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Defining Grace

THE DOCTRINE OF GRACE IN THE CHURCH. The teachings of Scripture respecting the grace of God stress the fact that God distributes His blessings to men in a free and sovereign manner, and not in consideration of any inherent merit of men; that men owe all the blessings of life to a beneficent, forbearing, and longsuffering God; and especially that all the blessings of the work of salvation are freely given of God, and are in no way determined by supposed merits of men. This is clearly expressed by Paul in the following words: “For by grace have ye been saved through faith ; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory,” Eph. 2:8, 9. He strongly emphasizes the fact that salvation is not by works, Rom. 3:20-28; 4:16; Gal. 2:16. This doctrine did not go entirely unchallenged. In some of the early Church Fathers, particularly of the Eastern Church, we already meet with a strain of moralism that is not in harmony with the Pauline emphasis. The tendency that became apparent in that section of the Church, finally culminated in Pelagianism. Pelagius’ conception of grace was rather unusual. According to Wiggers he comprehended under grace:

a) “The power of doing good (possibilitas boni), and therefore especially free will itself.”

b) “The revelation, the law, and the example of Christ, by which the practice of virtue is made easier for man.”

c) “Our being so made as to be able, by our own will, to abstain from sin, and in God’s giving us the help of His law and His commands, and in His pardoning the previous sins of those who return to Him.”

d) “Supernatural influences on the Christian, by which his understanding is enlightened and the practice of virtue is rendered easy to him.”

He recognized no direct operation of the Spirit of God on the will of man, but only an indirect operation on the will through the enlightened conscience. In his view the operation of the grace of God was primarily, though not exclusively, external and natural. In opposition to the Pelagian view, that of Augustine is often designated as “the theology of grace.” While Augustine admitted that the word “grace” could be used in a wider sense (natural grace), and that even in the state of integrity it was the grace of God that made it possible for Adam to retain his uprightness, his main emphasis is always on grace as the gift of God to fallen man, which manifests itself in the forgiveness of sin and in the renewal and sanctification of human nature. In view of the total depravity of man he regards this grace as absolutely necessary unto salvation. It is wrought in man by the operation of the Holy Spirit, who dwells and works in the elect and is the principle of all the blessings of salvation. He distinguished between operating or prevenient, and co-operating or subsequent grace. The former enables the will to choose the good, and the latter co-operates with the already enabled will, to do the good. In his struggle with Semi-Pelagianism Augustine emphasized the entirely gratuitous and irresistible character of the grace of God.

Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996). 429.