Friday, May 08, 2009

Grace and sacraments

The following is Part I of a series I will be writing and posting here. This follows the line of thought in this earlier post.

I. Grace: A definition

χάρις: Charis: Gift, gratuity.

Too often the definition of "grace" is limited to mean the unmerited favor of God to fallen man in terms of his mercy on sinners, and in classic Reformed Theology (following earlier writers in the western Monastic tradition) this has led to a sharp distinction between the Covenant of Creation and the Covenant of Grace. To a certain degree this distinction is useful, and has led to a necessary aspect of teaching such as we find in John Murray's short book The Covenant of Grace.1 Nonetheless, as my brother David Bentley Hart wrote in his first book, The Beauty of the Infinite,2 we need to see the entire act of creation and the giving of life itself as a gratuity. Nothing in creation is necessary; that is to say, God who has no need of anything, created and gave life as a gift, not to meet any need or desire of his own. "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshiped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things," said St. Paul on Mars Hill.3

So, with all the value we receive by drawing a line between the Covenants of Creation and of Grace in the western tradition, it is necessary, if only to see God himself in the light of the revelation of Holy Scripture, to remember that is was an act of χάρις when God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. This was unnecessary, for God needs nothing. It was unmerited, for Adam was given life and as yet deserved nothing. It was favor, gratuity or grace, a gift freely given.

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. 4

The first sacrament is given before the Fall. God himself does the work. Making use of Matter, that Matter being the very rib of the man to divide Man into two sexes; and making use of the words of Adam which constituted a Form which expressed Intention, it is God who makes them into one flesh. This too is a gift (χάρισμα) added to a state of life 5 in which (even now after the Fall and Christ's Redemption) God's creative act continues both to propagate the race of Man, and for believers becomes a means to add yet more grace whereby the husband and wife aid one another to salvation and sanctification. It is significant that of the Seven Mysteries (μυστήριον) or Sacraments, Matrimony is established before the Fall; and even more so that it signifies Christ and the Church as somehow a reality independent (in limited human terms) of the Fall, and therefore existing in the plan of God before (so to speak) the emergency that occasioned our redemption from sin and death.6 "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church," writes Paul about the deeper truth signified by marriage.7

Before he was a sinner, Adam was a husband; and the first time we see a sacrament in Scripture it is while man is yet in his innocence. As the Solemnization of Matrimony declares in the English Book of Common Prayer: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church." The three elements of a sacrament are present, and so is the feature that, along with Form, Matter and Intention, constitute a Sacrament (even this sacrament of a state of the life, rather than of the Gospel), namely God's promised and, therefore, predictable working. For Jesus taught that marriage is God's own work, and nothing less: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."8

We must conclude that grace is the very life of all creation, for none of the things in the created order are necessary for God to be whole, complete and without need; rather, it is we who need to be alive, and we exist soley due to his gift, his gratuity, of life. We must conclude that even before the Fall, sacramental grace is revealed to have been in operation, and that this sacramental grace signifies both the Incarnation and the election of the Church in a glorious mystery of Divine love, and does so before the emergency occasioned by the Fall of Man into sin and death.

Grace is everything to the created order, including beasts, Man and angels.


1. Murray, John The Covenant of Grace, The Tyndale Press: London in 1954

2. Hart, David Bentley, The Beauty of the Infinite, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, 2003

3. Acts 17:24,25

4. Gen. 3:22-24

5. "...partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures..." Art. XXV

6. This gives further evidence to the theory of Duns Scotus, which I summarize this way: Man was made for the Incarnation, independent (again, speaking within human limitations of expression) of the emergency occasioned by the Fall.

7. Eph 5:32

8. Mark 10:9


Millo Shaw said...

And so Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux said, "Everything is grace!", repeated by the dying priest in a dramatic illumination at the end of Georges Bernanos's great novel, "Diary of a Country Priest."

Anonymous said...

Reformed theologians differ as to how "sharp" the distinction is between the two "covenants." There are those who deny that there ever was such a thing as a "covenant of works." John Murray, whom you cite, did not like the term and preferred to speak of the "Adamic administration."

The distinction is really the same as the common distinction between nature and grace. The various ways nature and grace are said to be related (nature preparing for grace, nature in conflict with grace, etc) are well known. Thomistic and Calvinist theology has been contrasted as "nature preparing for grace" and "grace perfecting nature." A very fine distinction, as far as I am concerned.

As I understand the relationship of the two covenants, they actually interlock in the work of Christ. The covenant of works was broken by Adam. Christ, however, the second Adam, by His perfect obedience to the Law fulfills the covenant of works and flips the switch to the covenant of grace.

Your reference to the sacrament of holy matrimony was apropos. Some have made the serious error of inferring from the fact that matrimony is a sacrament of the NT dispensation that it did not exist before the Incarnation. As the classic Anglican marriage liturgy states, matrimony "is an holy estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency." The 1549/1662 marriage office goes on to mention Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah as examples of holy matrimony. Marriage as a sacrament stands at the intersection of nature and grace. Because God's grace is truly universal and not confined to the process of salvation, the grace of holy matrimony is available to Christians and non-Christians alike. I love the quote from Ste Therese of Lisieus, "grace is everywhere." And I love the Kuyperian doctrine of common grace, as the "rain which falls on the just and unjust."
Thanks for another good essay.