I grew up in a church world that stressed, with the Reformers, “solo gratia” – grace alone. That is, salvation is possible only through God’s grace, which we receive through our faith. That’s pretty much what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8. Also stressed was the corollary from two verses later: salvation is not attained through “works;” that is, by what we do (going to church or helping old ladies across the street) or by what we don’t do (swearing, smoking, drinking). I never heard that what we do doesn’t matter or isn’t important, only that it doesn’t impact salvation one way or the other.
While in the Air Force I studied, with help, the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s views and James’, who said “You see that a person is justified [read, saved] by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It was fairly easy for me to reconcile the two: Paul never argued that works are unimportant and James never said that faith is unimportant; James simply emphasized that faith—real, living, saving faith—would be marked by what we do.
What does it mean to obey?
A few years ago I was asked that question. It has stuck with me; not exactly like a popcorn kernel stuck between my teeth, which is simply annoying; it’s more like my wedding band: a quiet but ever-present reminder of something profoundly important and significant.
The question stems from Jesus’ “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:20, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Some translations read obey in place of observe; in context, I think it’s a fair translation.) In the ensuing discussion and over the years since, I have noticed how much obedience is commanded in the Bible. And it’s not just in the “Old” Testament:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;
whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life….”
(John 3:36, ESV; emphasis mine)
These two complementary statements are both critical; they cannot be separated. Just as we cannot live without both food and water; just as we require both blood and oxygen; so eternal life is dependent on both belief and obedience—both of which, let us not forget, are possible only by God’s grace (cf. Philippians 2:13).
The persistent battle between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day was against their legalism—they overemphasized obeying the rules. The evangelical church in America sounded like those religious leaders for much of the 20th century (and, in some cases, still today). But there has been an equally misguided—and misguiding—trend over the last three or four decades. Born, I think, out of the phenomena of mass evangelism and mega-churches, this is the trend toward calling for a “decision” or “profession of faith” separate from obedience. We say, in effect, “pray this prayer of faith, but don’t worry about how you live; that will come later.” The problem is that most of us, having purchased the insurance policy, have precious little motivation to change our behavior.
That was not how Jesus approached would-be followers. He did not shy away from the hard call to make a change first. Think of when he called the first disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). It sounds simple, but it wasn’t; following meant drastic change: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (verse 20). The simplicity of that sentence masks the true impact; these were fishermen by trade who dropped their tools, walked out of the business, and gave up everything.
Or when the rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life; first, Jesus said to obey the rules, which the man said he already did. So Jesus upped the ante: “sell everything, give it to the poor, then follow me.” Unlike the fishermen, this man couldn’t do it; Luke 18 says he was “extremely rich” and a “ruler,” and although it made him said, he nonetheless found it easier to walk away from Jesus than to walk away from his lifestyle.
One of our troubles in the western church is that we do not want people to walk away sad. To avoid that, we lower the bar. We praise God’s grace, we call for faith…but we do not call for life change. The result is churches filled with people “who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (see Matthew 7:21). And those of us who are pastors will be held to account for our messages that call for decisions and professions, but not for obedience.
Solo gratia? Yes, by grace alone are we saved, But it is a grace that brings both faith and obedience, and we need to call for and live out both.