Chapter 4: The Triumph of Grace

Reinhold Niebuhr
by Bob E. Patterson

Chapter 4: The Triumph of Grace

If Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin is the best known but most misunderstood of his teachings, then his doctrine of grace is the least known and least appreciated of his teachings. His doctrine of grace — God’s power over man and in man — is practically an unrecognized element in his theology. Since the doctrine of sin is the only element known by some of his critics, a common conclusion is that Niebuhr was too pessimistic about human nature, that he saw only man’s sin, and that he offered no proximate or ultimate hope. Conventional wisdom says that Niebuhr photographed the problem of evil and displayed the photograph in the public art gallery, that he made his strongest appeal to the pessimists, and that his faith in sin left him devoid of a program of redemption. Don’t believe these rumors; they are misleading. He was vastly more hopeful than many of his critics realize.

A smaller group of more sympathetic critics recognize that Niebuhr had a doctrine of grace, but they feel that it was less than adequate. Some of them say that his doctrine was practically extinguished by his pessimism, that Niebuhr was more a John the Baptist than a St. John. Some defend him by saying that he was not a prophet of gloom, and that he had a healthy doctrine of redemption. But these Niebuhr sympathizers have contented themselves with mentioning his doctrine of grace without demonstrating it. A third group says that Niebuhr’s doctrine of grace is wholly eschatological and not immediately redemptive. In general, then, his doctrine of grace has been denied, distorted, or neglected by his critics, both friendly and unfriendly.

For such treatment Niebuhr was partly to blame, and these misunderstandings have just enough truth in them to be taken seriously. There are several reasons for this continuing skeptical attitude. (1) The early writings of Niebuhr were far more concerned with an analysis of man’s sins than they were about God’s grace. His early concern was to shatter the idols of man’s self-esteem. The "growth in grace" in his books came later, finding systematic treatment in volume 2 of his Gifford Lectures. But his treatment of sin in volume 1 was lauded and criticized so extravagantly that it overshadowed the second volume when it appeared two years later. (2) Niebuhr so insistently warned that even the life of grace is prone to corruption that his readers gained the impression that grace is inevitably corrupted by self-righteousness. His terminology easily gave the impression that the grace of Christ can win no victories in history. He said that sin is overcome "in principle" but not "in fact." The apparent implication was that grace is of little aid to man’s struggles Niebuhr did not so limit the Cross, and he eventually repudiated this confusing terminology as inadequate to "describe the real sanctification that takes place in conversion when the soul turns from itself to God."1 (3) A third cause for skepticism about Niebuhr’s doctrine of grace was the failure to read Niebuhr’s occasional writings. His magazine articles are certainly not as important as his books, but his books made up only a portion of his writings. In over a thousand occasional writings he applied his doctrine of grace to concrete issues, and here it can be seen that his theology did not result in moral paralysis.

Niebuhr’s doctrine of grace was as central and essential to his theology as his doctrine of sin or any other doctrine. Niebuhr had a great deal to say about man’s condition in sin; but he also spoke with assurance about God’s answer to man’s sin. To be sure, Niebuhr set his doctrine of grace against a dark background of original sin. He said that the "Christian doctrine of grace stands in juxtaposition to the Christian doctrine of original sin and has meaning only if the latter is an accurate description of the actual facts of human experience."2 He painted a dark picture of man’s sin in order to show his need for grace. He said it "is from the diagnosis of impotence that the doctrine of grace achieves its significance; for grace is the answer to the human problem. Grace is consistently both power and pardon."3 He felt that liberal Christians and secularists had disregarded the Christian experience of grace because of their ignorance about sin.

Niebuhr affirmed that the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace was the only cure for original sin. He said we "assert as Christians that the message of Christ is a source of grace and truth to all men either in, their individual dimensions or in the social dimension of their existence."4 The major problems of living cannot be solved without salvation by grace. Further, the "facts of history and these Scriptural injunctions must warn us that it is the business of the Christian church to bear witness . . . to the grace of Christ which saves all who truly repent of their sins."5

In one sense, then, Niebuhr’s appraisal of the human situation was negative. But there was a divine grace greater than either man’s sin or righteousness to which he ultimately turned. An educated optimism shines out in his later writings. He can be considered to hold a balance of pessimism and optimism, retaining the values of each and avoiding the errors he saw in both.


God’s grace as Truth and Power come in Christ. Niebuhr’s analysis of man’s sinful condition showed that the self is unable to know the truth with its reason and unable to obey the truth in its will. To relieve the self’s reason and will from this involvement in sin God’s grace provides two essential elements: truth as a norm and power to fulfill the norm. In Christ the Truth (Son of God and second Adam — Incarnation-Atonement and sacrificial love) God’s grace has provided the self’s norm. In Christ the Power of God (Justification, Sanctification, and eschatological grace) God’s grace gives strength to fulfill the self’s life.

Niebuhr did not give a systematic elaboration of his ideas on Christology. By his own admission, however, Christology became the center of his thought.

"The situation is that I have come gradually to realize that it is possible to look at the human situation without illusion and without despair only from the standpoint of the Christ-revelation. It has come to be more and more the ultimate truth. . .. I have come to know with Pascal that only in "simplicity of the Gospel" is it possible to measure the full "dignity" and "misery" of man. Thus the Christological center of my thought has become more explicit and more important. But . . I have never pretended to be a theologian, and so I have elaborated the Christological theme only in the context of inquiries about human nature and human history."6

In a first reading of Niebuhr’s works it is not obvious that Christology is the leitmotif of his theology; but when his works are read with this admitted key, they show an intrinsic unity. Although he was late in emphasizing Christology, he once remarked that his theology was nothing more than an analysis of the truth about "Christ for us" in its significance for man.7

Christology has to do with the person and work of Christ. The Incarnation (God’s assumption of human nature and flesh) and Atonement (the meaning of the death of Jesus) are the two traditional doctrines for expressing this faith. Orthodox Christianity has customarily moved from an account of Christ’s person (fully divine, fully human) to his work (revealer of the Father and reconciler to the Father). Niebuhr’s early emphasis was upon the transforming power of Christ in the individual and society ("Christ in us"), but his later emphasis shifted to the transcendent reality and truth of Christ ("Christ for us"). His early works showed a liberalism in an unblushing form. This early concern, though liberal, was about the relation of the transforming power of the Cross to the world. The direction of Niebuhr’s analysis, like that of the Protestant Reformers, was to show the benefits of Christ. "It is not too much to say that Niebuhr’s concern for the relevance of the Christian faith is a twentieth century version of the Reformers’ insistence upon ‘the benefits of Christ’ as the point of departure for a vital and meaningful Christian faith,"8 Paul Lehmann states. The Reformation moved from the benefits of Christ to his promises, from what Christ does to us to what he is for us. Niebuhr followed this tradition.

Niebuhr eventually came to the place in his Christology where he emphasized equally well the truth of the Christian faith and the relevance of this truth to the human situation. The transcendent Christ and the empowering Christ were linked together. The problem came to be how to show that the Cross expressed the transcendent reality of Christ and his transforming power in human nature. This was the central concern of The Nature and Destiny of Man and Faith and History. The first answer to the sinful human situation was God’s grace expressed in Christ as the Truth (Son of God and second Adam).


In the previous chapter we saw that Niebuhr asserted that the self is inevitably involved in evil, both in its reason and its will. The self’s reason becomes sinful when it absolutizes a partial perspective. The self in its moments of self-transcendence perverts its limited truths into false absolutes.

The self’s will becomes sinful when it confirms the partial perspective of the reason. The concrete action of the human will is invariably sinful. The result is a false truth or norm about which the reason and the will agree. This involves a twofold consequence: the sinful self (1) does not know the truth with its reason and (2) cannot act to obey the truth in its will. According to Niebuhr, God’s grace must provide two essential elements in its answer: (1) man must again be provided with the truth as a norm; (2) his will must be freed and provided with the power to obey the truth. Man needs both the truth and the power to fulfill the truth.

In Christ the sinful self finds a truth and norm that transcends its partial perspectives. The will aspect of the human predicament is answered by God’s grace in Christ as the power of God (to be treated in the next section of this chapter). This power overcomes man’s perverted and impotent will. God’s grace in Christ as Truth and Power is inseparable. Niebuhr said that Truth and Power can be separated for the sake of analysis, but they confront the believer in Christ at the same chronological moment. For the sake of analysis, Niebuhr first discussed Christ as Truth. (His two favorite expressions for the norm in Christ were Wisdom and Truth, but for consistency only the expression Christ as Truth will be used in this section.)

The first aspect of the disclosure of Christ the Truth was treated by Niebuhr under the heading of the "Son of God." By that expression Niebuhr meant the Incarnation and the Atonement. The Incarnation clarifies God’s relationship to history; the Atonement shows that God has resources of mercy beyond his judgment. "Son of God" is the orthodox way of saying that the Incarnation has really taken place. The Incarnation becomes meaningful, said Niebuhr, when it is understood in relation to the Atonement. The Incarnation is the presupposition of the Atonement, and the Atonement is the distinctive content of the Incarnation. (The second aspect of Christ the Truth was treated by Niebuhr under the heading of "the second Adam" — a disclosure of sacrificial love as the perfect form for human nature.)

The initial step in man’s redemption from sin is the recovery of Christ as the Truth. This is a matter of an adequate apprehension of the revelation of Christ. Niebuhr intimately conjoined an analysis of the human situation with revelation to arrive at his doctrine of man. Revelation, according to Niebuhr, was both general (personal-individual) and special (biblical). Each type of revelation is dependent upon the other. Biblical revelation culminates in the Christ who reveals the essential nature of man. This is the Incarnation, the distinctive content of which is the act of Atonement. Hebrew Prophetism and Messianism, unlike nonhistorical religions and cultures, form the preparatory background for the Christ and set the stage for man’s restoration.

The Hebrew anticipation of a Messiah laid the foundation for hope of an Incarnation, a Christ. To the Hebrews, history was potentially meaningful because the disclosure of a Christ was expected. The Hebrews expected a Christ because they considered it both possible (history is more than nature-necessity) and necessary (history is fragmentary). A Christ is expected only when man becomes personally aware that he has problems that he cannot solve. Man looks for a Christ only after he understands the full height of his freedom and his full involvement in sin. When man does not know his sin he has no need of God. Niebuhr said that the "sinner who justifies himself does not know God as judge and does not need God as Savior."9 An awareness of sin is a first step in the expectation of a Christ; thus Niebuhr felt justified in emphasizing sin first. Divine mercy cannot be experienced until the seriousness of sin is fully known. Only the despair that results from a knowledge that sin causes suffering to God can appropriate divine forgiveness.

To be appreciated a Christ must be expected. Christ was a "stumbling block" to the Jews because he was not the type of Christ they expected, but he was not "foolishness" as he was to the Greeks.10 The true Christ can never be the expected Messiah because Messianic expectations always contain the egoistic elements of a local culture.

Niebuhr said that the Old Testament prophets finally concluded that God is related to history only in judgment. On the other hand, the Messianic expectations of the Old Testament realized that man did not fulfill God’s will, yet they did not accept the prophetic conclusion. Messianism felt that the ideal could be realized in as well as beyond history. It expected God’s will to be disclosed and fulfilled at some point in history. Niebuhr said that Jesus made the prophetic problem the basis of his reinterpretation of Jewish Messianism. Jesus took over the prophetic insight that Israel was sinful; he converted it into the insight that only he who acknowledges his sin is without sin. Niebuhr said that in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment, Jesus shows that the distinction between good and evil is not destroyed; yet in the final judgment, there are no righteous in contrast to God. This raised the further problem of how God both condemns man’s moral efforts and yet, in his mercy, recognizes and completes them. This, said Niebuhr, is answered in Jesus’ conception of the suffering Messiah, the heart of the Atonement.

The "suffering Messiah" shows God’s mercy toward man’s incomplete moral efforts as well as his justice in condemning them. He clarifies the answer to the prophetic problem in a resource of mercy beyond his judgment which becomes effective as he takes the consequences of his judgment into himself. The central truth embodied in the doctrine of the Atonement is that the justice and mercy of God are one. Niebuhr’s chief concern in volume 2 of his Gifford Lectures was with the truth and relevance of this doctrine.

The Atonement, by relating justice and mercy, wrath and forgiveness, is a double-dimensional event. The mercy dimension of the Atonement shows God redeeming and completing the ethical fragmentariness of man. This contradiction remains in history, while it is resolved on the divine level. Faith brings a unity into this paradox. Niebuhr said that when man in an attitude of contrition and faith appropriates the divine mercy, the human situation is both understood and overcome. God’s power becomes available to man to complete his incompleteness and purge him of his vain efforts at self-completion. When Christ the Truth comes into history he completes incomplete knowledge, clarifies obscurities of history, and corrects man’s self-centered interpretation of human existence. In this sense he is a contradiction to human culture, but true wisdom to the man of faith. To the man of faith the revelation of Truth will also become a revelation of Power.

Niebuhr said that the Christian faith accepts the expected Messiah who was rejected by the Jews. St. Paul summarizes the significance the Christian community attributed to Christ by calling him the Power and Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23-24). St. John calls him the Grace and Truth of God (John 1:17). Niebuhr, borrowing this biblical terminology to express the categories of his own Christology, said that Christ the Truth has fully disclosed God’s will and purpose for life and history. Christ as Power is God’s dynamic authority revealed in such a way that there can be no question of any other power being able to overcome it. Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s grace.

According to Niebuhr, then, the Christian faith asserts that the crucified Christ is both Truth and Power. The true norm of life has been revealed along with the power to complete and fulfill it. Power can be mediated to the individual if the truth of the Atonement is appropriated inwardly by faith. Thus "the alternate moods of despair and false hope are overcome and the individual is actually freed to live a life of serenity and creativity."11

According to Niebuhr, man is unable to rise above his partial perspectives to grasp the true standards of God, to find his true norm. This condition is answered by the revelation of Christ as the Truth of God. The other facet of the human predicament is that the will of man inevitably corrupts itself in competing interests. The answer to this problem is found in the revelation of Christ as the Power of God.

Before the subject of Christ as Power is considered the second aspect of Christ the Truth (second Adam) must be evaluated. Christ as the second Adam discloses the content of God’s grace as Truth that sets man his true norm in history, just as the "Son of God" expresses that the Incarnation and Atonement have taken place.

The point of contact between man and God is love. Man evil but he knows how to love. The essence of both human nature and God’s nature is love. The significance of Christ as the second Adam is the revelation of the true character of both the human and the divine nature. Christ is the norm for human conduct, and its end. Christ has demonstrated the full meaning of what it means to be a man; therefore, he is fully the second Adam, the standard by which God will finally judge man at the end of history. Because of man’s freedom, he has some idea of the perfect love of Christ as the norm, though he has never attained it in his own life. Christ, as normative man, belongs to both natural and revealed religion.

As the Son of God, Jesus reveals the divine love that resolves the predicament of history. As the second Adam, he forms the pattern of human perfection. The one love has a divine counterpart, the other a human counterpart. Sacrificial love is the love of the Cross, the perfect love. The Cross is a symbol of man’s perfection; and this, rather than a traditional doctrine such as the virgin birth, answered the problem of the sinlessness of Christ for Niebuhr.

It is the conviction of the Christian faith that the agape of Christ is the disclosure of the divine love. Christ is also the disclosure of perfect human love, an "impossible possibility" for man. The love of Christ sets the principles for the Christian interpretation of history. This can be seen when love of the second Adam is related to the first Adam, to mutual love, and to the end of history. Niebuhr analyzed man’s highest possibilities by showing the relation of the second Adam to the first Adam (man’s ultimate and original perfection), mutual love (the possibilities and limits of history), and the end of history (how the historical character of the perfection of history is preserved against attempts to surrender history to eternity in interpreting its fulfillment).

Christ, the perfect norm of human character, reestablishes the virtue which Adam had before the Fall. The perfection before the Fall cannot be understood except as it is found in the perfection of Christ. Once this is understood, it is also seen that Christ exceeds as well as reestablishes the primitive perfection.12

Mutual love is the first level below sacrificial love. This love makes social existence possible. This is a lesser form of love because it is tainted with self-interest. Mutual love, because of this self-interest, always remains partly a contradiction of sacrificial love. The sacrificial love of Christ transcends mutual love in a threefold way. Sacrificial love completes the incompleteness of mutual love, clarifies and defines the ethical possibilities of history, and represents a perfection which contradicts the false pretensions of virtue in history.13

The principle of justice is immediately below the principle of mutual love. The principle of justice gives support to the individual’s obligation to mutual love. This is a threefold relation. Principles of justice show that the individual is obligated to give mutual love in his immediate obligations to his neighbor on the personal level, in complicated social interrelations, and in the wider community.

The doctrine of the second Adam, said Niebuhr, refutes the mystics who seek perfection by a final incorporation into eternity. The tendency of the mystics is to make gnosis (knowledge) rather than agape the final form.

The God whom Christians worship reveals his majesty and holiness not in eternal disinterestedness but in suffering love. And the moral perfection, which the New Testament regards as normative, transcends history not as thought transcends action but as suffering love transcends mutual love. It is an act rather than a thought which sets the Christ above history, and being an act, it is more indubitably in history than a mere thought.14

Sacrificial love is ethically normative for the Christian life. Man’s highest norm is not a flight from historical vitalities, but a harmony of love which relates itself to others and to God. Although sacrificial love transcends the realities of history (since it is grounded in the character of God), it is nevertheless validated in history where concern for others is manifest. Thus Niebuhr attempted to make the norm of Christ relevant both to man s contemporary situation and his situation at the end of history.


Niebuhr said that "grace as Power" was the solution to the second aspect of man’s sinful situation. Man’s will must be freed and provided with the power to obey the truth and live up to the norm expressed in Christ. Man must have God’s grace as Power to fulfill his life. It is self-evident that sinful man needs an outside source of power to begin to measure up to his true norm, else he will surrender to despair. Man must be assured of help to sustain interest in this effort.

God’s grace is an adequate answer. Christ is the Power as well as the Truth of God. When man confesses his need and helplessness to God, grace as Power is made available for him. God begins by being man’s judge, but ends by providing a moral undergirding that empowers history. The self is shattered and forgiven when it confronts Christ as Truth. But at the same time God’s grace as Power is imparted to the believer to renew his life and overcome his sin.

Niebuhr differentiated between two facets of grace as Power. The Power of God over man is justifying grace that completes what man cannot complete and imputes to him righteousness and forgiveness. The Power of God in man is sanctifying grace that provides resources to enable man to become what he truly ought to be. Justification supplies man with a new nature, clears him from God’s judgment, and releases him to a life of holiness. Sanctification (synonymous with the gift of the Holy Spirit) empowers the new man with the grace to reach levels of agape that would be impossible under his own power.15

Niebuhr said that this analysis of the Power of grace as pardoning and empowering will not convince modern man of its relevance to his situation. Modern man is bent on increasing the power and range of his mind against the narrower impulses of his body. To establish the relevance of the doctrine of grace as Power, Niebuhr applied it to the facts of human experience. In order to show the full implications of the Power of grace as mercy towards (Justification) and power in (Sanctification) man, Niebuhr used the device of an existential explication of Galatians 2:20.

"I am crucified with Christ." Niebuhr used this phrase to describe the initial work of grace that shatters the sinful self into despair and repentance (conversion). This phrase must be taken poetically (and Niebuhr’s explication was poetic) because it does not literally mean the destruction of the self. Niebuhr said that Paul’s first assertion is that the self which is centered in itself must be "crucified," shattered, and destroyed. This is necessary because of the human situation, already described by Niebuhr in terms of the doctrine of original sin.16

"Nevertheless I live." Justification, the assurance of divine mercy and forgiveness, is the immediate consequence of conversion. It is an inner feeling that the ego which has been shattered is now cleansed and forgiven. The Christ who is apprehended by faith imputes his righteousness to the penitent self. The self feels a consequent release and sense of peace. God accepts the self’s intention to live by the norm of agape as the act itself. The possession of righteousness is a possession by faith, not by one’s own merit. The sense of peace comes, not because one deserves it, but because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the person. Nor is man constituted perfect through this infused righteousness. The sinful nature remains, although the self feels at peace with God. This reconstructed self is a consequence of the invasion of the Holy Spirit from without.17

"Yet not I; but Christ lives in me." Justification releases the self to an active working out of its own salvation, for it is God who works both to will and to do. The new self is not complete with justification. Sanctification is God’s empowering of the new self for the performance of agape — an existential moment on the level of moral experience. On this level also the self’s identity is preserved and its new life is dependent upon a divine source of power, a "power not its own." But this new life of the self is, in a sense, not fully complete. This gives a double meaning to the life of the new self on this last level of regeneration.

Niebuhr said that there is an ambiguity about the relation of the self to Christ which can be expressed in terms of the previously mentioned grace as Power over man and Power in man. The "yet not I" is a confession of the converted self that its new life is the result of a divinely infused power. The "yet not I" is also a confession of the converted self that the new self is not an accomplished reality; "that in every historic concretion there is an element of sinful self-realization, or premature completion of the self with itself at the centre; that, therefore, the new self is the Christ of intention rather than an actual achievement."18

Niebuhr maintained that the new life, a product of the grace of God, is a reality; but the new life is never a fully accomplished reality. It is fully accomplished in intention rather than in achievement. Grace does not completely remove the contradiction between man and God. Sanctification is not a thing completed immediately after conversion.

Whenever the sinful self faces up to its self-love in an attitude of repentance and faith, the consequent experience of release from self creates a concomitant sense of gratitude. The self recognizes that its rebirth is a miracle that it could not have accomplished in its own power. This recognition of the otherness of divine determinism and human responsibility raises the problem of the delicate balance between divine determinism and human responsibility. Niebuhr both asserted and denied the sovereignty of grace. Grace is prior to man’s will; but man’s cooperation. is needed for grace to be effective.

Niebuhr interpreted God’s electing grace and man’s free will as an existential relation. He said that the relation cannot be subjected to a precise logical analysis. Free will as a force working independently of grace is true on one level of experience, while God’s grace as the exclusive source of human redemption is true on another level. Man’s freedom to respond to the good is valid on the level of the sinful self. Grace as the power of God to elect man is valid on the level of faith where the self transcends itself. Niebuhr again broke the rules of formal logic to stress an aspect of the self’s experience.

Although Niebuhr had reservations about complete sanctification, he gave ample indication that the converted man lives an altogether different quality of life. The traits of the new self are repentant humility (admissions of the self that it falls short of the norm of Christ), faith that God’s good will triumph over evils in history, and the characteristic fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, and peace.

Niebuhr’s explication of Galatians 2:20 assumed that God’s grace as Power for man’s life has a double connotation; the first suggests that the new life has been achieved through grace as a power not our own, while the second suggests that the new life is not yet an achieved fact. This second connotation, a qualification of sanctifying grace, Niebuhr said, is also supported by the thought of St. Paul when his thought is considered as a whole. Furthermore, Niebuhr believed that experience validates the second meaning as well as the first.

It is difficult to express these two aspects of grace as Power without unduly emphasizing one side at the expense of the other. Niebuhr maintained, however, that these two sides of grace do not contradict but support one another. Niebuhr’s conclusion was that the facts of experience indicate that grace as justification (forgiveness) and grace as sanctification (enduement with power) are both true. On one level the self experiences renewal and on another level the self remains guilty. This was designated by Niebuhr as "the paradox of grace."


Niebuhr relied on St. Paul to arrive at his concept of grace as Power in and over man (the central dogma of the Christian faith). He believed that Paul’s interpretation of grace as justification and sanctification were "closely related to Jesus’ insistence that the righteous are not righteous before the divine judgment; and to his conception of the suffering Messiah as a revelation of the justice and mercy of God."19 At the same time Niebuhr arrived at his "paradox of grace" by an analysis of its various interpretations through Christian history. He said that Christians have repeatedly resisted the paradox and have sought new ways of vindicating men who have become righteous through Christ. As Niebuhr described it, the favorite strategy of avoiding the paradox is to claim the achievement of perfection (which in turn becomes a source of human arrogance).

Niebuhr evaluated the traditions that accept the concept of grace as Power. He judged these traditions on the basis of their retention (or lack of retention) of the delicate, balance between grace as sanctification and as justification. They become a foil for his own interpretation because he found that each destroyed the paradox. Niebuhr felt that an appreciation of the paradox of grace can be gained after seeing the easy way it is broken by those who make professions of agape. From an examination of these misinterpretations he drew a synthesis that he felt did justice to the paradox.

Niebuhr said that in the Roman Catholic tradition grace as justification (grace over man). is increasingly subordinated to grace as sanctification (grace in man). This is due to the Roman interpretation of sin "as the privation of an original perfection, rather than as a positive corruption."20 Grace ceases to be a justifying power and becomes an addition to human nature. Augustine emphasized justification, but he did not fully recognize the "persistent power of self-love in the new life." Later traditions abandoned Augustine’s restrictions and identified the Church with the Kingdom of God, which culminated in the distortion of papal infallibility. According to Niebuhr, Rome cannot solve the problem of sin because it will not admit its own proud pretensions.

Niebuhr said that the Roman Church broke the paradox of grace by raising a human institution to an unchallenged position above judgment. The significance of the Protestant Reformation was that it challenged this "curious compound of human self-confidence and gospel humility." The free self cannot honestly deceive itself that it has attained perfect sanctification. This made a challenge inevitable. The Reformation understood (1) that life must be completed by a power that is not our own, (2) that human pride insinuates itself on every level of sainthood, and (3) that freedom can bring either good or evil or both.

The medieval synthesis of humility and self-confidence was challenged by the Renaissance. For Niebuhr the Renaissance was the impulse towards the fulfillment of life in history and included numerous movements from the fourteenth century to the present. The Renaissance combined the classic trust in reason with the Catholic line of perfectionism. The extension of the powers of the human mind became the supposed key to the overcoming of human problems. Grace as a requisite for fulfilling life was dispensed with. Sanctificationist in principle, it brushed aside the idea of justification. The Renaissance went even further, and dismissed the whole idea of grace.

The Renaissance disregarded grace in its concept of the fulfillment of life, and it assumed that all progress meant the advancement of good. The end of history contained only fulfillment. The most grievous error of the Renaissance, according to Niebuhr, was its too-simple conception of historical progress. It was right in conceiving history dynamically; but it conceived the dynamic aspects of history too simply. It did not recognize that history is filled with endless possibilities of both good and evil.

Niebuhr grouped sectarian Protestantism with the Renaissance because it shared the Renaissance emphasis upon grace as Power in man, the impulse toward the completion of life. Niebuhr said that the sects did not understand the limits of personal sanctification. Unlike the Renaissance, however, the sects defined grace in man in Christian terms. The sects emphasized sanctification at the expense of justification. This grace could be immediately acquired, and it was accompanied by a specific change in one’s manner of life.

There were two impulses in sectarianism: "(a) the impulse towards the perfection of individual life expressed in the pietistic sects and (b) the impulse towards the fulfillment of history expressed particularly in the Anabaptist and socially radical sects."21 The perfectionist groups (pietistic-mystical) identified the "inner light" with the immanent Christ and exempted the "light" from judgment. The eschatological sects suffered from the coming Kingdom (Anabaptist) or fought for it (Cromwellians), but anticipated it in history.

According to Niebuhr, the Reformation rediscovered the biblical-prophetic insight that sin persists in life and history. The Reformation was the place where "that side of the gospel, which negates and contradicts historical achievements, became more fully known."22 The Reformation was most fully aware of the persistence of sin in the life of the saints. The final completion of life was found in the divine mercy. Only after history had shown the error of simpler interpretation was this side of the gospel fully known. This rediscovered "justification by faith" was frequently given a one-sided emphasis because of the polemical nature of the Reformation. The Reformation looked for a completion of life from a power that was not man s own. It denied the implication of the Catholic theory of grace that life can be brought to a full degree of completion. It interpreted grace primarily as the forgiveness of God toward man rather than power in man. The Reformation most fully comprehended what the Renaissance neglected, the tragic aspect of history. The Reformation, on the other hand, failed to understand the cultural potentialities of grace.

Niebuhr concluded that neither the insights of Luther nor Calvin were able to do justice to the paradox of grace or the problems of the human predicament. Calvinism, like Roman Catholicism, stressed sanctification to the point that certain facts of history were beyond judgment and forgiveness. Lutheranism canceled out the urgency of sanctification by giving the experience of justification the principal place in grace. Niebuhr concluded that while "the Lutheran side of the Reformation always walks on the edge of the precipice of superamoralism, not to say antinomianism, the Calvinistic Reformation is imperiled by the opposite danger of a new moralism and legalism."23

Niebuhr said that the spiritual life of recent centuries has been determined by the interaction between the Renaissance and the Reformation approaches to existence. They generated two contrasting types of spirituality, and that "contrast may well be defined in terms of the ‘sanctification’ and ‘justification’ aspects of the Christian doctrine of grace," he said.24 The Reformation was overbalanced by a defeatism and cultural obscurantism, and the Renaissance by an unwarranted optimism.

Niebuhr proposed a new synthesis that fitted together the two contrasting discoveries of the Renaissance and the Reformation and corrected the one-sided blindness of both. He stated that this attempt at synthesis was a central problem of his theology. Niebuhr felt that if he could bring about this synthesis he could produce a philosophy which would "reach farther into the heights and depths of life than the medieval synthesis; and would yet be immune to the alternate moods of pessimism and optimism, of cynicism and of sentimentality to which modern culture is now so prone."25 Further, he wished to reopen this debate in order to make the Atonement achieve and retain cultural relevance.

Niebuhr said that history has shown a triumph of the Renaissance emphasis over the Reformation emphasis. Luther’s defeatism and Calvin’s obscurantism contributed to this defeat. The general atmosphere of historic optimism of the past centuries seemed to refute the truth of the Reformation and validate what was both true and false in the Renaissance. Consequently the Reformation emphasis was neglected.

The realization of concomitant good and evil in history has given the justification aspect of grace a new relevance. Whenever human goodness and wisdom acknowledge their limits, justification begins to make sense out of life. The hopeful periods of history would seem to make the gospel of grace as justification irrelevant. Periods of disillusionment. make known the vanity of such hopefulness. Niebuhr claimed that we are now in such a period of disillusionment.

Niebuhr said that the time is ripe for a new synthesis of the twofold aspects of grace as Power in the light of the Renaissance and Reformation interpretations. According to Niebuhr, the Renaissance must make its contribution to this new synthesis by stressing diligence in the pursuit of proximate answers and solutions. The Renaissance claim that man is a creature with an unlimited potential is an essential truth about life and history. But a simple trust in human power alone is disastrous. To this must be added the Reformation insight that the fulfillment of life and human perfection are impossibilities of human nature. History can realize only degrees of self-fulfillment. The chief contribution of the Reformation to this new synthesis, then, is its insistence that life is never fulfilled in history either by grace or by the capacities of human nature.

Thus Niebuhr looked upon his theology as a synthesis of justification and sanctification, but a more adequate synthesis than that of medieval Catholicism. Using this double aspect of grace, Niebuhr contended that history is meaningful but depends upon God for its fulfillment.

Niebuhr maintained that the Christian doctrine of the Atonement is the final key to this interpretation. The Atonement, paradoxically relating the divine mercy and wrath, symbolizes the seriousness of history. The significant distinction between good and evil in history is preserved. He said that the "realization of the good must be taken seriously; it is the wheat, separated from the tares, which is gathered into my barn, which is to say that the good within the finite flux has significance beyond that flux."26 On the other hand, God’s mercy points to the corruption of evil in every historic achievement. This divine mercy destroys evil by taking evil into itself.

The Atonement is not a thing anticipated by human wisdom; but once the truth of the Atonement is accepted by faith, it symbolizes all that man can and cannot do. There is no limit to sanctification, Niebuhr wrote, "except of course the one limit, that there will be some corruption, as well as deficiency, of virtue and truth on the new level of achievement." 27


The full completion of man’s life awaits a divine action beyond history. Only God can complete man’s moral struggle and fulfill his fragmentary existence. History, then, is an interim between the disclosure of its true norm in Christ and the perfect fulfillment of its meaning. And, Niebuhr said, this "interim is characterized by positive corruptions, as well as by partial realizations and approximations of the meaning’ of life." 28 Final sanctification must lie beyond history. History remains under the paradox of grace of Power, fulfilling, and not fulfilling, the true norm of man until the end of history. Beyond history the contradiction is overcome by the mercy of God. This promise of final grace is, so to say, an eschatological gift.

Faith points to an end where all corruptions are overcome. Niebuhr said that symbolically "this is expressed in the New Testament in the hope that the suffering Messiah will ‘come again’ with ‘power and great glory.’ Men shall ‘see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.’" 29 The New Testament eschatological symbols speak of this end as telos. Pointing to the ultimate from the standpoint of the conditioned, these symbols give an answer of assurance to counteract the threat and peril of meaninglessness. The Niebuhr reader is left with some doubt, however, as to just what kind of reality is designated by Niebuhr’s "eschatological symbol."

Niebuhr said that these eschatological symbols are to be taken seriously but not literally. He said this is so because these symbols have a double character. They are meaningful for history, but they transcend history as spirit transcends nature. They cannot be reduced to a point in history. They are meaningful in that (1) they keep the ethical problems of history clearly defined, and (2) they indicate the nature of the perfection of history for which grace as Truth established the norm and grace as Power anticipates fulfillment in experience. When these symbols are taken literally they confuse the mind of the church, distort the relation between time and eternity, and reduce God’s ultimate vindication over history to a point in history; for Niebuhr, one such falsification is expressed in the hope of a millennial age. But to take history seriously is to take these symbols seriously.

Niebuhr said that the eschatological grace beyond man (telos) forms a transhistorical counterpoint to the paradox of grace in history. Yet eschatological grace does not annul the tensions of grace as Power over and in man. Eschatological grace both conforms to and fulfills grace as Power in history. He said that the New Testament "last things" are described in the fundamental symbols of the return of Christ, the last judgment, and the resurrection from the dead. Tracing these three interrelations will give an indication of Niebuhr’s view of grace as a final fulfillment of the human condition.

Niebuhr said that the eschatological symbol of the return of Christ guarantees the victory that so often mocks faith. The first coming of Christ defined the true norm of history. This norm cannot ultimately be denied, or life would be meaningless. The faith in the return of the suffering Messiah as triumphant judge and redeemer indicates the confidence that this true norm will be achieved. Niebuhr noted:

The two most basic ideas in this hope of the "parousia" are that the redemption of the world does not require the destruction of creation since creation is not itself evil, and secondly that redemption must come from God since every human action remains with the contradictions of sin.30

Sin makes the triumph of love in history impossible; love remains suffering love. Through faith, however, the Christian apprehends that beyond history love is triumphant. The return of Christ vindicates God’s sovereignty and the final supremacy of love.

This final redemption of history is also the culmination of history. Not only does it refute the utopian idea of a simple fulfillment of history, it also refutes the otherworldliness that believes history is robbed of its final meaning in the consummation. The judgment and the resurrection, other aspects of eschatological grace, are subordinate to the return of the triumphant Christ since they are part of the vindication of God in the second coming.

The ethical struggles and contradictions of history are clarified and given meaning at the last judgment. Man is finally judged by the norm of true manhood. According to Niebuhr’s account, there are three important facets to the symbol of the last judgment. The first is the idea that Christ, the true norm of history, is the final judge of history. Man will be judged for his self-love on the basis of the norm

Christ’s sacrificial love — by the ideal possibility, and not the contrast between the finite and the eternal character of God.31 Second, the symbol emphasizes the seriousness of good and evil in history and the gravity of historical decisions. God does not erase the distinction between good and evil in history because of the moral ambiguity of all human actions. Niebuhr used the parable of the wheat and the tares to show that good and evil cannot always be distinguished in history. The final judgment makes a provisional distinction between the degrees of righteousness and unrighteousness among men, but the final judgment then exposes the deep-rooted ambiguity of these provisional distinctions. The righteous know that their self-interest has taken away any final pretension to righteousness. Thirdly, Niebuhr said that the last judgment is at the end of history, showing the double character of all historical striving. No process of growth in history can emancipate man from his sin and free him from judgment. When man confronts God as judge it is sin, not death, which is the real peril.

Niebuhr felt that many modern Christians discredited the idea of a final judgment because of the alleged fires of hell associated with it. Niebuhr said that it was unwise "to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell; or to be too certain about any details of the Kingdom of God in which history is consummated. But it is prudent to accept the testimony of the heart, which affirms’ the fear of judgment."32

All man’s efforts to redeem and sanctify life are declared meaningful by the resurrection. What man does in history is significant for eternity. The resurrection preserves and transfigures these efforts into a final harmony. Niebuhr said that the resurrection (as an eschatological symbol) points to the harmonious culmination of the tension between spiritual freedom and the nature-finitude dimension of human life. The resurrection of the body indicates the ultimate harmony of spirit and nature; it sublimates rather than annuls the historical process. The doctrine of the resurrection affirms that man cannot consummate history. It denies the hope that human nature is capable and worthy of survival beyond death. The Christian faith conceives of resurrection as a loving fellowship with a God who has the power to bring history to completion.

For Niebuhr, then, the symbols of eschatology express the faith that God’s final act is to perfectly justify and sanctify history; God’s final word to history is the perfect fulfillment of grace. The telos finally destroys the defiance that has marched through history along with the good. The "Antichrist" will appear at the end of history, and the final victory of Christ will therefore come not in history but at the end of history.



1. Niebuhr, "Reply," p. 437.

2. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2: 108.

3. Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America, p. 105.

4. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Literalism, Individualism, and Billy Graham," in Essays in Applied Christianity, ed. D. B. Robertson, Living Age Books (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), p. 129.

5. Niebuhr, "Our Dependence is on God," in Essays in Applied Christianity, p. 335.

6. Niebuhr, "Reply," p. 439.

7. Paul Lehmann, "The Christology of Reinhold Niebuhr," in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, p. 253.

8. Ibid., p. 264.

9. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1: 200.

10. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2: 37.

11. Ibid., p. 58.

12. Ibid., p. 77.

13. Ibid., pp. 85-89.

14. Ibid., p. 92.

15. Ibid., p. 99.

16. Ibid., pp. 108-109.

17. Ibid., pp. 110-14.

18. Ibid., p. 114.

19. Ibid., p. 127.

20. Ibid., p. 143.

21. Ibid., pp. 169-70.

22. Ibid., p. 148.

23. Ibid., p. 198.

24. Ibid., p. 153.

25. Ibid., p. 156.

26. Ibid., pp. 211-12.

27. Ibid., p. 156.

28. Ibid., p. 213.

29.Ibid., p. 288.

30. Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, p. 188.

31. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2: 291-92.

32. Ibid., p. 294.