Between Heaven and Earth

Grace As the Conduit For God’s Love

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have Grace, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have Grace, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have Grace, I gain nothing.

Grace is patient, Grace is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Grace does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Grace never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part,

but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and Grace. But the greatest of these is Grace.

I’ve argued before that Grace is synonymous with Love. I’ve changed my mind, after creating this version of 1 Corinthians 13, replacing the word “Love” with the word “Grace:”

It seems to me that the substitution just does not work. Paul did not mince words. Love is everything Paul says it is, but Grace is not. Grace can be neutral, but Love cannot. You can be gracious without loving, but you cannot be (truly) loving without being gracious. In our human hubris we may talk with a kind of steely smugness about “tough love,” but Love “does not boast, it is not proud.” The closest Jesus ever came to “tough love” was telling the rich young ruler to give it all up, and he (Jesus) probably said it with tears in his eyes. 

So I returned to the literature to figure out where I had gone wrong in my earlier conclusion that Love and Grace were synonymous. As is now my habit, I rang the bell for my assistant, ChatGPT, to do the heavy lifting while I sat back with a gin and tonic to do the real pondering. (I don’t think ChatGPT knows how to ponder. Yet.) 

What I discovered is that God’s Grace has been known for a long time as the conduit or the medium through which his Love is delivered and experienced. But why do we need a conduit? The answer is: Because we cannot experience God’s Love directly, at least not until Jesus walks the earth again and we are lucky enough to meet him face-to-face. As it is, we can only experience God’s love indirectly, through his Grace.

The idea that Grace is what mankind experiences of God’s Love has in fact long been central to Christian theology (which I found to be a pleasant surprise, though it may be old news to you all.) Apparently, Grace has often been described in Christian theology as a key aspect of God’s character, embodying His kindness, mercy, and Love towards humanity, despite human imperfection and sin. 

Furthermore, in Christian theology, Grace is viewed not only as the means through which God’s Love is given but also the means by which salvation is made possible. Paul wrote:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But Grace is not only a static gift. Some see it as a dynamic and transformative power that enables individuals to grow in spiritual maturity and “live out” their faith. It helps believers to overcome sin and reflects God’s Love through their actions. We’ve often discussed this as “passing on the Grace.”

And this is not just any Grace. It is not “common Grace,” which some literature exemplifies as the beauty of nature or societal order. “It is Special Grace” which refers to the salvation said to be offered to believers through Jesus Christ.

The idea of Grace as an experience of God’s Love highlights the intimate and personal way God interacts with each individual one of us. As we’ve noted, many theologians (perhaps most), see the purpose of Grace as salvation, as redemption and restoration. This implies that the relationship between God and ourselves is rooted in Love and mercy rather than in strict legalism or moralism, otherwise there would be no need for Grace. You can give Grace without Love, but you cannot Love without giving Grace. I suspect the same is true of God himself.

Three great theologians have examined Grace in depth. They are Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Karl Barth (1886-1968), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Each framed Grace as an integral part of the experience of God’s Love (which, to me, is the key takeaway), though each focused on different aspects. 

Bonhoeffer wrote about Grace as “cheap” versus “costly.” Cheap Grace is not the same as common Grace, as I understand him. He argues that cheap Grace is Grace we give ourselves. It’s easy self-forgiveness, repentance nice but not necessary. Costly Grace is a gift from God. It is “costly” because it cost God the life of His only begotten Son and it costs us the sacrifice of our lives in return. (By “our lives” I mean the way we live. We sacrifice the way we want to live for the way God wants us to live.) So costly Grace is deeply tied to the experience of God’s Love through the sacrifice of Jesus. It requires our response and our transformation from what we were to what Jesus wants us to be. Bonhoeffer emphasized the transformative experience.

Many of us think of God’s Love as something that is a great comfort to us, but Bonhoeffer saw it as more than that; much more. To him, God’s Love is not merely a passive comfort; rather, it is transformative and radical; it is an active, challenging force that compels change. Its supreme expression was manifested in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but since we can’t have Jesus sacrificed every day, it has to be expressed to us in some other way. By “expressed” I don’t just mean “told”—we certainly can read about his crucifixion every day, but we can’t be there, with him, in Gethsemane, in the flesh, ever. If we were there—if we could look at that suffering face and hear his cries, we would feel his Love viscerally, in our bones. But we can’t be in Gethsemane. We can’t be at the Sermon on the Mount. We can only read about it afterwards. So how can we feel it? As I understand Bonhoeffer, the way we feel it is through Grace.

Cheap Grace justifies the sin but not the sinner. Bonhoeffer said it is Grace without discipleship, Grace without the cross, Grace without Jesus Christ. It is essentially Grace taken lightly, an acceptance of God’s forgiveness without transformation or a commitment to follow Christ. To me, this is the kind of Grace that too often comes from just going to church and reading the Bible every now and then. We feel pious, we feel cleansed of our sins.

In contrast, costly Grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of which, a man will gladly go and sell all that he has (Matthew 13:44). It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble (Matthew 18:9; Mark 9:47). Costly Grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for (Matthew 7:7), the door at which a man must knock (Matthew 7:8). It’s costly because it calls us to take up Jesus’ cross (Matthew 16:24) and thus costs a man his life (Mark 8:35), and it is Grace because it replaces that life with the true life (John 10:10).

I largely agree with Bonhoeffer. I certainly believe that true Grace is Grace that is experienced—felt—directly and personally; and not just indirectly and impersonally by reading about it. Where Bonhoeffer and I seem to differ is that, to me, the experience can be passive—you don’t have to do anything to get it. Bonhoeffer says you do. 

Bonhoeffer emphasizes that the response to an experience of God’s Love through Grace is not merely intellectual acknowledgment but involves a total life transformation. It forces you to decide and act morally—in other words, to sin no more, to be like Jesus, to live according to the teachings of Jesus—which include, you may recall, giving up all your worldly belongings. Ouch. That is costly!

Barth viewed Grace as the fundamental characteristic of God’s interaction with humanity. He argued that Grace is God’s unconditional election of humanity in Jesus Christ. We’ll talk about election a bit later, but what he meant here was that in Christ, God communicated His Love and established a new relationship with mankind. For Barth, Grace is both the invitation and the enablement to participate in the relationship with God, but it is entirely initiated and sustained by God’s Love.

So I asked ChatGPT: “Does Barth mean that humans cannot initiate a relationship with God?” 

“Yes,” it replied. “According to Karl Barth, humans cannot initiate a relationship with God on their own. He emphasized that all human capacity to relate to God stems from God’s prior action. He argues that Grace is God’s unilateral act of reaching out to humanity, an act that is entirely initiated and sustained by God’s Love.” So again, like Bonhoeffer, Barth sees Grace as the medium through which God’s Love reaches us.

According to Barth, God made the first move in establishing a relationship with us by sacrificing his son. The relationship was not anything we did and is not anything we can do. We may respond to that act of Grace, but we do not initiate the relationship. 

So Grace is an unmerited gift. But what about those who died before Jesus was born and sacrificed or who have never heard of him anyway? From what I can make of it, Barth saw Christ as the savior of all humanity, transcending time and geographical boundaries, but a “transcendence” argument by definition cannot be proved, so it is not a very satisfying argument. Apparently, Barth based it on his own take of the Calvinist “Doctrine of Election” according to which human knowledge of Christ is not what saves anyone—it is only Christ, only God, who saves; so in that sense salvation transcends human geographical and historical conditions, so anybody, anywhere, who has ever lived may be saved—provided they were pre-selected! I can’t say I like that idea very much.

Aquinas also described two types of Grace. One is “habitual” Grace, a gift of God that elevates and perfects human nature; the other is “actual” Grace, which helps us to act and turns us towards God. Dr. Lawrence Feingold describes them this way: “Actual graces perfect us in the order of movement and action whereas sanctifying grace elevates us to the order of supernatural being.” Aquinas’ understanding of Grace as what humans experience about God’s Love is tied to the enabling factor of “actual” Grace as a help from God to lead a life directed towards his divine Love. 

To me, this seems to leave people who have been (say) brutalized from birth with zero experience of God’s Grace, totally incapable of leading a life directed towards divine Love, and thus bereft of hope of actual Grace. 

Aquinas believed that Grace may or may not be “felt”—it is given, subconsciously, to people who do the good that already lies within them, implying that following your conscience is supported by Grace. You might think that suffering and hardship would suffocate Grace (at least, I thought so, after recalling Jesus’s last words), but Aquinas said suffering only makes Grace stronger. (That’s not quite “No pain, no gain,” but close!) As well, he thought that charity (which I think our group would identify as the passing on of Grace), serves to demonstrate God’s Love to people who are suffering and thus guide them towards it. 

Aquinas believed that natural law and reason could help people get with the Christian program (so to speak). Even in brutal conditions, our capacity for reason and our inclination towards good (which he thought, as I do, is inherent in all people) are elements of Grace that lead us to live a more Godly life. But if reason fails, we must accept that God’s concept and execution of Grace are a divine mystery and we must have faith in Grace whether we can feel it or figure it out or not.

The Church’s role, he thought, was to mediate Grace through community and the sacraments. which serve to bring Grace to believers, especially those who are suffering and in need.

So Aquinas believed that Grace can be experienced both on a purely personal level and as mediated through the church; but first and foremost, he saw Grace as a personal, interior gift from God, which sanctifies and justifies the individual: 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)

This “actual” or “sanctifying” Grace is infused into the soul by God, making the person righteous and holy before Him. It is received individually and directly impacts the person’s ability to live according to God’s will, empowering them to perform good acts that are meritorious for eternal life:

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we did in righteousness, but in accordance with His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He richly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

This illustrates the role of the Holy Spirit in the personal reception of Grace.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.’” (John 6:53-56)

This supports the sacramental theology where Grace is transmitted through the Eucharist. The sacraments (including baptism, confirmation, marriage, and others) are external signs that confer the Grace they signify. According to Aquinas, the sacraments are the primary means by which Grace is dispensed to the faithful, helping to sustain and nourish the Christian life and play a vital role, according to church and Matthew, in the believer’s spiritual journey: 

“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

This passage has traditionally been seen as granting authority to the Church to mediate Grace, among other things, through its teachings and sacraments.

Aquinas saw the communal and individual modes of experiencing Grace as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. The personal, internal workings of Grace prepare and fortify the individual to receive and respond to the sacramental Grace offered through the Church, which in turn supports and deepens the personal experience of divine Love and sanctification.

In summary, Aquinas’ concept of Grace is as both a personal, internal reality and a communal, ecclesial experience through the sacraments. To him, Grace is both a deeply personal encounter with God and a communal experience mediated through the Church’s sacramental life, each aspect reinforcing the other within the framework of Christian life and salvation.

Is all this theology worth knowing? Isn’t the Bible all we need? Or is theology vital, as an interpreter? If so, isn’t that a bit dangerous? Can we trust the theologians? 

What do you think about the idea that we cannot experience God’s Love directly? That this is why we need Grace, and why God gives it?

C-J: I see grace manifesting in two lanes. For millennia, we didn’t have a text. God communicated with us spiritually through our environment. I think the theologians consider this component important, but it’s institutional. When churches and communities were developed, they needed a theologian. 

So, how does this work? You say, “God speaks to you here.” There had to be a consensus, rituals, social expectations, and interpretations. But in the wilderness, millennia ago, as nomadic tribes, humanity faced the harshness of nature. You never know what’s going to happen. A sandstorm can arise suddenly. So, you are truly dependent on that grace. 

But I also believe that when God created humanity, he created the garden, which was full of grace.

Donald: I’ve tried to live, see, and feel my faith, probably at more of a surface level. Let me unpack a few things. One concerns the comparison between grace and love. I started thinking, “What about “like”? Can you like somebody and not love them? Or can you love somebody and not like them?” I think we would all agree that it’s possible to love somebody and not like them. ChatGPT says it’s possible to love someone without necessarily liking them: “This situation can occur in complex relationships where there are deep emotional bonds alongside significant differences.”

Then I connected that idea to David’s mention of piety, which reflects my understanding and concern about organized religion. It was implied in his statement that people may act out their faith, but it may not be as deep as one might hope. If we went around the room and asked how we live out our faith, we’re all on a good, solid plane when we discuss our faith each Sabbath morning. But in reality, if we wanted to live out our faith spiritually, I think we would choose to do it quite differently from each other. I don’t think we’re in the same circle anymore. 

It’s not a matter of like or love. It’s more of a personality difference. I may look at different birds and think, “Well, the Orioles are orange; they should be red like the Cardinals.” Is it really just a matter of choice? Or should we all be in the same spiritual circle? Because I feel somewhat troubled when I hear the word “pious”, as I think there are devout people who follow their spiritual journey through traditional roles and express it in churches and communities. But then there are others who barely seem to embrace it, yet they show it; they don’t share it, but they show it. 

My final point is, maybe it’s our personalities, but what causes us not to be in the same circle to say, “Let’s do something spiritually”? Well, I think that’s what we’re doing here. But if we were together every week, would we just sit in a circle and do the same thing? Would we show grace to each other and discover God’s love in different ways, given that opportunity?

C-J: What I’m hearing from Donald is a compassionate love, expressing that he cares about us deeply. Sometimes, when we face cognitive dissonance—and I’ll speak for myself—I feel threatened. My paradigm of processing information is challenged, and I have to make a choice: Am I willing to risk what I think is truth to receive or be part of this other person’s life because I value them for various reasons? 

I believe that God is always in the room. It’s that grace we’ve been discussing that compensates for whatever I lack or whatever discomfort I may cause another person by speaking my truth or living my truth, which is not intended to harm. But like light passing through a prism, it has many components, each beautiful in its own way. If we can accept that, through this vehicle of grace—either directly from God or that we try to allow in our own lives—to forgive someone even though we’ve been hurt, to approach that person and say, “I’m trying to understand so I can be a better friend, a better reflection, and meet what you need me to be for you.” That’s powerful. I can’t promise it will happen. I can’t guarantee you’ll understand. But I can tell you, at this moment, my heart’s desire is to let this relationship I have with the divine be at the forefront, to set aside my misunderstandings or limitations, and do what you mentioned: surrender my life to what I believe God would want me to do, not to be pious, but because I know I’m not doing it well and I care about this other person or our community. 

So I think that’s part of when, metaphorically, Adam and Eve left the garden. It was safe there; they walked with God in the cool of the evening, could ask their questions, were protected. But when they sinned, when they chose their own way, they faced a world full of different ways of being—culture, music, ritual traditions—and they had to make choices about survival, about needing community even if they didn’t like these people. That’s the essence of hospitality in the desert. Looking at our spiritual lives, sometimes being in a desert, we are compelled by the grace we’ve been discussing. We have to learn how to use that gift, to feel comfortable with it. Even if it feels like a loss, saying, “Okay Lord, I’ll surrender, I’ll sell everything because you told me to,” but walking into it feeling liberated instead of denied.

Reinhard: I find theologians today comparable to the teachers of the law during the Israelite times. But as we know, Jesus condemned them when he preached the gospel. Some of them, I believe, became power-hungry. The scribes and teachers of the law abused their power. 

We read the Bible, we listen to preaching, and if we allow the Holy Spirit to work within us, I think God gives us the opportunity to draw close to Him. We can’t just read superficially; it’s supposed to transform our lives, to bring us closer to God.

Regarding the history of receiving grace and how it’s responded to: It was a costly to God; He sacrificed His son, the creator gave His life to save people. The term “chosen” implies that while many are called, not everyone is selected. It’s a misconception to think everyone will receive grace sufficient for salvation. 

Following Jesus is costly, as we see from the disciples, most of whom died as martyrs. Stephen was stoned to death, and throughout history, other well-known martyrs like John and those during the French Revolution who faced the guillotine. It was costly for those who chose to follow God and were prepared to sacrifice their lives to receive grace.

Today, life is easier. Everyone can freely exercise their beliefs at home, at work, or in places of worship. God has given us this choice. Yet, it still depends on us to respond, because grace is given to everyone, just like air. But just as air can be costly for some—like those needing oxygen, people who go scuba diving, or astronauts in space—grace, too, has its costs. We must meet certain responsibilities. God said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This is part of the selection process. Not everyone will be saved. God already knows those who will follow Him to the end, those whose names are written in the book of life. 

We have to be doers of the Word, not just hearers. That’s part of our responsibility in responding to grace. We have responsibilities that we must meet in order to be counted among the chosen.

C-J: Mention of things being written in the book of life reminds me that the concept may stem from church traditions like recording baptisms. But before written language, humans likely had no concept similar to what we find in various texts, though here we’re primarily examining the Bible and how we’ve been taught to interpret it. 

Yet, there’s the notion of grace in sacrificing one’s life. I think about those who suffer greatly—maybe not by going to jail or losing their lives, but perhaps losing a job, facing a divorce, or getting hurt while trying to help others. I often wonder, if we were in such situations, how would I internalize that experience? Would I be able to see God’s grace while witnessing authority harm a citizen, denying them a voice or protection under the law? 

Life is fluid, circumstantial, and can be incredibly harsh and unjust. It echoes what David mentioned: grace is what we must rely on. If I’m hungry, suffering from an infection, and confined in a cell with just a bucket and minimal sustenance, deprived of all sensory comforts, I might not be okay. But if I can connect with my spirit and with God, I hope to find peace—a peace that isn’t dependent on circumstances but is a manifestation and amplification of grace.

Don: David raised a crucial topic we need to delve deeper into—the transformational power of grace. Grace isn’t just an addition; it’s transformative, it changes everything, particularly the recipient of grace. I was reminded of 1 John 4:19-20, where John writes, “We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and yet he hates his brother or sister, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother and sister whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

This command—that one who loves God should also love his brother and sister—is significant. We often see people who claim to love God yet show little love towards others. I wonder, is this a simple yet profound way to judge whether we are truly recipients of grace—by how we treat our brother?

Sharon: Relating to Don’s question, how does “sanctified” grace fit into the practicalities of us becoming Christ-like? And what is the process we go through to have this impact our behavior, our actions, and our love for those around us?

David: Aquinas would argue that sanctification can be approached in one of two ways, ideally both: through the workings of the Holy Spirit and through the teachings of the Church. Both of these elements work together to bring about that level of sanctification, which essentially means beginning to live out the life of Christ. When you start living like that, you are tapping into sanctifying grace, without which it’s simply too difficult to do on our own.

Don: But isn’t sanctification primarily relational? In the end, isn’t it something that requires a relationship?

David: Yes, you do need a relationship with God. However, it doesn’t have to be a conscious relationship. It can be unconscious, partly because God initiates and sustains the relationship. That’s what Bonhoeffer said, and I agree with him. 

In the Garden of Eden, there was no grace needed until sin entered. Before that, God’s love was directly experienced; there was no need for grace. But after Adam and Eve strayed, grace became necessary—they received it first in the form of fig leaves. 

To me, these theological insights might not be just intellectual concepts about grace and love; they may be operational ways forward. Whether we need to understand them intellectually, conceptually, is my big question. I don’t think we do. Sanctification can occur because we were already partly sanctified at birth, with grace injected into our souls, eternity set within our hearts. That is why we tend to be good. If we were more evil than good, the universe would collapse because evil is destructive. 

To the extent we you conscious of that sanctification, and to the extent we then consciously decide to act upon it, grace can be transformational, but I also believe people can still be passive recipients of God’s grace, whether they know it it or not. If they do recognize it and it transforms them, that’s great. It can help them to help others and thereby show the transformative power of God’s love, making others want to experience that love for themselves.

Carolyn: Before Jesus, and even during the time of John the Baptist, there was no Bible for the common people, nothing concrete for them to draw upon. And though everyone is given the Holy Spirit, I wonder about the people in Jericho or other places who didn’t follow the prescribed path to grace. 

With all the modern resources we have—TV, radio, books—it makes me think about the balance. Grace is said to be written in our hearts, but I’m not solid on the idea that sanctification is always brought by work.

C-J: All religions, traditions, and rituals include an element of purification, such as washing your hands or feet before eating, entering a special tent, or dwelling. The Jews practiced these rituals even when they were in Egypt, similar to Roman baths that emphasized cleansing before engaging in communal activities. 

This ties back to what David was saying about how God inscribed in us desires that make communal living more feasible. Part of the ritual is coming together with a shared belief system, like sitting down at a table, washing hands, and expressing gratitude for what’s provided. These elements have always existed in tribal communities, whether they’re composed of 10, 15, or 20 people—the washing, the gathering, sitting around a campfire, sharing stories that teach children using examples from nature. For instance, how two animals might approach a piece of meat; do they share it, or do they risk their lives in a conflict? 

We often complicate things when God has given them to us with such beautiful simplicity. We need symbolism, storytelling, ritual. These help focus us, as our species is capable of higher-order thinking. Even my cat pauses to decide whether to jump on the bed while I’m making it. Sometimes she waits, sometimes she jumps anyway because she seeks attention and affection. We make things complex, but the beauty of God’s grace is like breathing—it’s a natural rhythm, simple and soothing.

Donald: I find the concept of gathering and community experiences intriguing. C-J mentioned the word “table,” and a table is significant. When you sit down, even in a circle, it’s different from sitting in a circle with a table in front of you. The table, whether you’re eating or not, signifies a common space. And if you were to extend that to, say, a campfire or water, it underscores how gathering around a physical element that everyone appreciates can level many things. For example, watching a sunset doesn’t mean everyone is thinking the same thing, but there’s a shared appreciation at that moment.

This leads me to think about the dynamics of love, like, and hate. Can I love someone but not like them? Where does hate fit into this spectrum with those three emotions? And then, I’ve been pondering the concept of light. Light is the result of something, like a light bulb or the sun. When you remove the light source, darkness ensues. Darkness isn’t something that is turned on; it’s the absence of light. So, was the Garden of Eden filled with God’s light, providing everything necessary? And when sin entered, was that light withdrawn, leading to a tension between light and darkness? This returns to many discussions we’ve had about the fundamental nature of light and darkness in the presence of God and sin.

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