Participation in Grace Alone
The various Grace Movements of our day feature a spectrum of convictions regarding the unilateral grace of God through the finished work of Christ. In this blog, I’d like to address this range, problematizing some extremes and proposing a way forward that takes seriously our participation in grace-alone salvation.
We call St Augustine’s commitment to grace alone “monergism.” That means just one Person is performs the work of our salvation. In the name of grace alone, Augustine concocted the doctrine of “original sin” (a given among Protestant Evangelicals). He declared that all humanity inherited Adam’s guilt and was thus born damned (massa damnata). He then imagined God walking through the graveyard and electing to raise some from spiritual death to become his children, while leaving others in their tombs to perish. This is de facto “double-predestination” – God’s sovereign choice to elect some to salvation or to damn others by default – according to his good will. Note: this was a necessary move if salvation was to be by grace alone. The dead cannot raise themselves; they must be raised apart from any works – not even the work of a faith response – which is also a gift of God.
Centuries later, John Calvin and Martin Luther argued along similar lines, denying any human participation in this grace-alone salvation. For Calvin, humanity was (as Paul said), “dead in transgressions,” and only the grace of the Holy Spirit resurrects us to life. For Luther, “bondage of the will” meant you cannot even choose God. You are chosen and raised by grace alone. Thus, a grace-alone rebirth must be apart from works-based merit on our part.
I once believed and taught this with my whole heart, because I feared any kind of synergy in salvation would poison the grace alone model with human performance and religion. Of course, by radicalizing the grace message to preclude any willing human response creates the same problems we find in Augustine and the Reformers: (i) either the monstrous arbitrariness of double-predestination, or (ii) the negation of every NT teaching in which the gospel is an authentic offer and invitation that is open to all and must be receiving willingly.
For some in the grace movement, grace can be raised to an ideology that would negate even Christ himself. That is, some relegate the life and teaching of Christ prior to the Cross to the Old Covenant. When Christ tells his disciples, “This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you” (John 15:12), flags go up. “Commandment” is a trigger word – see, that’s still “law.” Or in John 14:23, “”Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” “Obey” – uh oh, another law word. But we’re no longer under the law—no longer subject to commandments—not even from Jesus, because that’s pre-cross. Under this model, I’m told I’m not to pray the Lord’s Prayer, because asking the Father to forgive my sins when he has already done so on the Cross is redundant. Thus, the prayer prescribed by Christ himself is anti-grace.
This approach overlooks a couple key New Testament facts. First, while the Cross certainly was the end of the Old Covenant, it was not the beginning of the New Covenant. In Luke 4, from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he announces the “year of the Lord’s favor” – the year of Jubilee, of liberation from bondage to Satan, sin, death and the demands of the law. The year of the Lord’s favor is the ministry of grace in Jesus Christ, offering freedom and forgiveness to all. When, in that synagogue in Nazareth, Christ finishes the reading and sits down, he declares, “TODAY this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Not, “in three years, it will begin,” nor even, “it begins now, but only provisionally.” No, he is actually forgiving, healing and freeing the captives of religion immediately and fully. This will come to a climax at the Cross for all people, in all times, in all places. But it was already launched throughout Christ’s life and ministry.
Second, when the Gospel evangelists wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they did so well after the Cross event. Did these eye-witness disciples imagine that the message of Jesus prior to his death had become defunct – a moot point to be disregarded along with the Torah? Is that the impression they give their community of readers 30 and even 60 years later? That’s not how these Gospels function.
Rather, they serve as evangelistic message and early church catechisms describing the content of faith and practice of authentic Christ-followers. They introduce the Way of Christ they and we are being called to follow. Grace never dissolves this call, but in fact animates us to it – yet, not I but Christ who lives in me. When the Jesus Way calls us to take up our own cross and to follow him, is that to be ignored as passé or condemned as works-righteousness? No, the call to follow Jesus and the call to yield to grace are one and the same. Our identity in Christ involves active participation in the grace of Jesus that bears the fruit of his image and character in us. It tells us that believing in, following and yes, obeying Jesus is the Way of a transformed, grace-empowered life. Christ’s teachings illustrate what that means—primarily the life of love. Union with Christ and surrender to his grace looks like love for brother, sister, neighbor and enemy. Where that love is absent, grace is not active. So, is the love Christ calls for merely another law Christ frees us from – no, it is rather the fruit of a life yielded to his indwelling grace.
Apostolic faith has always taught grace alone, and extended Christ’s invitation to participate in that life-transforming grace. By way of a closing analogy, imagine contracting an incurable strain of disease—a previously unheard of virus that mutates the DNA within every cell of your body. Without a cure, you are effectively doomed. The doctor gives you a week to live, but hints at an experimental drug that might save you. The problem is that it’s also impossibly expensive. Say it’s $10 billion and you have already used up all your resources. You can’t invent the drug, can’t make the drug and can’t afford the drug. You’re as doomed as if it didn’t exist.
Now some gracious stranger arrives in your life. It turns out it is the drug’s sole inventor and producer. She sees your plight and offers to treat you at absolutely no charge. We’ll call the drug Sola Gratia, administered by none other than the Great Physician. The doctor measures out the medication precisely to your needs and says, “Take this every day and you will be cured.” The question this analogy asks is this: if you take the pill as prescribed—if you actively participate in the treatment—does that mean you saved yourself? Or is it still Sola Gratia? The truth is that you are still 100% dependent on the grace of the Giver and the power of the medicine provided. Nothing in you can take credit for your healing—and yet you are required to participate in it in order to enjoy the healing provided.
If the New Testament had said, “Christ has saved you by grace alone and you need do nothing, not even receive it,” that would be fine. But it doesn’t say that. Rather, the message is that “Christ has saved you by grace alone and you need to yield to that grace. Receive it!”
More simply, the word grace (χάρις) contains the notion of gift—in the NT, specifically the gift of God’s lovingkindness and mercy. And a gift, fully paid for and freely given to another, has not fulfilled itself as ‘gift’ until it is received. That is, receiving the gift is intrinsic to the meaning of gift—to its telos or fulfillment. To receive the gift does not make the gift less than a gift or imply that I contributed to the payment of the gift. But receiving grace is, in some way, what makes it a grace.
Thus, my own critique of “extreme grace” is not that someone over-emphasizes grace alone, but rather, when it becomes an ideology that negates either the life and teachings of Christ, or nullifies the necessity of receiving the gift freely given.
In this model, grace alone still stands as true. The gift is still grace plus nothing, not grace plus works. Not 99% grace and 1% works. Yet paradoxically, we are told and we experience this grace in daily practice through yieldedness, receptivity and willing participation of the gift of Christ’s indwelling life.