Grace and Faith, Law and Works
It started last week when, in an email exchange with a reader, I touched on the difference between doing works to earn God’s favor and doing works because you have God’s favor. That same week I was thinking about “faith and works” quite a bit and feeling disappointed in a few things written on the subject in the Christian blogosphere. (I tried to flesh out some of my criticism in that 30 Theses thingamajig.) Then, Sunday morning, my wife and I talked with a friend who has experienced some pretty heavy religious moralism in her church background after our small group meeting, and we discussed “works” and legalism. Then Monday evening I was hanging out at BCC’s twentysomethings Bible study, and as we were talking about grace and forgiveness (in relation to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well), someone mentioned how Jesus often included admonitions to “stop sinning” in these encounters, a fact often overlooked. Then, a friend commented on my theses from last week, asking me to further explain #27, which talks about salvation by grace and works religion. The capper was Pastor Bill West’s message on Romans 6 at last night’s FOCUS service.
So after all that, I’m thinking, “Hmmm. Maybe I should say something more direct about this stuff.”
Romans 6 is a wonderful place to get some meat on this specific subject – the relation of The Law and Works to Grace and Faith. Re-read it, if you don’t mind. What I’m gonna write below draws largely from what Paul says in that chapter.
So here are a few things I think important about faith and works and grace and forgiveness and obedience, etc.:
We all agree you cannot earn your salvation, right? I mean, that’s sort of one of the fundamental doctrines we Protestant types got from the Reformation. The official nerdspeak is sola fide, which means “faith alone.” The Bible says, and therefore the Reformers said, that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone in Christ alone (sola Christus). (By the way, there are five solas, and if you’re interested, you can read more about them here.)
So if we all believe you can’t earn your salvation, that it is a free gift of God given by grace and received through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (rather than the person and work of ourselves), than why do we so easily fall into this practical mixup of works and obedience and all that?
Well, I guess there’s an odd comfort in that this stuff is nothing new. Paul addresses it right there in Romans 6, and there are basically two errors Christians tend to fall into, represented by two extremes in response to belief in the Gospel. These extremes were problems even in the early church are highlighted in Romans 6:1-2 and Romans 6:15, the two “Hell no!” passages Bill referred to last night.
The first error (6:1-2) is the extreme called license. This view takes the perfectly correct assumption that as Christians our sins past, present, and future are forgiven by God and further assumes that it then doesn’t matter if we sin. In fact, there were at Paul’s time, and there are some in our time now, who sin freely and wantonly, in essence making their “coming to the Lord” some sort of “Get out of obedience free” card. But the thrust of sola fide is not that Christians are not commanded to do good works or to obey the Law, but that we do not have to do those things to “get saved.”
The truth is, before salvation, we could not do those things anyway. It’s not just that works aren’t the designated path to getting saved, it’s that it is impossible to please God with works before you’re saved anyway.
The other error (6:15) is the extreme usually referred to in academic circles as antinomianism. Antinomianism is just a fancy word that basically means “against the law.” This is the view that because we are saved by grace under the new covenant in Jesus Christ, the Law has been rendered obsolete, defunct, worthless, unnecessary, etc. Remember, though, that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
This gets tricky, because obviously if you look back at the fullness of the Law in the OT, there are all kinds of restrictions most of us consider non-binding today. Eaten any shellfish lately? How about pork? Worn any clothes that have blended threads? Touched your wife while she was having her “lady’s deal”? Mowed your yard on the Sabbath day?
Bible scholars tend to differentiate in these cases between cultural and ceremonial aspects of the Law as applied to the nation and people of Israel, and what’s called the moral law. I tend to believe that in the new covenant, as Jesus replaces Israel as the focus of the community of the kingdom of God, the cultural and ceremonial markers are deleted, if you will – fulfilled in him. This is why we no longer, for instance, make animal sacrifices in the temple, even though they were prescribed by Jewish law. Because Jesus was the final and fulfilling sacrifice, and because the Holy Spirit is present in every believer now, not located in a building (“Your body is the temple . . .”). Also, throughout the New Testament, you specifically find these ceremonial and cultural laws explicitly declared “over.” We’re told that all food is clean now. We’re told that one doesn’t have to conform to Jewish ceremonies and rituals to be a Christian. We learn that obeying God is no longer about culture or ceremony, because the Gospel is for both the Jew and the Greek and the vessel of the salvation community is the Church universal, not the nation of Israel.
But the moral law – you know, the ten commandments and the direct applications thereof – are still in effect. They are still binding. Now, as then, the moral law does not save. But they are still what saved people do. Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, the letter of James in the NT will really drive you bonkers. Martin Luther called James “a right strawy epistle,” and if the human sparkplug of the Protestant Reformation wanted to chunk James’ letter, no wonder we rubes have such trouble with it today. But if you doubt the importance of works to the life of faith, re-read James today. Wear a helmet.
Paul says in Romans that the Law condemns, that it does not have the power to save. The mistake we often make, then, is to believe that the Law is bad. But the Law is good. It is God saying “This is the standard of holiness.” Now, he knows we can’t meet it perfectly, and he knows we can’t do any of it on our own power. So the expectation is not that we will get ourselves saved or earn God’s favor through following the Law. The expectation is that once God saves us and once we have received his favor, we will want to obey his good Law out of gratitude and willingness. Obedience, then, is not merely an obligation, some dry religious duty we mope through so Jesus will put a gold star on our homework. Obedience is an act of worship. Obeying God’s law is not how you get saved; obeying God’s law is what saved people do.
Following the Law will not get you free. But once Jesus sets you free, suddenly you are now free to follow.
Another related extreme not mentioned yet is legalism. Legalism is really the opposite pole from antinomianism. Whereas antinomianism says the Law is abolished and Christians no longer need obey it, legalism says obedience is how you get God’s favor. Legalism is the thing we all pretty much agree is bunk – works salvation. And most Christians will say they are not legalists but end up practicing or preaching legalism anyway. It has many subtle forms.
For instance, there are many good Christians who will tell you that salvation is the free gift of God given by grace and received through faith alone in Jesus Christ, but will nevertheless suggest you tuck your shirt in before sitting down at Christ’s table. There’s this idea that one must “get cleaned up” before coming to Jesus. This error confuses many prospective believers, who in their confusion really want to follow Jesus, but worry that they haven’t quit smoking yet or haven’t kicked their addiction to pornography yet or haven’t kicked their boyfriend out of the house yet. See, we recall correctly that Jesus’ encounters with sinners in the Gospels usually included him saying “Go and sin no more,” but we usually forget that Jesus typically says this at the end of his encounter with them. He never says, “Hey, come have lunch with me after you stop doing such-and-such.” He says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” He says, “I will give you living water.” He says, “Neither do I condemn you.” He says, “Come, follow me.”
He doesn’t tell anybody to stop sinning in order to get their golden ticket. Because he knows they’re going to keep sinning even after they’ve got it. Jesus is a pretty realistic guy when it comes to human nature. ;-)
But what he does say is, “Your faith has made you well” and “Go and sin no more.” There is a clear call to obedience, a clear call to become obligated to rid ourselves of sin. And Paul addresses this, again, in Romans 6. All that stuff about crucifying our flesh, about dying with Christ, about the process of sanctification.
Here’s how the process works:
Justification – this is us being declared righteous despite our sin because of our faith in Jesus to forgive us from our sins.
Sanctification – this is the process of getting “cleaned up,” which is declared as a once-for-all reality in the way God sees us through His Son, but also an ongoing reality in the way he conform further to God’s will through our continued faith and applied obedience.
Glorification – this is the end result of the ongoing sanctification, where Jesus comes back when the Game Over message pops up, and we are finally delivered physically and spiritually from sin and death.
This process is evident in Jesus’ interaction with those who came to him. He declared them justified and then sent them off on their sanctifying journey. He didn’t put the cart before the horse, in terms of telling them to get sanctified before he would justify them. That is essentially what legalism is: get yourself rid of sin before Jesus will save you from sin. But, obviously, if you could sanctify yourself, you wouldn’t need Jesus to save you, would you?
I hope some of this makes sense. I think this stuff is really important, because even in modern, grace-driven, “hip” churches like ours, these errors can creep in and be held by sincere, nice people without them even knowing it. We can believe we don’t need to think about our sin because Jesus is our homeboy (license) or we can believe we’ve got to worry about our sin all the flippin’ time because Jesus wants us nice and polished (legalism) just as easily today as the early church did centuries ago.
(Apologies for the length. I haven't posted in six days, though, so maybe you can just think of this as 6 posts in one. ;-)