Q&A: Do I earn God’s grace by works?

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Q: I’m struggling to understand more practically what exactly is God’s grace and how I interact with it. I mean, I heard that grace is supposed to be free, but then there are people who say that I have to earn it by my works. What’s going on here?

Response:

There’s a lot that can be said about grace, and there are lots of works written on this. I’m going to keep this succinct to the issue that you’re asking about as much as possible.

An analogy:
Let’s say I am an uncle and I have a nephew. I love my nephew very much. I delight in him and love playing with him and want to shower him with gifts. My nephew, however, has not earned them. He didn’t make himself my nephew or make himself cute. He is who he is and I am who I am and I love him and want to give him all sorts of gifts. As he grows and develops, my gifts might change based on my observation of where he is in life and what might be harmful at one time and helpful at another, but it is still my love that motivates me to give to him. On the same token, if he refuses the love and lives in a relationship with me that is one of fear, servitude, or even hate – then I might try and give him gifts, but he might refuse them. But if he lives in love toward me, I continue to give them. Again, all throughout, there is never a time where he earned the present, but I think this helps show God’s role and the human’s role a little more clearly.

Long Answer:
Grace has a few meanings but is usually meant as “gift” or “help” (the word charisma is a derivate of the Greek word for grace), but it has a very important understanding — it’s always FREE. It’s a present.

It’s that latter part that we sometimes label as being not Orthodox, but there is real truth to it. Grace is free. There is absolutely no work that I can do that will earn me grace, because that would change the definition. It is no longer a gift if I earned it, it becomes wages. If we resort to that, we are actually closer to heterodoxy than we think, because we now have a salvation concept that is based on some justice system rather than being based on love. Justice is based on works!

So the Orthodox person will say, what then of works? Works are a commandment of God! But more importantly, works should be a consequence of love, not done solely for recompense. The first and second commandment are to love God above all and my neighbour as myself. Our Lord said, if you love me, keep my commandments. He said anytime we clothe someone, visit someone, do anything for anyone, it is as though we did it for God Himself. If I do an ascetic work, it has to be the consequence of love, not a means of merit. There is no righteousness in the act itself if it is not done as an act of love for God.

Works, however, may make the Spirit of God abound more within me, and hence the grace of God becomes more apparent in me. The Spirit begins to work in me more abundantly. He grants “gifts” (read: grace) that we read and sing about all the time. These are a consequence of love, and are freely given, not earned. This can be understood with a simple question, if an atheist does good deeds, reads prayers, gets baptised in a font and partakes of Eucharist but in His heart is still an atheist, will he be saved? Yes, it’s rhetorical.

So grace is the inner working of the Spirit, Who gives gifts and acts of help that are accorded in love not on account of the merit of man, lest it become wages, but given freely from the abundance of His love. Works don’t merit us the grace, but works done in love do result in more grace.

Struggling with sin because of love, not pride, also helps one acquire grace in that He is trying to please God. When a penitent is fighting himself to control his tongue, his temper, his lust or what have you, because he feels it is against the love of God, he feels more and more the work of the Spirit and its presence, Who fills him and gives him grace to distance himself from that sin, while revealing to him others. This is really a lot of what spiritual transformation and growth is all about.

7 thoughts on “Q&A: Do I earn God’s grace by works?”

  1. Hi Abouna!
    Can you comment on what it means to struggle with sin ‘out of pride’?
    Thanks 🙂

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      Hi Andrew,

      A person can want to struggle with a sin for the sake of love, or for reasons of ego. It’s one thing to say, “man, I want to overcome lust because how can I give my whole love to God if I’m indulging in this” and another thing to say, “Man, I can’t believe I’m still falling into this sin, this is so not me!” The former is for love, the latter is because one thinks himself above sin.

      The right reasons for fighting sins – because a person wishes to be struggle for holiness, to look beautiful for the Bridegroom (i.e. acquire virtue), because of a deep sense of love for God and the feeling that the sin is what is keeping me from knowing Him or loving Him more deeply.

      Wrong reasons: this sin is below me, I’m not the kind of person who sins, I want to prove that *I* have self-control, I want to make a point of any kind, ‘bad people in the world do this’, my priest/family/friend think that I can’t get over this, I’m not a sinner

      A truly humble person will consider himself capable of any sin, but trusts that the love of God and grace of God are what preserve him. God’s love and grace transform him out of sin, rather than his own physical capabilities.

  2. Hello Abouna,

    What do you mean by this, “This can be understood with a simple question, if an atheist does good deeds, reads prayers, gets baptised in a font and partakes of Eucharist but in His heart is still an atheist, will he be saved? Yes, it’s rhetorical.”

    Thank you

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      Hi Mike,

      The idea is that if works were intrinsically the source of grace or progress, than an atheist should be able to do those same works and be saved. Yet we all would probably agree that if an atheist were to simply physically carry out tasks but not have a relationship with God (e.g. Love), the acts themselves are not life-saving. Sure, the acts might get him to *think* about having a real relationship and help get him there, but the acts themselves are not going to save him. Does that clarify?

      Pray for me!

  3. Hi abouna,
    I was told by an Coptic orthodox bishop that like you mentioned Grace is a GIFT but a gift is not considered a gift unless the recipient actually accepts it; and to show God that we are accepting the gift is abiding by His commandments and accepting the church sacraments ( baptism, confession and repentance , and Communion). So works is the sacraments and not simply say that grace is free and therefore the sacraments are not needed.
    Do you agree with that concept ?

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      Hi Mareya,

      Grace is free no matter what. To say that grace is not free means to say that we pay for grace. We do not.

      What HG seems to be saying is the same idea as what was said above, which is that grace requires a response, but the response does not mean the grace was paid for. I respond to grace with my own will (which is a work), but that own will didn’t earn me His grace, because He didn’t have to give me anything in the first place. The giving of the gift is grace, the receiving of the gift is my will. So my work is involved in receiving grace, but it would be wrong to object to saying that grace is free. By the very definition of the word, grace has to be free. That needs to be exceptionally clear.

      Having said that, believing that grace is free does not nullify the need for Sacraments, so I’m not sure why that is up for discussion. Just because grace is free does not mean that I have no need for sacramental life. Sacraments are one means of grace (not the only ones), and they are not optional. Our Lord didn’t say, “Hey, I gave you my Body and Blood as a gift, if you feel like it, partake”, He said, “Unless you eat of my body and drink of my blood…you have no life in you”. That’s not an option. I won’t turn this into a lecture on the sacraments, but what I’m trying to say is that just because grace is free does not mean that we have nothing to do. 🙂 As mentioned in the article above, by living in a life of relationship (which includes sacramental life), we become active members in a life of grace.

      Does that clarify?

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