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Grace (religion)

April 30, 2021


Grace (religion), in Christian theology, unearned favor, freely bestowed by God on individuals who are thereby redeemed and sanctified. Grace (Hebrew hen) in this sense is mentioned in Hebrew Scripture. In the New Testament, grace (Greek charis) is associated almost exclusively with the figure of Christ. By Christ’s atoning death, the limitless favor of God was revealed (see Atonement).



The first theological conflict over the nature of sin and grace occurred in the late 4th century between St. Augustine and the British theologian Pelagius. Pelagius argued that every person is free to obey or disobey God. Everyone sins from time to time and needs the grace of God. In Pelagius’s view, however, grace consists of God’s having given the teachings and the example of Jesus, so that by grace one can know the right and good. One might further pray for God’s grace as assistance in performing the good. Such grace is “resistible,” however; one is free to refuse it. Pelagius regarded salvation as God’s reward given for a life of freely chosen obedience.

Augustine agreed that God had created humanity free to obey or disobey him, but argued that the taint of original sin is transmitted to succeeding generations by the act of procreation. Humanity is therefore unable not to sin. Only the irresistible grace of God can free his creation from the power of sin, and that grace was given in Christ. It is made accessible to individuals through the ministry of the church and especially through baptism and the other sacraments (see Sacrament). Believers may still sin, but those whom God elects persevere and finally achieve salvation, not by their merit or good works, but by the triumphant grace of God (see Predestination).



Scholastic theologians, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, somewhat altered the Augustinian doctrine of grace, which they intended to affirm. Aquinas introduced a distinction between the realm of nature and the realm of the supernatural. The realm of nature, he argued, can be known by unaided reason. The realm of the supernatural can be understood only through the grace of God and by his gracious revelation of truth. Thus, Aquinas made room for both Aristotelian reason in the natural realm and traditional Augustinian theology in the supernatural realm. For him, reason is untainted by sin and yields adequate knowledge within its inherent limitations. Grace does not contradict or supersede nature, but perfects it.

The Scholastics also made a series of distinctions concerning the realm of grace itself. Grace belongs to the supernatural realm; yet an act of grace is necessary to elevate a person to the realm of grace. This is justifying grace, or grace of elevation (see Justification). It takes a further act of grace, called sanctifying grace, to make a person holy and sanctified and thus able to enter communion with God. In addition, there is gratuitous grace: God’s grace cannot be bound to any predetermined channel. Grace may be permanent, as recognized in the steadfast, virtuous life of its recipient (habitual grace); it may also be received on rare occasions to allow certain extraordinary acts of obedience to God (actual grace).

Scholastic theology tied grace almost exclusively to the sacramental system. Grace, according to this doctrine, is infused by each of the seven sacraments, so that the proper kind of grace is available when needed.



The 16th-century Protestant reformers dissociated grace to some extent from the sacraments. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized the personal quality of grace. For Luther, grace depends on a personal relationship with God and cannot be imparted to an individual apart from or against that individual’s will. Calvin contended that grace is an irresistible force within the individual that frees the will from its natural bondage and is given only to those predestined by God for salvation.

Protestant reformers also rejected the Scholastic belief in the efficacy of unaided reason in the understanding of the natural realm. Luther and Calvin argued that all creation is corrupted by sin, including nature and reason as well as human will and feeling. Thus, they reverted to an interpretation of sin and grace more Augustinian than that of the Scholastics.



Liberal Protestant thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries developed an optimistic and almost Pelagian view of human nature. After the disillusionment of World War I and its aftermath, however, the most influential Protestant theologians, including Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, sought to recover a more Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace. This neoorthodox movement did not, however, revive Augustine’s idea of the transmission of sin by procreation, and it retained the traditional Protestant emphasis on the personal quality of grace without denying the centrality of sacraments. The work of certain 20th-century Roman Catholic theologians, such as Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, moves in similar directions, under the influence of existentialism.

Contributed By:
Charles P. Price

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