Just Say “No” to Chemical Grace

I used to think of grace a lot like a chemical. Basically, God had this “thing” called grace. In fact, He didn’t just have one kind of this grace thing, but several. There was “sanctifying grace,” “justifying grace,” and other variants. Regenerating grace, for example, was basically something that the Holy Spirit pours out on unregenerate sinners, causing a spiritual reaction that generates faith. Or instead of, say, adding vinegar and baking soda to make CO2, you add sanctifying grace and faith to create good works. And this isn’t me just looking backward at myself uncharitably. I used exactly those kinds of analogies to explain grace.

From what I can tell, this is not as uncommon as it sounds silly. Rather, especially in Reformed circles, it seems to be widespread. This isn’t to say a lot of people would necessarily use this analogy, or say, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” But if you peek into their systematic theologies, or study their explanations of something like regeneration, or dissect their ordo salutis, you will often find striking similarities, usually in different words, to what I have described above.

The problem with this is that the Scriptural portrayal of God and His grace is radically more personal. Grace is not a spiritual chemical, or a “thing” God puts on us. Biblically, grace is God personally gifting Himself to us, and cannot be easily distinguished from the actual person of Jesus Christ. One might say that grace is Jesus Christ.

What difference does this really make? It’s kind of hard to explain in any detail right now, but it’s something to keep in the back of your mind when you read theology, listen to preaching, or try to break down salvation. For a taste of this alternate, personal approach, here’s a quote from T. F. Torrance:

Thus in its special New Testament sense charis [the Greek word for “grace”] refers to the being and action of God as revealed and actualised [made real and concrete] in Jesus Christ, for He is in His person and work self-giving of God to men. Later theology thought of charis as a divine attribute, but it would be truer to the New Testament to speak of it less abstractly as the divine love in redemptive action. Grace is in fact identical with Jesus Christ in person and word and deed. Here the Greek word charis seems to pass from the aspect of disposition or goodwill which bestows blessing to the action itself and to the actual gift, but in the New Testament neither the action nor the gift is separable from the person of the giver, God in Christ.

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So what do you think?