Grace is not free.
The Christian concept of grace (charis, Χάρις) has puzzled me for years. Its definition seems a good place to begin. Still, I hate to start with a definition, so I’ll start with a story.
During a British conference on comparative religions, the participants were heatedly discussing what’s unique about Christianity. C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” (Yancy, p 45) *
It’s a good point, but not strictly true. Hindus and Muslims believe in Grace, understood as God reaching out to humanity with love. Jews believe in chen (חֵן), a version of grace. Nevertheless, it is Christianity that has developed the concept most fully.
The standard definition
In Christianity, grace is the love and mercy given to us by God as a free gift. It is nothing we have earned.
Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become . . . partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
This definition leads some to see grace as part of a faith over works teaching. It leads others to think that if grace is free then it must be easy. Both conclusions are wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “cheap grace.”
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What’s so great about faith? It depends on what you mean. Most people today seem to regard faith as a so-called “leap of faith,” in which we simply choose to believe something that can’t be demonstrated or proven. Society, or one’s own needy self, says that I need to believe, and I do, keeping quiet about my doubts, if I even let myself have any.
Real faith is given by the grace of God. We don’t choose faith; faith chooses us. Nevertheless, there are things we can do to receive it. Prime among these is humility, and living as Christ would have us live, as though we were men or women who deserve grace.
But how do I know if I have received grace?
There are two answers. If you have to ask, you haven’t. If you think you have received grace, you haven’t. Just continue to live as though you were worthy of grace. In the end perhaps this is the most we can hope for. What’s more important: to know that you have grace, or to be worthy of it?
Continue reading What’s so great about faith?
Kierkegaard and the tragedy of grace.
God grants us grace, but we have to accept it. I argue that bad social conditions close some people to grace. Kierkegaard would disagree.
Most Christians agree that we cannot save ourselves. God offers his grace freely, not because we merit it, but because God loves us. Paul writes,
For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God—not by works. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The difference among Christians is how we earn grace. Faith or works is the usual distinction, but of course that is too crude. I’m going to follow Kierkegaard (as far as I can), who is generally considered the first existentialist. So, choice must be important.
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