"I can't believe I won!" As the winners shriek with surprise and jump up and down with joy, some of us watch it all with skepticism, while others may wonder, "Why can't this happen to me?"
I'm talking about those ads showing sweepstakes winners, and even those more sedate, even secretive lucky lottery winners.
This scenario is somewhat representative of a spiritual truth often met with skepticism or qualifications.
Hard to accept
One of the more puzzling paradoxes within the Christian faith is the response of people to the grace of God—God's unearned kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, and approval.
Many people have a hard time accepting the truth of Sola Gratia—by grace alone—because it seems "too good to be true." Granted, some people get it right away and are thrilled beyond belief. Others however, accept it, but later doubt their own worthiness to fully embrace it.
Then there are those who claim to believe in God's grace, but have a plethora of reasons why others don't qualify for this unimaginable gift of acceptance and favor. These same responses to God's grace are seen throughout the gospels and epistles in the New Testament.
Seen it all before
The Pharisees, and later those called the Judaizers, play the role of the spoil sport and point out how grace goes too far. They challenged Jesus during His ministry on earth, especially when He healed people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).
Those in the margins of society—the sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and such—were delighted with God's gracious acceptance and favor they saw in Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).
The early church leaders also struggled with how far God's grace extended and who qualified to receive it. But in a sovereign way God revealed how far His grace reaches, when He poured out His Spirit on a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10:45; 11:18; 15:6-11).
Then, the redemptive message of God's grace (the gospel) began to spread through non-Jewish (Gentile) people, as it did in Antioch (Acts 11:19-24).
The great shocker of all was the supernatural conversion of a radicalized rabbi (Acts 9:1-16). The radical rabbi Saul became the apostle Paul, who explained the theology of God's grace in Galatians, Romans, Colossians, and the book of Hebrews.
Though Paul vehemently stood against the truth of God's grace, he became the great teacher of the Gentiles, who explained the grace of God better than anyone since Jesus.
Why we struggle with grace
I'm thankful for my first pastor, Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, back in the early 70's. I didn't have preconceived notions or teaching about grace, so I accepted what I read in God's Word and how it was confirmed by Pastor Chuck's teaching.
I don't remember if he said this exactly, but his attitude was that he'd rather err on the side of grace than legalism or judgment.
Over the years, I've watched people struggle with the simple but powerful truth of God's grace. We all do, even though we believe in it. There's a myriad of reasons why, but here's some that come to mind.
- It seems to good to be true— human skepticism, even to the point of cynicism fueled by the world around us, is the biggest reason. It all started back in the garden when the first humans believed a lie rather than trust their Creator (Gen 3:1-7).
- Looking for exceptions to the rule— this reason extends from the "too good to be true" attitude, but is characterized with "what ifs" and other limitations imagined or passed on by others, who contrive various scenarios where God's grace can't be applied.
- Beyond the reach of God's grace— this is rooted in shame and the closed loop of unresolved guilt. Surely, we reason, there's some limit to God's grace, either because we've benefited from it so often or done something deemed so terrible.
- Who qualifies to receive it— this includes various religious and moral hurdles church leaders and people contrive, similar to objections brought up to Jesus and the early church leaders (see earlier section).
- You've gone too far— limits are put on how many times a person has appealed to God for His grace because of repeated failures. Also, the dreaded "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" (Mark 3:28-30), which gets interpreted various ways according to a person's situation.
Here's what I've learned through the truth of Scripture in my own life of faith—
God's grace is greater than our failures, fears, doubts, and expectations of others.
Tying it all together
How do the first three foundational Solas work together?
- Grace and faith—Sola Gratia and Sola Fide– One of the clearest expressions of how grace and faith fit together is in Ephesians 2:8-9—For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
- This should free a person from a performance-oriented Christian life, since personal effort (good works) is of no value for gaining favor with God.
- Grace is the great equalizer when it comes to faith, and humility is the true evidence of experiencing God's grace.
- Faith and Scripture—Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura— Paul reminds believers that faith comes from hearing the truth of God's Word (Rom 10:17).
- Genuine Christian faith needs to be grounded in the truth of the Scripture through the work and witness of God's Spirit (Gal 3:2-6).
- Grace and Scripture—Sola Gratia and Sola Scriptura— our understanding of God's grace needs to be grounded in the truth of God's Word, not human reason (dogmatic beliefs) or emotion (shame or guilt).
- This is spelled out in many places, especially in the epistle of Romans— Romans 5:8-10; 12, 15, 18-21.
Don't complicate the simplicity of God's grace, and don't despise its simplicity. The depth of God's truth isn't complicated, it's simple.
When you begin to doubt the truth of Sola Gratia, I encourage you to read through the epistle of Galatians, especially chapters 3–5, also chapters 5–8 of Romans.
What exceptions or exclusions have you seen people make about God's grace?
How has God's grace overwhelmed your failures, fear, and unmet expectations?
This is the 5th in a series of posts to consider the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Here are the previous posts—
Many of the theological terms used by Christians become like a foreign language to nonbelievers. Believers need to understand these terms well enough to put them in their own words, or as I call it IYOW (In Your Own Words).
I've tried to give some simple clarification of terms in these posts, but I encourage you to make your own effort at understanding these terms so you can explain them IYOW to others.
If there's a specific theological term that proves hard to grasp, let me know. I'll at least point you in the right direction for an answer, if I can't help you with my own explanation.