The Habits of Grace
Striving for good habits is not an affront to salvation by grace alone, in fact, it is the very consequence of living out the new reality of grace. The new reality and destiny of creation is grace. Grace is the new way of being for the world since, in Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself and makes all things new through the work of His Son. To say that the new reality is grace is to say that Christ has died for the sins of the whole world and relates to the world as one from that world, the New Adam, giving propitiation to God through the sacrifice of his own self for his people. God becomes man, forever enfleshed, so that God can offer up to God the payment necessary to bridge the eternal distancing of God from His beloved. In defeating sin, the God-Man stands in our place, paying our ransom, not as an outsider but as an insider. Only because He is an outsider can he afford the costly fee insiders could never afford no matter how hard they work.
This new reality, then, is ushered in by God whereby the creation groans not only in its present suffering but in the growing pains of renewal as God's Kingdom, Spirit, and Church advance God's plan of love and reconciliation. What this means for you and me is not just that God Himself is now Father and friend but also that creation itself is caught up and participating in the new reality of grace. All things are graced because of God’s work. A work that culminated in Golgotha and the empty tomb, but which was started before the creation of the world and continues into the present-future through the work of the Church and empowered by Spirit and Word.
If the world is graced as such, then sin itself, and our sinful condition, would also participate in this new reality. We see this newness already in our change of status. Clothed in Christ’s righteousness (alien righteousness) we stand before God with all the benefits of God’s own Son so that no moral distinction can be made between Him and us, the consequence of such being that we stand before the Judge of All as blameless lambs. But this status is one of “already but not yet.” For as we know from the simul we are simultaneously sinner and saint, dirty and clean. In the eyes of God, for Christ’s sake, clean, in the eyes of neighbor, filthy tyrants. But this is a graced reality, a way of being, for the sinners are counted as saints.
If we are somewhat familiar with this blessed reality of grace for us, then we are primed to discover how deeply this reality can go. We can see this when we think about habits. Habits are practices that create tendencies or patterns. They can be good or bad. They are often difficult to break. If the world was not graced, we would always be ruled by bad habits since sinners cannot produce any works apart from Christ that satisfy God. Augustine noticed that original sin went far deeper than the consequence of death. Its living damage was to affect our wills. Sinners are drawn towards the bad and the selfish, he said, and that attraction necessarily meant the development of bad habits. These bad desires and practices get lodged in our memory, imprinting themselves upon us. They cause us to despair because we cannot do the things we want or ought. Augustine recognized, we might say, that poisoned wells cannot produce fresh water. Such is the constitution of sinners that they are, as Augustine famously says, “not able not to sin.”
If we are so deeply attracted to things God prohibits, so much so that we even find it difficult to agree with God’s law about how terrible our sin really is, then much of our lives would be about learning to pursue our own desires. I use “learning” in the sense of discovery and imprinting: The more we pursue our urges, the more we discover satisfaction in them, and the more we imprint upon ourselves and our memories the gratification of getting our own way. This way of life is anti-communal and turns my neighbor into nothing more than means to my own selfish ends. Most of our habits are bad habits, skills in indulgence, self-soothing or self-absorbed satisfaction.
If this is the case, what good is a graced world if it does not change the fact that my bad habits make life worse for my neighbor? If God’s grace has changed the structure of reality to one that is graced, then how does that new reality change my participation in sin’s destructive ends? Lost in our sin, we cannot desire the ultimate Good who is God. Sinners hate God because God comes to sinners with his Law that condemns them. But the God of Law is also the God of grace in Jesus Christ. Christ comes not as Judge but Savior. The new reality of grace means that we can freely desire the Good, both God Himself, and the good of our neighbors.
Grace has so changed the nature of our wills so that sinners wish not to be sinners, repent of their sin and are ashamed of their trespasses. This is radical because such a wish is a wish for death, the undoing of who we really are, as sinners. But grace works life into that death so that the dead live and are born again. Only the promise of new life can give sinners the faith to die. Grace also means that those same sinners can rest from their works righteousness, celebrate God’s salvation and boast in Christ. They are free and renewed.
A new graced reality means that sinners desire the Good not for their own selfish ends but because they have been remade. So St. Paul can reflect this new reality in the change of habits:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you (1 Cor. 6:9-11a).
Here we see the drunkard is sober and the adulterer faithful and the thief reformed. This is not to say these people never sinned in these ways again. But their habits, and desires for such habits, have changed as grace freed them to love Jesus and their sinful hearts had more to love then just their own ends That is a graced reality. And it is good news. For as we change our habits we reflect the grace of God in Jesus Christ into the world. We begin to serve our neighbors selflessly because we develop new practices that birth from new love. This is just one way that the deep, deep grace of God appears for a world caught up in its new way of being. The Christian who strives and struggles to change their bad habits because their vision of God in Christ has given them new hope does a great thing. He loves Christ enough, and his neighbor enough, to chase after that good, even if, he remains at war with himself and his sin.