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Grace (in the Bible)


The concept of grace as it appears in the Bible is treated here by considering its terminology, its effects, its recipients, the condition for its reception, and the problem of grace and merit.

Terminology. In the New Testament the Greek word that corresponds to the English word grace is χάρις, when used in the technical sense of a gratuitous supernatural gift of God to man (e.g., Jn 1.14, 16; 2 Cor 12.9; Rom1.5). Etymologically, χάρις denotes that which causes joy (χαρά), hence, graciousness, attractiveness, a common meaning of the term in non-Biblical Greek that is also found in Lk 4.22 and Col 4.6. From this basic meaning, χάρις developed the notion of gracious care or help, goodwill, or favor, often with special signification in the New Testament, such as the favor of the new Christian economy of grace (Rom 5.2; 6.14; Gal 2.21; 5.4), the favors of God's external providence that dispose to grace (1 Pt 2.19), divine help on a mission (Acts 14.25; 15.40), and divine favor in itself, which is the source of grace (Lk1.30; 2.40). The word χάρις can also mean favor of men (Acts 2.47), favor of a collection (1 Cor 16.3), and even gratitude for a favor received, as in the phrase χάριν χειν (to give thanks, to be grateful: Lk 17.9).

In the Old Testament there is no term to match the New Testament technical sense of χάρις. The Septuagint (LXX), however, often (61 times) uses χάρις to translate the Hebrew word ēn, which sometimes means grace in the sense of charm, attractiveness (e.g., Prv 11.16; 22.1;31.30), but more often denotes favor, goodwill, especially in the phrase māā ēn, beênê, "to find favor in the eyes" of someone, i.e., to be pleasing to someone who thereby becomes favorably disposed (e.g., Gn 6.8; 18.3;19.19;30.27; etc.). The Hebrew noun ēn is connected with the Hebrew verb ānan (to be gracious, kind, compassionate), used especially with God as the subject (Gn 33.11; 43.29; Ex 33.19; etc.). These Hebrew terms, however, never reach the technical sense of New Testament χάρις. In the LXX, χάρις is used at times also for other Hebrew words, e.g., twice for raămîm (tender mercy, compassion), three times for rāôn (benevolent love), and twice for esed (loyalty, the dutiful love by which kinsmen or those bound by covenant should help one another, or the deeds rising therefrom). The Hebrew word esed, however, is generally rendered in the LXX by λεος (mercy). Although the concept of mercy fails to express the mutual bond God entered into through His covenant with Israel, yet, since He did make His covenant out of mercy and does not owe anything to men (although He does owe it to Himself to keep His covenanted word), λεος is not an entirely unfitting term, and it approaches the New Testament concept of grace.

Effects of Grace. In describing the effects of divine favor, Scripture speaks at first chiefly of exterior and general effects, but in time it comes to penetrate increasingly into particular effects within man's soul. The Old Testament first stresses the favor of being God's chosen people, who lived in the esed bond with Him, since by covenantas the sprinkling of blood in Ex 24.8 testified, for life is in the blood [Lv 17.11]He bound Himself to act toward them as a blood kinsman and as the gōēl (redeemer) who is committed by covenant to rescue them from their straits. Yet the Old Testament speaks at times of other effects of divine favor. The most general word is b erākâ (blessing) by which men receive joy, strength, fullness of life, and a special relationship to God. More specific interior effects are mentioned at times, especially wisdom, which makes one spiritually perfect.

In the Synoptic Gospels, χάρις occurs rather rarely (eight times in Luke, never in the others). The picture of grace in the Synoptics is much like that of the Old Testament in that God's favor invites men to belong to His kingdom (Mt 22.114; 13.350), to be under a new covenant (Mt 26.28), and to be His children (Mt 6.910). They must imitate Him (Mt 5.48) and bear much fruit (Mt 7.17; Lk 8.415).

The Epistles of St. James and St. Jude do not penetrate further to describe effects of grace interior to man. James, like the Old Testament, speaks much of wisdom and the law. The Petrine Epistles for the most part remain at the same level, speaking of the effects of grace as salvation (1 Pt 1.10), light (1 Pt 2.9), and sanctification (1 Pt 1.2). Some texts go further, speaking of a sanctification that must be interior since it imitates the sanctity of Him who called the faithful (1 Pt 1.1516) and is a rebirth (1 Pt 1.3). The penetration is deeper if the words about a Christian's participation in the divine nature (2 Pt 1.4) refer to the present life.

The Johannine writings speak of effects of grace as light and truth, but also as passing from death to life (Jn5.24; 1 Jn 3.14) and an abundant sharing in Christ's life (Jn 10.10) through a rebirth in the Spirit (Jn 3.3). Insofar as man lives this divine life, he cannot sin (1 Jn 3.6, 9). The Father and Son (Jn 14.23), and the Holy Spirit too (1 Jn 4.13), dwell in him.

By far the deepest and richest penetration of grace is described in the Pauline Epistles. In a progressive transformation (2 Cor 3.18) men dedicated to the Christ-mystery become a new creation (Gal 6.15; 2 Cor 5.17) and the temples of God (1 Cor 3.1617). They live as members of Christ (1 Cor 6.15). They are sons of the Father (Rom 8.1417; Gal 3.26) and are no longer coerced by the Mosaic Law from without (Rom 7.46), but rather are moved interiorly by God's Spirit (Rom 8.14, 2627) who moves the faithful, not only to the exterior performance of good works, but even to the inner act of will, which God works in them (Phil 2.13). On Him Christians depend for the very thought of good (2 Cor 3.5). Paul distinguishes different effects of grace: there are the greater gifts (1 Cor 12.31), accessible to all, i.e., the abiding state of transformation and the movement to good acts spoken of above. There are also other charisms or charismatic gifts, that are not given to all. Some receive diverse external roles, as those of apostles, prophets, and teachers (1 Cor 12.2729; Eph 4.713); some receive the gifts of tongues, of interpretation, of healing, etc. (1 Cor 12.30).

Recipients of Grace. The Old Testament does not teach clearly to whom God shows favor or gives grace. Two themes, at first sight contradictory, run through the entire Old Testament. Israel knows itself to be the special possession of God, dearer than other nations, because God has bound Himself by covenant to show favor to them (Ex 19.5). The favor of belonging to the chosen people is not extended to all; rather, God says to Moses, "I show favors to whom I will, I grant mercy to whom I will" (Ex 33.19), and to Malachi (1.3), "I loved Jacob, but hated Esau." Yet, the apparently opposite theme also is primitive. Already in the call of Abraham, Israelite tradition represents God as saying, "In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gn 12.3). Of the Servant of the Lord, God says, "I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth" (Is 49.6; cf. Is 42.67; Jer 16.1921), for "the Lord's mercy reaches all flesh" (Sir 18.11). He loves even the Assyrians, the worst of men (Jon 4.11).

The theme of the restriction of divine favor appears but little in the Gospels (Mt 10.56; 15.24), and then only in such a way that it seems to be but a temporary arrangement. The parable in Lk 17.710 seems to imply that one cannot earn a place in the kingdom. In contrast, the theme of universal favor, grace, and mercy is strongly reaffirmed and developed in the Gospels. The Father's love is such that He gave His only Son (Jn 3.16). He loves all, including sinners (Mt 5.45), even the greatest sinners (Mt 18.235; Lk 15.1232; 18.1314). He searches for sinners (Lk 15.39). He is not content merely with doing good to men, but, like a man whose intensity of love leads him to bind himself by a vow, the Father wills to bind Himself by a new and eternal covenant in the blood of His Son, for the "many" (Mt 26.28; the concept of rabbîm, "many," is more extensive and forceful than the English connotation). Although He does not really owe anything to man, He does owe it to Himself to keep His covenanted word. The Apostles are ordered to preach to all nations (Mt 28.1820).

Both themes appear in clearly marked fashion in St. Paul. God wills all men to be saved (1 Tm 2.4), for He has bound Himself in a new covenant (1 Cor 11.25) in which an infinite price (1 Cor 6.20; 7.23) testifies to infinite love, in favor of each individual man (Gal 2.20) so that He who has not spared even His Son will also give to believers all things with Him (Rom 8.32). He will give even the grace to persevere until the end (1 Cor 1.58; 1 Thes 5.2324; Phil 1.6), for He who has begun a good work in them will not leave it unfinished. The theme of restriction appears chiefly in Paul's teaching (Romans ch. 9; 1 Cor 1.2631) that God's call and predestination are not given to all, and that it is not given according to human merits. The rule is: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy" (Rom 9.15), as seen in the Old Testament example: "Before the children had yet been born or had done aught of good or evil , it is written: 'Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated"' (Rom 9.1113). Yet Paul does not contradict himself. The quite diverse statements belong to different contexts, and refer to quite different effects of divine favor. The texts of universal grace, considered in their context, refer to eschatological salvation; while in Romans ch. 9 the problem is: How does God choose nations for membership in the chosen people of both covenants? The solution is: Not by merits does God choose them [although those who do receive the special call can cut themselves off by infidelity, as did the Jews (Rom 11.20)]. Even without the privileged condition of full membership in the chosen race, a man can be saved (Rom 2.1416). Paul knows that God wants all men to have even this privileged state, for He has sent Paul to preach to all the Gentiles (cf. Mt 28.1820). In view of the limitations of human means, not all can have it; a choice must be made. Thus, the clarity of Paul explains and illumines the merely apparent contradiction in earlier Scriptural passages.

Condition for the Reception of Grace. St. Paul stresses greatly the gratuity of the call to full membership in the chosen people and of the grace of justification, the first step to eschatological salvation (Rom 11.56;4.16;). Justification does not depend on the works of the Law (Rom 3.20, 28). Yet, with John (Jn 6.29; 3.1821;8.4447), Paul teaches also that the reception of justification depends on man's recognition and acceptance of God's favor, i.e., on faith (Rom 3.28; 4.3; Gal 3.6). Grace comes to man through faith; the just man lives by faith (Rom 1.17). This faith is not just an assent of mind, but includes also an act of obedience of one's will adhering to God (Rom 10.16; 2 Thes 1.8) and active charity (Gal 5.6; cf. 1 Cor 7.19).

A seeming contradiction appears in the scriptural teaching on this faith. On the one hand, all Scripture takes for granted that man can decide whether or not he will adhere to God in faith. Otherwise, all the exhortations of the Prophets, the Apostles, and Christ Himself would be vain. Nor could one deserve to be condemned (Mk 16.16) for that about which he could not do anything. Paul, too, presents faith as a condition in man's power, and exhorts all "not to receive the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor 6.1; cf. Jn 6.2829). He urges the believers not to grieve the Spirit (Eph 4.30).

On the other hand, faith is a gift of God (Jn 6.37, 4347, 6566; Eph 2.8; Phil 1.29) and, inasmuch as Pauline and Johannine faith involves an act of the will, Paul adds that it is God who works in man both the will and the performance (Phil 2.13) and even the good thought by which man sees the good that grace presents for his acceptance (2 Cor 3.5). The seeming contradiction vanishes if one holds fast to the precise words of St. Paul and does not go beyond them: unaided, one cannot earn the gift of grace (Eph 2.8); but it is offered abundantly to all, for God wills all men to be saved (1 Tm 2.4), and His love has even engaged itself in a new covenant (1 Cor 11.25) with its price in Christ's blood (1 Cor 6.20) in order to offer all graces (Rom 8.32) to every man. He is faithful and will do this. It is true, then, that without His aid man cannot even move his will to accept God's grace or conceive the good thought of doing what leads to salvation; it is God who works in man both the will and the performance (Phil 2.13) and gives man the good thought (2 Cor3.5).

Yet the outcome is in man's control, for man can reject God's offered gift. Paul entreats the faithful not to reject it (2 Cor 6.1). If man does not reject it, God will work in him both the will and the performance. Paul does not mean, of course, that man can of himself make a decision saying, as it were, "I will not reject this grace," for that decision would be a good will. It is God who works such a good will in man. There must be another sense in which man can keep from receiving grace in vain, for Paul urges man to do just that. It is not hard to see; it is grace that begins the work, showing man a good thought, and giving him a favorable attitude. Grace can and does go thus far without man's aid (although it will not go as far as consent without him). Since grace is already at work making this start without man, no decision, nothing at all from man is needed for the good thought and favorable attitude that grace makes to continue (although men could do something to remove them). This lack of interference, without any decision, is enough to be a condition on which grace will continue and work both the will and the performance. Of course, man cooperates in this completion even though grace began without him. Other interpreters, adhering less closely to the precise words of St. Paul, simply say that grace at once, at the outset, makes man able to move his will to accept it. In both views, although without grace man is helpless (Rom 7.1425), man can do all things in Him who strengthens him (Phil 4.13).

Grace and Merit. The gratuity of grace does not preclude merit. For although the word merit is found neither in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament, yet the chief foundation of the notion of merit, God's promise to reward good, is already seen throughout all the Old Testament (although retribution in a future life is not clearly mentioned until the second century b.c.). Paul's emphasis on the gratuity of grace does not prevent him from teaching that, after gratuitously receiving the means of merit, grace, the Christians who long for the parousia are given a crown of justice from the just Judge (2 Tm4.8; 2 Cor 5.10). However, Paul insists that man does not earn reward in the same full and fundamental sense in which he earns punishment. He merits in a lesser, secondary sense, since the graces that make him holy and move him to do good are a gift: "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is life everlasting in Christ Jesus Our Lord" (Rom 6.23).

In making this distinction, Paul is bringing out an implication of the fact that God is the Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name (Eph 3.15; Gal 3.26). Children can, in the fullest sense, earn punishment, even disinheritance, but they need not and cannot merit the basic love and care of their father. Similarly, man's hope of reaching the Father's mansions is based on the truth, "if we are sons, we are heirs also" (Rom 8.17; Col 3.24). However, the Father requires that the faithful be conformed to His Son, Jesus Christ (which entails merit), for they are "joint heirs with Christ, provided however we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom 8.17). Just as the very merit of Christ did not strictly move the Father to grant mercy and grace (for He did not need to be moved, since He always loved men, and His spontaneous love sent His Son), so neither do man's works move the Father. His unearned love is the basic explanation of all the good men are and have. Meritorious obedience is a human condition, which, in His love of goodness and of mankind, the Father wills to regard (although He gains nothing) as man's fulfillment of the covenant founded by and on God's love that man has not earned.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 897903. r. bultmann, g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 2:475479. j. haspecker and f. mussner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 4: 977984. p. bonnetain, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 3:7011319. e. wÜrthwein and g. stÄhlin, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 2:163237. j. guillet, Themes of the Bible, tr. a. j. lamothe (Notre Dame, Ind. 1960) 2693. l. cerfaux, "La Théologie de la grâce selon saint Paul," La Vie spirituelle (Paris 1919) 83 (1950) 519. j. bonsirven, The Theology of the New Testament, tr. s. f. l. tye (Westminster, Md. 1963) 34127, 130139, 251, 270351.

[w. g. most]

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