The following article was published in The Ecumenical Review, vol. 56, No. 3, July 2004. The Ecumenical Review is the quarterly journal of the World Council of Churches.
In Porto Alegre, Brazil, thousands of Christians will gather for ten days to pray in one voice and with one spirit:
“God, in Your grace, transform the world.”
This is the theme of the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches, which will be held in Porte Alegre, Brazil, in February 2005. It is a fervent cry to our merciful God to help us, through grace, to face challenges and to overcome tribulation. We are in dire need of divine grace to help us to care for the gift of life, to work for peace and reconciliation, to hold fast to the truth of God in Christ, and to be His faithful disciples witnessing to His love and mercy.
Our merciful God, we need Your grace to transform us and transform the world:
In this article, I wish to contribute to the worldwide reflection and meditation on the divine transforming grace. My contemplation will concentrate on the following points:
1. What is divine grace?
2. Why do we need the grace of God?
3. How does divine grace work in humanity and in the whole creation?
4. Is divine grace for everyone or only for the chosen?
5. What is the role of the human will in the work of grace?
I hope my contribution will be beneficial to all my brothers and sisters who are preparing to come to the assembly.
WHAT IS DIVINE GRACE
When defining divine grace, we regard it as divine help sent by God Almighty as a free gift to sustain a human being in order to support that person’s weak will that often deviates and experiences constant needs. To state it simply, everything that God bestows on a human being is the work of divine grace.
There are aspects of grace that are clearly visible while others are not apparent. The more tangible evidence of grace is the kind we consciously see, or feel in our lives; we feel God’s hand supporting and guiding us. The invisible work of grace is that which sustains us with¬out our knowledge and keeps evil away from us before we are even aware it has approached us.
Grace can work internally or may work externally, in our surroundings, in order to oppose the powers that work against us. There is grace that seeks our spiritual growth by leading us to repentance or raising us up to a higher spiritual level, approaching divine love. There is also grace that brings about miracles and powerful action in our life.
Grace may either initiate our action and inspire us to work, or it may come to our aid once we begin working. The kind of grace that initiates action is seen when a certain thought; idea or feeling is introduced to us; its source is not from within ourselves, but rather a gift from God. An example of this is the grace that called on Saul of Tarsus and changed him, with¬out him asking or thinking about it; it called on Levi (Matthew) while he was sitting at the tax office; and it also called on Peter and Andrew while they were fishing. The second type is seen when a person has already begun working or wishes to do something and divine grace comes to this person’s aid and gives power to him or her. In this case, a person recog¬nizes his or her own weakness and fervently asks God for divine help.
We should note that our Lord gives His grace to everyone and in various ways. The impor¬tant element is the person’s response and reaction to the work of divine grace. Although divine grace may start working in and through a person, if he or she does not interact with it, it may not complete its action or even abandon that individual. Therefore, we must not be negligent when we are visited by divine grace; we must respond lest it leaves us and we end up regretting it. When we pray to our Lord to send God’s grace to work within us, we must also ask the Lord to give us a heart that is ready to interact and respond to the work of divine grace.
This leads to the next question: “Is it possible that divine grace may abandon a person?” The answer is yes. Divine grace sometimes abandons a person either temporarily in order to lead one to repent, or completely if the person insists on refusing to interact with it. In biblical language, this could be referred to as a “debased mind,” which is the term St. . Paul used when he wrote to the Romans: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” (Rom. 1:28).
Divine grace may abandon a person temporarily for one’s own benefit. We see this in the book of Isaiah, when God addresses the human soul, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.” (Isa. 54:7). For any who fall into the sin of pride and vainglory, divine grace may be withdrawn for a short while, in order to allow them to feel their own weakness and feel humble, for “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Then divine grace will return to them. Also, it may temporarily abandon those who become lazy in their spiritual endeavors, like the Shulamite in the Song of Solomon who was slow to get up and open the way for her beloved. When she was late in opening, he turned and walked away, and she said, “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone… I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Song of Sol. 5:6). In this case, temporary abandonment occurred as a result of laziness, yet it led the Shulamite’s heart to be inflamed, and she went out seeking her beloved because she was lovesick.
OUR NEED FOR DIVINE GRACE
Human beings need divine grace to sustain us despite our human weakness and renew our fallen nature. Originally, humanity was nothing and non-existent, then God gave Adam the gift of being and created him with a pure and holy nature. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.’” (Gen. 1:27-28). God also gave humankind power and dominion over all the creatures and nature.
With the Fall and the breaking of God’s commandments, humanity lost this gift, and thus came under the power of death, as God had warned, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17). Human nature became corrupt and started deviating towards evil, as it is written, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5). With men and women’s knowledge of evil came the spread and increase of murder, fornication and theft: “All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.” (Rom. 3:12).
Even though the Lord sent the prophets and gave the Law, yet this could not change and correct the human condition for people continued in wickedness and the works of the Law could not justify any mortal, as St. Paul wrote:
“What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin…For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:9, 22-23).
Therefore, humanity needed God’s grace so as to be justified and live in holiness and right¬eousness:
“They are now justified by God’s 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. God did this to show righteousness, because in divine forbearance God had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that the Lord God is righteous and justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:24-26).
Indeed, as it is written in the scriptures, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The Law could not improve human life and reform it. In fact, it became a witness against the sinner. Humans needed a new nature and a return to the pure heart that God originally created to love goodness. What the Law did is that it revealed sin but could not remedy the deviant human tendency towards sin, which ruled over the mortal heart and will. Consequently, humanity was in conflict with itself, for the heart was not purified and did not reach the degree of loving God and loving virtue, yet at the same time the mind told fallen humanity that there was punishment for breaking the Law. Therefore, each individual continued to need external restraints. But thanks be to God, who gave us the new commandment of love through our Lord Jesus Christ. When our Lord Jesus Christ was asked about which is the greatest commandment, he answered:
“’You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40).
But this raises the question: How can we human beings reach this degree of love upon which hang all the Law and the prophets? The only way is by God’s grace acting in us through the Holy Spirit, as St. . Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
By the grace of God and the action of the Holy Spirit, our hearts become inflamed with God’s love, and the heart that loves God is a pure heart; it loves goodness and keeps away from sin. This is the authentic transformation: change of the heart from within, leading to our libera¬tion from bondage to sin and selfish passion. This is the real change, which transforms the world. It must start with our Lord transforming the human heart by the action of His grace and purifying it from love of sin, and only then the world can be truly transformed. Therefore, we need the mighty action of God’s grace to transform us from within, because we cannot justify ourselves. The person who lives by grace loves goodness, and it becomes second nature. All this person’s actions are directed towards goodness, and there is no inner conflict or struggle, for the transformed heart has reached liberty from bondage to sinful habits and passions, the flesh and material things, because sin no longer influences or overcomes the redeemed of the Lord. This is the state which the Church Fathers call “dispassion”. A per¬son fervently prays to reach this state. St. . John referred to it when he wrote, “We know that those who are born of God do not sin… and the evil one does not touch them.” (1 John 5:18).
In the 21st century, the world faces many challenges. We are confronted daily by wars and hear news of wars; the danger of physical and intellectual terror is threatening human civilization. Technology is used as an instrument to spread violence, pornography and sin. Christians are still divided, and Christian unity seems like a distant dream. So much effort has been spent and is still being spent, yet in the face of the increase of evil, we look up to our Lord to change us internally by his grace and to transform the world by this same grace. We therefore pray, “God, in Your grace, transform the world at the right time, and grant us the hope for a better future for the Church and all of humanity.”
THE WORK OF DIVINE GRACE
Grace is a mysterious power given to persons, inspiring them to love God and repent. It implants in them holy feelings and the power to walk in the Lord’s path, the power to per¬severe in facing the evil one’s battles and temptations.
The arena of the work of grace is comprehensive and has many facets; covering all aspects of our life; including our thoughts, because we cannot do anything without God’s grace. This is the concept which St. . Paul reflected when he wrote, “Not that we are competent of our¬selves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). The apostle is revealing to us that God is the source of every good thought and every good work we perform, for we do not possess the sufficiency, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Additionally, our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.” (John 15:4). Indeed, the sap of the vine runs through the branch and gives it life and the ability to produce fruit. If it remains by itself, without abiding in the vine, it will dry and be fruitless. However, although God is the origin of all goodness in our thoughts or actions, yet we have to respond and cooperate with divine grace in order for it to work effectively in us.
God’s grace is evident in creation. As mentioned previously, the human being was nothing, and non-existent until God gave Adam the grace of being. This divine grace continues to show that God cares for us, and if it were withdrawn from the universe for a moment, the universe would perish. God the Almighty holds the universe and protects it, shielding it by grace.
In our daily life, the divine grace protects us from temptations and difficulties, prevents us from falling in sin, and guards us from the conspiracies of Satan and evil people, for “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.” (Ps. 127:1). Through the ages, divine grace guarded God’s righteous and beloved ones from temptations, as it is written, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” (Ps. 34:19).
Divine grace protects us and grants us peace and tranquility, so that we may say, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.” (Ps. 23:4). Although there is much technological advance¬ment, this does not grant us peace. In fact, in many of the technologically advanced societies, we see an increase in the suicide rate, especially among young people. There is also an increase in the number of people suffering from depression. Therefore, we pray to God that, by grace, God shall change the hearts of humans to heal depression and to grant peace and tranquility. We have confidence in the protective shield of divine grace.
In our spiritual life, divine grace keeps a person from falling in sin, for truly sin is powerful, “for many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims.” (Prov. 7:26). But the protective power of divine grace enables us to say with the psalmist, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.” (Ps. 118:13). We see how divine grace pro¬tected Daniel in the lions’ den and the three youths in the fiery furnace. It also protected David when he faced Goliath. Divine grace is what sustained the martyrs during their trials and tortures, and nowadays we face another era of persecution. There are Christians perse¬cuted in many countries. We entreat our Lord to keep us by grace in faith, so we can coura¬geously face persecutions as our ancestors did.
Divine grace guarded the anchorites and hermits in the deserts, wilderness and caves in the mountains.
Divine grace calls us to salvation for God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4).
It is divine grace that leads a person to believe in Christ and His redemptive work, thus call¬ing humanity from darkness to light; “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9).
In ministry, it is divine grace that calls servants, prophets and priests. It called John the Baptist while he was still in his mother’s womb, and Samson before he was conceived (Judg. 13:5). God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5). St. . Paul praised divine grace that called him and wrote, “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, so that I might pro¬claim Him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being.” (Gal. 1:15-16).
We must note that God calls, but humanity may respond or refuse the call. Our Lord gave us a parable of how God calls on certain individuals, but they give excuses:
“The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’” (Luke 14:18-20).
All the above are examples of those who refuse the divine calling.
All the gifts we have are granted to us by divine grace, as St. . James wrote, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Fr. of lights.” (James 1:17). Furthermore, divine grace gives generously and blesses the small amount and increases it. It is divine grace that blessed the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men, besides the women and children, and they had some left over (Luke 9:10-17). It also blessed the bin of flour and the jar of oil of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:14-15).
Our Lord Jesus Christ’s disciples lived by His grace, and they went out on their missionary ministry without carrying gold, silver, or copper in their money belts nor bag for the jour¬ney (Matt. 10:9-10), yet they lacked nothing (Luke 22:35). When it came to worldly mat¬ters, they lived as poor people but were enriched by divine grace, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor. 6:10).
It was divine grace that sustained St. Paul while he suffered the thorn in the flesh and our Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor. 12:9). It gives strength, as St. Paul felt its power and told his disciple, Timothy, “You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1). It makes the ministry effective and dynamic, as St. Paul experienced it and wrote, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Also, the apostles experienced the power of God’s grace, and we read in the book of Acts, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33). Clearly, the source of the great power in their witness was a result of the great grace that was upon them.
The action of divine grace is manifested in various ways and encompasses everything. God’s grace is very rich and is boundless, so consequently the divine action in humanity and in cre¬ation is unlimited.
But how does divine grace come upon a person?
Grace comes by means of prayer, as our Lord said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matt. 7:7). He also said, “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Fr. in My Name, He will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (John 16:23-24). Also, grace comes to the humble person, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5).
God’s grace comes upon a person through the prayers of the Church and the saints for that person’s sake. We read in the Acts of the Apostles how the Church offered fervent prayers for St. Peter while he was in prison, and God saved him from Herod’s hands (Acts 12:16¬17). Samuel the prophet prayed for his people and told them, “Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.” (1 Sam. 12:23). St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly pray¬ing with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Phil. 1:3-4).
The Christian believer receives grace by means of the Church’s sacraments, which are the mysteries through which a person receives grace by the prayers and through the priesthood. For example, in Baptism a person receives forgiveness of sins and the grace of the new birth and adoption by God. In Chrismation, the person receives the seal of the Holy Spirit and becomes a temple for the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3: 16). In the Sacrament of Repen¬tance and Confession, a person receives the grace of the forgiveness of sins, while in the Mys¬tery of the Eucharist, according to Christ’s promise, the person abides in Christ, “Those who eat My flesh and drink My blood abide in Me, and I in them.” (John 6:56).
GRACE IS FOR EVERYONE
Divine grace is for everyone, for God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4), because Christ “came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Clearly, grace is in all and for all. Our Lord revealed this in the parable of the sower by showing how the seeds fall everywhere, even in the stony places and among the thorns (Matt. 13:3-9). Therefore, no one is excluded, but its action depends on a person’s response. Grace stands at the door knocking. Some open the door and let it in (Rev. 3:20), while others refuse to open. Thus, by their own free will, they lose the opportunity and grace cannot work through them.
Grace works in sinners and leads them to repentance. If it were not for grace, they would not have repented. As the sinner cries out to the Lord, “Restore me and I will return” (Jer. 31:18, NKJV), grace will sustain us and help us to repent.
Grace works in the unbelievers to lead them to the faith, and if it were not for grace, they would not have been able to believe for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3). It called Longinus the soldier who pierced Christ’s side, Saul of Tarsus, and the thief on the Cross.
God did not even deny Judas Iscariot the work of grace. The Lord called him to be one of the disciples, gave him the money box, sent him on missionary service with the rest of the disciples, washed his feet and allowed him to eat the Passover meal with Him. Our Lord also gave him many warnings, but he did not respond to the work of grace.
GRACE AND HUMAN WILL
Grace is for everyone and grace is capable of doing everything, because God “desires every¬one to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4). However, is every¬one saved? If not, then why? Is God incapable of saving all humans? Of course not; God forbid! But God wants everyone to be saved through one’s own free will and complete desire; God does not force anyone to be saved. God granted humans free will, and each can accept or refuse divine grace.
In his book on grace, H.H. Pope Shenouda III wrote:
Grace does not act by itself. If a person takes action, then it will work with him and sus¬tain, strengthen, and guide him all the way. If he does not take action, grace will urge him, but will not compel him. It may arouse in his heart longing for God or for good work, but his will remains entirely free to respond or not. How great and powerful is the action of grace! However, it does not eliminate human freedom.
His Holiness also wrote:
Indeed, we are instruments in God’s hands. Yet, we are instruments that have a free will. We should submit our will freely, lovingly and with conviction into God’s blessed hands, in order to fulfill His goodwill. We are not inanimate objects, but rather living beings, where grace can interact with our feelings, our thoughts and our senses. It can direct our choice, but we have willingly to accept to be directed and cooperate with it, and it will cooperate with us. If grace worked by itself, then why are the sinners guilty? Can we say that divine grace did not work with them? Of course not, for this does not agree with divine justice. Or can we say that it did not work with them powerfully, for it was inca¬pable? God forbid! In fact, divine grace worked with them, but they refused it. So, it did not compel them. Therefore, they fell and sinned. God did not take a passive stand towards them, but they took a passive stand towards the work of grace.
Does grace work only through the chosen elect? Again, His Holiness responds in the same book and writes:
No. Grace works in every one, but the elect ones became chosen, because they accepted grace to work with them and cooperated with its action. They did not resist God’s will, but submitted their will completely to the work of grace.
God lovingly works with us and through us by grace, for it is the greatest work. Yet a per¬son’s response to grace is essential. Because of their laziness, many refuse the work of grace and become likened to Jerusalem, about which our Lord said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not’ willing!” (Matt. 23:37).
One of the beautiful examples that illustrate the cooperation of grace with the human will is Joshua’s war with Amalek. Joshua led the army in war, while Moses lifted his hands in prayer (Ex. 17:8-13). Victory was attained by means of Moses’ prayer and Joshua’s army. This is how grace worked. It responded to prayer while the army was fighting. Although divine grace was the main element in the victory, this was not seen as an excuse for Joshua to be lazy and not fight.
Let us fervently pray, “God, in Your grace, transform the world.” But we also have to respond to God’s action to change ourselves, so that we can transform the world. Let us be ¬fellow workers with God’s grace so that we may rejoice in a new world, where peace, right¬eousness and holiness prevail.