January 26, 2021

No Such “Thing” As Grace II

005-torso-sepia.jpgThere is no such “thing” as grace II: Thomas Merton

“Let us recognize also that our concept of grace may be hazy and unreal. In fact, the more the notion of grace is treated by us in a semi-materialistic, objectified way, the more unreal it will be. In practice, we tend to think of grace as a kind of mysterious substance, a “thing”, a commodity which is furnished us by God — something like fuel for a supernatural engine. We regard it as a kind of spiritual gasoline which we find necessary in order to make our journey to God.

Of course, grace is a great mystery, and can only be spoken of in analogies and metaphors which tend to be misleading. But certainly this metaphor is so misleading as to be altogether false. Grace is not “something with which” we perform good works and attain to God. It is not a “thing” or a “substance” entirely apart from God. It is God’s very presence and action within us. Therefore, clearly it is not a commodity we “need to get” from him in order to go to him. For all practical purposes we might as well say that grace is the quality of our being that results from the sanctifying energy of God acting dynamically in our life. That is why, in primitive Christian literature, and especially in the New Testament, we read not so much of receiving grace as of receiving the Holy Spirit — God himself.”

Thomas Merton- Life and Holiness, page 29-30, Ideas and Reality

HT to Bob Chase


  1. It’s so hard for the mind to separate from the “material” that so much of our Christian walk has been “materialistic”. Merton is right in saying that we cannot quantify grace, that it is not something that we get. God’s grace is too big a subject for our finite minds to comprehend. We just need to be thankful that He has given “Himself” which entails His grace. When we become convinced that all these eternal, invisible entities are really worth living for, then our walk will be much more meaningful, and our maturity in Christ will be enhanced.

  2. That’s good. I was thinking about bringing Merton into what I was saying in my comment yesterday but I had already gone on too long. I have a tape of Merton teaching the monks at Gethsemani when he says very much what you just quoted here. They are talking about this concept and he mentions how “Grace is not like gasoline, that we have to go get another ‘tank of.'” When we look at it like that, it gets too separated from the substance of God Himself, and I think that’s at least part of your point here – seems like.

    Still though, I think there may be a disconnect with some in this thing. Even though it may not be “a thing” as some describe and think of it, it doesn’t mean that it is without substance or that God Himself is not “there” in us, working. A little different, but important. Good stuff. Peace.

  3. To reconcile Merton with Ferguson would be tricky using the quotes you’ve chosen. At least in their thoughts on the sacraments. While Merton didn’t see grace as a “thing,” he did see the sacraments as ways to draw near to God (or more correctly, for God to draw near to us). Therefore, the sacraments would be “means” of entering the grace (presence, being) of God.

  4. billmelone says

    These are really cool quotes, really challenging

  5. Not to be sectarian, but Merton is really quite Catholic in all this, as he is on almost all subjects. One way of explaining grace is that it is God sharing divine life with us. Of course, this divine life the very life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For those Christians who believe deeply in sacraments, these are the primary media through which God communicates this life through his Son by the Holy Spirit.

    What I like about both of these posts is that gets to the reality that grace is God’s very giving of himself. I love John 17:20-26.

  6. Mike Cheek says

    This reminds me of another statement by Merton. “We speak of Providence: that is a philosophical term. The Bible speaks of our Father in Heaven. Providence is, consequently, more than an institution, it is a person. More than a benevolent stranger, He is our Father.” p. 139 of paperback edition of No Man Is An Island.

  7. Christian M. says

    Though grace is not a “thing,” it surely seems to substantive in some spiritual way. John said, “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”

    John seems to be indicating that grace has a certain “substance” to it. In John 1:16, he says that all mankind “received” Christ’s “fulness,” which seems to refer to His incarnation; but then on top of that “grace” there is even more “grace,” which I would think suggests salvation. Then He elaborates on that thought in 1:17. Moses (Old Covenant) gave the us the Law, an inarguably substative thing. The “fuller” Law (New Covenant), though, is the “grace and truth” that came (aorist) in Christ, who is “full of grace and truth” (1:14).

    The implication, to me anyway, is that the grace that came in Jesus is available continuously (see: 1:9) to us in the same way that the Law was, and in the same way that “truth” is now. In the same way the priests mediated the Law, the Holy Spirit now mediates tha the New Covenant “grace and truth” to our spirits. However, we have to open a spiritual channel for it to be realized in our lives. If I don’t read the Word of God, I will not realize the “grace and truth” that is in Jesus. If I do not pray by drawing near to the “throne of grace,” I close the door to “receive mercy and find grace” in my “time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, as a Christian, that the grace that I need is not something I must ask God to give to me, but rather something I already have. All the grace I need is present within me through the Holy Spirit. However, just like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22f), I cannot realize it, as a substantive agent of spiritual work in my life, unless I am in a right relationship with Jesus (confessed sin, submitted to His truth). When I am walking in the Spirit, I experience the “grace and truth” that are in Jesus in a real, substantive way, because I am actually becoming more like Jesus in that process.

    These are just surface observations of a non-academic Christian who needs a lot of grace to get by every day, and knows when it’s not there.

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