Grace, Works and Kierkegaard

Now that we have fully embraced Sola Gratia (by grace alone) and have left behind a penitential version of Christianity, we love to hate the term ‘works’. Unsurprisingly, we have various phenomena such as ‘free grace’ and ‘hyper-grace’ that are shaping the theological landscape of the contemporary church, where only ‘grace’ finds a mention within its vocabulary. One may ask how the concept of grace can be overstated given how central it is to Christian faith. After all, isn’t Christianity all about grace?

The error is not in the emphasis on grace in the life of a Christian, but in how today the term is construed to mean something totally different. To many a Christian, ‘grace’ seems to mean a ‘lack of requirement’, which, at the practical level, often translates into a casual approach to Christian formation or a license to define sin in culturally acceptable terms.

“There was a time” (read, before Luther) Kierkegaard writes,

when the Gospel, grace, was changed into a new Law, more rigorous with people than the old Law. Everything had become rather tortured, laborious, and unpleasant, almost as if, despite the angels’ song at the advent of Christianity, there was no joy anymore either in heaven or on earth. Through petty self-torments, they had made God just as petty—in this way it brings its own punishment! . . . . Everything had become works.[1]

As a corrective to a culture of ‘earning’ redemption through atoning penitential works, Kierkegaard thinks, Luther’s Sola gratia was necessary.

The error from which Luther turned was an exaggeration with regard to works. And he was entirely right; he did not make a mistake—a person is justified solely and only by faith. That is the way he talked and taught—and believed. And that this was not taking grace in vain—to that his life witnessed. Splendid![2]

However, 300 years since Luther, Kierkegaard fears the world of Christianity has swung like a pendulum to the other extreme—the exaggeration with regard to grace. “The world”, writes Kierkegaard, “is like a drunken peasant, who, if you help him up on one side of the horse, falls off on the other side.” He laments that unlike Luther, the Danish church had lost “the conception of the unconditioned requirement.”

The moral reasoning of Kierkegaard’s times is echoed by contemporary Christians. So we ask, “of what use is the biblical requirement, since no one, after all, fulfills it?” It has become “the impractical, a foolishness, a ridiculousness, so that they, mutinously or conceitedly, reverse the relation, seek the fault in the requirement and themselves become the claimants who demand that the requirement be changed.”[3] In short, we have changed the goal post and redrawn the rules of the game, morphed Christianity to look like secular humanism; we have abandoned the transcendent and have turned Christianity into an immanent human project.

Correlation between Grace and Guilt

Characteristic to today’s culture of autonomy and individualistic thinking, we define the ‘requirement’ of God according to our likes, tastes, and orientations. When self-interests conflict with the scriptural teaching, we either pretend indeterminacy of scriptural meaning (this, of course, is easier if you have a PhD!) or claim authority by virtue of our prodigious genius– (after all, unlike Paul, we belong to the 21st century!)– that supersedes the apostolic authority. But Kierkegaard clarifies, “The genius is what he is by himself . . . . (but) an apostle is a one who is called and appointed by God and sent by him on a mission.”

But we contend, ‘Aha. What does Paul know? Besides, Christ spoke nothing directly on the matter, so let us embrace it! After all, grace should make it easier for us. So let us lower the bar. Let us make the requirement into something that everyone can achieve. Only let us be true to ourselves– our feelings, our orientations, and our commitment to self-actualization.’ Alas! Christianity here is morphed to converge with the secular culture that they are hardly distinguishable.

This “secular mentality”, Kierkegaard argues, “wants to have the name of being Christian but wants to become Christian as cheaply as possible.”[4] Grace takes away our guilt, yes! but it cannot be a mechanism that tricks us into believing that we aren’t guilty. Where there is no guilt, there is no (need for) grace. By abolishing sin, the secular culture simultaneously abolishes grace. For grace can only be appropriated reflexively in proportion to our guilt.

One may worry that the recognition of such severe inadequacy might drive one to abandon faith. Not so! Not, unless one is too proud to receive grace. It would nonetheless lead one to a point of self-abandonment and it must. For Kierkegaard, the recognition of our inadequacy should lead us not to abandon faith, but rather towards the abandonment of pride and towards humility to receive grace. Because of their lack of sense of inadequacy, the Pharisees did not exude the same gratitude as the woman who broke her alabaster jar [see Luke 7]. For she loved much as her many sins were forgiven; whereas, the Pharisees who recognized no sin received no forgiveness.

Christ the Redeemer and Christ the Prototype

Kierkegaard recognizes the tension where on the one hand, “there is an inclination either to want to be meritorious when it comes to works” and on the other, where we “want to be free from works as far as possible.”[5] But how does Kierkegaard think of grace and works as compatible and not as antithetical? For Kierkegaard, there are two senses in which “works” can be understood: 1) as earning our salvation and 2) as training in faith. As a Lutheran, Kierkegaard rejected the first but affirmed the second. In fact, one of his books was entitled Practice (training) in Christianity.

A clue to Kierkegaard’s holding the two in tension may be understood from the two images of Christ that persistently appear in his writings: Christ the redeemer and Christ the prototype. He writes, “we continually call to mind . . . that Jesus Christ, is not only the prototype but is also the Redeemer.”[6] They represent two ends of the polarity that are pivotal to faith and practice.

The image of Christ the Redeemer accentuates grace that is freely given to everyone who believes. The antidote to the condition “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)” is “but they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24).” Whereas, the image of Christ the Prototype accentuates mimesis (imitation). “There is really only one true way to be a Christian—to be a disciple.”

The urge to redefine doctrine or morality to fit secular visions was as real during Kierkegaard’s time as it is now. However, without pronouncing a self-righteous line of separation between “true” and “false” followers of Christ—a task he leaves to God—he nevertheless, tenaciously urges Christians to think as to how they can be better followers of Christ, without impoverishing themselves with a diminished notion of grace.

Grace is more than just a ticket to heaven. It is training us to be Christlike. So, Paul writes to Titus,

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (2:11–14).

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, For Self Examination, Edited and Translated by Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 15. Henceforth FSE.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Judge For Yourself, Edited and Translated by Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 193. Henceforth JFY.

[3] JFY, 156–7.

[4] FSE, 16.

[5] FSE, 16.

[6] JFY, 159.

[7] JFY, 207–208.


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