God’s grace from beginning to end

July 16, 2012

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

In my sermon on Noah a couple of Sundays ago, I concluded the sermon, as I usually do, with a word about God’s grace. I wanted to make the point—already made beautifully well by John Goldingay in his Genesis for Everyone commentary—that God’s choice of Noah to carry forward the human project after the flood was a powerful example of God’s grace. Noah “found favor” (i.e., received God’s grace) and this finding of favor is always undeserved. The nature of grace didn’t change between the Old and New Testaments.

In the sermon, I said the following:

God’s love and grace aren’t conditional, based on your good behavior. God’s love and grace just are… a free gift, offered without condition or price.

I thought this was uncontroversial, at least in the Protestant waters in which I swim. I borrowed the phrase, “offered without condition or price,” from United Methodist baptism liturgy, which (without bothering to look it up) is probably also in the liturgies of other Christian traditions.

My friend Tom, a Southern Baptist, very helpfully challenged my assertion about God’s grace and love. I mean this sincerely: I simply take for granted my understanding of God’s grace and love. Tom forced me to think through its implications when he wrote the following:

With respect to “grace is free, not earned,” what I would say is that grace is God’s willingness to accept less than perfection to receive a relationship with him (since Jesus “paid the difference”). I am not sure I can go so far as to say, “grace is free.” We have no claim to have God’s love or relationship extended to us, but that does not mean God requires nothing from us to receive that. In the first instance, we have to have faith to be saved. And James says that faith without works is dead. Also, we have to repent. Neither of these “merits” God’s favor, but they are still indispensable to receiving it. We cannot be saved by “works” because that would require perfection. But we cannot be saved without faith and repentance either, and those are not “nothing.” God’s grace is “freely given,” without compulsion to do so, but it, like (or as a manifestation of) love, is still conditional.

If I’m reading Tom right, he’s saying, among other things, that faith and repentance are prerequisites for receiving God’s justifying grace. They are two necessary conditions by which we are saved. As he says, faith and repentance are “not nothing” (I love that phrase!). Therefore, we can’t assert God’s unconditional love or grace.

Hmm

Do my fellow Wesleyan Christians see the challenge of these words, or is it just me? I completely agree with Tom that faith and repentance are not nothing. But—here’s where our Wesleyan Arminian theology comes closest to TULIP-loving Calvinism—they are not something that we do. 

Saving faith isn’t something that we muster on our own. It’s a gift from God made possible by Christ’s own faithfulness, including his atoning death on the cross. We can’t believe sincerely enough to be saved. We can’t believe correctly enough to be saved. Likewise, we can never repent earnestly or thoroughly enough to be saved.

And I’m sure that Tom and like-minded Baptists would agree: It’s not that we can accomplish saving faith and repentance completely on our own, but we can accomplish them in part on our own. We must, in fact, meet God at least part of the way in order to receive justifying grace. Faith and repentance are, in some small measure, something we do, after which God does the rest by grace.

If I’m representing Tom’s viewpoint fairly, I’m not sure how this isn’t at least semi-Pelagian. I don’t mean this as pejoratively as it sounds. Pelagianism is a heresy, but it is the best heresy, in my opinion. Even Augustine himself—old an infirm and not at the top of his game at the time—struggled to bat it down.

According to one of my seminary professors, most Christians are practically Pelagian. This professor was a Catholic who complained that nearly every sermon his priest preached was Pelagian! He meant that the sermons usually placed the emphasis on what we must do to earn God’s favor. This is the heart of Pelagianism. It says, not that we can save ourselves, but that we make the first move of faith by our own initiative, and God takes it from there. Contrary to the “T” of TULIP, we are not so “totally depraved” that God must first reach out to us by grace (what we Wesleyans call prevenient grace) in order for us to receive justifying grace.

We Wesleyans, including even my particular tribe of “open-hearted, open-minded” United Methodists, believe that human beings, left to their own devices, are totally depraved. (Granted, that doesn’t sound as appealing in a marketing slogan.) Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us to our own devices. No human life in this world is lived apart from God’s grace. God’s grace lifts us up so that we are able to make a meaningful choice to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation through Christ. We can’t receive justifying grace and experience new birth (the two things that simultaneously happen to us when we become Christians) apart from God’s grace—which is to say, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.

Practically speaking, if we believe that saving faith and repentance are, at least in part, something that we do on our own, how are we not like Martin Luther in 1517 all over again? What I mean is this: Contrary to Protestant myth, the medieval Catholic Church didn’t teach that we could earn our salvation through good works. But it did teach—or at least this was the message that came through loud and clear to one young German Augustinian monk—that the way in which we could be assured of our salvation was by “doing our best” to live out the Christian life. Do your best, the medieval church taught, and you don’t have to worry about going to hell. “Doing your best” was an advance sign of your future salvation.

Luther, who likely struggled—as we’d say today—with low self-esteem, would have none of it. He knew himself to be a terrible sinner. How could he ever trust that he was “doing his best”? No matter how hard he tried to do his best, he was painfully aware that he could do better.

And so it is, I fear, with people who believe that saving faith and repentance are, to some extent, meritorious works that we accomplish. How do we not hear that accusing voice in the back of our heads calling into question the purity or sincerity of our faith? How do we convince ourselves that we have sufficiently repented? Just do your best to believe, and you’ll be fine, the voice tells us. Just do your best to repent, and you’ll be fine.

No. I just can’t go along with it. I don’t trust myself enough. I’m a hopeless sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” It’s not that I do nothing in this process of salvation. But everything I do—everything—is merely a response to what God has already done for me.

In other words, it’s grace from first to last, from beginning to end. And it’s free, free, free! Thank you, Jesus! I don’t know how else to say it.

5 Responses to “God’s grace from beginning to end”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, thanks for thinking of me as thought-provoking! I certainly see the strength in your argument. I should clarify my own argument just a trifle. I recognize that God “moves first.” He moved first to create us. He moved first to die for us. He moved and moves first to call us. The question is, at some point do WE have to move in return, and is our salvation dependent, to THAT degree, upon our movement. Not that God does not act first, but we have to respond, and it takes both God’s action and then ours to “consummate” the “marriage,” if you will. Actually, I like that analogy. Traditionally, the man courts the woman. He does the proposing. He acts first, and without his actions there will be no marriage. But the lady then has to say, “Yes,” or there will still be no marriage. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man will open the door, I will come in and share a meal with him, and he with me.”

    Faith and repentance are how we say, “Yes,” to God’s love offer. There are a lot of references to faith in this light. Jesus repeatedly said, “Go your way–your faith has saved you [or accomplished the request].” Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.”

    Well, as you indicate, how much is “enough”? Do I have to go around agonizing whether I have “sufficient” faith to be saved? Have I repented of enough sin? Whether it is hard to do, or even hard to know whether you have done it, does not mean that is not the rule. Paul (yes, Paul) says to “test yourselves, whether you be in the faith.” James says that “faith without works is dead.” Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14. Jesus tells people to count the cost. He says that unless we are willing to deny everything, yes, even ourselves also, we cannot be his disciples. He told the rich young ruler that he lacked one thing to do. We have to, under my formulation, make a “My life for your life” exchange with God.

    However, all is not lost. Paul says in Romans 8:16 that “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Also, clearly perfection is not required, for John tells us that if anyone says he does not sin, he is a liar and the truth is not in him. But I think it is possible to know that you have “turned around” and are headed in the right direction, however much you may stumble heading up the “narrow road.”

  2. Connie Rappa Says:

    Thank you, God, for your grace.
    Thank you Brent for your wisdom.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, just a note that I will be out of town and away from my computer on vacation until July 25th, just in case you make any reply or have new posts on these issues (which I will certainly read upon my return!). Hope you are having a great summer!


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