Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 16

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Paul: The Model of Grace

Michael Glerup

Column Editor: Michael Glerup

Conversation Partner: Ancient Christian Commentary on ScriptureSee

 The theological concept of grace, as it has been received in the West, was profoundly influenced by the writings of Augustine, so much so that he was later referred to as the doctor gratiae. His thought on the subject, built on the earlier transactional language (“accruing merit” and “making satisfaction”) of Tertullian and his intense study of Paul, crystallized in his debates with the British layman Pelagius.

On the other hand, without the impetus of the exceedingly optimistic Pelagius and the transactional language of the early Latin tradition, the dilemma of grace and freedom never took on the same urgency in the East as it did in the West.According to Vladimir Lossky in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), “The notion of merit is foreign to the Eastern tradition. . . . The word is seldom encountered in the spiritual writings of the Eastern Church, and has not the same meaning as in the West. The explanation is to be sought in the general attitude of Eastern theology towards grace and free will. In the East, this question has never had the urgency which it assumed in the West from the time of St. Augustine onwards. The Eastern tradition never separates these two elements: grace and human freedom are manifested simultaneously and cannot be conceived apart from each other.” (197) Consequently, Eastern thought did not have a problem considering grace in terms of the cooperation of both God and the human person: synergy.

These differences aside, the Western and the Eastern reflections on grace were grounded in the divine economy of a good and merciful God, whose initiating love in Christ seeks to restore communion with his wayward creation.

01.  Paul and Grace

At the heart of patristic deliberation on grace were the Pauline letters. Pauline passages concerning the nature of divine sovereignty (Romans 9:16), or the relation of grace and works (Philippians 2:13) were very important for early formulations of grace. Equally as important was Paul himself. Paul not only taught extensively on grace in his letters, but he was also a recipient of grace. How, then, did Paul’s life model the relationship between grace and free will? Did Paul deserve the grace he received in his conversion? After his baptism, did Paul’s labors increase the grace he received? These were some of the questions the early church writers pondered as they deliberated on the relationship between grace and human responsibility.

02.  Augustine

By his own account, the release of Pelagius’ De Natura was a decisive moment in Augustine’s attitude toward Pelagius. The following selection from Augustine’s rebuttal, On Nature and Grace,Augustine, Four Anti-Pelagian Writings. Translated by John A. Nourant and William J. Collinge. FC 86. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992) 146. addresses Pelagius’ statement, “God gives all graces to him who has been worthy to receive them, just as he gave them to the Apostle Paul.” Since Pelagius does not say God gives to whom he will, Augustine considers this a direct attack on grace, because “the very name of grace and the meaning of its name are taken away if it is not given gratuitously but is received by him who is worthy of it.”Augustine, 146.

Augustine writes:

Let us say to Paul, “Holy Apostle Paul, Pelagius the monk declares that you were worthy to receive all the graces of your apostleship; what do you say?” He answers, “I am not worthy to be called an apostle.” [1 Cor. 15:9] So, in order to give honor to Paul, shall I dare to believe Pelagius rather than Paul on the subject of Paul? I will not do so, for if I did this, I would be more onerous to myself than honoring to him. Let us hear again why he says he is not worthy to be called an apostle: “because,” he says, “I persecuted the Church of God.” [1 Cor. 15:9] Now if we would follow the normal sequence of ideas, who would not judge that he deserves to be condemned, rather than called, by Christ? Who would so love the preacher as not to detest the persecutor? Therefore he says most rightly and truly, “I am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.” Doing then so much evil, how could you have merited so much good? Let all people hear his reply, “But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” [1 Cor. 15:10] For why else is it ascribed to grace, except because it was given to someone unworthy? “And his grace in me,” he adds, “has not been in vain.” [1 Cor. 15:10] He enjoins this upon others to show them the free choice of the will, when he declares, “And we, enjoining, implore you, that you receive not the grace of God in vain.” But how does he establish that the grace of God in him was not in vain, except from that which follows: “But I have labored more abundantly than all they”? [1 Cor. 15:10] Thus, he did not labor in order to receive grace, but he received grace so that he might labor. And thus, though unworthy, he received gratuitously the grace by which he might become worthy to receive his due reward. Nor did he even venture to claim his labor for himself. For when he had said, “I have labored more abundantly than all they,” he at once added, “Yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” O great teacher, confessor, and preacher of grace! What does this mean, “I labored more, but not I”? When the will exalted itself even a little, piety kept watch and humility trembled, because weakness acknowledged itself.Augustine, 146–150.

Paul, the great teacher of grace, was not worthy of the grace he received. He received grace through faith, and he continued to live in grace, working not in order to receive grace but because of grace.

We may then summarize Augustine’s understanding of Paul and grace as follows: Salvation is available only through faith. Faith is grace. Grace is gratuitous and not based on the worthiness of the recipient. Grace, though, requires human cooperation, which assists but does not generate grace. Without grace, a person lacks the strength necessary to do the things that are required by love.Augustine, 11.

03.  Chrysostom

John Chrysostom, meaning John “Golden Mouth,” so named for his homiletic skill, died before Augustine addressed his objections to Pelagius in On Nature and Grace. Earlier in his career, one of Chrysostom’s responsibilities as a priest in Antioch was to prepare candidates for baptism. The following selection is from one of his lectures on Christian faith and morals given to the new candidates between their enrollment early in Lent and their baptism on the night of Easter. In this particular lecture, Chrysostom urges his audience to imitate Paul in matters of faith and life:In the paragraphs preceding this selection, Chrysostom presents an abridged version of Paul’s life: Before his conversion, Paul persecuted the church, murdering Christians and generally wreaking havoc. Later, he encountered the Love of the Master, put aside darkness, and entered onto the path of truth. Straightaway he was baptized and received the washing away of his former sins.

Did you see Paul’s loyalty of heart? Did you see him proving to us by these events that his previous actions were done through ignorance? Did you see how, by his very experience in these things, he has taught all of us that he deserved to be judged worthy of kindness from above and to be led to the path of truth? When God in His goodness sees a well-disposed soul led astray through ignorance, He does not disregard that soul nor give it up to its own great recklessness, but He shows it all the good things which come from Him and fails in nothing that pertains to our salvation. . . .

Did you see, beloved, how great a change there was? Did you see how different he became? Did you see how he reaped the benefit of God’s liberality and then abundantly contributed his own share—I mean his zeal, his fervor, his faith, his courage, his patience, his lofty mind, and his undaunted will? . . .

I urge you to imitate him. You have deserved now to go under the yoke of Christ and you have enjoyed the benefit of filial adoption; now show forth, right from the beginning, such a fervor and faith in Christ that you may draw to yourselves richer graces from on high, and may make the garment given to you shine more brightly, and may enjoy the abundant favor of the Master. Even though you had never done anything good, even though you had the burden of your sins lying heavy upon you, He imitated His own goodness and judged you worthy of these great gifts. For He not only delivered you from your sins and gave you justification by His grace, but He also showed you forth as holy and made you His sons by adoption. If He has taken the lead in giving you such gifts, if you are eager, after receiving so much, to contribute your fair share, if you will show care in guarding and managing the gifts that have already been given, how can He fail to judge you worthy again of still greater liberality?John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions (ACW 31.) Translated by Paul W. Harkins (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1962) 70.

This sample passage serves as a good example of why Reformers questioned Chrysostom’s commitment to the gratuitous nature of grace.Particularly Chrysostom’s suggestion that Paul’s subsequent actions showed he was worthy of the kindness of God. Later, he does state that the catechumens before receiving grace had “never done anything good.” But before we come to any conclusions, let us read Chrysostom in light of his context and assumptions.

Chrysostom assumes that the spiritual life is something that requires effort. There are rules (revealed) or prescriptions that need to be followed in order to reach maturity. Paul was not only a great teacher of these rules; he also served as a living paradigm of the devout life. Like other Eastern fathers, Chrysostom was unwilling to see nature devalued; therefore, his emphasis is on the healing influence of grace and not the affliction itself. At the same time, he holds that indifference and neglect are the principal vices of the spiritual life and the sin of Adam and Eve. Therefore, he recommends to his audience to pursue the gift of faith with zeal and fervor.

The principle of incarnation, an act of divine considerateness, guided Chrysostom’s approach to scriptural interpretation and his spirituality.See Robert Hill, “The Spirituality of Chrysostom’s Commentary on the Psalms,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 5:4 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) 576. God in his initiating love made use of human means for the benefit of finite creatures. This produced a synthesis of the divine and the human, a synthesis that did not undermine the value of the human contribution. Consequently, every person indwelt by the Holy Spirit may, in his or her freedom, cooperate with grace and help foster the conditions for more divine aid.

04.  Conclusion

What does Paul’s life teach us about grace? Primarily, it teaches us about the Source of grace—a good and merciful God, whose initiating love in Christ seeks to restore communion with his wayward creation. This initiating love is also a justifying love that results in a real adoption of human persons into the family of God. Second, grace must be freely received with humility. Third, as Dallas Willard suggests, grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.

Finally, Paul’s life is to serve as a model of grace and, therefore, an encouragement to later followers of Christ. It is here that we observe a differentiating in the two traditions. For Chrysostom, Paul’s life serves as an encouragement to those new in the faith. They, being new creatures no longer burdened with their sinful past, are now able through grace to live a virtuous life previously thought unachievable. Augustine, on the other hand, as time progressed, became less and less convinced that the virtuous life is attainable this side of heaven. Paul, then, is not a model of virtue, but a model of the godly person who fights valiantly against the internal struggles of the flesh. Paul’s life serves as an encouragement to those who struggle, because their salvation is dependent not on their attainment of perfection, but on God’s kindness.


Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as the Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith.

Part 5 of 16

Found by Grace

Barbara Hudspith & David G. Benner
Spring 2006