#30 God’s First and Last Word is Always Grace

EVEN THOUGH THIS BOOK was first written primarily for Christians, in this current revision I have attempted to broaden the scope to include everyone, whether Christian (by belief or by culture) or not. But while there are a few other religions that make a similar emphasis—and I am thinking particularly of True Pure Land (Jōdo Shinshū) Buddhism in Japan—the emphasis on grace is far more prominent in Christianity than in most other religions. But in spite of being less inclusive in this chapter, I still firmly believe that this chapter about the meaning and importance of grace is something that, truly, everyone needs to know.

Before writing this final chapter, I read Philip Yancey’s outstanding book What’s So Amazing About Grace?[1] for the third time. I consider Yancey’s book one of the most significant books I have read over the last twenty years. 

In the first chapter of his book, Yancey calls grace “our last best word,” and laments the “shortage of grace within the church.”[2] I fully agree with his assessment, so I decided to write about grace for this last chapter of Thirty Things Everyone Needs to Know Now. We need to be reminded constantly that for the Christian—or for anyone for that matter—God’s first and last word is always grace.

I have been reading and thinking about God’s grace for most of my adult life. One of the first good books about grace that I read maybe almost sixty years ago was penned by R. Lofton Hudson, a Baptist pastor and counselor. His book was titled Grace Is Not a Blue-Eyed Blond.[3]

Sometime before writing his book, the author was talking with a man who attended church only occasionally. Hudson asked him “What do you think of when I say the word grace?” The man’s quick reply, “Why, Grace is a blue-eyed blond!” Well, not many who read this book will identify grace in such a manner, but many may need to have a deeper, more nearly adequate understanding of grace and the importance it has, or should have, in our lives.

Grace vs. Works

In the history of Christianity, there has often been tension between grace and “works.” In the fifth century, Augustine, often said to be “the father of Western theology,” made a strong emphasis on grace. His teaching on grace, though, was linked to predestination in opposition to Pelagius, the English monk who placed great emphasis on human free will.

Augustine’s teaching was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and Pelagius’ ideas were rejected. This might be considered a victory for grace, but gradually grace came to be seen more and more as something that was primarily dispensed by the church. Moreover, it came to be emphasized that it was through the sacraments that God’s grace was made available to ordinary people, and that grace was efficacious whether there was concomitant faith or not.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the emphasis on grace was greatly overshadowed by the need to raise money for the Church. Partly to pay for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, emphasis was placed on the “sale” of indulgences.

Long before the beginning of the new construction of St. Peter’s in 1506 until the present, the Roman Catholic Church has held to belief in indulgences. According to Pope Paul VI, “An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned.” In the past, giving alms was one of several ways indulgences could be obtained, so it came to pass that making a contribution to the church was seen as a way to acquire an indulgence. Thus, making a special offering became virtually the same as buying an indulgence.

The “sale” of indulgences in the Holy Roman Empire near where Martin Luther lived (in present day Germany) was especially successful through the endeavors of one Johann Tetzel, who is said to have used the slogan translated into English as,

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings
The soul from purgatory springs![4]

Sola Gratia!

Martin Luther, a relatively young priest and professor of theology at the new University of Wittenberg, was especially troubled by the way indulgences were being handled as well as by other matters in the Roman Catholic Church.[5] He felt constrained to work toward reform of what he thought were clearly erroneous theological beliefs and practices of the Church at that time. His nailing of the ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, was primarily an announcement of his desire to debate the matters about which he was troubled.

One of Luther’s central emphases was upon sola fide, which means “by faith alone.” That was his declaration that salvation, or justification with God, was by means of faith alone, apart from any works performed by us sinful humans. But that pivotal affirmation was accompanied by his emphasis on sola gratia, “by grace alone.” This means, of course, that salvation comes by God’s grace only, not as something merited by the sinner. Thus, this Lutheran (Protestant) doctrine rejects the idea that salvation is something that can be attained by good works or other human activities.

The centrality of grace was emphasized even more strongly by Calvin than by Luther, his older contemporary. The French reformer placed great emphasis on the sovereignty of God.[6] Consequently, salvation and everything else was due only to the grace of God. Even more than Luther, Calvin placed strong emphasis on predestination: God unilaterally, without any consideration of merit within those chosen, elects some people to eternal salvation.

Calvin believed that election by God, or predestination, is due solely to God’s sovereignty and God’s grace, which to be irresistible. That is, when God calls the elect to salvation, they cannot resist. Thus, salvation is due to God’s grace alone; human will or desire has no part to play in salvation.

The strong emphasis on grace by Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers needs to be seen against the backdrop of the unhealthy emphasis by the church at the time on securing salvation, or at least release from Purgatory, through “works,” the doing of good deeds, especially the giving of offerings to the church.

Emphasis on these two solas was made along with Luther’s emphasis on sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone.” He believed that only the Bible, not the pronouncements of Popes or Church councils or the creeds, was normative for the Christian faith. Consequently, as was mentioned in an earlier chapter, he held verses such as Ephesians 2:8-9 in high regard: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Although the form of the word is different, the fourth sola the Reformers stressed was solo Christo, “by Christ alone.” Here the emphasis was upon salvation being through the work of Christ only, neither due to the mediation of priests or other church officers nor due to the prayers to (or through) Mary or any of the other saints.

In summarizing the basic emphases of the Reformers, sometimes a fifth sola is given. Although its Latin case ending is different from the others, it is soli Deo gloria, “to the glory to God alone.” Johann Sebastian Bach is said to have appended the initials SDG to the musical manuscripts of each of his cantatas and many of his other works. And the same was practiced by other composers and authors.

All of these solas made important theological points, but perhaps it can be said that they were also based upon, and they were certainly all related to, the central affirmation of sola gratia, “by the grace of God.”

Grace Abuse

This emphasis on grace continued in Protestant churches, especially in Lutheran churches, even when the social and political context was greatly changed. That led later on, especially in the twentieth century, to what Yancey calls “grace abuse.”

Yancey once talked with a friend who asked him, “Philip, you study the Bible. Do you think God can forgive something as awful as I am about to do?” This question was given as an example of grace abuse. Since God’s grace is so abundantly given, Yancey’s friend was wanting him to say that, of course, God could and would forgive him; isn’t that what grace is all about?

Long before, the noted German poet Heinrich Heine is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Why, of course, he [God] will forgive me; that’s his business.”[7] While Heine’s words may have been spoken somewhat in jest (some refer to his words as a deathbed joke), many people do, in fact, seem to presume upon God’s grace and assume they will be forgiven regardless of what they have done, even done intentionally in spite of knowing that such actions were contrary to God’s will.

Much before Heine, the Apostle Paul dealt with the same question in his letter to the Christians in Rome. He wrote, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Evidently, grace abuse is not just a modern phenomenon. Paul answers emphatically, “By no means!” (NRSV) or “God forbid” (KJV). We should never use our belief in grace as an excuse for sinning or for presuming upon God’s forgiveness.

Grace abuse can be used by groups of people as well as by individuals. Yancey didn’t mention Heine, but he did write about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who “coined the phrase ‘cheap grace’ as a way of summarizing grace abuse. Living in Nazi Germany, he was appalled by the cowardly way in which Christians were responding to Hitler’s threat.” They acknowledged God’s grace on Sundays but then “kept quiet the rest of the week as the Nazis pursued their policies of racism, euthanasia, and finally genocide.”[8]

According to Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is “the mortal enemy of our church.” So he decries “cheap grace as justification of sin, but not justification of the contrite sinner who turns away from sin and repents.” He goes on to explain,

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipleship of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.[9]

Things change. In the sixteenth century, so much emphasis was placed on human works, especially the “work” of making contributions to the Church (seen in the “sale” of indulgences as explained above), that Luther and the other Reformers felt it imperative to stress the centrality of grace.

By the twentieth century, especially in Germany in the 1930s, but certainly not limited to that country or that decade, grace had come to be so abused that Bonhoeffer and others felt the dire necessity of emphasizing the importance of discipleship, of following Christ, and not glibly affirming grace alone.

Still, Grace Is God’s First and Last Word

I fully agree with Bonhoeffer’s emphasis, especially in situations where God’s grace is proclaimed profusely and the importance of following Christ is largely overlooked. But, still, grace is the first and last word. We must not allow the message of grace to nullify the importance of discipleship. But even more, we must not allow the important emphasis upon following Christ faithfully to detract from the Christian message about the significance of grace.

Although probably not original with him, several years ago I read the following words boldly proclaimed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.
There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.[10]

That, truly, is the meaning of grace. And while it is necessary for us to recognize, and to beware of, grace abuse, we should always remember that God’s first and last word is always grace. The pivotal significance of grace is seen in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

In the first chapter of John we read, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). And then, Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (vv. 16-17).

Toward the end of the first chapter of his book Grace Is Not a Blue-Eyed Blond, Hudson declares, “Primarily, grace is a face, the face of Christ and of Christian acceptance.”[11] Yes, because the Christian faith begins and ends with Jesus Christ, for the Christian—and for all the people of the world—God’s first and last word is grace. Let’s never forget that, for it is certainly one extremely important true thing that everyone needs to know now.

[1] (Zondervan, 1997). Yancey (b.1949) received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Christian Book of the Year award for that book. He was editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine when his book was published.

[2] P. 14. “The Last Best Word” is the title of the first chapter of Yancey’s book. By those words Yancey means that grace is the only significant word left that has not been trivialized by popular culture in the way that, for example, love has been.

[3] (Word Books, 1968). In 1957, Hudson (1910-2002) founded the Midwest Christian Counseling Center in Kansas City, following seven years as the pastor of Wornall Road Baptist Church in the same city.

[4] In 1517, the year Luther began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation, Pope Leo X made Tetzel (1465-1519) the commissioner of indulgences for the Holy Roman Empire. It should be noted that coins then were made of silver or gold, so they were worth considerably more than the coins we use today.

[5] Luther (1483-1546) became a professor at the University of Wittenberg in 1508, just six years after it had been founded.

[6] Calvin was born in France in 1509, but he fled to Switzerland at the end of 1534 and spent the rest of his life there, mostly in French-speaking Geneva, where he died in 1564.

[7] This is the translation of Louis Untermeyer in his 1937 biography of Heine (1797-1856).

[8] What’s So Amazing about Grace? p. 184. The words “grace abuse” are first introduced on pages 179-180, and those words are used for the title of the reading for October 3 in Yancey’s Grace Notes: Daily Readings with a Fellow Pilgrim (Zondervan, 2009).

[9] Discipleship (Fortress, 2003), pp. 43-44. This seminal book by Bonhoeffer (b. 1906) was first published in German in 1937. The first English translation was published in 1949 under the title The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in April 1945, shortly before the end of World War II.

[10] Tutu spoke these words in “The Prodigal God,” the address he gave at the “God at 2000” conference held at Oregon State University in February 2000. They are printed in Marcus Borg and Ross Mackenzie, God at 2000 (Morehouse, 2002), p. 172. I don’t know whether Tutu had read Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? but in that book Yancey wrote, “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. . . . And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less” (p. 70).

[11] P. 22. Actually, the title of the first chapter of Hudson’s book is the same as the title of the book, and it is the only chapter that deals directly with the subject of grace.