Article by Andrew Preus, Jeffrey Ries and Brian Flamme
Denominations in Christianity view grace in a variety of ways. See how the Scripture-based understanding Lutherans have of grace compares with others:
- Roman Catholic
WHAT GRACE IS: God’s favor or help, guiding man to salvation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996), both to start salvation and to allow man to merit salvation (CCC, 2010).
HOW IT JUSTIFIES: Poured into man to make him gradually righteous. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (Trent, Ch. 7 on Justification; CCC, 1427).
RELATION TO THE HUMAN WILL: God’s grace is the first grace in justification, which requires man to use his free will (CCC, 2002). “If anyone says that man’s free will … does nothing at all and is merely passive [toward the grace of justification], let him be anathema” (Trent, Canon 4 on Justification).
RELATION TO THE GOSPEL: The Gospel is the New Law, or “the grace of the Holy Spirit … [which] uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it” (CCC, 1966). Since grace includes our own works, there cannot be full certainty of salvation, since this would be arrogance (Trent, Ch. 9 on Justification).
- Reformed (Bound Will)
WHAT GRACE IS: God’s sovereign counsel and good pleasure that certain people chosen for salvation would have the saving power of Christ’s death applied to them (Dort, 2: Article 8).
HOW IT JUSTIFIES: God chose His elect from before the foundations of the world, determining that they would be part of His covenant through faith and determining that Christ’s death would declare them righteous.
RELATION TO THE HUMAN WILL: Man is entirely deprived of any free will, because of his fallen condition (Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 9:16; Dort 3/4: Article 3).
RELATION TO THE GOSPEL: The ministry of reconciliation, which calls sinners to repentance and faith, is how God makes His grace known. But this grace only applies to those whom God has chosen for eternal life. The grace itself cannot be resisted by the human will (Dort 3/4: Rejection 8). In order to have certainty that you are one of the elect, you must use the Means of Grace and follow God’s Word until you receive the internal witness of the Spirit.
- Reformed (Free Will)
WHAT GRACE IS: “The grace or love of God, from which comes our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL” (John Wesley in his sermon “Free Grace”).
HOW IT JUSTIFIES: God’s grace does not include our works (“FREE IN ALL”), and it is based on our decision to choose Christ, not on God’s predestination (“FREE FOR ALL”).
RELATION TO THE HUMAN WILL: Part of God’s grace is that He gives man a free will to make a decision to have faith. The human will cooperates in conversion.
RELATION TO THE GOSPEL: The ministry of reconciliation, which calls sinners to repentance and faith, is how God makes His grace known. But this grace also depends on man’s will to choose Christ. The certainty of God’s grace must rest in the experience of how the human will chooses and responds to the Gospel.
WHAT GRACE IS: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–24). It is God’s favor revealed in the redemption of Christ by which He declares sinners to be righteous.
HOW IT JUSTIFIES: “Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24–25). It is located in the redemptive work of Christ by which He turned God’s wrath away. It is, therefore, received fully through faith, which God counts as righteousness (Rom. 4:5, See AC IV).
RELATION TO THE HUMAN WILL: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). “You were dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). It does not depend at all on the human will, but only on God’s mercy, fulfilled and revealed in Christ (See SC Creed Art. 3).
RELATION TO THE GOSPEL: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes … For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17). The Gospel fully contains and reveals this grace of Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, I am certain (not ashamed) of my salvation (See AC V).
Lutheranism: The Spirit bears witness with our spirit
by Andrew Preus
Now that you’ve read how different denominations view grace, it’s clear that the first three definitions do not ground the grace of God solely in the all-atoning work of Christ given fully in the Gospel for all sinners.
The Roman Catholic Church grounds God’s grace in His cooperation with man’s free will to respond to His call with good works.
The free-will Reformed (Baptists, Evangelical Free and others), contrary to the Roman Catholic Church, say that we are saved without works, and yet turn faith into a decision of the human will.
The bound-will Reformed (Christian Reformed and Dutch Reformed) get it right that natural man is completely corrupt and unable to choose God, and that God’s grace alone has chosen His elect for eternal life from before the foundations of the world (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:29–30). However, grounding God’s grace in His sovereign act to elect certain people to eternal life, they limit Jesus’ work of redemption only to those whom God has chosen for eternal life. Therefore, our certainty that we are elect cannot simply be in the Gospel proclamation, but in our discerning of the Spirit’s internal witness. Both Reformed groups see the Sacraments as signs of God’s grace for Christians to follow, rather than the fullness of God’s grace for sinners to receive through faith.
Though the Reformed will emphasize that we are not saved by works, they end up identifying God’s grace in how the Christian experiences God’s Word, rather than fully in the objective and complete work of Christ’s redemption (2 Cor. 5:18), fully given in the Gospel and Sacraments (Rom. 1:16–17; 1 Peter 3:21; Matt. 26:26, 28; Mark 14:22, 24; Luke 22:19–20; 1 Cor. 11:24–25). Jesus bore all sin in His flesh (Rom. 8:3). Through this Gospel, the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children (Rom. 8:16).
Roman Catholicism: Distinction with a difference
by Jeffrey Ries
The Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church teaches “salvation by grace through faith.” It also defines grace as God-given “undeserved help.” However, in their catechism, the word “alone” never follows “grace.” Rome teaches that “justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom,” and “by enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus … man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work” (emphasis added). According to Rome’s teaching, grace doesn’t save us. It enables us to behave with virtue, do good works and merit eternal life. According to Rome, grace makes us able to follow the Law, and in following the Law we are saved from sin.
The only real distinction between Rome and Protestantism on grace is that Rome is more formulaic. Both hold equally synergistic views, believing that man (at some level) cooperates with God in their salvation.
Lutherans keep to the simple truth of Scripture. Romans 3:19–25 and 2 Cor. 5:17–21 are two of many passages that declare the truth concerning God’s grace. Jesus Christ kept the Law perfectly, died as a sinner despite His innocence, and by His death and resurrection covered us in His righteousness and justified us before God.
One might be tempted to think this a distinction without a difference. But let us imagine ourselves on our deathbed, contemplating the end of our fallen-flesh life. We look back upon our life, remembering innumerable sins committed in thought, word and deed. Would we worry about whether our so-called “cooperation” with God was sufficient to merit salvation or whether we succeeded in reaching out to receive the grace He gave? Or would we rest secure in the righteousness of God that is ours solely for the sake of Christ’s work for us? Let us rest in the latter. It is what God’s Word declares. It is the grace of God for us and our one true hope.
Reformed: An inner experience
By Brian Flamme
The Reformed understandings of grace can be split into two broad categories: Calvinistic and Arminian.
Calvinistic theologians emphasize grace as God’s eternal predestination to save some while He predestines others for condemnation. Because God’s choice is sovereign and immutable, grace is irresistible and extended only to a few. They deny the universality of the Gospel, that Jesus died for the sins of all and that God desires all to be saved. Christian comfort is not found primarily in the preached promise, but by the elect “observing in themselves” the work of the Spirit in their hearts and works.
The Arminians historically accounted for the election of some but not others in the eternal foresight of God seeing that some will believe and not others. On the basis of such foresight, God elects. The problem is that even though grace becomes universal, its work is still dependent on something in man. In today’s “decision theology” that predominates American Protestantism, grace is freely offered to all if they make their choice for Jesus. Grace is universal, but it is also dependent on something found in man: the free exercise of his will.
The nature of grace remains the main point of contention today. In our American context, though confessions or creeds were once an important part of the Reformed churches’ history, they seem to be less-than-satisfactory indicators of what you hear in your neighborhood “nondenominational” churches. If the church claims that they have no creed but the Bible, then the definition of grace might be at the mercy of the opinions of the current pastor. Also, we should not forget the American trend of minimizing theology in favor of experience, so you will likely hear about people “experiencing” grace in Protestant churches without them getting too specific about what it is.
If one thing binds these traditions together, it is that the inner experience, rather than the external Word, confirms God’s grace in a Christian’s life.
The Rev. Andrew Preus is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, McGregor, Iowa, and Trinity Lutheran Church, Guttenberg, Iowa.
The Rev. Jeffrey Ries is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Tacoma, Wash.
The Rev. Brian Flamme is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Roswell, N.M.
This article originally appeared in print in the January 2020 issue of The Lutheran Witness.