What is grace and how is it received?
We’ve all heard the common expression: “She walked with much grace.” When the word “grace” is used in this way, it generally conveys a sense of “refinement” and “gentility,” often as an attitudinal quality that has been developed through education and training. However, if we’re speaking theologically, “grace” is a very specific, essential, and yet also very simple thing; in Greek, the language of the New Testament, “grace” is the word:
kharis [in Greek font]
Pronounced “kharis,” this word literally means, “unmerited favor.” For something to be “grace,” it must be unearned, undeserved, freely given, and freely received. If it is “grace,” it cannot be earned or made; no work of your own can go into producing it.
Divine grace is essential for Christian living – so essential that, without it, we lack the ability even to turn to God or have faith in Jesus Christ. Human beings have fallen so far away from God’s will, through self-centered sin and self-righteousness, that we are fundamentally incapable of even wanting to know God, much less being able to actually say “yes” to God’s love. Thanks to what is known in Augustinian theology as “The Fall,” all human beings are without hope and are entirely incapable of seeking after God unless God is first acting upon our hearts. Apart from the grace of God, we are utterly lost. This lost-ness calls for God’s initiative, God’s power, and God’s transforming presence. And all of this – the desire to know God, the ability to say “yes” to God, and the act of faith involved in actually saying “yes” – comes to us through grace. Indeed, each stage of the Christian life, each step that we take toward God, is entirely the product of God’s loving, empowering grace, which draws, enables, transforms, and empowers us.
Since grace is central to the Christian life, the questions automatically arise: how does one receive it? What does grace look like? How does grace function? And, by what means does grace come to us? These kinds of questions are part of the field of systematic theology known as “Sacramentology,” and it is this subject which occupies a substantial portion of this book. By what means does one receive grace?
I receive phone calls by means of a telephone. I watch the nightly news every evening by means of a television. I make cash withdrawals from my bank account by means of an ATM. I read emails by means of my computer. Each of these devices is a means through which I receive something. Likewise, when we talk about the “means of grace” what we’re doing is referencing the ways, methods, and instruments through which God’s grace comes to us.
Human beings are creatures of instrumentality; many different kinds of instruments are a part of our daily experience. Thanks to our experience, and our nature as beings with physical limitations, it makes perfect sense for us to think about doing things and receiving information through instruments. Be it by means of a TV, radio, or telephone; be it by means of an ATM or a computer; we generally conceive of receiving items or information by way of some form of instrumentality. In Christian Theology, the “means of grace” function as the methods, the ways, the instrumentalities through which God makes divine grace available to and for us. This is the essence of the sacramental approach to the role and function of grace in the Christian life.
There are many means of grace. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have identified and institutionalized many of these in the form of sacraments and other “sacramental” acts, each of which has played an important role in the lives of believers. Other means have been recognized as having sacramental qualities, but have infrequently been considered or formally recognized as “sacramental.” While there are far too many for us to examine within the confines of this book, we will look at a few of the more important means of grace, study how they function, and consider how their sacramental qualities play a role in the life and witness of Christians.