I’ve been brushing up on my history – in particular Christian history. The developments of the early church, and the challenges it faced were incredible. We tend to forget the struggles to get the teachings of Jesus straight. It’s not like they could just Google stuff. Yet, the church held itself together for better or worse. One teaching that tends to get distorted to this day is Augustine’s (354 – 430) teaching on grace. That is, we’re saved by grace alone.
To many Christians today this teaching is obvious – we are saved by grace alone. There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. Paul hammered this point home in his letter to the Galatians. But what does it mean to be “saved” by “grace?” To the non-Christian this all may sound very strange. Many struggle with even recognizing the need for salvation let alone not having to do anything for our salvation. This teaching simply doesn’t fit our worldview. We’re used to working for a reward.
To this end, some take this doctrine of grace as an easy out. Even some Christians quietly think, “God has saved me. I don’t need to do anything.” This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was very powerfully criticizing in his day, calling it, “cheap grace.” Others, however, added something. It’s roots go way back. As the church expanded under Pope Gregory I (540 – 604) it began to wield incredible influence – politically, theological…etc. Gregory was a great leader and administrator, but his theology was weak, according to historian W. Robert Godfrey. The church, under Gregory, began to add requirements to maintaining salvation.
In short, those with a Gregorian view agreed with Augustine that we are saved by grace. But the church began to move toward a grace that needed to be maintained through the sacraments. In other words, yes, saved by grace, but now you have to do work to keep the grace. This mind set is alive and well today.
So is all this history relevant today? Absolutely! The above is exactly why people hate, criticize, and in many cases, want to do away with, the church. Who wants to listen to an arrogant Christian sitting smugly in the doctrine of grace, doing nothing to help social causes? Who wants to watch someone practicing religious rituals because they need to stay in God’s good graces?
What happens when folks see this?
They turn away from Christianity (from Jesus) because all they see is hypocrisy and silly ritual. And they’re right. But none of that is Christianity.
So what is “salvation by grace” supposed to look like? What happens when someone experiences the Gospel (the words, deeds, miracles, prophecies, teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) and begins to let it grow? It’s a very different story than the above. Far from being cheap, we see someone turning away from sin (greed, envy, pride…etc) and following Jesus. They die to themselves. It costs them everything – all their ambitions, desires, hopes and dreams are given to God – just as Jesus modeled – right to his own death. Prayer, study, confession, communion – rather than silly rituals – are the very breathe and life of a Christian.
In dying to ourselves, we find freedom – true freedom in Christ. The “grace” of God transforms us into vibrant, active, powerful workers in the Kingdom of God. Those who are afraid become bold in Christ. Those who are full of pride become humble in Christ. Those who are full of rage, become gentle in Christ. Their work is put in proper perspective. People, family, community become more important. When we experience Christ (i.e., the savior of the world – God incarnate), we are struck with such awe, wonderment, fear, love, joy, and conviction.
When one begins to experience the weight of God – His glory and what it cost Him to save us, there is no cheap grace or silly ritual, only a passionate desire to serve God in everything we do. As Tim Keller notes, “…the Gospel changes you because it electrifies you with the idea of costly grace.” In other words, when we experience the Grace of God, we light up! We start living for the first time in our lives! There’s no arrogance, rather love and compassion. There’s no blindly following rituals, there’s worship, power, and life – all from God’s grace.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson
A short clip from Tim Keller on grace, below…