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Glory Versus Grace

One day while I was in seminary, a sat on a bench and had lunch with a young Christian leader who had entered during the same semester as me. He ran a rather large parachurch ministry at a public university in our city and often spoke at various churches. I had been to his house and he to mine and we both knew each others wife. We were both sharing ministry stories when the subject of the homeless ministry I ran for several years came up. After recalling several anecdotes from my time there, my friend spoke something I was not expecting.

“I don’t give money to the homeless,” he said in a very assertive voice. “If they don’t earn it, they shouldn’t have it.”

“Well,” I responded, “I did it because God freely gave me a great gift when I did not deserve it and in return I just freely give to others what little I have. It’s just my way of modeling the gospel.”

“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You did something for your salvation, so did I. I don’t know what we did, but we did earn it a little.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I had never heard a Christian leader say out-rightly that we “earn” our salvation. The lunch hour was coming to a close and our conversation was finished. I don’t know if it stuck with him, but it stuck with me.

The greatest threat to Western Christianity is not encroaching secularism, not radical Islam, nor the “homosexual agenda.” The greatest threat to every Christian and Christian church in the world we live in is the neglect of grace. Since mankind first left the Garden of Eden, way back in Genesis 3, we have resolved to reject the grace of God in favor of what we believe could be accomplished through our own works.

When God created humans it was an act of grace. Our very existence cannot be credited to ourselves, any more than I should take credit over my mother for my physical birth. Yet for aeons we have deluded ourselves into thinking we can thrive autonomously. It should not be surprising that humans think this way, but what should be utterly shocking is that the Church grows ever more seduced by the idea that there is no need for God’s grace. Jesus spent his ministry fighting against the notion that the people of God were born naturally (see John 3, 7,9 etc.) and that by their works could they save themselves.

Jesus told the story about the labors in the field who verbally attacked the owner for paying the same generous wage to those who did little work as those who did much more. Jesus’ message was simply stated in the owner’s response to their criticism. “Is it not my money that I am free to with as I want? Why do you begrudge me for being generous to them even when you have received your reward?” Our human nature is so wrapped in our own merit that we cannot accept the fact that God gives his grace freely.

While most churchgoers in America will readily answer that grace is the reason they are saved when asked directly, probing deeper often unearths an underlying belief that they somehow earned God’s favor wither by their actions or their ingrained nature. Put another way, many seem to think, “I earned or it or my people did.”

We often speak of Christianity as not about what we have to do, but what Jesus did. Yet we hold to countless formulas for what one must do to be saved. Did you say the “sinner’s prayer?” Did you walk down the aisle? Do you go to church?Did you repent from swearing and drinking? Have you done enough to be saved? Many Christians I know will tell you the date they were “saved.” It was September 8th, 199… when I trusted, when I accepted, when I was baptized, when I made a decision, when I, I, I. Why is the nexus of our salvation based on a moment when we did something, instead of the moment that Jesus did something? When people ask me when I was saved, I tell them, “about 33AD.”

jesus' graceI don’t mean to be flippant about this, but this is a serious error in theology that has last repercussions on how we live our lives. It was this “Theology of Glory” as a former professor of mine so often labeled it, that led the Catholic Church in decline during the Medieval Ages and sparked the Reformation. Reformer Martin Luther began his separation from the Catholic Church because of the very notion that God alone is our salvation; we did nothing to earn it. Yet over the years, Christians, seeking to control others and to define the parameters of unique individuals’ walks with God have reverted little by little back to the same theology of works they supposedly grew out of.

Today this deep-rooted mindset affects all Christians who live by this myth of self-salvation. A person of this error sees non-Christians as bad, the poor as lazy, the different as wrong. They clothe themselves in their own self-righteousness, at the same time piously claiming that all glory belongs to God alone. In their hearts they believe that because of their actions, or because of where they came from, they are something special. Everyone else in the world who is not part of this select group is dammed because they failed to do something about it. This type of self glory does not leave room for the humility that comes only from knowing that you were saved by God because of God. Only when the self is removed from one’s understanding of salvation (and I mean salvation in the holistic sense) is there room to love others. Only when one knows that God is the source of salvation can one truly understand that they are connected to all those around them. There is not an “us” and “them.” There is only “we.” And we are saved by God alone. My prayer is not that you do anything today, but that God fills you with the presence of his grace.

  1. August 20, 2012 at 2:25 am

    I will say that nothing has impressed upon the full meaning of God’s grace as when I’ve worked with homeless ministries. I’m not just talking about doing something, but really getting to know the people. It has also given me some of hard theological problems to think through as well. It’s a beautiful tension when we engage with one another on a personal level, and I’ve found that many homeless people simply don’t have the energy, nor much reason, to put up a false front. It is both refreshing and saddening, a beautiful tension.

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