In anticipation of the publication of John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Power of Grace, Part Five of our “Defining Grace” series continues with this essay from Simeon Zahl, Lecturer in Christian Theology at Cambridge University. He is the author of the books The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (excerpts of which can be found here) and Pneumatology and Theology of the Cross in the Preaching of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt.

There is a particular challenge that emerges when we speak about divine grace. On the one hand, God’s grace is given to sinners. There is something about the deep structure of divine love that is revealed in the fact that it makes a bee-line for those whose lives are most broken (Mk 2:17; 2 Cor 12:9). Indeed in some mysterious sense it is the nature of God’s grace to burn the brightest where it is least deserved (Rom 5:6, 5:20). On the other hand, God’s grace also transforms the sinners it encounters, at least in some minimal sense: grace redeems (Col 1:13-14) and heals (Jer 30:17; Mt 4:23), breaks chains (Gal 5:1) and gives life (Rom 4:17; Jn 10:10). If grace offered us no help at all in our distress it is not clear how it could ever become attractive to us in the first place.

Together these two facts give Christian talk about grace a kind of instability. In John Barclay’s terminology: the more we point to the efficacy of grace in its work of healing and transformation, the more vulnerable we are to amnesia about the incongruity of a divine grace whose deep ordering is specifically to sinners. The question arises: how are we to speak rightly and well about the efficacy of God’s grace to make a real difference in Christian lives, without creating conditions in which we are likely to lose touch with the radical incongruity of grace, and indeed end up with forms of piety that undermine, in practice, the vision of a divine love that is given without regard to worth?

One common way of conceptualizing the efficacy of grace is as a kind of energizing “substance” that is given to us as a gift when we receive the Holy Spirit. Here grace transforms Christians through a gift of new powers and capabilities that aid them in their struggle to love God and others and to be free of sinful attachments. Thus when Paul talks about the fact that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5), this love is interpreted as a kind of ontological gift or capacity that attaches to the soul. In such approaches, the infusion of grace in the soul doesn’t usually bestow holiness directly; rather, it functions as a kind of facilitating energy that greases the wheels of the moral will to make it easier to choose the good in a given situation.[1]

The advantage of this way of thinking about the efficacy of grace is that it can make immediate sense of the New Testament tendency to view Christians as experiencing meaningful moral transformation in this life (Eph 4:22-24; Gal 5:16), and as having a fundamentally different relationship to sin than they did prior to receipt of the Holy Spirit (Rom 6:22; 8:2).

But the “substance” model also has some significant challenges. If God’s grace really changes us in such a clear and qualitative way, how are we to avoid losing touch with the prior and more fundamental reality that grace is given precisely to sinners, without regard for worth? If as soon as you become a Christian you become qualitatively more able to avoid sin and seek righteousness, then any evidence that emerges of your continued lack of worth or merit — evidence of continued sin — is potentially a problem. The experience of “Christian mediocrity” can become a sign of the absence of grace rather than occasion to learn again about God’s radically incongruous love for sinners.

Instead of viewing the efficacy of grace in terms of the gift of a substance, it is also possible to view the efficacy of grace primarily as the establishment of a relation. Here the core image is of a broken relationship between God and humanity that needs fixing. Grace becomes a kind of attitude God has toward the sinner, and is efficacious insofar as it succeeds in restoring a previously lost intimacy with God. This model is particularly good at accommodating the incongruity of grace: no matter how mired you still are in sin, you can still be the object of God’s grace, and still have a relationship with Him. But there is a challenge for this framework, too. How exactly is the overcoming of formal alienation from God actually morally transformative — how does it actually change us? Here the burden of transformation tends to lie with the Holy Spirit acting upon you from outside, over and against your own moral powerlessness.

If we want to find a way of talking about the efficacy of divine grace that is less vulnerable than the substance model is to amnesia about its incongruity, and yet can make more immediate sense than the relational model of how grace can be genuinely transformative for the sinner, I suggest that it helps if we alter how we think of what “efficacy” is.

In the modern era, discussions of the efficacy of grace have a tendency to be framed in terms of a dispute over the nature and scope of Christian moral power. That is, we tend to think of moral agency first and foremost in terms of force of will. Thus those who might want to champion the incongruity of grace in light of the reality of Christian mediocrity — broadly, the “relational” model — often characterize Christian agents as having very little power to avoid sin at the level of their will, and must rely on the external power of the Holy Spirit if there is to be any meaningful change. Those who emphasize a “substance”-based model of sanctification likewise tend to view moral agency in terms of power. The difference with this model is therefore not in fact that it focuses on power, but rather in where it locates power: in the sanctified soul, through the gift of grace, which acts as a kind of moral tailwind that Christians experience in their will due to the work of the Spirit.

I think that both visions are missing something important. The problem is that both “substance” and “relational” approaches to grace remain caught in what I think of as the “Marvel Movie” model of sanctification. In MCU movies, efficacy — the ability to accomplish one’s will — always comes down to raw power. To win in the MCU, you need to have access to more force. What’s that you say — you have a vast alien space army? Well we have a Hulk. You have a Hulk? Too bad, because now we have Thanos, and he has an infinity stone. You failed to defeat Thanos last time? That’s because you didn’t have Captain Marvel yet, who is basically a living infinity stone. You have Captain Marvel now? Doesn’t matter, because now Thanos has all six infinity stones. Anyone who has seen these movies knows what I am talking about: efficacy in the Marvel Comics Universe is always ultimately a matter of who is the strongest, and the emotional payoff is usually connected to the good guys, against the odds, finding a new way to deploy power in their favor.

But what if moral agency is not best understood, superhero-style, in terms of power levels? What if moral agency is best understood as less about our (or the Holy Spirit’s) ability to enforce an outcome, and more about what we love and what we desire?

Such is the argument of perhaps the greatest of all theologians of grace. According to St. Augustine, when we think about sanctification in terms of raw power, we are caught up in the theological imagination of Pelagianism rather than of the Bible. In his treatise On the Spirit and the Letter, Augustine argues that sanctification, in the biblical vision, is not about moral efficacy in the abstract so much as about what we love and what we desire.[2] The God revealed in Christ is not a potentate demanding obedience for its own sake, but rather the source of all goodness who draws us to himself. To “do good” is thus ultimately, and simply, to desire and delight in the God who is Goodness itself. The result is that if we want to speak rightly about the transformative effects of grace then we need to think in terms of the transformation of desire and the kindling of delight:

[We] say that the human will is helped to achieve righteousness in this way: [human beings] receive the Holy Spirit so that there arises in their minds a delight in and a love for that highest and immutable good that is God … so that they have their well-being from him from whom they have their being. (spir. et litt. 3.5)

If Augustine is right, then we need to change the usual paradigm when it comes to thinking about sin. In its deepest nature, sin is not weakness. Sin is wrongly ordered love. What broken and sinful people need is not strength or power but love, and the way you get love is through experiencing that you yourself are loved. To encounter divine grace is to be treated in a particular sort of way by God: to be accepted (Rom 15:7; Col 1:21-22), loved (Jn 13:34; 1 Jn 4:10), forgiven (Ps 103:12; Eph 4:32), and adopted as a child of God (Rom 8:15-17; Gal 4:4-7). For Augustine, love is not abstract. It is concrete experience of attraction towards and pleasure in something: “One only loves, after all, what delights one” (serm. 159.3). And the way you come to delight in God is when you come to see what God has done for you, how in Jesus God has met you in all your fears (nat. et gr. 57.67) and given you all that your restless heart seeks and longs for (Conf. 1.1).

And yet, by foregrounding the categories of desire and delight, Augustine also avoids the difficulty that some versions of the “relational” approach to grace can have in speaking about how God’s grace makes any difference in our lives and experiences. Of course grace has an effect on us — anything that matters to us has an effect on us. But the nature of the effect, in the Augustinian picture, is not an abstract infusion of moral power. Rather, the love that is “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5) is above all an affection that we experience — a transformation of desire and feeling that follows from our experience of a real and new relation to God in Jesus (nat. et gr. 57.67). Because emotions and desires are things that we experience in our bodies, it follows that experiencing a new relation of love and acceptance can never be an abstraction or a “legal fiction.” Grace is something that we can experience here and now, as we feel love and gratitude towards God, and are freed from our fears to find joy in God and to delight in him through his good creation.

The power of this “affective Augustinian” vision, which locates the deep operation of grace in the realm not of force but of desire, is especially clear when we think about prayer. In the Augustinian outlook, the prayer stops being “God, please give me strength to do what you command.” Prayers for strength are usually Marvel Movie prayers (“God, I really need a super serum right now”). Although there may be occasions when it is right to pray for strength, the Augustinian prayer is ultimately a far more profound one. It is a prayer for God to kindle new desires in our hearts. It is a prayer that God would clear our vision so that we can see once more the True Light that is the source of all our light; that he would tap us into the mainframe of Infinite Love that is at the center of all things, to love and serve the world.

Such a vision — where God’s grace is always incongruous but never inefficacious — is captured with almost miraculous precision in one of the greatest Anglican prayers:

Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[3]

[1] A classic account of the efficacy of grace from this perspective is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, which understands the Christian to receive a kind of ontological gift of grace, in baptism, in the form of what are called the theological or supernatural virtues. As Dominican theologian Romanus Cessario puts it, the supernatural virtues “shape … and energize … our human operative capacities,” making it newly possible to “act promptly, joyfully, and easily in those areas of human conduct that are governed by the Gospel precepts” (Romanus Cessario, Christian Faith and the Theological Life (The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), p. 5). John Webster describes the same basic approach in a Protestant key: in baptism, Webster argues, we are given a “new nature” that “includes a gift of powers and habits … infused by the Spirit, laid into the mind, will, and affections” (John Webster, “Mortification and Vivification,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, ii: Virtue and Intellect (Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 107).

[2] The biblical sources for Augustine’s position are many. Most broadly, his position starts with the centrality of the biblical command to love God (Deut 6:5; Mt 22:37; etc.) and the assertion that God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8). Further texts of particular importance are Galatians 5:16-26, where the difference between life in the Spirit and life according to the flesh is characterized first and foremost as a battle of desires, and the primary fruit of sanctified life are not actions in the first instance but affections and dispositions (love, joy, peace, patience); Romans 5:5, which in his reading characterizes the efficacy of divine grace in terms of an outpouring of love into the heart by the Spirit; and Philippians 2:13, which speaks of righteous willing as well as acting as produced by God.

[3] For more on grace, desire, and Augustine, see Simeon Zahl, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (Oxford, 2020), chapter 5.