Grace vs. Works ~ Relationship vs. Religion
And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. Romans 11:6.
I don’t know why but right from my college days, I have been very attracted to the word ‘grace’ even though I was never sure what it truly meant? However, I did have my own ideas of what this word possibly represented, and I liked what I thought of it. May be that’s why I never bothered to check what the dictionary has to say about it?
Also, I am glad that no one ever asked me what I understood of this word, because there was no way I could have put in words what the word ‘grace’ meant to me? To me the grace represented the extreme loveliness in a person. It personified something higher than just being physically beautiful. It projected something very exceptional in oneself.
Before I came to know better, if I had to describe what a graceful person is, I would have said -- a person with exceeding exquisiteness and elegance in his presentation of himself – in both ways, external as well as internal -- a person who is not only polished and refined in his conduct outside but also magnificent and majestic in his movements inside. To me someone was graceful who made his surrounding more beautiful by his sheer presence – which edified others around him by his goodness. I held ‘grace’ very high for one more very simple reason that it was such a virtue that shines forth only in humility and self-effacement; and I liked that very much. So the ‘grace’ shined even more to me on a humble face.
These were my feelings about the word ‘grace’ until the Lord God revealed His love and affection, care and compassion, and showered His goodness upon my hurting soul and He did all that even without any of my effort, and without my doing or deserving anything. God chose to do it and He did it. Why? The answer, as I learned later: that it was His grace which He showers upon us out of His love.
God is good; so He showers His grace upon people – which is not dependent upon any other factor but His own love, affection, mercy, kindness, or whatever we would like to call it. God’s grace is not a reciprocation of any act or virtue or worthiness of ours. None of our goodness is a reason of Him being graceful. It is an unearned, unmerited favor that God showers upon us. This I learned only after I realized that it was only God’s grace behind all the care and comfort, safety and security, protection and preservation, peace and joy, all what I have received in life since He took me in His fold. It is His grace which has performed miracles in my life, day after day, and has transformed it into something so beautiful which was ever beyond my farthest imagination.
One day, out of simple curiosity, I looked in the dictionary and I found two meanings for the word ‘grace’. A - Simple elegance or refinement of movement. B – (In Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. I was happily surprised to see that the first meaning was exactly what I thought of it all my life till I came to understand the second – the free and unmerited favor of God -- under which I have been living during last so many years. So, forget about the understanding the meaning of the word, I am living the very essence of it everywhere in my daily life.
Few years back while I was watching on TV a sermon by Joseph Prince, he brought my attention to these holy words, “… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” – John 1:17. And when he said that grace is not ‘it’ but the person of Christ, his words absolutely thrilled me and led me to see the reality that just the way the Truth is personified in Jesus (John 14:6), so is the Grace. For a Christian the grace is not a virtue but a person – the person of Jesus. In his rebirth when the spirit of Christ makes home in him, from that day on the believer has that cover (of the Spirit) over his soul. Of course, the magnitude and the effect of the coverage depend upon the degree of recognition of the authority of the Spirit. The more he recognizes and lives under the awareness of the authority of the Holy Spirit, the more his life flourishes under the grace of God.
Understanding that Jesus is the embodiment of the grace of God, I could easily connect the dots. I could clearly see what truly happened during the most miraculous night of my life when God (Lord Jesus) all of sudden showed up and got hold of me when I was drowning in hopelessness and desperation and saved me and secured in His refuge for good. The understanding the grace of God unfolded the mystery of my rebirth into a new spirit – the spirit of Christ. Oh! It was the night of my redemption.
Of course, for those who are the chosen of God, His grace is with them from the day one, but its realization comes only after one has become born again in His spirit. So finally, after being aware of this truth that I am one of God’s chosen to be saved, I understood that even though His grace has been over me all along, His truth became manifested in me this night when His spirit came to dwell in me and God made me His child through the adoption in Christ. Some may argue this but this is what my heart believes.
Now, I also believe that the main reason I always have been so fascinated by the word ‘grace’ because it was the grace (of God) which was ordained to make my mortality meaningful by leading it to Christ. When God opened my eyes and gave me the sight to see His truth, the humility and meekness poured into my heart and I was able to see the human disability in all matters of God. Surely, one can engage in all kinds of efforts to enrich himself in godly ways but the true understanding of God would never come through any of that.
Man is not built that way that he could approach God at his will. Only through His grace, the soul comes to know who He is. Knowing of Him, and coming close to Him will never happen unless it is in His will. His own brightness, self-sharpness, self-efforts, won’t do any good as they are not designed to seek His truth; and they are not the tools to grasp His reality.
Surely, one can visit a temple or church, or whatever holy place he likes on a daily basis, or even begin to live in there -- but until he receives the grace of God, he remains in the outer courts of His holy abode. But the man of religion does not get it. He cannot see this truth because he is blinded by his religiosity. It is what he is taught by his religion.
With the exception of Christianity, all main stream religions profoundly profess and promote the human striving in reaching the higher reigns of spirituality paving way to the Almighty. Surely, a great concept – but that is only what it is, a concept – as it has no power to become a reality. However, due to man’s ego, his self-righteousness and his confidence in his holy abilities, most of the religious world does not see it that way, and follows what all the human effort based religions emphasizes upon – which is to try hard to become holy through man’s own efforts so that he could position himself better before God by practicing sacred exercises, engaging in great works and doing holy deeds -- which very definitely end up in vanity and totally fails in reconciling his soul with God. But this is what his religion professes to practice and emphasizes upon to strive for, and this is what he invests his life in.
To feed his confidence further in his attitude and belief, when he reads the scriptural texts which tell him that attaining God is within the reach of his holy efforts, his self-assurance becomes very firm. Hindu holy books are filled with such scriptures, which seemingly tell its believer that he can reach God on his own; that he can attain the salvation for his soul (called Moksha) by his own holy toiling.
As an example, let us look at the following verse, which states that if a man performs his actions without desiring their fruits and having no attachment to their outcome, he can attain the liberation for his soul. The egoistic and arrogant spiritual mind thinks that it has the power to become holy and perfect in his action by living an ascetic and austere life and taming his mind to be desire-less in his daily life. These words feed surety in him that he is fully able to reach God and attain liberation on his own. But can he? Can he ever be perfect in his actions?
Therefore, perform your duties without attachment to the fruit of action, for one who performs actions without attachment attains Liberation.
(Holy Gita 3:19)
In his self-righteousness, one fails to realize that the truthful attainment of any such spiritual perfection would never come, because no matter how hard he spiritually tries, he would never be perfectly free from desiring the outcome of his action. His heart will never be absolutely liberated from the grip of desire. His ego, and the sense of ‘I; will never fully allow the abandonment of self-identity and the traces of desire will always remain in him. And as long as will there be the self-centricity, so will there be the material longing. Sadly, many do believe that they can perfect themselves -- especially those who are self-confident, self-assured, and self-righteous.
According to the Hindu philosophy, the yogic discipline that has been proclaimed in the above verse is called, ‘the perfection in action’ (the ‘Karma Yoga’). Similarly, there are several other yogic disciplines that are prescribed by the holy books like Holy Gita, which is considered to be the corner stone of the Hindu Philosophy. Here are some other popular disciplines that I will describe briefly so that we can understand what they are?
The Yoga of Knowledge (Samkhya): Where a soul (Atman) comes to the realization that she is not a physical mortal ‘self’ but an eternal part of the all-pervading transcendental Self called God. This state of self-awareness is called ‘Self-realization’.
Those who have their intellect centered in the Self and who are supremely devoted to the Self destroy all sins by knowledge and attain the state of Liberation whence there is no return (to the world-process of repeated birth and death).
(Holy Gita 5:17)
The Yoga of Wisdom (Jnana/Buddhi): is when one becomes perfect in seeing no difference between opposites like between a friend and a foe, victory or defeat, pleasure or sorrow, and has the same attitude towards in all things and sees all beings with the equality of heart.
Even if you were the greatest of all sinners, you could cross over all sins by adopting the boat of wisdom.
(Holy Gita 4:36)
The Yoga of Renunciation (Sanyasa): where one has renounced the material world and lives a very austere and ascetic life.
O Great-armed Arjuna one who neither hates nor desires must be considered an eternal Sanyasi. Since he does not experience the pair of opposites he becomes free from bondage easily.
(Holy Gita 5:3)
The Yoga of Devotion/Love (Bhakti): Since love is very natural to man, this discipline is most popular among Hindus. In this holy practice a devotee renders himself fully to loving God and spends his entire life in His devotion and dedication.
There are several other yogic disciplines like these that are proclaimed by the Hindu scriptures through which a worshipper of God can attain the oneness with Him -- so called God-realization.
But the question is: Can man ever reach absoluteness in any of these holy approaches -- the Yoga of Action, of Knowledge, of Wisdom, of Renunciation, or of Devotion or of any other type? Can he reach absolute perfection in any of these yogic disciplines? But if the perfection is not reached in his yogic approach and there are flaws in his effort, then the outcome will also be flawed – and he would fail to attain the union with God – which is the main goal of these holy practices?
Since the goal of all these holy disciplines (yoga) is to reach the perfection of the soul, the absolute excellence in the yogic practice is a must. But can man ever do that? Can he ever reach such a state of highest enlightenment where he has become totally perfect practicing any one of these spiritual disciplines? Since God is wholly perfect and holy, He cannot unite with imperfect and unholy and still remain perfect and holy. So, unless man is also wholly perfect and holy, he cannot have union with God.
One thing is quite obvious that in all of these disciplines, seemingly, the human effort in involved. I used the word ‘seemingly’ because an argument is made against it based on the Hindu scriptures like the one stated below. These words from Holy Gita speak of the ultimate truth of the Hindu philosophy. Here is scriptural text in original language, the Sanskrit:
sarva-dharm?n parityajya, m?m ekam? ?aran?am? vraja
aham? tv?m? sarva-p?pebhyo, moks?ayis?y?mi m? ?ucah?.
It is translated as:
Come to me with all of what you are and surrender yourself fully unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sins. Do not have any fear.
(Holy Gita 18:66)
It means a man can attain the eternal safety and security from the trappings of sin if he submits himself fully to God, and consequently be reconciled with Him. This theme has been echoed over and over in Hindu holy books, not only in Holy Gita and Ramayana, but repeatedly in the scared Vedas and the holy Upanishads.
In fact, only few verses before the above quoted verse from the Holy Gita, the following verse echoes the same theme:
O Bharata, take refuge in Him alone with all your being. By the Grace of God you will attain supreme peace and supreme abode
Holy Gita 18:62
The argument is that even though all the spiritual disciplines seem quite different from outside, if one is open and honest in accepting the reality, the truth stated in the verse above summarizes the theme of all other ways spoken by the scriptures -- that to attain salvation, a man needs to surrender himself fully to God regardless of what spiritual discipline he has practiced and perused, and in doing so, he is promised by God the freedom from all sin -- which means he receives from the gift of salvation for his soul from Him.
Many wise men that have acquired a great comprehension of Hinduism and have tremendous knowledge of scriptures hold this view that a soul can attain liberation (Moksha) by surrendering fully to God. In their belief, a man is capable of fully giving himself to God -- a condition he must meet if he ever wishes his soul to reach the salvation and be forgiven of all sins and free from all Karmic consequences.
Now I understand why God always made me include this verse (Holy Gita 18:66) at every place in my books wherever the subject of salvation of the human soul and her liberation from the bondage to sin was being discussed. My argument has been that if man ever desires to be able to reach such an absolute state of existence of surrender, he must be totally free of all of his self-centricity and self-assertions, and be totally void of all self-recognition and self-identification, because if there remains in him even a bit of egocentric sense, his yogic discipline becomes defiled and annulled.
So, if one desires to attain the salvation of the soul, which in Hinduism called Moksha, then that is exactly what he is required to do -- to fulfill the requirement as stated in the verse above, which is, that after abandoning himself fully, he should come into the sanctuary of God with his wholeness, take refuge in His asylum, and surrender himself into His hand with his entirety.
We can argue as much as we want to, but such a state is possible only hypothetically and not practically. I firmly believe that it is beyond man’s doing to completely surrender himself to God. And my belief is just mine and I am not willing to argue with others those who do not agree with me -- that it is impossible for any man to accomplish such a feat on his own. I say it again that man can never reach an existence where he has absolutely (perfectly) surrendered himself to God and qualify for the salvation of his soul. In other words, he does not have the ability to cleanse himself of all sins on his own and has absolutely become perfect to be able to stand before God – which is philosophically speaking -- that he had exhausted all the Karmic dues upon his soul and has been liberated from all shackles of Karma and now is eligible to attain the eternal freedom (Moksha) for his soul.
The Hindu theology is not easy to understand. It truly is highly complicated. But we need to understand the word Karma which is extremely significant, and that is why I brought it up. I promise to not go very deep into it but like to sufficiently talk about it so that we can understand why in Hinduism all the spiritual labor is directed by the thought of Karma?
However, before I talk about Karma, let me touch briefly on something that is quite important here. In Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the soul is the sum of physical quantities -- the mind, will and emotions. But according to the Hindu theology, the soul (Atman) is not a physical identity made up of corporal constituents but an eternal being because it is a (conditioned) part of the all-pervading consciousness, the Transcendental ‘Self’’-- the eternal Supreme Being called God. In fact, even in Buddhism, which is a sister religion to Hinduism, it is not the same since in its viewpoint there is no mention of the Atman (soul) at all. Since, the soul is a part of God, every creature has one -- as it is the soul that illuminates the flesh as being the very life in it.
There is another major difference where the Hinduism (along with Buddhism) differs from Christianity, Judaism and Islam that, under the control of Karma, the soul keeps coming back to this world repeatedly and goes through all kinds of reincarnations wearing various creaturely forms – lower and higher -- until in one of the human incarnations, she somehow gets herself freed from the shackles of Karma by completely exhausting her Karmic dues and gets liberated from the cycle of birth and death to eventually merges with God – which is called ‘Moksha’.
Now, let us understand Karma and Reincarnation, and see how they are bound together so closely? First, I believe we all have a common understanding of what Karma is? We do not need to be a religious scholar for it. Karma is not the consequence of an action, but a counterpart of the action – good and bad -- that is deposited in the account of the soul, which she exhausts in the future (may be in this life or in lives after this) by going through a creaturely life which is suitable to exhaust it – but this happens only after that portion of Karma has reached its maturity just the way a CD (certificate of deposit) matures in a bank deposit. So, Karma is like a burden that the soul carries upon her head from life to life as she goes through all kinds of incarnations where her physical manifestations are governed by the laws of Karma.
Now, let us talk about a human soul, which though is a part of God but since she is in this world, she is separated from Him; otherwise, why would she be here? And the reason of her falling away from God is that she believes in her individuality and considers her own ‘self’ as being a separate identity. This is why, by taking charge of her existence due to her ego, whatever she does, she becomes responsible for it, and thus, she gets tied to her Karma. And since the soul is required to pay her Karmic dues, which can only be paid and exhausted by her living all kinds of creaturely lives (physical manifestation) forced upon her by Karmic rules, she continually keeps going through the cycle of birth and death and endures all kinds of physical incarnations.
There is another Karmic law which applies here. It states that the soul exhausts the pending Karma in all creaturely lives but creates new one only when she is manifested in the human form. It means the soul can affect her Karmic fate only while being manifested as man and not in any other form. This is why the Hindu philosophy keenly insists upon living a good life that not only exhausts the ordained Karma for the current human embodiment but also creates a much better Karma for the future life -- so that in the upcoming Karmic life(s) she could secure better chances to release herself from the fetters of Karma and be liberated from conditioned existence and regain her eternal form enabling her to be united with God.
Yes, I have no problem in accepting that a soul being born as human can do lots of good and earn much better Karma than the one she is currently exhausting by living a human life. But in the real sense, the good Karma is as bad as the bad Karma because it also needs exhaustion which requires further physical incarnations. So, no matter how a man lives his life, he would never be able to wipeout completely the slate of Karma for good. It is not very hard to understand this reality. It is a fact of Hinduism that can very easily be derived by the simple fact that human is extremely prone to sin, and no matter how much consciously and cautiously he lives his day let alone his whole life, it will never be without sin because in the sight of God even a wrong thought holds man as a convict, and before Him, no sin, however little or small, is of lesser magnitude on the scale of immorality as for Him a sin is a sin. That’s it!
Keeping these facts in mind, it is not hard to conclude that regardless of how holy a man lives his life, at the end of it, there is no way his soul can justify herself before God. And if so, in the lieu of Hindu philosophy, she has no chance to be eternally liberated from the shackles of sin and be united with God.
Let me state the same problem again but in the form of philosophical tenet of Buddhism dictating that to reach the liberation from the worldly manifestations – the cycle of repeated birth and death – the chains of reincarnation -- a man has to be fully devoid of desire. To reach Nirvana -- the transcended state of non-suffering and being liberated from the restraints of reincarnation – a man has to be totally free from all cravings and longings.
Every mainstream religion prescribes a particular solution to this common human problem -- of being separated from God – but quite differently -- since they use their own philosophical language. Like the Hinduism professes that to be united with God, the soul of man has to be free from all Karmic debt. The Buddhism teaches that to reach Nirvana, man has to become totally devoid of all desires. The Christianity says that to be reconciled with God, one has to be perfectly holy and be cleansed of all sins.
Only after meeting these conditions, can a man overcome the gulf of separation between him from God; only then he can reconcile the created with the Creator. But noticeable is the fact that all these conditions state the same fundamental truth that to be saved man has to reach some state of ‘Absolute Perfection’ in one form or the other to ever reach the Moksha or Nirvana, or salvation – whatever we like to call it. And when it comes to reaching ‘perfection’, the truth remains that it is ever beyond the reach of man.
We can talk about these hypothetical states of extremely holy human existences, but that does not change their reality.
Ask a true holy man of Hinduism who has lived his life in a highly enlightened state, and he would tell that he yet is not devoid of his ego -- which is the main responsible party in creating new Karma. And as long as there is due Karma to be exhausted, the soul cannot attain salvation.
Similarly, a highly regarded monk living an utterly pure Buddhist life, faithfully abiding by the beliefs of his holy tradition and loyally following the eight-fold path preached by Buddha to reach the Nirvana, in his honest acknowledgement would accept the reality that even after living the most austere life, he is never devoid of all desires. The reason being that, the way God has designed man, the flame of desire keeps burning in him until the end no matter how highly ascetic life he has lived and no matter how much austerity he exercised.
So there is strong argument against this dominant belief that man can – by his own efforts -- attain the liberty for his soul from the bondage to sin and release her from the shackles of Karma and set her eternally free form all desires. But because of the misunderstanding of the holy text caused by the darkness and delusion created by his ego, he believes that he can perfect himself; that he can fully surrender himself to God; that he can fully let go of himself; that he can abide entirely in His refuge. But the religion keeps feeding this idea to man and man in his egoistic ignorance and self-righteous confidence, keeps believing it.
The truth is that is it beyond his doing since man is not built that way. His capacity and capability is finite -- so how can he ever reach the Infinite? He is a physical being -- so how can he ever make it to the One who is Spirit? Those who know, know it that only God can make his mind straight from the crooked thinking that he can find the way of salvation on his own; only through His grace can he come to the realization that only God can save him from the gallows of sin.
And He made that grace available to us through Christ -- “… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” – John 1:17.