Lutherans and grace
I try to believe that grace is a fundamental teaching of the Lutheran faith. I have trouble with that at times. Any ideas?
Yep. What are Lutherans if not espousers of grace…and yet do we really believe it?
I fear that many Lutherans, let alone many Christians, don’t.
So, in short, you’re not alone.
We Lutherans teach that we are saved by grace, and not by works.
Still, I bet a bunch of us don’t believe the opposite implication: We can’t be damned by our works either.
We worry, in short.
We can’t quite swallow this notion that our sins can’t separate us finally and completely from God–never mind that we gravitate toward Paul, and Romans 8 assures us that nothing (not even a single asterisk suggesting that “certain exceptions apply”) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The funny thing is that implicitly, when we fret about our sins trumping God’s grace, we are trusting in them more than in God.
Luther said that “Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.”
That’s awfully true. Too often we think of grace as something we have to earn like some medal of honor: isn’t that what we are doing when we fear that our sins cut us off from grace?
And yet what is grace if not something that one receives undeservingly? For if you deserve something, whatever you receive is not grace. Grace is that which is offered to someone who doesn’t deserve it. If you earn it, you deserve it…but what you’d get is not grace. A reward, perhaps; praise, yes; but grace? No.
Sometimes people fear that when understood this way, grace is cheapened. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the danger of cheap grace, grace which is meaningless because it neither invites nor asks for a change of heart.
But grace need not mean that judgement doesn’t occur: instead, it means that judgment, condemnation, is not final.
I think of it in terms of parenting. If I were not to let my children know when they’d crossed the line, I would not honor them nor show them love which invites them into a new way of being in relationship. But that judgment must relent, for I am also not right–the family is not right–until they are back with us. And I will pursue that relationship until is it right.
Even their infraction (and I cannot imagine an infraction terrible enough) will not separate them from my persistent, pursuing relationship with them.
In short, Lutherans assert (at least on paper) that we do not have the power in our relationship with God. God does, and thankfully, God covets a relationship with us. So our good works are not an avenue toward a relationship with God, but a demonstration of it.
Martin Marty does a good job of illustrating this a bit more:
So there’s an initial take on your question. I hope it was initially helpful, but of course, I invite feedback!
It may well be that we do not have “the” power in our relationship with God, but I believe it a mistake to think that we have *no* power in that relationship, for of course we do. We have the power to say no.
We might argue about *why* God thought it was a good idea to give human beings free will, but that is a fool’s run. He did, and that means, among other things, that we may accept or reject him as we will.
(Indeed, I might be inclined to argue that we may simultaneously accept *and* reject, but perhaps another day.)
This is part of the reason I could never cozy up to the idea of “grace alone.” One of the things that keeps me in the Catholic camp, warts and all, is the philosophy of grace plus action. I know that others choose to dismiss the concept, rather smugly, as “works-based” or “immature” theology, but that’s fine. Sticks and stones. In fact, I consider it a more satisfying construct because it accomplishes two things:
1. It takes into account the element of free will, and my own active role in my salvation. If I have no role in my own salvation, even a small secondary walk-on part, then it cannot be said with honesty that I have free will. God will save me or damn me as he sees fit. If my actions play no part in my salvation, then I need not worry about my actions playing any part in my damnation either. I am literally pre-destined, so the entire discussion of grace, justification, salvation, etc., becomes only an abstract enterprise with no import at all.
2. As indicated above, this view does not let me off the hook for my own behavior–that unsatisfying attitude one finds in certain corners of Christianity that says, in effect, “Well, I’m a sinner so that’s all there is to that.” It certainly is true that I will never be able to honestly claim a sinless existence on this side of the veil, but “plus action” means I still have a responsibility to make the effort.
A priest friend of mine some 30 or so years ago used this analogy: “Jesus extends his hand to me; that’s grace. I take his hand; that’s action.”
From that day unto this, I have found it a satisfying illustration, and one that I seem to enact.
Perhaps we disagree on semantics; perhaps on more.
One can argue that we have some power in the relationship. We can turn our back on God. True.
But that raises several questions:
1. Why would someone reject God?
There are some really good reasons to turn our backs on God.
When one lives in relative comfort, relatively untouched by pain; or when one has only positive experiences with Christians, then “making the effort,” as you say, comes easily.
But there are people in the world who suffer regularly and deeply, or watch the shenanigans of Christians, and wonder, “Why would I want to be part of that?”
And Murray Haar always complicates matters by saying, “If Jesus is the redeemer, pray tell, where is the redemption?”
And at the risk of sounding all culturally and psychologically relativistic on you, putting an emphasis on works as a means to receiving grace “privileges” those who either live in an area/era where the gospel is preached and hearable; and does not take into account that people who engage in a paucity of “good works” (and in face might do more than their fair share of “evil works”) might already be dead; mentally, emotionally, spiritually dead.
And what is resurrection, after all, but raising the dead, those who can not raise themselves?
2. What is the purpose of those good works?
I fear that any suggestion that we participate in our own salvation calls into question the integrity of these good works. Why, really, are we engaging in good works? Is it because we cannot but help to? Or is it because we are hoping that God is noticing?
For that matter, what makes a good work a good work? And how do you know if you’ve done enough good works?
I fear that you are binding “good works” to salvation understood in a post-deathy sort of way. In fact, I fear that you think of salvation only in a post-deathy sort of way.
When Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to you,” he did not mean that on that day the people in his hearing would croak.
Instead, the word is soteria, and means “health, healing, and wholeness.” In him is health, healing, and wholeness.
Jesus is curious about whether we are making this world into a better place for its own sake, not for the sake of getting one’s kiester into heaven. That is, are we being ambassadors of health, healing, and wholeness?
It’s very Jewish, actually. Ed Sanders has done a fine job in pointing out that the notion of grace was not newsy to Jewish ears. They saw the law as itself grace! They didn’t have to do it to earn grace. It’s very gift was an act of grace, and as a gift they responded to it!
3. Who is the author of those good works?
Does not good works as a requirement of salvation put the “do-gooder” in the role as the subject of the equation, and God become the object, the one operated upon?
And does it not then suggest that that part which “purely” and without God’s grace engages in good works as a necessary, participatory role in salvation is already so pure that it doesn’t need God’s redemption? That that part is already saved enough to be the necessary act which decides whether we are “saved” or not?
3. Do good works really alleviate our anxiety?
I am fascinated by your idea that an emphasis on pure grace suggests that we “need not worry” about the relationship of our actions and God’s “final answer.”
I think you are right, but the implications I draw from that are very different from yours.
If one is worrying that that one is not saved (here I am using salvation as I think you are, namely referring to what will happen to you after you die), then already it’s clear that a person is trusting in him/herself (or not) more than God.
That sounds “sinful.”
Now you better do a good work and pray for forgiveness.
And now you should hope that God notices that you did that.
And now you realize that that is prideful.
So you better repent, and hope that God notices……
Do you see? It’s a cycle that leads to perpetual anxiety and self-absorption.
When my children disobey me, or make poor choices, I think they worry about whether they will disappoint me.
I do not think they are worried about whether I will stop loving them, or seeking for their reconciliation.
People often hear talk of radical grace as a free pass. I think you do when you speak of good works having “no import.”
I agree. They don’t have any import as to whether you are saved (post-death) or not.
They do have import as to whether you are living your life as a Christian with integrity. They do have import as to whether you are living your life out of commitments more strongly associated with the self than with the other.
Again, grace does not mean that judgment does not occur. It does mean that judgment is not final.
And grace means that we neither have nor can have any role in our salvation. It is a gift. And even if we reject it, that action could be argued to be a) sinful (for which Jesus died on the cross); and b) not more powerful that God’s persistent desire to give the gift.
So. I’m eager for your comeback!
I think the difficulty we have in accepting… or grasping… grace comes from our desire to be in control. I think the human creature, whether we’re aware of it or not, wants to believe we are in charge of our own destiny. So, we keep hanging on to a belief that somehow we ultimately are in control of our relationship with God. As Christians we talk about faith, not works, as being the foundation of our relationship with God; but then we turn faith into a mental work… which is just another attempt to be in control.
Now I certainly believe that accepting responsibility for our behavior and our choices in life is extremely important…Our behavior and choices matter a lot. They determine a lot about who we become and what happens to us (and those around us) in life. They just don’t have the power to elicit the love and favor of the creator of all that is, nor do they have the power to stop it. I always enjoy the way Paul expresses it in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”