17. By faith alone imprisons a God of redemption without transformation or enfleshed mission.
I never really understood the idea of justification by faith alone.
At one level it made sense, I guess. Reading Paul alongside the Jesus revealed in the gospels, it sorta sounds like that. Believe in Jesus and you’re good.
And as a prominent aspect of protestant belief, I felt like I had to give it a shot. I had to wrestle with it to see if it fits.
So I put it on like a t-shirt and asked if it made both logical and practical sense to imagine God giving grace to the repentant in the asking. I explored that personal dimension, ultimately deciding maybe it could work. I could wear it. And when I finally looked around, I realized this was what everybody was wearing.
A Holey Faith
The more I wore that t-shirt, the more it developed holes in it. The less it really felt like it fit. The more it seemed faded and off. Every wash thinned the cotton and ultimately my shirt, hanging on the doorknob looked like I had been in a brawl last night.
As a simple matter of faith, the idea that God forgives in this one-on-one relationship became overly simplistic. I couldn’t make sense of all the issues, like:
- how we treat repentant murderers
- why Protestants seemed terrible at forgiveness
- pretty much anything Calvinistic
And the more I dwelled on the theory, the less and less it seemed related to the teachings of Jesus.
I looked at my brothers and sisters in faith and found a whole lot of Paul (Pseudo-Paul, actually) and almost no “red letter” saying of Jesus. I tried to find a pathway to the God of Love through this independent testament to faith and saw only personal betterment.
In other words, a doctrine about the supreme power of God to grant mercy seemed to divorce people from an actual relationship with God.
The Counter Grace
As I tried to understand justification by faith intellectually, I also observed and experienced it in practice. That practice came to inform me intellectually.
So I took that with me as I reimagined what justification means if we are forgiven by God and yet act like jerks to our neighbors. I asked God how it could be that the saved don’t act saved. If we are forgiven once and for all, is it a license to sin for free?
And what does that do to our relationship with God?
What does that do to God?
If I can beg for forgiveness and God grants it and that’s all there is to this big cosmic thing then how does God get to be God? How do we get to be redeemed? Doesn’t this imprison God into the form of a constant cosmic permission-granting rubber-stamping bot?
How does this not turn human initiative into a power over God? If our only part is to think, and God jumps at the request, then we get to determine the means and scope of grace.
And if we control the framing of the repentance, then we can claim who gets it and whether they’re sincere or not.
There isn’t even agency for God to say no here. In this way, God’s godness disappears.
When radical theologians declared God to be dead, they ultimately didn’t say anything that Calvin didn’t do.
Springing God from prison
There has to be something more than justification by faith. As a good news to the sin-weary, it is sweet music; but to the already churched, it is a license to sin.
By faith alone tries to put the power in God’s hands but it really strips it from them. Rather than naming what it wants to name, it invites a counter argument to replace itself.
So for justification to be true at all, it must acknowledge that it isn’t enough.
That’s why justification by faith alone is a flawed doctrine. But not irredeemable. No less irredeemable than the unrepentant sinner seeking the mercy of God.
It’s solitary nature, saying “by faith alone” invites the crippling sin of unrepentant faith and cheap grace. Even as it says alone, it strips the alone. Even as it says its about God’s power, it strips God of power. The alone is both the point and the problem!
To give repentance any true worth requires us to see our mutual-dependent relationship with God in the seeking of mercy and in the receiving of grace. We not only name the place of God over our lives but also name our continued, ongoing relationship.
Many will argue that we do that already. Even when the theological arguments differ. But really we haven’t gone far enough.
Because many will also argue that it is about faith, not works. They will say it is about the personal confession in their heart, not the reading of liturgy in worship. And they will say that God has done it once and that’s all that’s necessary. None of these show God did anything in us.
Proving God is responsible for our change requires evidence we’re different. There has to be change. We have to be the proof. That we are changed and agents of change.
[This is Thesis #17 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]