If salvation is given to us by the grace of God, it’s important to know what grace is exactly.
On the one hand, the etymology of the word “grace” indicates that it is something not owed—as in “gratuity” or something which is “gratuitous.”
As such, creation itself is a grace, since God did not have to create—we were not owed the gift of existence.
But does the grace of Christ offer us anything more than what we have in creation?
Indeed, it does.
Therefore, we can speak of a “double gratuity”—that of creation and what is offered to us in Christ. They are both gratuitous—they are both “graces”—but not in the same way. For the grace of Christ heals, perfects, and elevates our human nature, enabling us to participate in the divine nature, in a manner that transcends merely what we have in creation. If we take seriously the majesty of this grace offered in Christ, we will come to realize that moral perfection in the natural order couldn’t earn one drop of this divine life.
New Birth and New Life
Salvation is about the gift of divine life, given to us in the Holy Spirit. We are truly begotten anew in baptism, and this divine life develops within us in a dynamic way, as the Holy Spirit continues his ongoing transformation of our lives.
In Christ, we come to share in his eternal filial relation to the Father—we become sons in the Son. Consider the following texts cited from the Catechism of the Catholic Church—from 2 Peter 1:4, Sts. Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Thomas Aquinas, respectively:
“‘The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’ [2 Peter 1:4]: ‘For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God’ [Irenaeus]. ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God’ [Athanasius]. ‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods [Thomas Aquinas]’” (CCC 460, emphasis original).
As we can see, salvation is far more than just forgiveness of sins—far more than merely a divine acquittal.
Salvation is about divine sonship—our coming to share in the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. Again, natural perfection could not earn one drop of this—it is the gift of grace, the gift of new birth and new life.
The Grace of Sonship
The nineteenth-century German theologian, Matthias Scheeben, captures this well, explaining that the motive for the Incarnation is ultimately not just about atoning for sin, but extending to us the gift of divine sonship:
“Thus the incarnation of the Son of God is the real basis for the divine adoption of the human race, and likewise conducts that adoption to a consummation that is unique in its sublimity. It is the bridge leading to the extension of the divine Trinitarian fatherhood to the race. This fatherhood is not merely imitated in God’s relationship to man, out of sheer grace, but is joined to man substantially … The Incarnation sets up a real continuity between the Trinitarian process and the human race, in order that this process may be prolonged in the race. The Incarnation raises the human race to the bosom of the eternal Father that it may receive the grace of sonship with all its implied dignities and rights by a real contact with the source, rather than by a purely gratuitous influx from without (Mysteries of Christianity, 384-5, emphasis added).”
Children of God
This is the reality St. Paul describes, especially in his letter to the Romans:
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).
Paul’s reference to our being “heirs” is predicated upon our becoming sons in the Son—for only a son inherits (not a servant or slave). By nature, we are servants and creatures of the Most High. By grace, we become sons and daughters in the Eternal Son.
With awe and wonder, St. John gets at this same reality:
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1, emphasis added).
More than Just Being a Good Boy Scout
Once we see the reality of the grace of the New Covenant—that it takes us into the inner trinitarian life of God—we realize how pale some presentations of the gospel really are. Sometimes Christianity is presented as merely a moral and political enterprise—as if it were just about maintaining a certain moral code.
Of course, a moral code is part of Christianity. But more fundamentally, it’s about sharing in divine life. As Scheeben suggested above, the Incarnation is so stupendous—so majestic—that God’s purpose has to entail far more than just atonement or forgiveness of sins, let alone simply teaching a moral code (after all, Plato or Confucius could have done that for us).
For God to come so far—to unite himself so closely to us—means that his goal is not just to deal with sin but to infuse us with divine life; to elevate us into his inner life, a truly hypostatic and trinitarian order. This gospel is so sublime, so majestic, that it would seem too good to be true—but that is exactly what God has done for us and no less.
Consider the following passage from the Catechism, which recounts how the very life originating within the Godhead is offered to us in Christ:
“By virtue of our Baptism, the first sacrament of the faith, the Holy Spirit in the Church communicates to us, intimately and personally, the life that originates in the Father and is offered to us in the Son” (CCC 683).
The Glory of Grace
Taking seriously the reality of divine sonship—that God truly (not just metaphorically) becomes our Father—dramatically changes how we view salvation, how we pray, and how we interact with God.
For a father loves his kids just the way they are, but too much to leave them that way. This is the context for understanding both God’s unconditional love and his calling us to perfection and sanctification.
As we progress on our road to sanctity, it is ultimately God’s work in us—the flowering of the divine life given to us in baptism, which dynamically conforms us to Christ Jesus:
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
Hence, Paul can say:
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you” (Philippians 2:12-13).
The glory of grace makes us children of God and transfigures us and conforms us to the image of Jesus Christ crucified. We truly participate and cooperate with this grace, but it is ultimately God’s work in us—elevating us to heights to which we could never attain on our own.
Sharing in God’s Inner Life
As an analogy, consider a stained-glass window. While it is beautiful in its own right, its beauty is tremendously enhanced and elevated when illumined and radiated by the light of the sun. The stained-glass window (without the sun) is analogous to the perfection we could attain in the natural order. The elevated beauty of the stained-glass window—when radiated by the sun—is analogous to our human nature transformed and elevated by grace. While we always remain human, we become transfigured through Christ and conformed to him in a manner that surpasses our human capacity. We come to share in his divinity.
The gift of salvation is an awesome gift, in the deepest sense of the word. Grace is far more than God’s “favor,” good as that is. Grace offers us a share in God’s own inner life—whereby we come to know him intimately not just as Creator, but as Father, sharing in the gift of divine sonship (for more on this, see my book Nature and Grace: A New Approach to Thomistic Ressourcement and my article in Letter & Spirit volume 11 entitled “St. Paul in Matthias Scheeben: The Plenary Significance of the Incarnation”).
Salvation: God’s to Give, Ours to Lose
In mortal sin, we suffocate this divine life within us. While God never stops loving us, in mortal sin we stop loving God. For some actions are incompatible with authentic love of God, neighbor, or self (see CCC 1855). For that reason, such actions kill the life of God within us (i.e., they are “mortal”).
That said, we need to think of salvation along family lines. My kids don’t go to sleep each night wondering if I’m going to kick them out of the house. Yet, they could disown themselves someday if they so choose. Salvation—like natural life—begins in the gift of the new birth; and as with natural life, the gift of our supernatural life grows and develops; and we truly participate and cooperate with the unfolding of this divine life within us.
The question is: do we truly appreciate what God has done for us? What are some ways we can show our appreciation of God’s grace. Share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the page.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you’ll love Dr. Swafford’s upcoming Great Adventure Bible study, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, which is now available for preorder here!
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About Andrew Swafford
Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension. Swafford is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.
Dr. Swafford’s latest project with Ascension, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation study is now available for preorder.
Featured photo by Jenny Marvin on Unsplash