A few years ago, many churches celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. The cornerstone of the Reformation was the rediscovery of the truth justification by faith alone, that is, we are made right with God solely through faith, by the grace of God. We are not accounted righteous through our own efforts, but only through God’s grace – and we accept this gift through faith. This is a wonderful truth. However, I have begun to wonder whether it’s a truth which is as universally accepted among today’s evangelicals as it should be. In a nutshell, do evangelicals believe in grace like our reformation forebears did?
I worry that many evangelicals today are distorting grace in a similar fashion to the way the Catholics distorted grace at the time of the Reformation. To think about it we’ll first need to take a brief look back at the Reformation.
Grace at the time of the reformation (in brief!)
The protestant Reformers – men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin – found that the Bible taught something different to the faith as they had been taught by the Catholic church of the day. In particular, they discovered that justification – being made right with God – was something that God accomplished by his grace alone, which we receive by faith alone. In other words, we are not made right with God because we do enough good deeds – we never could. Rather, we are made right with God because we have faith.
A classic passage on faith is Ephesians 2:1-10, which contains the words: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So we are saved by grace alone – not by good deeds. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary”.
Unfortunately, the Catholic church of the day could not be persuaded to see this. In the Council of Trent, they decided that human beings co-operate with God in salvation. Although salvation is still (in a sense) ‘by grace’, it’s not how the Reformers understood it.
The Reformers understood that we human beings are bound in sin. One of Luther’s most famous works is called The Bondage of the Will, where he defends himself against Erasmus’ views of Free Will. His argument (along with the Reformers) was that we are so totally bound in sin that we cannot do anything by ourselves. We need God’s grace in everything. We cannot even do a good deed by ourselves!
The Catholic view was quite different. This infographic from The Gospel Coalition helps to explain the medieval view of salvation. Essentially, it says that – although everyone is born in a state of sin, through baptism that is washed away. Every time someone sinned they had to confess to a priest, who would give them penance, which (when completed) would lead them back into a state of grace.
The key thing from that page is this point: “this system was believed by Catholics to be grace-bound, in that it starts with grace. The role of the Christian, again, is to maintain the grace bestowed at baptism through a cycle of confession and penance.” So although the Catholics believed in grace, they believed in it differently to the Reformers. You could summarise by saying we attained salvation by grace, but we maintained it by works: a very different understanding to the Reformers.
Ultimately the Reformers were either kicked out or left the Catholic church, and so new churches and denominations were born – founded on justification by faith alone. It was that important. However, I think the spiritual descendants of those Reformers may be in danger of making a similar mistake with grace today.
In a nutshell, I think the gospel that we preach is often closer to the medieval view of salvation than we would care to admit.
What evidence do I have that evangelical churches distort grace in this way? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can talk about my own experience. I grew up in evangelical churches, and I was taught the Bible and the gospel from a young age. The gospel I was taught, which I imagine is a pretty common experience, was something like this: we are all sinners. We all do wrong things. When we sin, we need to say sorry to God, and he will forgive us, and we can be friends again.
As I grew, I came to understand more and was able to nuance this understanding, but this was my basic understanding of the gospel. Where God’s grace came in was that I knew nothing I did earned his love – and that he forgave me despite the fact that I didn’t deserve it. I knew that I couldn’t do enough good deeds. What I don’t think I realised at the time was how incapable I was of actually doing good deeds to start with.
Let’s just pause there for a moment: how different was my view of salvation to the medieval view of salvation? There are, of course, some differences – I didn’t include confession or penance. But I think the basic cycle was there:
Start from neutral → sin → repentance → forgiveness → back to neutral
What I really didn’t understand (until I studied justification at theological college!) was that sin is not simply a matter of starting from neutral and then doing wrong things: sin includes not doing the right things. God wants us to love others – not simply to avoid doing wrong things but proactively to do good. Once I’d grasped that simple truth, all of a sudden I realised that we all sin far more in the ways we don’t love God and love others than in the things we actually do wrong.
All of a sudden, how sinful I was suddenly opened up! I wasn’t someone who was neutral but often sinned (that was bad enough!) – but I was someone who could never even do a good deed. Everything I did was tainted by sin – I could never love perfectly enough, however good the things I did were.
All of a sudden, the Book of Common Prayer confession made sense:
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us
These words suddenly had a new meaning to me. and I realised just why Cranmer had written those words and why the Reformers had made such a big thing about ‘faith alone’. Truly I had no health in me, absolutely nothing which God could look at and count as a worthy of salvation. Although in one sense I knew that before, I think the scope of it became much bigger.
Is this a common evangelical problem?
That was my own experience – but is it fair to tar all evangelicals with that particular brush? Well I wouldn’t like to tar everyone! But I think the problem is common enough. I wrote about this a little in my previous post about conservative evangelical subculture, where I said:
One of the ways I think evangelical churches (including, and perhaps especially, conservative evangelical churches) subtly distort the gospel is by portraying the Christian life like this: it’s all about avoiding sin.
It’s a bit like one of those car-racing video games – every time you see a pothole or an obstacle coming, you have to move so you don’t hit it. I think we often unconsciously visualise the Christian life in this way: we live our lives day-to-day, trying our hardest to avoid sinning, and asking God for forgiveness when we fail and the help not to sin again. I call this view ‘almost the gospel’ – it’s so close, and yet not quite there. You could probably live your whole Christian life with this view, and in fact I think many people do.
Think about it: how often in sermons do you hear sin presented as something that we do which we need to repent of? And how often do you hear it presented as something which we fail to do which we should? How often do you hear the call to love, rather than the call to avoid doing what is sinful? Thinking about it, I think very often in my life sermons have focussed on the call to avoid sin rather than the call to love. Of course we need to hear the call to avoid sin, but we also need the corresponding call to love!
I think this is one reason why many evangelicals are much happier now to work with Catholics than they used to be. Alpha – one of the best-known courses among evangelical churches – has a whole section on its website devoted to using the course in a Catholic context. Now I don’t wish to ‘be mean to the Catholics’ – things are not the same as they were 500 years ago! However, the Council of Trent is still affirmed by Vatican II and their Catechism. Dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics has not come to an agreement. (For more on this, see Mike Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters). Is the fact that many evangelicals are so willing and ready to work with Catholics indicative of the fact that they share a common understanding of grace?
Why grace is so important
Let’s close with why this is an issue of fundamental importance. The Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 1:8-9:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
Paul was talking about the gospel of works / good deeds as against the gospel of grace. Judaizers had come among the church in Galatia, saying that they should not only believe in Jesus but also obey the Law of Moses – including being circumcised. Paul is emphatic: no – it’s either Jesus or nothing. It’s either grace or nothing. He even calls down God’s curse on those who preach this different gospel (which is where the word ‘anathema’ comes from).
Why is grace so important? Over the last few weeks I preached through the book of Titus in our Wednesday service. Titus is a wonderful book which focusses on God’s grace. In the final sermon on Titus 3, I compared religion with grace. (You can watch the sermon on YouTube).
The essential point is that grace leads to a very different kind of life than religion. Grace leads to us loving others, whereas religion leads to selfishness. Two Christians who have different understandings of grace might look superficially similar, but ultimately they will lead to very different destinations. Grace is not simply a technicality, it is the engine room of the Christian life. Grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12).
If we have a shallow view of sin and grace, then our lives as Christians will be shallow. On the other hand, a deeper understanding of grace will mean a deeper understanding of ourselves, our sin, God’s mercy, and we will have deeper hearts of love in response. We cannot afford to lose the insights that our Reformation forebears brought to light.
So my question for the evangelical church is: do we really understand grace? Have we grasped it in its fullness? And will we teach it in its fullness?
Carl Trueman’s book on Grace Alone was written as part of a 500 year Reformation anniversary series. It really is a fantastic book about grace and I can recommend reading it if you’d like to study more about what the reformers taught about grace.