Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life
Grace is one of the central concepts of Christianity. It has also been one of the most contentious issues since the beginning of the faith. What is “grace”? How does it work? Where does it come from? And who is it for? Gregory S. Neal’s book ambitiously sets out to explain this, and does it so very well.
After a brief personal introductory chapter on the general idea of grace, Neal differentiates between the “stages” of grace: prevenient grace, available to everyone and, without which, we would not even think of turning to God; justifying grace, or contrition, the call to repent our sins; and sanctifying grace, the continuous process through which we are perfected and made holy. Neal explains the sacraments, “instrumental means of grace,” and the difference between sacrament and ordinance in various denominations. Baptism, for example, is considered by Reformed Protestants (Baptists, Presbyterians, and Evangelicals) to be an ordinance, a symbolic outward expression that the believer makes to show solidarity with other believers. For Roman Catholics and Catholic-Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Episcopalians) Baptism is a sacrament, it does something to us, rather than being done by us. Neal tackles the divisive topic of infant baptism and provides both scriptural and historical evidence in support of it. Similarly, Neal regards Holy Communion as a sacrament, rather than as a “memorial representation.” He also distinguishes between sacraments and sacramental, which can be thought of as secondary sacraments after the principal sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
More than being a book about an abstract theological concept, Neal’s book clearly and succinctly explains the differences (often quite minute) between Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and others of the myriad Christian denominations on subjects, such as the means of grace, the sacraments, baptism, Holy Communion, and the place of Scripture. Though Neal is Methodist, and doesn’t hide it, he explains clearly and generously where and why certain denominations differ. This is a valuable read for the new believer or those seeking a deeper theological understanding of the means of grace between denominations. Each chapter begins with a poem composed by Neal himself and concludes with informal “questions for reflection,” making
this book a valuable teaching tool.