Grace, Form and Essence

The grace of God is so overly abundant to us that Christians have always tended toward one of two extremes in their experience of it. On the one hand, they emphasize the unboundedness of God’s grace and disregard limitations and corrections on their experience. On the other, they emphasize the preciousness of God’s grace such that we must limit and correct our experiences so as rightly to receive it. For some we do not chain the whirlwind. For others we do not trample gold under muddy feet. Some Christians primarily seek experience. Some primarily seek rule-keeping. Both lack balance.

Let’s deal with rule-keeping, legalism, first. The problem with legalism is not a problem of works righteousness, at least not in the way we often think. It certainly can be an unjustifiably positive assessment of one’s abilities to keep the law (and here I speak of the sense of adhering to moral codes more generally, rather than in the keeping of the Torah’s commands). But legalism goes wrong primarily in that the legalist places faith not in Christ’s saving work, but in the law itself. It is in law-keeping that salvation consists for the legalist, and he believes in the power of the law to deliver him by virtue of his law-keeping. This is a form of idolatry.

Christians who emphasize experience at the expense of normative constraints also have their problems. The problem with experience is that in a fallen world it always carries with it the potential for deception. The individual Christian is not infallible; and Satan masquerades himself as an angel of light. We cannot unreservedly trust our experiences. Emphasizing experience also tends to elevate only one category of experience: joy and pleasure. But what of the sorrow of repentance, of humility, of contrition, even of proper guilt? The primary problem with the emphasis on experience is that it is a sort of hedonism, and a focus on the self. This too is a form of idolatry.

But the legalist is right in that grace does carry with it obligations; we are created for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. And those who seek the experience of God’s grace are right in that it is superabundant and not possible of being bound within human constraints.

It may be helpful to use some Aristotelian categories (broadly and in a non-technical sense) to help shape this for us. We might think of grace as the essence of the Christian experience, with the rituals of worship and the spiritual disciplines as the form. That is to say, the rituals of worship and the spiritual disciplines give shape to the essence so that we are able to recognize the grace for what it is. The grace of marriage is shaped by the ritual of two families coming together around the bride and the groom, in the context of the Church community, where their union is formally blessed by God in the midst of that community. Married grace is also shaped by the coming together of the bride and groom in the procreation of children. When we see a man and a woman, who submitted themselves to the constraints of the blessing of the Church, wear rings, bear children—we can recognize in that shape a grace from God. A man and a woman who move in together, on their own, without the blessing of the Church, who bear no children do not exhibit for us a recognizable shape of married grace. We leave all judgment to God, but we are not wrong to say “That doesn’t look like Christian marriage.”

It is the form that gives us the ability to recognize the grace. If we are in a worship service, where prayers are said over the bread and wine, where we’ve heard the Gospel preached, where we’ve heard the summary of the Kingdom from creation to Christ’s return, where we’ve heard the community through the priest’s invocations and their own loud “Amen!” call down the Holy Spirit on the bread and the wine, we learn to recognize a shape of grace.

And the more our experiences of these infinite graces of God are shaped by the forms in which God has given us the means to recognize them, the more we are able to discern the superabundant experiences of grace which act outside the shapes we have been given. It is the form of the essence that assists us in the wisdom of our experiences, to discern what is and is not of God. Always this training begins and remains within the community of the Church—it is never a merely individual discernment. But like experienced hikers, we learn to recognize the signs of the Trail, the traces of the Holy Spirit.

Yes, it is true, that Christians can so elevate the form, the shape, of the experience, that they crush out the essential grace which vivifies. These are Christians who tithe their mint, and dill and cumin, but who ignore the weightier matters of justice and mercy. These are the ones who are “going through the motions,” trusting in the mere ritual to save, but who otherwise have no experience of grace.

But it is also true that Christians can so elevate the essence that they mistake the counterfeit for the true. They think that it is the experience that blesses any shape, and so they feel free to violate moral norms in the name of experience. They break marriage vows for the experience of “finding their soul mate.” They substitute their individual experience of “communion with nature” for the covenant experience of worshipping with their community of Christians. In thinking that the shape of grace ultimately does not matter, they lose the ability to discern between the counterfeit and the true. A Christian may worship God on the golf course, or he may just simply be another golfer enjoying good weather.

Clearly the key is to recognize that the forms and shapes of grace that have been given to us are important and not to be neglected. There is a reason Christian marriage looks the way it does, the observance of the Lord’s Supper looks the way it does, that worship looks communal. We need these shapes and forms to provide a norm for our experiences of God’s grace. Yes, apart from God’s grace, these shapes and forms are just another business men’s meeting, a contract between two individuals, eating bread and drinking wine. God’s grace is always first, central and last. But we fallible human beings cannot contain God’s grace let alone discern it properly. So he gives us these forms that we might recognize his grace, that he might humble himself to our own limitations for the sake of uniting with us in these shapes and forms.

Then, we, together with one another, will grow up into the fullness of Christ. Before us will be an infinity of graces, the gracious energies of the Holy Trinity, that we may experience in that day without reservation. All our choices and all our experiences will be pure and purely joyful.

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