October/November 2017 - Vol. 94
symbol of heart and
Grace Abounding:
Rediscovering the Graciousness of God

by  Alister McGrath

Having had to read countless undergraduate essays on the theme of 'the grace of God', I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is one of the most difficult Christian ideas to handle. The importance of the notion seems to be directly proportional to its complexity. Exasperated by my insistence that he define the idea, one of my students once retorted, "I may not understand grace - but I believe in it profoundly. What does that deceptively simple word 'grace' actually mean? How are we to think of it? How can we illustrate it? For the word 'grace' seems to denote something abstract and impersonal, an ill-defined and abstruse concept without any relation to the realities of human life. It is perhaps the abstract quality of this idea of grace that makes it so difficult to discuss.

During the Middle Ages, grace tended to be understood as a supernatural substance, infused by God into the human soul in order to facilitate redemption. One of the arguments underlying this approach went like this: There is a total and unbridgeable gap between God and human nature. There is no way that human beings can enter into a meaningful relation with God, on account of this gap. Something is needed to bridge this gap before we can be accepted by God.

Grace was therefore understood as something created within us by God, which acted as a bridge between pure human nature and divine nature – a kind of middling species. The notion of grace - or, more strictly, a created habit of grace - was thus regarded as some sort of bridgehead or middle ground, by which the otherwise absolute gulf between God and humanity could be bridged. Such ideas of grace had been the subject of severe criticism before the Reformation; by the beginning of the sixteenth century, they had largely fallen into disrepute.

Nonetheless, the way was still open for this notion to be conceived inadequately, in impersonal and abstract terms. This potential misunderstanding was eliminated by an understanding of the relation of grace and the action of the Holy Spirit which allowed grace to be understood, not merely as the graciousness of God, but as the dynamic and creative expression of this graciousness in human existence.

Grace: An Idea Recovered
The reformers, sensitive to the meaning of the Greek text of the New Testament, argued that the fundamental meaning of 'grace' was nothing other than the gracious favour of God towards us. It did not denote a substance; it designated God's personal attitude towards us. It did not refer to something which, so to speak, could be detached from God (such as a divine substance); rather, it represented a crucial dynamic aspect of the person of God. The strongly personal connotations of grace were thus recovered by the reformers. To speak of grace is to speak of the graciousness of God, as expressed in his dealings with us.

If I were to speak of a friend of mine as being "kind', I would have to justify that statement by pointing to actions on his or her part illustrating that kindness. Kindness is not some sort of disembodied idea, but a personal attitude or quality which expresses itself in the way in which we relate to other people. Kindness, like grace, is something which declares itself in life.

Grace designates a pattern of divine presence and activity which we recognise as gracious. Though we are sinners, God is willing to meet us. Though we are deaf, God is willing to make himself heard. Though we are far away from him, God is willing to come to us, and bring us home to him. Though Christ was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. Such themes recur throughout the writings of the Reformation, as its thinkers attempted to fathom and convey the depths of the grace of God.

To illustrate this point, we may pick up incidents in the lives of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli (to note only three of the more prominent representatives of the Reformation) which were attributed to the grace of God. The point we wish to make is the following: to speak of grace is to speak of changed human lives. Grace is known by its effects. God's attitude towards us is expressed in his actions towards us.

The young Luther was intensely aware of his personal sinfulness. Born in 1483, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at the university city of Erfurt in 1505. Although meticulous in confession of his sins (which he later related to be numerous), he felt profoundly ill at ease within himself. His conscience was severely troubled by these sins, which he felt he was personally incapable of overcoming. It seemed to him that he was trapped in a sinful situation, from which there was no escape. Like a narcotics addict, he was hooked. There was no way he could break free from sin.

But how could a righteous God overlook such sin? Luther had especial difficulties with the phrase "the righteousness of God', particularly as it was used by Paul. Indeed, at one point (Romans 1:16-17), Paul virtually equated the gospel with the revelation of the righteousness of God. This was beyond Luther's Comprehension. How could the revelation of the righteousness of God be good news for sinners? It seemed to Luther that the gospel was good news for righteous persons - but for sinners, such as himself, the gospel meant one thing, and One thing Only. God in his righteousness would punish and condemn sinners - including Martin Luther. In a piece of writing dating from 1545, the year before his death, Luther recalled the spiritual agony which gripped him during this early period.
I hated that phrase "the righteousness of God' . . . by which God is righteous, and punishes sinners. Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner, with an uneasy conscience in the sight of God . . . I was angry with God, saying to myself, "It's bad enough that miserable sinners should be condemned for ever by original sin, with all kinds of extra burdens laid upon us by the Old Testament law - and God makes things even worse through the gospel.
Then the situation was transformed. Probably about the year 1515, Luther came to the realisation that God was indeed able to forgive sins - including his own. He began to read Scripture in a completely new light. No longer did terms such as "the righteousness of God cause him to panic. They now resonated with the theme of the grace of God. The righteousness of God was not the righteousness by which God punished sinners, but the righteousness which God gave to sinners as a totally unmerited gift, in order that they might find solace and peace in him. It was as if he had entered into paradise, Luther later recalled.
I began to understand that 'righteousness of God' as the righteousness by which righteous people live by the gift of God (in other words, faith), and the sentence "the righteousness of God is revealed to mean a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith. . . This immediately made me feel as if I had been born all Over again, and entered into paradise through open gates. From that moment onwards, the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light. . . And, where I had once hated that phrase "the righteousness of God” I now began to love it and praise it as the sweetest of words, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise for me.
Grace, for Luther, thus came to refer to a cluster of related ideas, all with a direct relevance to life. Above all, it referred to the astonishing fact that God loves sinners. Our status before God is something given, not something earned. "Sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. The amazing grace of God is shown in that we are loved before we are made lovable. To speak of the grace of God is to proclaim the astonishing insight that, despite the stranglehold which sin has upon us, God is able to break its power and purge its guilt - giving birth to a peaceful conscience and peace of mind.

To speak about grace is thus to speak about its effects in one's own life. God's gracious attitude towards us expresses itself in his gracious actions towards us. Grace cannot be isolated from its effects in our spiritual lives. A similar reflection can be detected in the writings of Paul in the New Testament, where the word 'grace' is often grounded in an account of the practical Outworking of grace in his life - such as his conversion. Much the same point is made by John Bunyan, in his remarkable (and significantly titled) autobiography Grace Abounding.

A related note is struck by Huldrych Zwingli, the reformer of the Swiss city of Zurich. Born in 1484, Zwingli celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday (1 January 1519) by taking up a new job as people's priest (Leutpriest) at the Great Minster at Zurich. Within weeks, he was preaching a programme of reform which would eventually have considerable impact in the region. In addition to preaching, Zwingli also took on regular pastoral duties within the city. By the late summer of that year, Zwingli was close to death.

The plague had struck Zurich that summer, and Zwingli found himself heavily occupied with the visiting and consolation of the dying. Perhaps as many as a third of the population of the city died during this period. By August, Zwingli himself was seriously ill, and apparently was not expected to live. He wrote a poem during this period, in which he expressed his feeling of total dependence upon God. Whether he lived or died was a matter for God. It lay totally beyond human control.

Zwingli recovered. For him, the word 'grace' now resonated with tones of divine providence and omnipotence. Grace referred to God's willingness and ability to guide the course of human existence, to intervene in situations which lay beyond human control. If grace referred primarily to finding favour in the sight of God, it referred secondarily to the practical outworking of this in human life (and Zwingli had his preservation from the Zurich plague in mind). Once more, we find the same pattern: grace is about God's dynamic and creative involvement in the lives of those towards whom he is gracious.

John Calvin, born in 1509, may have had some early ambition to become a Catholic priest. The career possibilities open to were considerable: his father was a prominent ecclesiastical administrator at the cathedral city of Noyon, and Calvin had developed Cordial relations with the powerful de Hangest family, known locally for their abundant powers of ecclesiastical patronage. But by 1529, this possibility seemed closed. Calvin's father had fallen out of favour with the cathedral, apparently over some financial disagreement. Calvin, who had by now graduated from the university of Paris, decided to study law instead of theology. Perhaps the career prospects were better.

But although he successfully qualified as a lawyer, Calvin began to develop an interest in and sympathy with the new Evangelical ideas then Sweeping through France. At some point, probably in late 1533 or early 1534, Calvin underwent an experience which he would later refer to as a 'sudden conversion'. He recalled how he seemed to be set in his ways, firmly entrenched in the familiar and consoling paths of the old religion. And then something happened. He does not explain precisely what, nor is he generous with historical references, which might allow us to establish precisely when all this took place. But the basic patterns are clear. God intervened in his life, enabling him to break with his old religious ways, and setting him free for the service of the gospel. He saw himself as a stick-in-the-mud, whom God extricated from dependence upon the old ways. God 'subdued him, in much the same way as a horse might be tamed. Calvin was aware of being called by God, to serve him in the world. The nature of this vocation was unclear - but the fact that he was being called seemed beyond dispute. Grace thus came to designate divine intervention in a situation of sin and ignorance. It referred to God's ability to turn people around, to extricate them from the mire of sin, and to tame those opposed to God - and Calvin included himself and Paul among the number of those to have experienced grace in this way.

But it came to mean more than being turned inside out. Although Calvin clearly felt that he had been called by God (as we have seen, probably at some point in 1533 or 1534), it was not clear in what capacity or at what location he was meant to be serving. He had been called - but to what? He busied himself with various matters, including the writing of a book, later to become one of the most important publications of the sixteenth century - the Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in March 1536. But it was still not clear to him how his calling to be a Christian would work itself out.

Finally, in July 1536 he decided to set out for Strasbourg, and get on with some serious academic studies. A war made the usual route from Paris to Strasbourg impassable. He decided to take another route, by-passing the war by heading further south. He had to pause for a night in a city. That city was Geneva, then in the process of adopting the principles of the Reformation. He was recognised, and asked to stay. Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret (the reformers who had guided Geneva thus far in its road to reformation) had basically one thing to say to Calvin: you are needed here! As he later related, in his Reply to Sadoleto, he had no doubt that he was being called to stay and serve in Geneva. As his later correspondence makes clear, Calvin's sense of vocation was deeply linked with Geneva. When he was temporarily expelled from the city in 1538, he went through a spiritual crisis, apparently believing for a while that his vocation had been cancelled.

In part, this was precipitated by some letters from Louis du Tillet, who had reverted to Catholicism after showing some initial interest in Evangelicalism. Du Tillet suggested that Calvin had foolishly confused a human call - the appeal from Farel and Wiret – with a divine call. God had not called him, either to be a pastor, or to work in Geneva. His expulsion from the city proved that point beyond doubt.

But that feeling and that exile were temporary. Calvin seemed to have found out where he was meant to be, and regained a strong sense of having been called by God. "The Lord, Calvin wrote, "has given me strong reasons to confirm myself in my calling. Grace was now linked with a sense of guidance, expressed more rigorously in the doctrine of vocation and related doctrines, such as those of election and predestination. Once more, grace is seen as something which expresses itself in real human life - not just human life in general, but the lives of specific individuals.

Grace, then, Concerns the creative, empowering and transforming expression of the graciousness of God in the lives of his people. It is a lifeline in a raging Sea of sin and despair. It expresses itself in the forgiveness of sins, the transformation of human weakness, and the guidance of individuals towards their callings in the world. When Paul wrote "by the grace of God, I am what I am' (1 Corinthians 15:10), he was bearing witness both to God's favour towards him and to the actualisation of that favour in his life. Grace is no abstract idea! To talk about grace virtually amounts to writing biographies - or even autobiographies - as it is to chronicle the gracious acts of God in the lives of men and women in history. Grace is what God does for people. That is an insight which we can use today.

The Reality of Sin — Personal and Structural
Grace is only fully and properly understood when the reality and power of sin have been addressed. The reformers generally had no qualms Over speaking about sin. Perhaps two reasons may be given for this observation. First, and not least, the writers of the Reformation believed that they had the means to deal with sin. The doctrine of justification by faith addressed sin head-on, offering peace with God in place of the wrath of God, eternal life in the place of death as the wages of sin, and forgiveness in place of the guilt of sin. This confidence in the reality of justification allowed a degree of assurance in facing up to the reality of sin. Christ died for real sins. Perhaps the most powerful - and controversial - statement of this belief may be found in a letter of Luther to Melanchthon, in which (irritated at the latter's fastidiousness in relation to his personal life), he declared: "Be a sinner, and sin boldly. But believe in Christ, and rejoice more boldly still Luther's point (although probably hopelessly overstated) is that there was no point in becoming obsessed with petty sins: Christ died for the big sins of life, and for that we should rejoice.

But the second reason is perhaps the more significant. The major reformers were not academics, whose experience of life was restricted to the ivory towers of academia. They were pastors, with experience of the profound impact of sin upon human life. They were involved in power struggles within cities and citadels of Europe, which brought home to them the reality of structural sin. In short, they lived in worlds which made it inevitable that they should realise the impact of sin upon individuals, social structures and communities. They inhabited no Walter Mitty world, but were obliged to face up to the grim realities of human existence.

In part, the reformers themselves bore painful witness to the personal and corporate aspects of sin. Luther found himself placed in a very difficult position during the Peasants' War of 1525. Should he support the peasants' revolt against their oppressive masters - or should he support the princes, upon whose patronage his reformation depended? Caught up in a complex web of possibilities, none of which could easily be described as "right' or 'wrong, Luther found himself supporting the princes. For many, he compromised himself fatally. Luther's actions, as much as his doctrine of justification, bore witness to his sinful nature. He was forced to recognise the deep roots which sin had made, not only into his personal life, but into every level of human life, individual and corporate.

The contrast with much modern theology is significant, and reflects the shift, noted earlier (p. 31), away from the Reformation paradigm of the theologian as one who is seen to be within the community of faith to one who is seen as somehow being above that community. Many modern academic theologians have become detached from pastoral work, and have minimal involvement in the affairs of the world. A gap has opened up between academic theorists and the world they are meant to be interpreting and addressing. It is perhaps for reasons Such as these that it is the pastors and writers of the Third World who have brought home to the modern period the reality of human sin. Western universities are seen to be just as tainted by sin as the Societies within which they are based, or the individuals who teach within them.

In the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr spoke powerfully of a pseudo-gospel in which 'a God without Wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross’. For much liberal theology, the notion of sin is to be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant, not least because it poses a powerful challenge to the notion of fundamental human goodness, upon which so much liberal optimism rests. To rediscover Reformation spirituality is to return to an age when the reality of sin was freely acknowledged. Sin has assumed for many liberal writers much the same status as sex among the Victorians: it was something that other people did, and which you didn't talk about anyway. The more open and healthy attitude of the reformers has much to commend it. It also encourages a degree of openness in relation to a difficult area of spirituality - the persistence of sin among believers.

Sinful Christians - A Contradiction in Terms?
Most Christians are aware of a sense of sin; indeed, very often it is the most mature Christians that are most aware of their sin. But underlying this practical observation is a theoretical difficulty. How can sin and faith coexist? How can Christians, who are meant to be righteous, also be sinners? Psychology and theology need to inter-relate on this issue. Luther's discussion of precisely this point is one of the most helpful aspects of his spirituality. He deals with the question in the Romans lectures of 1515–16, and we shall examine what he has to say on the matter.

Luther draws a basic distinction between the way we are regarded by God, and the way we regard ourselves. There is a fundamental difference between our status in Our Own eyes, and in the sight of God. Luther uses the terms intrinsic and 'extrinsic' in this connection. Having thus clarified this distinction between the internal human and external divine perspectives, Luther considers the difference between believers and unbelievers (to use his terms, saints and hypocrites). The saints are always sinners in their own sight, and therefore are always justified extrinsically; the hypocrites, however, are always righteous in their own sight, and are therefore always sinners extrinsically.' Believers thus regard themselves as sinners; but in the sight of God, they are righteous on account of their justification. God reckons believers to be righteous, on account of their faith. Through faith, the believer is clothed with the righteousness of Christ, in much the same way, Luther suggests, as Ezekiel 16:8 speaks of God covering our nakedness with his garment. For Luther, faith is the right (or righteous) relationship to God. Sin and righteousness thus co-exist; we remain sinners inwardly, but are righteous extrinsically, in the sight of God. By confessing our sins in faith, we stand in a right and righteous relationship with God. From Our Own perspective we are sinners; but in the perspective of God, we are righteous.
Now the Saints are always aware of their sin and seek righteousness from God in accordance with his mercy. And for this very reason, they are regarded as righteous by God. Thus in their own eyes (and in reality) they are sinners - but in the eyes of God they are righteous, because he reckons them as Such on account of their confession of their sin. In reality they are sinners; but they are righteous by the imputation of a merciful God. They are unknowingly righteous, and knowingly sinners. They are sinners in fact, but righteous in hope.
Luther is not necessarily implying that this co-existence of Sin and righteousness is a permanent condition. His point is that God like a protective covering, under which we may battle with Our sin. But - and this is Luther's central insight - the existence of sin does not negate our status as Christians. In justification, we are given the status of righteousness, while we work with God towards attaining the nature of righteousness. In that God has promised to make us righteous one day, finally eliminating our sin, there is a sense in which we are already righteous in his sight. Luther makes this point as follows:
It is just like someone who is sick, and who believes the doctor who promises his full recovery. In the meantime, he obeys the doctor's orders in the hope of the promised recovery, and abstains from those things which he has been told to lay off, so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health . . . Now is this sick man well? In fact, he is both sick and well at the same time. He is sick in reality - but he is well on account of the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts, and who reckons him as already being cured.
Obviously enjoying this medical analogy, Luther takes it a stage further. Having established that illness is an analogue of sin, and health of righteousness, he concludes:
So he is at one and the same time both a sinner and righteous. He is a sinner in reality, but righteous by the sure imputation and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. So he is entirely healthy in hope, but a sinner in reality.
This approach is helpful, in that it accounts for the persistence of sin in believers, while at the same time accounting for the gradual transformation of the believer and the future elimination of that sin. But it is not necessary to be perfectly righteous to be a Christian! Sin does not point to unbelief, or to a failure on the part of God; rather, it points to the continued need to entrust one's person to the gentle care of God.

The pastoral importance of this way of thinking is considerable. A colleague once told me of a meeting which he had recently attended at his local church, dealing with the theme of 'self-esteem. Everyone was asked to rate themselves on a Scale between zero (terrible) and ten (perfect). Most of those people - being modest Americans - rated themselves between four and six (not especially good, but not especially bad either). The visiting speaker (who had been reading some fashionable works of psychotherapy) then declared that they all ought to rate themselves as ten; they were, he said, all perfect, and merely suffered from a complete lack of self-esteem. This provoked an amused reaction among those present, who generally regarded their self-estimation as entirely accurate, and that of their visiting speaker as totally deluded.

This incident brings out neatly the reluctance on the part of many modern persons to accept the fact that they are less than perfect. To concede imperfection seems tantamount to a humiliating and degrading admission of total failure. This denial of sin finds its natural expression in the myth of perfection - the totally unrealistic assertion that the way we are is the way we are meant to be. The doctrine of justification invites us to acknowledge our imperfection and sin - while rejoicing in the purpose and power of God to transform the poverty of our nature into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Augustine once likened the church to a hospital. It is a community of sick people, united by their willingness to acknowledge their sin and their hope and trust in the skill of the physicians to whose care they are committed. Luther, as we have seen above, continues
righteous in hope.

The story also illustrates how important, helpful and Christian Luther's approach to this problem of self-esteem turns out to be. God accepts us as we are. You do not have to rate yourself as ten to be a Christian. Nor is perfection a prerequisite of acceptance in the sight of God. God accepts you just as you are - he grants you the status often, on account of his promise to renew and refashion you totally. You score four, five or six - but you are accepted nonetheless. In his graciousness, God accepts you. You don't have to delude yourself (or think that God is deluded) by pretending that you are perfect. The justification of sinners rests upon no delusions, no legal fictions, and no pretence of holiness. God accepts us for what we are, while he works within us that which he wants us to be. We are given the status of ten, in the light of God's promise to rebuild us, and finally to give us the nature of ten. And that gives us encouragement and motivation to move up the scale, working on our weaknesses and shortcomings. And so, by the grace of God, our fours, fives or sixes become eight, nine or ten. God grants to us now a status which reflects his vision, intention and promise concerning what we shall be, when recreated by his grace.

But now consider the approach of our amateur psychotherapist. He was telling his hearers that they were perfect. That was regarded as ludicrous by those who listened to him, for two reasons. First, it did not accord with their experience. They knew themselves to be less than perfect. Whatever pretence of perfection they may have chosen to maintain in public, in private they were perfectly aware of their sin. And second, it removed any motivation for self-improvement. If you score ten out of ten, there is nothing more to be achieved. The scene is set for quietism, a total indifference to self-improvement and growth in holiness. Luther's approach avoids both these pitfalls. It declares that we are sinners (which resonates with our own experience and knowledge of Ourselves), and that there is considerable room for improvement - but it also affirms that we are still able to have the status of being righteous in the sight of God. The twentieth-century German-American writer Paul Tillich captured this insight when he wrote: "We must accept that we have been accepted, despite being unacceptable."

An awareness of sin, then, is not necessarily a symptom of some kind of lapse from faith, or a sign of an imperfect commitment to God. It can be nothing more than a reflection of the continuing struggle against sin, which is an essential component of the process of justification and renewal. Let Luther have the final word on this point.
In ourselves, we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by the imputation of God. For we trust him who promises to deliver us, and in the meantime struggle so that sin may not overwhelm us, but that we may stand up to it until he finally takes it away from us.
[Excerpt from Roots That Refresh: A Celebration of Reformation Spirituality, chapter 8, pages 1487-161, © 1991 Alister E. McGrath, first published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton. Used with Permission.]

Links to Articles on Reformation Spirituality and 500th Anniversary

From the February / March 2017 Issue of Living Bulwark:
An Introduction to the Age of the Reformation, by Timothy George
• Roots that Refresh: The Vitality of Reformation Spirituality, by Alister McGrath
Reading Scripture with the Early Reformers
• Your Word is Truth: Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together

From the April / May 2017 Issue of Living Bulwark:
• A Spiritual Orientation to 500th Reformation Anniversary, by Raniero Cantalemessa
• Justification: A Summary of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and Joint Agreement
• Faith is not Opposed to Love: A Clarification on “By Faith Alone” by Benedict XVI
• Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Joint Statement on the Gift of Salvation

                              McGrathAlister E. McGrath, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, holds the Chair in Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London. He was previously Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics.

Originally a student of science, in 1977 McGrath was awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from Oxford University for his work on molecular biophysics. Following his conversion from atheism to Christianity, he studied divinity at St. John's College at Cambridge (1978-80). It was during this time that he studied for ordination in the Church of England. McGrath was elected University Research Lecturer in Theology at Oxford University in 1993, and also served as research professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, from 1993-9. He earned an Oxford Doctorate of Divinity in 2001 for his research on historical and systematic theology.

McGrath has written many books on the interaction of science and faith and is the producer of the 'Scientific Theology' project, encouraging a dialogue between the natural sciences and Christian theology. McGrath is a strong critic of Richard Dawkins, Oxford biology professor and one of the most outspoken atheists. He has addressed Dawkins' criticism of religion in several of his books, most notably in Dawkins Delusion published in 2007 by SPCK and IVP.

More information on his websites: http://alistermcgrath.weebly.com/ and Professor Alister McGrath
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