Grace and Belief: Which Came First?
Grace, apart from being a lovely name for a beautiful actress, is the term that is used for the favour of God. Grace might be offered in response to something done, but in the context of Paul’s Letter to the Romans it always means unmerited favour. And, being God’s grace, it has the nature of salvation, in that one is rescued from pain and suffering, not only that caused by oppressive rulers and wicked people but also the consequences of one’s own sinful actions. One is forgiven not on the basis of anything one has done, but in virtue of Jesus’s sacrifice.
Paul is, I think, using strong language in today’s reading to assert that human beings will be saved from destruction not by anything they themselves do, but by the action of God. This is a classic apocalyptic insight. The breaking in of God into human time is accomplished in the coming of Jesus. His whole life and death is seen as the equivalent to what the priest does on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when sacrifices were offered for the sins of Israel. Jesus’s sacrifice is one for all, though, and does not need to be repeated. A second insight is that those who have faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice will be the ones who accept it for themselves; those who do not accept it will not be able to partake of it.
Paul’s emphasis upon grace means that he has to assert that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. This is not to say that all are equally wicked, but simply that all humanity is in need of God’s grace; by their own efforts they cannot help themselves to achieve righteousness before God. Fair enough – but, then, what is faith? Is it a kind of work, being the intellectual assent to a proposition, or is faith itself merely a gift of God given to a person by the divine, a sign of the salvific grace given by God? Is faith a kind of work, or a result of grace? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Paul was not thinking of these things when he wrote Romans, but they came to the fore in the early fifth century controversies between Pelagius and Augustine. Pelagius was a well educated Briton who travelled to Rome and Jerusalem. He saw the free will of human beings as a gift from God, and emphasised the ability of Christians to chose to walk in God’s ways, and to accept grace. Augustine, on the other hand, saw this as infringing on the power and grace of God, and originated the doctrine of original sin to say that all human beings from conception and birth are caught up in sin and cannot help themselves without the grace of God. This led to Augustine stressing pre-destination, a theme which Calvin picked up and which seemed to eliminate human beings choice in the matter.
Paul holds the two ideas in tension and leaves them unresolved. Perhaps that is where we should leave it, as well, as a pardoxical mystery. It may also have to do with perspective. From a phenomenological point of view human beings are active and making choices. From the construction of an objective “God’s perspective”, from the viewpoint of eternity, it is God’s action alone. The two are not necessarily in contradiction, any more than the fact that in physics light can be described mathematically as both a particle and as a wave. From our human domain we think that it has to be one or the other, but both may in some senses be true.
At some point I will also have to get into the distinction between the objective genitive and the subjective genitive of “pistis Iesou Christou”, as that is also a factor. Also, what is the faith of the Jews? Is it only the faith of Jewish Christians, or is it the faith of faithful Torah-abinding Jews, whose works are a sign of a lively faith?