An American Evangelical Problem
By Kim Riddlebarger
THE Biblical conception of the human nature is not a pretty one, and today's Americans, in particular, have a difficult time accepting it. We are all taught from our youth that we have it within ourselves to accomplish anything if we simply put our minds to it and give it our best efforts. We believe that by exercising our right to choose, we can change the world around us. So, when we profess to be Christians, we carry that optimism over into our theology. If God tells us to do something, it must be because we have the ability to do what He commands!
The Bible teaches, however, that grace alonesola gratiais our only hope of salvation. It means that if we become saved, it's not because there is anything in us that makes us desirable to God, but entirely because of God's mercy and grace toward us.
The human condition
We really cannot understand sola gratia unless we understand what it is exactly that sin has wrought upon us.
In Job 14:1-4, God says, "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. And dost thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one."
In short, born "unclean", we are all subject to the judgment of God.
Helpless. God further declares in Jeremiah 13:23, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." Meaning: We cannot do anything to change our unclean nature any more than we can change the color of our skin or a leopard can wish his spots away.
As a result, every thought, every inclination of ours is evil. Thus, Genesis 6:5 says, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
With equal force by our Lord Jesus Himself declares in Matthew 15:19, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies." As it is used in Scripture, the heart is the seat of our very personality.
Hostile to God. How does that affect our relationship with God? We read in Romans 8:7,8: "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."
God then warns in Ephesians 5:5, "For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."
God's grace alone
Since men are sinful by nature
and cannot do anything to save themselves, only by the grace of God alone can anyone be saved. The Bible presents the idea of sola gratia in a number of ways.
Born Again. In John 3:3, Jesus states, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." If we are to see and then enter the kingdom of God, our Lord states, something must happen to us first. He goes on to explain in verse 6, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." We have to be given a spiritual birth by the Holy Spirit.
Evangelists often quote John 1:12"As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name" implying that we can become saved by just welcoming Christ. But they seldom quote the next verse: "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
Drawn by God. Moreover, God says in John 6:44, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him," and in verse 65, "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father."
Had God the Father never drawn us to Christ, we would never have come to Him. For we read in Romans 3:10,11, "There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God."
Resurrections. In John 11, God approaches the idea of grace alone this way. There we find our Lord raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Jesus then declares to Martha, "I am
the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (v. 25).
This power of Jesus to give life takes two forms. In John 5:24,25, He says:He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.
This means that in a sense there are two resurrections for the one who trusts in Christ for salvation. The first, a spiritual resurrection, enables us to believe in Christ, for whoever believes in Him has crossed over from death to life. The second, a bodily resurrection, occurs at the last day when Jesus returns in judgement and to raise the dead.
But the most important thing to note about the raising of Lazarus, is that Lazarus was dead! When Jesus called him forth from the grave, he could not do anything to cooperate with the grace of God. His only contribution to his salvation was his being dead!
Dead in sin. And this brings us to another important text in Ephesians 2. The first three verses there describe our natural condition:And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.
There is no way to circumvent the thrust of the argument here: we are dead in sins and transgressions, enslaved to our sinful passions and desires, and by nature children of wrath. Left to ourselves, we are headed for hell and eternal judgement.
It is here, then, that God gives us one of the clearest presentations found in Scripture of sola gratia. We read in verses 4 and 5, "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved.)"
It is entirely because of God's mercy and love for His elect that folk who are sinful by nature and by choice are now believers in Jesus Christ! It is God's choice of us in Jesus Christ!
The problems with evangelicals
No other Christian doctrine offends people in the US more than the teaching of sola gratia. Surprisingly, the greatest opposition comes not from a secular culture, but from leaders in the American Church. The fact is, grace alone is the historical Protestant position. Its wholesale rejection of late demonstrates how far the "evangelical movement" has departed from the historical and Biblical evangelical faith.
This rejection of sola gratia is not new; in fact, it is an ancient heresy known as Pelagianism. Named for the Fourth Century monk Pelagius, it emphasizes the human freedom; it sees original sin not as corruption and guilt inherited from our first father, but simply the bad example introduced into the world by Adam. Pelagius teaches that children are born innocent, not sinful, and that sin is simply that which we do, not what we are. He sees grace as simply an influence enticing us to act upon proper information.
It's not surprising that self-made, independent Americans would gravitate to such a theology that every individual can always make a new beginning, that he is able by his individual freedom to make decisions for or against the divine.
Finney. As early American "Christians" moved to the frontier away from the established communities along the eastern seaboard, they also moved away from their Puritan and Calvinistic assessment of human nature. If we could conquer the West and build cities where there had been only wilderness, then the idea that men are helpless made little sense. As a result, even as Pelagius of the 4th Century became their patron saint, Charles Finney became his main modern-day spokesman.
Who's Charles Finney? It was he, perhaps more than anyone else, who ensured that the preaching of the Reformation would give way to a man-centered, experience oriented theology.
Think of his influence on the contemporary church for just one moment. For starters, Finney is the father of revivalism, characterized by the frontier revival tent meeting and the sawdust trail. Finney's revivalist legacy is most clearly seen today in a stadium filled with Promise Keepers.
New measures. Next, Finney is the father of the altar call and the so-called "evangelistic meeting". It emphasizes what is called the "new measures" that largely served to displace the traditional preaching ministry for technique-oriented evangelism.
Finally, traceable back to Finney is the entire church growth movement that seeks to entice so-called "seekers" to church by removing those things from the worship service that offend them in other words, anything distinctly Christian; only these new measures now come to us couched in the language of marketing and sales, target groups and demographics.
Today, whether it be Chuck Smith, Bill Bright, or Billy Graham, a good part of the ministry traces itself back to Charles Finney. Even if another part originated with the Protestant forbearers, these traits are now mist certainly recessive. For Finney is now dominant in the American church. And sola gratia is no longer a doctrine to be defended, it is an offense and an embarrassment.
How are we to respond?
Democracy is a wonderful system of government; everyone has a vote and everyone is equal before the laws.
God, however, does not operate according to American democratic ideals. Because the entire human race fell with Adam, we are everything that the Scriptures say about ussinners headed for hell. Thus, as Christians, we must begin where the Bible does, that all humans are born sinful, that no one deserves to go to heaven, and that none of us can do anything to get there.
One or the other. Second, to the degree that we argue that we contribute something to our salvation, to that degree we deny sola gratia. Charles Spurgeon said, "he that thinks lightly of sin, thinks lightly of the Savior."
It is really very simple. Either God saves sinners who are dead in sin by calling them forth from the grave when they could contribute nothing, or sinners have something good within them that is not somehow tainted, corrupted, polluted or damaged by the fall. As we have seen, the Scriptures teach the former, not the latter. To add anything we do to sola gratia is to deny sola gratia!
Blessed assurance. Third, sola gratia is the only basis for our comfort and assurance. If I have to contribute something to my salvation, I will always be plagued by doubts about what it is that I am supposed to contribute, and whether I contributed it in the right way. If I think that I am saved by my decision to accept Jesus as my Savior, how do I know if I really meant it when I asked him into my heart? If I am saved because of my faith, what do I do when my faith is weak, or when I am in sin or else plagued by nagging doubts?
Look to the Savior. Since the Scriptures teach that we are saved not because of anything that is in us, and that the merit necessary for our salvation comes to us from the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, we look, not within at what we have done, but to our Savior to see what He has done. For in Jesus Christ we see what it means to be saved by grace.
We look to a Savior who calls the dead from the tomb when they still reek of their sins; a Savior who promises never to leave or forsake us, even when we go astray. We look to a Good Shepherd who will lose none of His sheep and who declares; "all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John 6:39).
We look to a Savior who died for all of our sins and who kept God's Law perfectly every minute of His life, so that His perfect righteousness could be given to cover our unrighteousness. We look to a Savior who was crucified, but who conquered death and the grave and who rose again, who ascended into heaven, and who even now is ruling and reigning, all the while praying for us, as our advocate and defender.
Sola gratia is most clearly seen in the fact that Jesus Christ came to do for us the very thing that we could not do for ourselves. For He came to seek and to save that which was lost. This, beloved, is sola gratia, the sinless Son of God dying upon a Roman cross for the sins of us believers, rising from the dead for our justification, and making us alive through His word, when we were still dead in our sins. Blessed be the name of the Lord. o
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