he died, and he came to life again, he instructed the apostles to take the message of salvation, the Way to God, to all the nations of the world.
     St. Augustine wraps up his discussion of the one way of salvation by emphasizing its unique yet limitless scope. He says the Porphyry and the other philosophers looked for the way of salvation in divination, soothsaying and magic but found these things to be meaningless. (p. 203) The real revelation of the path to God is found in Scripture and is articulated by the Gospel, of which St. Augustine gives a wonderful summary statement, very much like a succinct creed: "...the coming of Christ in the flesh...the repentance of men and the conversion of their wills to God; the remission of sins, the grace that justifies, the faith of the saints, and the multitude of men throughout the whole world who believe in His true divinity..." (p. 203) There is a way to God, and it runs through the narrow way of the cross, yet it is open to anyone who walks upon it by faith in Jesus Christ --  anyone, anywhere, any time.

St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, New York, Doubleday, 1958.