What Does Grace Look Like?
One of the interpretations of the three Pre-Lent Sundays – Septuagesima, Sexgesima, and Quinquagesima – is that each corresponds to “the three sola’s.” Sola Gratia (by grace alone) goes with Septuagesima; Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) with Sexagesima; and Sola Fides (by faith alone) with Quinquagesima. By this arrangement, Septuagesima’s Gospel of the Parable of the Vineyard is a meditation on God’s grace.
Some reject the premise of the three solas altogether in favor of “By Christ Alone” because He is the focus of the three solas, and each sola will become abused if this is forgotten. Still, given the rise of Gnosticism in our culture in all areas, the three sola’s provide a nice framework to contemplate the potential damage Gnosticism can do to the Gospel. This is especially true with the doctrine of grace.
According to Gnosticism, the physical world is a cosmic mistake; the spirit world (what they call the pleroma) alone is important. A man’s alienation from the spirit world is not because of sin, but rather because he exists. He should have remained in blissful union with the Gnostic Pleroma and its Monad (what they call God), undifferentiated from all other beings, but he fell into his material husk and became separated from all other such beings which likewise fell into their physical husks.
Matter allows diverse beings to be separate from one another, and this is the fall. The division caused by individual beings “falling” into their various physical shells is the basis for all the divisions in our world, the separation of males from females, the different races and nations, the random importance of the family into which you arbitrarily fell, the random importance of the religion in which you randomly find yourself.
Only an escape from your physical person – the release of your spirit from its shell – and a return to the spirit world can save you. This is the Gnostic resurrection, which, if you notice, needs no body to happen. You can have resurrection right now if you have proper gnosis! All you need is a woke spirit to ascend into the glorious unity of the Pleroma.
We could probe the many ways this fundamental principle of Gnosticism drives so much of our culture. The bottom line is Gnosticism rejects reality insofar as reality is tied up with our material world. Hence our grappling with such things as “what is male and female?” or “what is marriage?” – things we’d never have thought twice about in less Gnostic times. And what does it mean to be “woke” today, but to realize bodily realities – who you are as defined by what your body is and where it puts you – are nothing more than false constructs you set aside in pursuit of your “authentic Self.”
Needless to say, this fundamental principle of Gnosticism has a profound effect on how we understand grace. If the cosmos is fundamentally one, as the Gnostics think, without the differentiations caused by physicality, what would grace look like? It would be whatever it is that causes our sleeping spirit to awaken to the illusion this world is and be drawn upward and outward back into the Pleroma. It would be an “inside out” phenomenon, the working of spiritual powers internally with internal faculties like the mind, the will, and the emotions. There would be a fuzziness as to what was you and what was, say, Sophia (one of these powers). Grace is the raised consciousness leading to one’s self-salvation.
What does grace look like in a world in which its material nature was deemed “good” by its Creator? This would be an “outside in” phenomenon. It’s gift. It’s what can only be possible when you have two distinct beings whose separation by flesh is ordained by God. There will always be Giver and Receiver, and the two will be separate.
Furthermore, the Giver is not simply some aspect of the Receiver activated through internal activities, some psychological phenomenon causing someone to gain enlightenment or moral improvement. No, the Giver is truly a separate “Other” giving something of himself up for the Receiver. There is no fuzzy line between the two.
When we appreciate that in the beginning God created the world by separating things and giving them existence with material properties – the light/darkness, the sky/earth, the land/water; the plants and animals; man and woman – we begin to realize that all the universe is governed by networks of grace! The limiting aspects of time and space which physicality introduce demand it! All of creation is one thing giving of its limited time and space for others.
If this giving is transactional (meaning, the giving only happens with an expectation of return), it is called economics, the science of how people organize themselves given the problem of scarcity – scarcity a necessary byproduct of our limitations by time and space. If this giving is not transactional, it is a gift.
In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the landowner is revealed as freed from the limits that govern our physical world, while still operating within its rules. This is what Jesus Christ is! He is Spirit – God from eternity without physicality – and He is man, governed by the rules of limitation.
So on one hand, he does give each worker a denarius. A denarius is a day’s wage, an emblem of transaction, something the landowner implicitly had to give of himself for. It seemed fair. But to the workers who worked less time and received a denarius, it was gift, the landowner doing the good he wished to do with his own things, a resource we know he has unlimited reserves of.
Christ’s cross parallels the denarius. Insofar as Christ is a human limited by physicality, He had to sacrifice His person – give something up of Himself – to give to us who are also flesh. Insofar as Christ is unlimited as God, He has an abundance to give out. The gift of His body and blood will never end.
Will there be economics in heaven? On one hand, we will be resurrected bodies limited by our physicality, necessitating the problem of scarcity. On the other hand, without the limitation of time, a key component of the problem of scarcity will be gone, allowing for heaven to be a realm of pure grace, a feast of unlimited morsels.
So what does grace look like? It looks like Jesus. A physical being giving up of Himself for the sake of others; while also a spiritual being (God) who has an unlimited reserve of what He gives up.