Misappropriating the Reformation (2): Sola Gratia
In the first article of this series, I argued that modern American Evangelicalism has misunderstood the teaching of the Reformers that we are saved by faith, not works, and with it the Biblical text that we are not under law but grace.
While it is certainly true that our sins are forgiven by the finished work of Christ, and that this comes to us by faith, repentance and good works must accompany faith if it is genuine.
The root problem is that we do not understand God’s absolute holiness and the full depths of our sin, and as a result we do not appreciate the gift of salvation as we should, nor do we follow through on the call to be holy in all our conduct (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
In other words, saying that we are saved by faith, not works, does not mean that our works aren’t important; they necessarily accompany our faith if it is genuine.
Along with de-emphasizing or misunderstanding holiness and sin, Evangelicals often don’t understand grace. In fact, it is hard to grasp the full significance of grace without an appreciation of holiness and sin.
What is Grace?
The Greek word for grace, charis, refers to gifts from God that we do not deserve. With respect to salvation, it is the “great exchange” whereby our sins are transferred to Christ and his righteousness transferred to us, He dies for us and we die with Him, and His resurrection confers new life onto us. All of this is accomplished within our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Different Christian traditions understand grace (and with it, salvation) in different ways. The Church of the East (i.e. the Nestorian churches that grew up outside of the boundaries of the Roman Empire) and the Eastern Orthodox church see grace and salvation primarily in terms of theosis, that is, achieving likeness to or union with God. This idea is captured by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who said of Christ that “… He was made man so that we might be made God”—not in an absolute sense, but in the sense of becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). This is accomplished by the work of grace in our life plus our own efforts working synergistically with grace through the twin processes of purification and contemplation.
In contrast, starting in the 11th-12th century, the Western world has taken a view of salvation that was focused much more on legal reasoning than mystical experience. In the Latin-speaking world of Western Europe, this was the period when Roman law was being rediscovered, studied, and appropriated in the emerging cities under the leadership of great jurists such as Irnerius.
At the same time, the theologian Anselm of Canterbury was reassessing the doctrine of the atonement. Prior to this, the dominant idea in the West was that Christ’s death paid a ransom to Satan for our souls. Anselm rejected this idea, and instead looked for legal reasoning to explain how Christ’s death procured our salvation. He argued that sin created a debt that needed to be paid to God, one that we are incapable of paying. So Christ, acting as both God and man, becomes the Mediator who reconciles us to God by paying our debt on the Cross. This is known as the satisfaction theory of the atonement, and has been foundational for Western thinking on the work of Christ and on grace ever since.[i]
Western theology thus developed a more rational, legal approach to the question of justification, but without completely abandoning the idea that grace leads to transformation in the believer’s life. The medieval Church believed that through the sacraments we receive grace not merely for the forgiveness of sins but to obtain spiritual power to enable us to do good works and to grow more like Christ. In other words, transformation remains a component of the Western understanding of salvation and grace even if it does not play as central a role as it does in Eastern Christianity.
The major Protestant reformers—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—maintained the satisfaction theory of the atonement as the center of the doctrine of justification, and also continued to see grace as working to transform us to become more and more like Christ. Both of these effects were activated in our life by faith: grace operating through faith both secures our justification and leads to our sanctification, though the Reformers sometimes noted a difference between our passive role in justification and our more active role in doing the “hard work” involved in sanctification.[ii]
The essential point here is that the grace that saves is also the grace that leads to inward transformation and holiness of life. Sola gratia properly understood thus covers the whole of salvation, which includes both justification and sanctification, not justification alone.
Grace, then, to the Reformers was the solution to humanity’s ills. It is the answer to the guilt incurred by our sin and the just judgment that we deserve, and it is the way back to the life we were meant to have in our creation, a life of holiness, love and obedience to God. Grace is the vehicle through which God’s holiness, justice, and wrath against evil are reconciled to his love, compassion, and mercy.
And it comes to us at the terrible price of the sacrifice of His own Son.
Grace in the Modern World
This is why H. Richard Niehbuhr’s indictment of liberal theology in his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, is so damning: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” This approach to theology denies God’s holiness and justice, man’s sin, even Christ’s death for us, and so rejects grace itself in the name of lifting up God’s love.
But is that all that different from American evangelicals today?
How much do we talk about God’s holiness and wrath? How much do we talk about sin and judgment? We do a bit better on the cross, perhaps, but do we discuss just why it was so necessary? Do we talk about how very deadly serious our sins are, so that the only way God could bring us salvation was through the awful, gruesome death of Jesus?
If not, we aren’t teaching the grace of justification: we cannot appreciate just how amazing the forgiveness of our sins is without understanding and appreciating those things.
Even more, do we maintain the reformers’ insistence that grace not only forgives our sins but transforms lives? We may not go as far as Eastern Christianity’s ideas of theosis, but do we talk about personal transformation, holiness, and becoming progressively conformed to the image of Christ as an essential element of grace, if it is in fact at work in our lives?
Instead of teaching this, too many of our churches adopt a model of preaching and teaching built on the “prosperity gospel”, in which God is the means by which I can have the things I want in this life, or on the “therapeutic gospel”, which has God there to help me deal with my personal issues.
Neither is the Gospel Jesus taught, which included warnings to count the cost of following him. Jesus told us we would have trouble and be persecuted, and demanded that we lay down our lives for him. Instead of the Gospel, we too often offer what Dietrich Bonhöffer called “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. …. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Cheap grace isn’t real grace. It isn’t the grace of the Reformers, the historic church, or the Bible. And this “grace” won’t save you because it isn’t the Gospel.
[i] A very similar idea had appeared earlier in Tertullian’s work (c.160-c.225) but did not have much influence on subsequent theologians.
[ii] The major reformers also saw the sacraments as means of grace, again activated by our faith. They disagreed about what this meant and how it worked, but they all recognized the centrality of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the life of the church.