Christ’s Universal Grace

Jan van Eyck

Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans is based on a parallel between the figures of Adam and Jesus Christ. In the Bible, Adam is a symbol of the unity of the human race, a unity that sadly shows itself in the violence, the infidelity, the sinfulness that we find everywhere in human history, and that continue to be widespread today. What the sin of Adam began has been confirmed across the centuries, with the result that the human race needed a new start if this universal evil is to be overcome. And that new start was, of course, effected by the new Adam, Jesus, by his death and resurrection.

These theological reflections help to resolve a dilemma that has long faced us Christians. The dilemma is this: on the one hand we know that only through Jesus Christ can anyone be saved: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”[1] Again we read, “Unless a man be born of water and the Spirit he cannot be saved.”[2] It seems than, that pagans and people before the time of Christ cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Our instinct recoils at this conclusion for it seems unfair; it is unfair to require faith in Christ from people who had not, and could not have even heard of him.

Saint Paul points to a solution when, in today’s reading he sates, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”[3] And as sin has been universal, so the grace that comes from Christ must be equally universal. Theologians, therefore, recognize what they call “anonymous Christians,”  that is, people who draw upon the grace won by Jesus without knowing it. For wherever we find virtue, effective charity, we may be sure that it represents a saving contact with Christ. We Christians are blessed in knowing the true source of our better instincts and actions.

[1] Acts 4.12.

[2] Jn 3.5.

[3] Rom 5.20.