The Immeasurable Gift and Power of God’s Abundant Grace and Covenant Love
It is said that a peasant from the northern mountains of Nicaragua once went down to the seashore for the first time in his life, and wanted to see the ocean. When he came to the beach he stayed there in ecstasy, watching the immensity of the ocean, and for several hours he did not utter a word. All he did was to contemplate, in deep meditation. Then he stood up, took an empty bottle in his hands, went into the sea, and filled it with water. When he was asked what he wanted the water for, he replied: “In my town they don’t know the sea. I’m taking this bottle to them so they can know what it is like.”
That’s how I feel now. I have been asked to talk to you about grace, and trying to enclose all the majesty, the immensity and the beauty of grace in one talk is just as absurd as attempting to put the ocean inside a bottle.
The study of the theology of grace takes three years. At the end of that period one realizes that the mistake of great theologians was also that they attempted to bottle grace into words, definitions and concepts that reflect nothing of its glory. In order to understand what the sea is, you have to plunge into it. And then we can understand perfectly how delightful it is, and at the same time stand in awe at its immensity and its power.
Revelation of God’s grace
The holy writers of the Old Testament never attempted to define grace. In order to explain it, they resorted to the words that God himself used when he revealed himself to Moses as the God of grace:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful (rahamim) and gracious (hen), slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (emet), keeping steadfast love (hesed) for thousands… (Exodus 34:6).
In God, grace is at once mercy that pities over misery (hen), loving steadfastness towards his own (hesed), unyielding solidness in his commitments (emet), wholehearted adherence of the whole being to those he loves (rahamim), inexhaustible justice (tsedeq) that is able to bestow on all his creatures the fulness of their rights, and to fill all their aspirations.
What God reveals to Moses is his own character, what God is. God is love. God is hesed. God is faithful. God is kindness and mercy. God is loyalty. God is grace!
With the same words they express that which they had experienced as God’s grace. And what they have experienced is that God, in a free, gratuitous way, out of sheer love, had chosen Israel and had made a covenant with them. They were to be his people and he would be their God. They are clear that this love of God for Israel and this choice had nothing to do with what Israel is, with what Israel has done, or with what Israel has or deserves. They are clear that this is pure grace of God, his free gift.
The Lord says in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the LORD loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers.
Then Paul says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In order to express the sovereign and gratuitous character of that love, the Old Testament authors use the Hebrew word hanan. What hanan conveys is the idea of an immense kindness and favor from someone who is far superior to us, who is far above us and who does not have the least obligation to show such kindness. This is the free relationship between omnipotence and impotence, between sin and forgiveness.
God’s covenant love
Later on they come closer to the concept of grace with a key word that contains a new element and that adds something very important to what we are trying to explain. This word is hesed, which expresses that that kindness and love are constant, faithful, loyal, steadfast, unbreakable.
The word hesed has some affinity to the concepts of mercy and forgiveness, but the new and most important feature is that this hesed of God is eternal, constant and irrevocable. There is nothing that can change it, and it will never end.
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me (Isaiah 49:15-16).
I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness (tsedeq) and in justice (mishpat), in steadfast love (hesed) and in mercy (rahamim). I will betroth you to me in faithfulness (emunah), and you will know the LORD (Hosea 2:19-20).
The steadfast love which God offers Israel is the love that stands even when Israel is unfaithful and breaks the Covenant. God will always remain faithful and will not change his mind.
In Hosea 3:1 the Lord says to Hosea: “Go again, love a woman who is beloved of a paramour and is an adulteress; even as the LORD loves the people of Israel.” God has given them a law out of love, but when that law is not obeyed, God’s faithful and unchanging love is the cause of his forgiving the sinners. God moves the sinner to repentance and corrects him, but makes him righteous once again. That is, he restores his relationship of love with him.
In order to understand this notion that God “makes him righteous,” let us remember that in Hebrew mentality righteousness or being righteous does not indicate an inner virtue, but a situation or legal status before God. Being righteous or just is being in a right relationship to God, being at peace with him:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Romans 5:1).
You can now see how hard it is to express all these things in a modern language. This hesed is not an isolated action, something that God does at one time and then forgets, but a way of loving that establishes a relationship, a covenant.
In this Covenant God expresses the way he wants to relate to his people, and at the same time the way he wants the members of his people to relate to each other. What God reveals to them and commands them is that they should relate to each other in the same way that God relates to them, with that same hesed. Hence the New Commandment, which both comprises and surpasses all the others, is that we should love each other as he has loved us.
As a result of his choice and as an expression of his Covenant, God promises to establish with Israel a type of relationship such that his power will always be available to Israel:
Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the word of the LORD (Exodus 34:10).
God’s omnipotence was available to his people at all times. And it continues to be so:
“He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (John 14:12).
Grace is also God’s indwelling in his people – God’s presence, theophany. God dwells among his people. He leads them, he guides them, he protects them, he forms them, he sanctifies them. Later he will be Emmanuel, “God with us”, and at the end of time, “He will dwell with them… and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3).
This indwelling of God in us is not like having a relative or a mother-in-law living in your house. It is an indwelling that will gradually purify us, form us and transform us into God himself, giving us his own way of thinking, of desiring and of acting.
The Israelites understood it so. In the deutero-canonical book of Wisdom we discover that wisdom is nothing else but God himself communicating with the creatures. Through wisdom, God gives creatures a reflection of his beauty and his truth, of the internal cohesiveness that holds everything together.
This wisdom which is God himself enlightens our understanding and leads us on the right path. In the future, the Holy Spirit will reveal all things to us. And this is so because everything that the Old Testament narrates is only a foreshadow of what is to come.
All is grace
Grace is that, an many things more. St. Paul comes to the point of saying that “All is grace.” Not because grace is many different things, but because it is like a light that, being one, breaks itself up into multiple colors.
In fact, St. John is the first to use the word “light” when he wants to speak about grace, and tells us that Christ, the Word, “is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:3-5).
Like light, grace cannot co-exist with darkness, but overcomes it by dissipating the darkness of sin. Like light, grace is communicated when it gives itself, and yet we cannot say that we possess light; we could rather say that the light possesses us and surrounds us, and enlightens us, and helps us to see ourselves as we actually are (the Holy Spirit “will convince… concerning sin and righteousness and judgment,” John 16:8) and shows us the path to follow.
Light is a fountain of joy, of security and peace, and shows us the reality of things (without it, confusion reigns). Walking in the light is living in truth, but it is also walking and living in the Kingdom of Grace, and not under the dominion of the law.
But, above all, light makes us similar to itself, to a certain extent. It is John who tells us that one day we will be like Christ, because we will see him face to face. Light does not change us into light, but enlightens us and gives us some of its own features. God has not yet made us gods, because we can only see him as it were through a veil, but he has made us divine. Grace divinizes us.
As I said at the beginning, the sacred writers needed to use many different words and comparisons in order to explain all of these things. When the Seventy translated the Old Testament into Greek (the version thus known as the “Septuagint”, i.e. translated by “seventy”), they found a word which was later used in the New Testament – the Greek word charis, which is the one we now translate as ‘grace’.
This word occurs 150 times in the New Testament, more than 100 of which are in the letters of Paul. It does not occur in Mark or in Matthew, who are the first evangelists. In Luke it occurs 8 times, and 3 in John, although, as we said earlier, John prefers to explain this with the notions of light and life. It was Paul and the Pauline writers who gave the word charis the meaning it now has.
Finally, the notion of grace is also applied to our response to such favors. This is evident in languages like Spanish, where the word for ‘thanks’ is gracias, but in English it can also be seen in words like grateful. Thus, the notions of ‘gratitude’ and ‘gratefulness’ include the concept of ‘grace’. When we say, “Thank you”, or “I’m grateful,” we actually mean, “I have received many graces from you, and therefore I express gratitude.” The grace of the Lord also calls us to gratefulness and thanksgiving.
I think we can perceive that charis also has to do with ‘charity’. God’s grace cannot be separated from his love. One could almost say that the grace which God reveals to Moses as his way of being is also a revelation of his way of loving. Grace is a manifestation of his love, with certain characteristics that show us God’s way of being. And God is love.
We can also discover that another derivative of charis is charismata, that is, the charisms or spiritual gifts. In fact, all charismatic gifts are, like grace itself, free gifts which we cannot deserve, but that God gives us in a gratuitous way (and ‘gratuitous’ and ‘gratis’ are also derivatives of ‘grace’). We know that, in fact, charisms are not something that God gives, but that they are God the Holy Spirit at work within us and revealing himself through us.
Grace is like that: God himself dwelling within us and working in us. It was St. Paul who gave the word charis a much wider sense, which includes everything that we have said hitherto about grace.
And now please allow me the folly of summing up all that I have said in a single phrase I heard, from Thomas Merton, which I think will make all of this the simplest.
If grace is God at work, then who is God’s dynamis? Who is he who from the beginning was hovering over the waters, the one we know as the Power of God, the strong wind separating the waters of the Red Sea, and the strong wind of Pentecost, the one who generated Jesus in Mary’s womb and then raised him from the dead?
If grace is God manifesting himself to us such as he is, who is he through whom God manifests himself to us? Who is he who through us manifests God’s power? Who is he who reveals God’s mind to us, and who shapes inside us, from one degree of glory to another, the image and the character of God?
If grace is God himself speaking to the sinner and calling all of us to conversion, who is he who will convince us of sin and of judgment, and through whom we have heard and understood God’s voice? Who is he who will teach us all things? Who is he to whom Jesus was referring when he told the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God”, God’s endowment, the fountain that springs forth unto eternal life, so that you will thirst no more? Who, but the “sweet Guest of the soul”?
The phrase I listened to in a recording of Thomas Merton was the following:
“Habitual grace is God inhabiting us, and actual grace is the Spirit of God acting in us.”
The idea is not Merton’s. It is found already in St. Cyril of Alexandria, who noted how the Spirit of God works in us, sanctifies us, joins us to himself and makes us partakers of divine nature. We are his temple. He dwells in us and makes us similar to himself, and transforms us into gods by giving himself to us. But above all, it is found in St. Augustine, who often uses the word ‘grace’ to designate the Holy Spirit, such as in his Sermon 144. Other times, instead, he designates as grace the effect created by the indwelling of the Spirit of God in us.
New Testament understanding of grace
Since he dwells in us, he makes us pleasing or agreeable in God’s eyes. Now ‘agreeable’ is also a word that derives from ‘grace’. We have found grace in God’s eyes, like Mary, the one who was full of grace, gratia plena. God put his eyes in the smallness of his handmaiden, and that is why all nations of the earth would call her ‘Blessed,’ that is, ‘pleasing’ to God. All of us are blessed.
Now I want to ask you to pay close attention, because we are going to take a big leap from the Old to the New Testament.
If the Israelites experienced the grace from God above all in the fact that God chose them as his own people, and in the covenant he established with them, which included on the one hand the Law and on the other the protection of God’s power which brought them freedom from slavery, Paul and the early Christians experienced the grace of God, above all, as the “gift” or “benefit” that God bestows on men, of attaining salvation.
“By grace you have been saved,” says Paul (Ephesians 2:5). For them, the supreme grace is the salvation that God offers in Jesus Christ.
God had manifested himself to the Israelites and had established a covenant with his people. He set them free from slavery by using all his power, he granted them forgiveness, and he gave them a law so that they would relate to each other the same way he was relating to them.
The Israelites lived under the law, and were unable to obey it. God then told them that he would give them a law, not written on stone, but on their hearts.
And it was then that God went crazy.
Christ Jesus… though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being born in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:2-6).
The God of grace and kindness, rich in mercy, but who does not leave the guilty unpunished, then laid the sins of his people on the head of his Son. The scapegoat became the Lamb of God, the victim of propitiation for the sins of his people, who died for us once for all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth… He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people…” (Isaiah 53:7-9)
What happened afterwards is imagined in a very ancient anonymous homily for Holy Saturday. Christ goes down to sheol and, coming near Adam, says to him:
I am your God, who for you and for all those who are to be born of you have become your son. And now I tell you that I have the power to proclaim to all who are in chains, ‘Come out!’, and to those who are in darkness, ‘Be enlightened!’, and to those who sleep, ‘Arise!’ To you I command: ‘Wake up, you who sleep, because I did not create you for you to remain captive in the abyss. Rise from the dead, because I am the life of the dead. Rise, you work of my hands; rise, you who are my image, created in my likeness. Rise, let us go out of here, because I in you and you in me make up one indivisible person. For you I, your God, have become your son. For you I, your Lord, have put on your condition of a servant. For you I, who am above the heavens, have come to earth and have descended into abyss. For you I have become man, similar to a paralytic that has his bed among the dead. For you, who were expelled from the garden, I have been delivered to the Jews at a garden, and in a garden I have been crucified.
Behold the spits on my face, that I have withstood in order to give back to you your first breath of life. Look at the bruises on my cheeks, which I have undergone in order to reshape your deformed image in accordance with my image. Watch the marks of the lash on my back, which I have accepted in order to lessen the weight of your sins, which had been placed on your back. Look at the nails that have fastened me strongly to the tree, for I have accepted them for you, who maliciously stretched your hand towards the forbidden tree. I slept on the cross and a spear pierced my side, for you who in Paradise slept and gave origin to Eve from your side. My side has cured the sorrow of yours. My sleep brings you out of the sleep of the abyss. My spear removed that sword that was threatening you in Paradise.
Rise up, let us leave this place. The enemy took you out of Paradise. I am placing you, not in Paradise, but on the heavenly throne. I forbade you to eat of the tree of life, which was only an image of the actual tree. I am the true tree, I who am the life and who am united to you.
I placed a cherub to watch over you faithfully. I now grant that the cherub, acknowledging your dignity, may serve you. The throne of cherubim is ready. The porters are attentive and prepared, the nuptial room is built, the food is ready. The eternal tabernacles and dwellings have been embellished; the treasures of all gods have been open, and the Kingdom of Heaven is prepared from all eternity.
In this, my brothers and sisters, we have known the grace of the Lord: in that he loved us first, and has given us his own Son so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.
Throughout the centuries, various authors develop new explanations of grace, and each of them stresses one of its aspects, though none of them comes to the point of explaining it completely, because it continues to be impossible to express in words the whole greatness of God’s love. It took God, not centuries, but thousands of years, to manifest it and to reveal it, not with words but with the manifestation of himself, of his relentless love, of his eternal faithfulness, of his tenderness, of his infinite favors, with the liberation of his people and the redemption of the whole human race. The perfect expression of this crazy love was his incarnation in time, and the delivery of his Son for our salvation. All is grace!
The great gift of God was, at the beginning, God himself that became manifest to Israel as I Am, and who committed himself to his chosen people through a covenant in which he involved his whole power in order to set them free from slavery. He wanted to convey to them his way of acting, giving them a law that would teach them to act as he does: with an infinite, gratuitous and unbreakable love, and to relate to each other in the same way.
God established the New Covenant
Since the old covenant was not enough, at a given moment God went crazy and established a new covenant. This time he would not write the law on tables of stone, but in our very hearts.
This time, God’s gift was his own Son, whom he gave over to death for us. He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In him the fulness of God’s power was manifested, and he set us free from the bondage of the devil, of sin and of death.
He showed us how we were to relate to each other, not as a written word but by loving us to the extreme, and commanding us to love in the same way he loved us.
And this Son, the night before his death, knowing that it was not part of our nature to love as God had loved us, just as it was not part of the Israelites’ nature to obey the law of Moses, he promised us his own Spirit, the Gift of God that was announced to the Samaritan woman: the love of God that has been poured on our hearts. He is the one who writes the law on our hearts, giving us the same way of being of God, and God’s way of loving.
In the Spirit of God becomes manifest not only the power of God, but this power is communicated and imparted, in order to do the same things as he did and even greater, in order to carry the Good News to the last corners of the earth with the signs that accompany preaching, and in order to be able to obey the law and to overcome the devil.
The Spirit sent on Pentecost
Having been sent on the day of Pentecost in order to call together the New Israel from among all the peoples of the earth, he now joins us to Christ in order to form with him one Body, whose head is Christ.
He who promised to stay with us to the end of the age now inhabits our hearts through the Holy Spirit, in union with the Father. We have now become children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, living temples of his Spirit and heirs of heaven, in order to sanctify us, which amounts to divinizing us, because God alone is Holy.
The gift is now complete. It is complete and gratuitous. All is grace. God has given himself over to us, and dwells wholly in us. He works in us and through us. There is nothing we can do to deserve this. But the merits of Christ have been credited to us.
Today we are pleasing in God’s eyes. We are blessed. We are called to create a new world together with the Father, with the Word for whom all things were created, and with the Holy Spirit who is now once again hovering over the whole creation in order to renew the face of the earth. We have been called to carry on the redeeming work of Christ, as the mystical body of Christ which is an extension of Christ in history. We have been called to start and to expand the Kingdom of God on earth. We have been called to bring all things to unity under Christ. We have been given a mission of gods. In order to carry this out, we bear God himself within us. One day we shall see him face to face and shall be like unto him.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3).
They shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:4).
Top photo credit: sunset over lake, BigStock.com #27210545
This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 by Carlos Mantica.
Carlos Mantica was a founder of The City of God community (La Cuidad de Dios) in Managua, Nicaragua, and a founding leader of the Sword of the Spirit. He served as president of the Sword of the Spirit between 1991 and 1995.
- See Tribute to Chale Mantica by Jean Barbara, President of the Sword of the Spirit