Did Jesus invent Grace?
August 13, 2007 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Is Divine Grace an exclusively Christian idea?

A Christian friend of mine has told me a couple of times that what he thinks separates Chrisitianity from other religions is the concept of Divine Grace, that Jesus comes along and wipes your slate clean. All other religions, he states/supposes, rely on a Karmic system of you pay for what you break.

It seems impossible to me that this is true, with so many religions out there, but this is not my area. Can anyone help?
posted by greytape to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would agree with your friend. I also might agree on the point that Divine Grace is the ONLY major concept not taken or inspired from previous religions/superstitions.
posted by jjbb at 2:31 PM on August 13, 2007

Divine Grace relies on the idea that you are born with original sin. Original sin is an exclusively Christian concept.

Nontheless, you might find very, very loose analogies between original sin and moksha or bodhi, where you meditate your way into salvation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:34 PM on August 13, 2007

Nope. Every year at Yom Kippur, Jews get their slates wiped clean when they repent and ask God for forgiveness.

What differentiates Christianity from Judaism is the belief that Jesus is the son of god. What differentiates Christianity from other religions is a whole whack o' stuff.
posted by Kololo at 2:37 PM on August 13, 2007

Nope. Every year at Yom Kippur, Jews get their slates wiped clean when they repent and ask God for forgiveness.

From a Christian perspective, that's not really the same thing. Christians believe that faith in Jesus forgives one's sin debt forever; it's not something that needs to renewed on a yearly basis through ritual ceremonies.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:44 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know about other religions, but Buddhism doesn't have anything like wiping the slate clean. The relevant Buddhist concept here is "polishing the mirror" - i.e., a constant process of improvement by one's own efforts.
posted by desjardins at 2:45 PM on August 13, 2007

Yom Kippur differs from Divine Grace in that it is earned. Yom Kippur is about more about active atonement. Divine Grace is jesus sacrificing himself so you can feel better. He does all the work.
posted by jjbb at 2:48 PM on August 13, 2007

To go along with what jjbb says, note that Yom Kippur does not atone for all sins. For sins between two people, one must repent not only to God but to the wronged party as well. Repenting to the wronged party includes trying to fix the wrong that you did, which means that some sins (notably gossip) are very hard indeed to repent for!
posted by goingonit at 3:01 PM on August 13, 2007

I'm not a christian. What exactly is "grace"?

Encyclopedias etc. say it's a special favour that god grants to humans (or humanity). That "mercy" is a deserved punishment that is not handed out ("slate being wiped clean"), and "grace" is an undeserved reward that is handed out. By that definition it could be said that every religion has it, because they all consider the universe a special gift from god to humans.

It should be pointed out that Buddhism doesn't fit this framework. There is no Celestial Overlord that watches you and keeps track of your misdeeds and hands out punishment and rewards. Instead the setup is more like a conscience (or an algorithm), that your suffering exists because of X, and here's a method Y to help you get rid of it. (Of course some forms of Buddhism did assimilate local supernatural practices.)
posted by phliar at 3:10 PM on August 13, 2007

Hmm. I think I like the Jewish version better. Actually having to think about what you've done wrong, and having to apologize to the people you've wronged, seems like a better system. Like all the 'thinking' and 'apologizing' might make you a better person in the future.

However, back to the question. You asked about the 'you break it you buy it' system vs the 'clean slate' system. While the slates are wiped clean in different ways, it is still true that Judaism, like Christianity, operates on a 'slate cleaning' system. (Besides, isn't the christian act going to confession similar to Yom Kippur, but more frequent?)

(Disclaimer: Everything I learned about confession I learned from movies.)
posted by Kololo at 3:23 PM on August 13, 2007

Ah crap, i really didn't mean to say that one religion was 'better' than the other. Really. Please. I didn't mean to start anything there!
posted by Kololo at 3:24 PM on August 13, 2007

Christianity has a "You pay for what you break" philosophy; that's what heaven and hell are for.

Plus, Christian grace is really only going to come to people who perform various rituals (baptism and whatever other sacraments are required by the denomination), and historically that would have included confession and actual repentance. Which means, if you sin (including being born with original sin), you're going to pay for it in the next life, unless you take actions to cleanse your soul (sounding a bit like karma yet?).

Buddhist ideas of enlightenment also give us a way out of the rebirth cycle; if you can atone for your past enough, you achieve nirvana (which sounds a lot like Christian concepts of heaven...)

There are, of course, differences. But I think that especially if you look at some Tantric philosophies (which are drawing on Buddhism and Hinduism) and which specifically mention "Divine Grace" as the last step to enlightenment, you're going to see a lot of similarities.
posted by occhiblu at 3:27 PM on August 13, 2007

My understanding of Christianity is that it is rather karmic, actually. The more you pay, the more you are forgiven.

Jesus, being the Son of God, was the ultimate, perfect sacrifice. The payment of Him is sufficient to forgive all sin for all time - but only if you have faith that this is so. On the one hand, you have the grace that Jesus has taken on the burden of sin for everyone, on the other hand, you have Jesus as the perfect sacrifice to pay for those sins. Jesus carrying the sin (of his own free will) allows justice to be done, in the form of sacrifice, leaving God free to act within His law, and be merciful.

Hope this helps. This is my own opinion, formed through discussion with priests and theological scholars.
posted by ysabet at 3:27 PM on August 13, 2007

Confession (or more properly these days, The Sacrament of Reconciliation) does indeed 'wipe the slate clean' provided that there is true contrition and an effort to perform the penance as indicated by the priest. As to frequency, well...that's up to the penitent. Catholics are obliged to avail themselves of this Sacrament at least once per year, and preferably during Lent.

While it's true that in many cases, the penance given is in the form of prayer (or other act of faith, such as prayer the stations of the cross), in some cases the priest may urge that you fix the problem.

Without delving too deeply into Catholicism, a similar penitential action occurs at each Mass - we call to mind our sins (whether of commission or omission) and ask the Lord for forgiveness before continuing with the liturgy.

I'm most familiar with Catholic teaching and piety on this; there may be similar sacraments in the Anglican or Eastern (Orthodox) Churches.

In any case, the Catholic definition of grace can be found here, along with references in the Catechism here among other places.
posted by jquinby at 3:34 PM on August 13, 2007

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explicitly took up the question of Grace, and expresses his concepts of Cheap Grace and Costly Grace, as courses of action which have determined the course of Christian churches, and of individual lives. Executed by the Nazis near the end of the war, for his public opposition to National Socialism, Bonhoeffer's life and work remain modern lessons in the meaning of grace in Christian thought, worth understanding in detail, for those who would understand modern Christianity.
posted by paulsc at 3:36 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

The easy/obvious answer: it depends on whose definition of grace, and less so, whose definition of divine.

Anywho, I went to a Catholic school. In one of our classes, we were taught, by our textbook, which presumably is approved by the American Council of Catholic Bishops (or, you know, some body that has their approval), that the (Catholic, of course) definition of Grace is, "God's loving presence made visible in the world" (or something darn close to that, IIRC. I'm pretty sure there's nothing in that wording that contradicts whatever it actually was, or anything significant left out). So, yeah, obviously, the prime example of this to a Christian would be JC. But it seems to me that by that definition, God's grace is possible without JC, just not in as powerful or concrete a manifestation. Also, one thing to point out is that plenty of other religions feature stories of their god(s) coming to earth in human form, though perhaps not dying for all our misdeeds or something similar. So to the Christian, that's still obviously not as powerful, but at least those are examples of God literally being present in our world. Oh, and I guess those gods are not necessarily loving either (but whether the Christian one is loving is debatable too).
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:46 PM on August 13, 2007

Hmmmm. Should have read Jquinby... Anyway. I still stand by my response. If the simplified definition I was taught and the one to be found in that link are not reconcilable, it's not my fault.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:49 PM on August 13, 2007

Well Girard and others have associated the doctrine of the atonement (Christ "wiping clean" the slates of believers) with the notion of the "scapegoat"--the figure sacrificed or driven out to carry away evil or the sins of the community. One might plausibly argue that the notion of divine grace is in this sense an instance of this broader cultural form.

As others have noted though, Christian denominations differ quite a bit on the question of how salvation is achieved, the big distinction being between Protestant denominations, which traditionally emphasize the undeserved Grace of God as the saving force, and the Catholic Church, which tends to emphasize that one's works and the sacraments of the church can have bearing on one's eventual salvation.

Note also that the doctrine of Grace is separate from and exists in tension with the doctrine that Christ's sacrifice "wipes your slate clean." After-all, if God exists outside of time, he's already decided whether or not you have grace (are "justified") long before the universe was created. So how then did Christ's sacrifice have any bearing on the question of salvation?

Questions of this sort were the sorts of things that old school Calvinists could argue about all day.
posted by washburn at 3:51 PM on August 13, 2007

There are lots of very early examples of forgiveness/redemption from a cult figure leading to escape from punishment in the afterlife, escape from the continued transmigration of the soul or unity with a god figure, particularly among the mystery religions.

If you're just looking for one counter-example for the sake of argument you might as well use something like the cult of Orpheus: "Now you are dead, and now you are born on this very day, thrice blessed. Tell Persephone, that Bacchus himself has redeemed you."

They believe in an immortal soul ("I am the son of earth and of starry heaven", from a tablet at Eleuthernai), they talk about sin and the need for personal atonement (under the laws of Orpheus) leading to salvation in the afterlife. Some of the features of the afterlife in Christianity are directly borrowed from Orphic religion, like the lake of filth... and certain Christian sects borrowed the idea of purgatory as well. They incorporate the idea of the suffering and death of a demi-god... the list goes on.

Orphism is usually dated to at least half a millennium before Christianity. Guthrie's "Orpheus and Greek Religion" is probably your top source.
posted by snarfodox at 4:00 PM on August 13, 2007

The branches of Buddhism popular in the West tend to stress the do-it-yourself aspect, but in Asia there's a popular Buddhist school called Pure Land Buddhism. From the Wikipedia article:
Instead of meditative work toward enlightenment, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that through devotion to just Amitabha one will be reborn in the Pure Land in which enlightenment is guaranteed. [...] the Buddha describes to his assistant, Ananda, how Amitabha, as an advanced monk named Dharmakara, made a great series of vows to save all beings, and through his great merit, created a realm called the Land of Bliss (Sukhavati).
In other words, you don't have to become a monk or renounce worldly life - all you have to do is remember Amitabha as you're dying and he will welcome you into a paradise afterlife no matter what your actions have been.

Buddhism dates from the 5th century BCE although the Pure Land practice evolved some time later, but long before any form of Christianity was brought to the far east. I think the practice of devotion to Amitabha and his promise of redemption at death makes a fair bid to equalling the Christian idea of grace.
posted by zadcat at 4:53 PM on August 13, 2007

I'm not going to critique the concept of Christian Grace as is translated different ways, nor respond to the criticizing of it above. That wasn't what the question was about.

But Might I suggest an overview of The Golden Ass by Apuleius. The late period roman Isis, or mystery cults, held Isis as the supreme god, and capable of giving salvation.

The Golden Ass is a story of the salvation of the soul, it's innate tribulations leading to salvation, somewhat akin to Divine Grace.


Wikipedia is a little dry on the subject, but it's a start.
posted by sethwoodworth at 5:09 PM on August 13, 2007

In short -- Yes
posted by orlin at 5:44 PM on August 13, 2007

"Christians believe that faith in Jesus forgives one's sin debt forever; it's not something that needs to renewed on a yearly basis through ritual ceremonies."

Not all Christians do. Jack Chick has a different (and much closer to what you're stating) theology than the Pope.

And forgiveness is a thread within all Judeo-Christian religions, including Islam.
posted by klangklangston at 5:52 PM on August 13, 2007

The whole "concept of grace as the thing that separates Christianity from other religions" line is pretty common among evangelical Christians. The thing is, Christians disagree amongst themselves an awful lot regarding what Divine Grace even is (Catholics and Protestants have radically different ideas, for a start), and in any case I sort of doubt your friend is actually conversant enough with all other religions to know for sure that there aren't parallels. That said, a preoccupation with grace (and what the word even means) is pretty central to Christianity, probably more so than any other major religion.

I find this question sort of frustrating; it seems like one way to answer implies that Christianity is special and unique and therefore "better" (or at least I take it this is what your friend is sort of implying), and the other way to answer implies that all religions are basically the same, with no unique and interesting characteristics.

So what I want to say is: sure, Christian theologians have probably done a lot more thinking about this concept of "grace" (however defined) than thinkers in most other religions, but on the other hand those religions have pursued different lines of thought in ways that Christianity never has.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 7:07 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Okay, I can't find where it is but wasn't part of the heresy of the Pharoah Akenhaten was that by worshiping him, you could go to the afterlife on the rising sun and avoid punishment in the underworld?

That sounds an awful lot like grace to me. And 1300 years before Christ!
posted by CrazyJoel at 8:00 PM on August 13, 2007

If I may weigh into the Catholic assessment further (unfortunately, the only religion with which I claim some authority), Catholics believe in the saving power both of grace and works. In other words, while no person can justify themselves to receive the kingdom of God on their own merits, Jesus "opens the door" through faith in Him to that possibility (divine grace), provided we live a life of good works and atone for sin.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:01 PM on August 13, 2007

D'oh! I forgot about Pure Land. zadcat is right.
any being in any universe desiring to be born into Amitābha's Pure Land and calling upon his name even as few as ten times will be guaranteed rebirth there. (WP)
However, after you become enlightened, you return to earth to help others, so I'm not sure it's the same concept as the Christian heaven.
posted by desjardins at 6:50 AM on August 14, 2007

Why oh why did you have to go there? Didn't you know what you were getting yourself into... (Sigh)

posted by mynameismandab at 8:53 PM on August 14, 2007

On another note, if you're interested in world religions, I just heard about this.

Just something CNN emailed me about.
posted by mynameismandab at 8:55 PM on August 14, 2007

Best answer: The concept of unmerited grace is not the key defining feature distinguishing Christianity from other forms of religion. But it is, arguably, one of the key defining features distinguishing Protestantism from other forms of Christianity.

Luther's big idea, crudely summarised, was that saving grace was freely and unconditionally available to sinners, without any need to 'work off' one's sins through acts of penance. This idea of grace as a gift, freely given regardless of one's sins, was (and is) one of the most powerful and attractive features of Protestantism, and it can be found in all the great revivalist hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Protestants have tended to project this idea retrospectively onto the past history of Christianity. Thus, for example, the anti-Jewish passages in Matthew's gospel have been viewed (as it were) through the lens of Luther's doctrine of justification, and used to draw a contrast between a religion of legalism and punishment (= Judaism) and a religion of mercy and liberation (= Christianity). This is, I suspect, what lies behind your friend's distinction between the 'pay for what you break' system of other religions and the 'clean slate' system of Christianity.

The Wikipedia article on divine grace is quite helpful in demonstrating the variety of different Christian doctrines (and makes it quite clear that there is no single 'Christian idea of grace'). However, it falls into exactly the trap I have mentioned above, of imposing Protestant ideas retrospectively on early Christian history. Thus we are told that 'Jesus did in fact teach the concept of grace' (i.e. the classical Protestant concept of grace as divinely given and freely offered) and that it is 'open to serious question [whether the medieval Catholic doctrine of grace is] authentic to the teachings of the New Testament'.

Beware of all attempts to define the essence of Christianity (whether in terms of divine grace or any other doctrine or idea). The enormous diversity of Christian thought and culture makes it almost impossible to generalise.
posted by verstegan at 3:47 AM on August 15, 2007

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