Today is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The theology of Luther and the early Reformers during the Reformation are sometimes referred to as “The Five Pillars of the Reformation.” Each pillar or “sola” – which means “alone” or “only” in Latin – represents a Scriptural truth held by the Protestant Reformers. One of the five “solas” is Sola Gratia which means “by grace alone.” While different Protestant traditions disagree about the details of what “by grace alone” means, all agree on the basics—that Christians (forgiven and justified children of God) have God’s loving favor because of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, not because of any personal merit. They believe it is by grace alone that Christians are reconciled to God.
Some may think 500 years of emphasizing God’s grace would result in Protestant Christians embracing this truth and living in light of it. But that’s not the case. Even if they believe and adhere to the theological tenet of Sola Gratia, Christians today are as quick to try to perform and earn their worthiness as they were in 1517. It’s hard not to do so. Our culture tells us the dollar amount on our paychecks, the size of our homes, the make and model of our cars, and the number of people looking up to us in adoration are what make us successful and acceptable. Our churches have even more expectations. We need to read our Bibles (in the correct translation), say our prayers (in the correct method), fight for every social justice issue (on the correct side), and present ourselves as holy and pleasing in God’s sight (in the correct clothing brand, holding the correct handbag, and speaking the correct lingo) in order to be successful and acceptable. While spiritual practices and Biblical perspectives are good and valuable for Christians, these actions and frameworks have no saving power.
This is why we need a robust theology of grace. We need to know the role of the law and the role of the gospel. In “500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified” David Zahl writes:
A grace-centered view of the world takes for granted that we are all severely handicapped in our ability to love one another, and that we stand a better chance of loving our neighbor (or spouse) when we aren’t looking to them to do or be what they cannot do or be. Christian hope, therefore, lies in not having to generate love on our own steam but in prior belovedness, expressed in sacrificial terms and in spite of our being undeserving. This kind of love, which is by definition divine, seeks out the unlovable and finds before it is found. It satisfies rather than introduces expectations. If the law commands that we love perfectly, the gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.
As we gain knowledge of God’s ways of grace and divine love, we notice our efforts to try to earn our standing before God and others. We begin to accept that we have been found by God (and can find life in God) even though we are undeserving. God guides us into His ways and turns us away from attempting to earn His gracious favor. We are changed into people who become more aware of the expectations we place on our family members, friends, and co-workers to earn their standing before us. When God draws us into this dance of recognizing God’s grace, accepting it for ourselves, and extending to others, a gospel-infused atmosphere is established in our churches, homes, and workplaces.
I wonder if I’ll ever not be surprised by my sin, my neediness, my desperate grasping for control, and my never-ending attempts to save myself. Maybe I’ll eventually be like, “Oh. I did that again. I’m doing this again.” as I ponder my lack of faith with a sort of knowing acceptance while I sip on a cocktail on my condo’s balcony. Maybe I’ll keep freaking out and sinking down when I see the truth, when I see reality with more clarity. Either way, God will meet me where I am. He’ll turn my attention to Himself as my glass empties when I take the last sip of my Old Fashioned. He’ll turn my attention to Himself while I’m treading water in the murky depths. He’ll interrupt me with His grace. That’s what He does.