Is grace impersonal?
The question could be rephrased: “is grace something that acts upon me or is it something I act upon, or both? Is it static or is it a living dynamic that evades objective inquiry?
The study of grace is interesting in that one cannot help but hit the academic brick wall very early in the search. In Eastern Orthodox theology one does not have the privilege of simply organizing the faith into neat categories—grace is xyz, faith is zyx, God=this or that— without further ado. Rather, one must live within the faith in order to understand it; in philosophic terms, Christianity is existential, not pure reason. Academic pursuits get you far enough to realize that you know nothing as you should.
In Protestantism there is now an established teaching on grace which deals primarily with our redemption from sin through our Lord’s shed blood on the cross. The basic idea is that once a person comes to believe in Jesus Christ and has received the remission of sins (through a quick ‘sinner’s prayer,’ or something more extensive such as baptism or attending a ‘new believer’s’ class, etc) he or she is already among the saved. For the Orthodox, this occasion is only the beginning of the journey.
Salvation via grace is more dynamic than a single event of confession on the part of the believer. Indeed, as Christ revealed on many occasions, He will not merely quiz a person as to his or her confession of faith, but rather what one did with his/her life according to that faith (Luke 6:46). Did you feed Christ when you saw Him hungry? Did you cloth Him when you found Him naked (Matt 25:35-43)? The Apostles taught that a Christian was only “being saved” (I Cor. 1:18) in this life, and needed the support of grace-given powers. Faith and grace are living, dynamic realities; not static events.
The sacraments are perhaps the single greatest witness of this ‘living reality’ of grace. The Orthodox teach that the life of the Church is sacramental. “The inward life of the Church is the mystical cooperation of Christ as the Head, with the Church as His Body, in the Holy Spirit, by means of all mutually strengthening ties: ‘This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church’ (Eph 5:32),” (M. Promazansky). For the Orthodox there are seven sacraments: baptism, charismation, the Eucharist/Communion, repentance, priesthood, matrimony, and unction. Without going into detail it is enough to say that each sacrament is given to the Church by Christ for the purpose of imparting grace and power; giving the believer “all things pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3).
The sacraments reveal that the believer is not simply acted upon by the Holy Spirit; as if grace is “irresistible” and/or forced upon a person (one finds the idea of grace in Reformed theology). They expose the fact that God is interested in an actual relationship with His children, i.e. that His children make a willful choice to live in communion with Him.
A major revelation of this truth came to me when I asked myself a simple question: which of the sacraments can I point to as an example of God forcing His salvation on me? All seven are given and received in mutual love between God and His children. Does God force me to receive His body and blood at the communion table in a “worthy manner,” as Paul puts it, or must I first examine myself in order to “rightly discern the Lord’s body” (1 Cor 11:27-29)? Did God force me up the aisle of matrimony to say “I do,” without the loving commitment of both me and my wife? Furthermore, does God force newly married couples into the union of sex without their willful cooperation (that would be rape, right)? You get the point. The sacraments are only effective when both God and the believer participate.
One must continually receive the impartation of grace for the power to live godly. It is impossible to live the way Christ commanded—Impossible! That is, impossible without His grace; impossible without His empowerment. Nor is it possible for one to ‘will’ himself into relationship with God, i.e. to will his own redemption and salvation. Rather, it is the will of God that none should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). Christ gave the Church the sacraments for the fulfillment of his will. When one comes to the table of the Lord with true humility he/she will experience the grace of God in their life!
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.