It is a beautiful phrase, rolls over the tongue like a dessert at Macaroni Grill: sola gratia. By grace alone we are saved, undeserving sinners though we are. By the kindness of God, by the compassion of Jesus. Grace is our highest doctrine, our most precious inheritance. For 500 years we have repeated, sola gratia. And still, we stray.
It’s a very human problem to struggle with grace. Consider Jesus’ favorite critics, the Pharisees. More than any other group, those guys got an earful from Jesus.
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger,” Jesus lamented in Matthew 23.
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”
“They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”
“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”
The Pharisees’ main problem was a problem of grace — receiving it or extending it. Surely by their diligent effort and hard work they had earned the glowing “well done!” of God, and as His representatives on earth, could advise, discipline, and judge others. They were the doctrine police, and qualified for the job. Down to the tiniest speck in someone’s eye they could sniff out sin — or, in Jesus’ case, well, they couldn’t call it sin, exactly. Rule breaking? Unorthodoxy? “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
The evangelical landscape right now is brewing a perfect storm for Pharisees. On one hand we have a collection of incredible minds, learned scholars, a resurgence in theological conviction even among lay people, and a beautiful commitment to our best roots — “sola gratia” among them. On the other hand, our culture has all but abandoned truth, goodness, beauty, even decency. We are nervous. In the distance we see brooding clouds. The waves rise higher; we are taking on water. Batten down the hatches, folks, we are in for rough weather.
Conditions are perfect for us to turn on each other. One of us defects to culture’s immoral whims? We do not weep, we hiss. There is a rampant tone of snarky haughtiness in the blogosphere. Well, we think, don’t read the comments. They aren’t representative of our spokespeople. But aren’t they? Where else have the commenters imbibed such un-grace?
Where are the weepers?
Tighter and tighter we draw the circle of who’s in — whose theology is tight enough? Whose lifestyle is above reproach? Who reads the right books and makes disparaging comments about the wrong ones?
Sola gratia is no dry theological exercise (is there any such thing?) We have not understood the gospel grace we’ve been given if we then deny it to others. At bottom, grace is grace because I do not deserve it, have not earned it, could not merit it now that I’ve got it. There is no room for smugness.
Jesus Himself modeled for us both lavish grace and impeccable truth. He did not sacrifice one for the other, but upheld the unwavering, holy Word of God and spoke it boldly, with grace. He didn’t gossip or mock or belittle people, even when they miserably failed or publicly mis-spoke. He never gave up on Peter or the Sons of Thunder, even when He must have sighed.
Truth isn’t a stick to beat someone with. Truth is a person who laid down His life for His ordinary, imperfect friends.
When our friends return from the latest “Christian movie” spouting questionable theology, it is possible to examine those ideas gently. We can imitate the Bereans, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) When our neighbor enthusiastically endorses a gay evangelical blogger, we can speak the truth in love. When we come across an article that makes us see red, we can close the laptop and pray instead of firing off an angry, graceless monologue.
We have been saved once and for all by grace alone. What if we lived by grace alone every day? It has happened before. “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47)