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Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Grace and the Sacraments

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

Is grace an attitude or a thing? That is, is it God's posture of unmerited favor towards sinners or is it a spiritual energy or substance that is transferred to them? And does the answer to this question deny or establish a sacramental theology?

In the Old Testament, no Hebrew word corresponds exactly to "grace" as such. We do have some material to go on however.

"The LORD is gracious [hannun] and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love [hesed]" (Ps. 145:8, NIV). (Hen is frequently the base of kharis [“grace”] in the LXX.) This is clearly grace as an attitude. But it is an attitude displayed in actions of grace as indicated by hesed, which denotes not only "faithful kindness" but the actions (hasidim) undertaken in a practical way to demonstrate and actualize that kindness. In this sense, grace is God's attitude toward his frequently wayward covenant-people and his sovereign actions toward his covenant-people that stem from that attitude.

The other Old Testament concept that may explain grace is blessing. To bless is to declare one's desire for another's well-being and success. That is clearly attitudinal. However, in Israelite thought a true blessing was more than a wish—it actually imbued the blessed one with the power to be successful. A true blessing even went so far as to be an actualization, a determination of destiny for the blessed, as in the case of Isaac's blessing of Jacob. Being almighty, this is the nature of all of God's blessings. God's blessing is an attitude and also an actualization; it is a promise. So blessing actually bundles three concepts: God's gracious attitude, expressed in a promise, actualized by an enduement of divine power and help. In fact, the concept of promise may be the linkage between attitude and thing; because of his attitude he promises, and because he promises he grants power to achieve it. Admittedly however, there is no link between beraka (“blessing”) and kharis or their cognates in the LXX.

In the New Testament there are clear evidences of grace as God's attitude of favor. For example, in its first appearance in the NT, kharis is something that Mary "found" with God (Luke 1:30). On the other hand, in the very next chapter the grace of God is "upon" the growing Jesus (Luke 2:40), the same kind of verbiage used of the Holy Spirit, who is unquestionably a "something" (actually a “Someone”) given to believers, not just God’s attitude (cf. Acts 6:3, 8).

This raises an interesting point. The objective aspect of salvation is the work accomplished in the atonement of the cross of Christ, by which we receive the grace of God as his attitude of unmerited favor (Rom. 3:24-25). The subjective aspect of salvation is the work of regeneration brought about in us by the Holy Spirit, whom we have received, and whom the author of Hebrews calls "the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29; cf. Jas. 4:5-6). In the case of the former, God's grace is his giving of his Son; in the latter it is his gift of his Spirit. And both were given according to God's promise to the Israelite fathers through the prophets.

Therefore, if God's grace for salvation is both the attitude toward sinners made possible by the cross of Christ and the reality made actual by the Holy Spirit of power, it raises the question of "means of grace." In the case of the former—grace as attitude—"means" has scant meaning, and to the extent it is meaningful Christ crucified is the means of grace. As for the latter—grace as thing—Christ may again be considered the means of grace, because "grace" is the Holy Spirit himself given by the Father in Jesus' name (John 14:26). The church is not the means of grace; the church is the recipient of grace. And thus the sacraments of the church are also not means of grace by virtue of their enshrinement in the church.

But this still begs key questions. If the Holy Spirit is received at baptism, which the ancient church believed and which does have a certain degree of exegetical warrant, then baptism is indeed a means of grace. And if the Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ (as was hinted in ancient times and then confessed in the Middle Ages), then as Christ is the means of grace-as-thing (which is the Holy Spirit) the bread and wine are means of grace also, because they are Christ himself. And finally, if the means of grace-as-thing is Christ, and the church is the body of Christ, then perhaps the church is indeed the means of grace in addition to being its recipient after all. So in a sense we arrive back where we started: a theology of the sacraments must be decided on grounds other than the right definition of grace and its relationship to the church; those questions leave room open however they are decided.

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