For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. (Romans 4:2-8)
Let’s face it: when was the last time this crucial message of God’s grace was taught in most of the institutional churches? Beyond the words and works of Jesus, we know more about God’s grace from the Apostle Paul than we do from any other biblical writer.
Paul knew first hand the beauty of resting in God, and trusting in His grace, His unmerited favor, to all those who implacably trust Him over and above seen circumstances. One only has to read Romans 7:8-25 to see how Paul knew what a rank sinner he was, and how only by God’s mercy to him was he able to live an abundant life, amidst the many hardships God allowed him to endure for the sake of proclaiming the glorious Gospel of grace, and for the building up of the Church.
Like all good things, and God’s grace is certainly a “good thing,” the blessed “good news,” mere fallible, sometimes well-intentioned people, and sometimes malignant people, took that “sincere milk of the word” (1Peter 2:2), bureaucratized it, and allowed it to be corrupted by the features that characterize all bureaucracies: hierarchy, division of labor, codified rules, and a discharge of business without particular regard to persons. Such features are very functional for the smooth operation of bureaucracies, but they serve to impede not only the caring for people, but also the caring for the things of God.
Rule bound institutions usually have little or no place in them for God’s grace! Unfortunately, the features that define a bureaucracy usually cause the central tenet of Christianity, God’s grace, to be substituted by all sorts of man-made rules, regulations, doctrines, and expectations that usually conform to cultural norms and personal expectations and prejudices, so as not to unduly offend many congregants so that the denominational and church bureaucracies, and bureaucratic careers of clergy, are not particularly monetarily or materially threatened.
Therefore, although lip service is paid to “God’s grace” in many sermons, in reality “works” are emphasized from assorted pulpits throughout the world, to the destruction of the participants, to the destruction of God’s Word, and to the perversion of Christianity itself! It is in this substitution of “works” for “grace” that the turmoil of all too many Christians resides; many churches become akin to finishing schools that indoctrinate its members as to how Christians are supposed to think and act, and grace usually has very little, if anything, to do with the curriculum of those finishing schools.
And, when “grace” is dealt with at all, it is usually in the context of adding all sorts of “buts.” So, we can frequently hear the equivalent of the following: “God saves us by His grace, through faith in Jesus, but you can’t drink, you can’t go to movies, you can’t smoke, you can’t wear long hair, you can’t wear short skirts, you can’t wear jewelry, you can’t .” Well, you can fill in the blanks!
No! Jesus saves! No buts attached! We are solely saved by God’s grace that we appropriate through our faith in Jesus! Period!
As a friend of mine who pastors a rather large church recently told me, churches all too often inoculate people against Christianity by injecting them with just a little bit of it, so that when they are exposed to the real thing, to the fullness of Christianity, they are frequently immune to it, and even come to resent it. I had never thought of it that way, but as soon as he suggested that thesis to me, I knew he was absolutely right!
By emphasizing “Christian works” as opposed to “God’s grace,” the perpetuation of sermons are guaranteed, the clergy can be seen to have hegemony over the definition of the type of behavior of one who can be truly defined as “a Christian,” and the status and credibility of the clergy can be justified by their adherence to the assorted man-made rules and regulations that characterize so many churches, and that resonate with worldly criteria of behavior viewed as “Christian,” thereby reinforcing the notion that, just as in secular affairs, in the Christian life, “there is no free lunch.”
As the verses of Scripture that precede this article suggest, if we have to do certain works in order to be viewed as a “Christian,” we may be viewed as “a good Christian” by our fellow churchgoers, as well as by many in the larger society, but we have missed the message of the Gospel, thereby needlessly and sinfully heaping guilt upon ourselves and upon others; the emphasis upon works shows the foolishness of the question that since “grace’ is freely given us by God, how much work do we have to do in order to earn the “free gift” of God’s grace?
That question is foolish on its face, as if we have to work to achieve our standing with God, God’s favor to us is not that of grace. But Paul makes it crystal clear that the only way we have our standing with God is through, and only through, His sovereign choice of us, His grace, that we can only appropriate through our faith in Him, whom He chose to lavish His grace apart from any works we do or can ever do. As Paul wrote above, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
Hence, any works-oriented Christianity is a perversion of the Gospel of Christ! We are freely justified by God’s grace, and by God’s grace alone! And the only way we appropriate God’s grace is by our faith in Him and in His many promises to us!
To preach otherwise, is to take the values and man-made rationality of the secular world and merely transport them to the other side of the street and, thereby, infuse our churches with that worldly view that serves all sorts of destructive functions, not the least of which is enmeshing most of the institutional Church with the most reactionary forces within society, with its commensurate strong adherence to the status quo, regardless of whether or not that status quo is desirable, or even if it oppresses people or not.
“Grace” is not earned, nor can it be earned! As the above verses of Scripture say, if we incur God’s favor by our works, grace isn’t grace! Notice: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”
All Abraham did was trust in God and it was that very trust, not any works on his part, which would make him a father of many nations and the father of our faith! It was God’s sovereign choice of Abraham, just like His sovereign choice of us before the worlds were formed (e.g. Romans 8:29; Ephesians 1:4), that theologians call “prevenient grace.” That essentially means that we have to do absolutely nothing to merit God’s grace, because God’s grace can’t be merited; everything is due to His sovereign choice of those whom He chose from the foundation of the world to have the “receiver” to get the message that He has chosen us to be His vessels both for salvation, where we turn our hearts toward Him, and for us to be witnesses to His work in the world in and through our very imperfect lives and ministries.
Nowhere does Paul hammer this point home more than in the following verses of Scripture concerning Jacob and Esau before they were even born: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” (Romans 9:13,15-16) In other words, everything is all about God’s grace and sovereign choices, and is solely due to God’s grace and sovereign choices!
God is perfect and we are certainly not, and we are not to usurp God’s “good news,” the Gospel, by imposing, or seeking to impose, man-made culturally approved rules, regulations, and behaviors onto ourselves and/or onto others in the name of “Christianity!” Godliness has been imputed to God’s chosen ones, and absolutely no behavior on our parts can merit that sovereign choice of God’s or discredit that sovereign choice of God’s!
Just as Paul wrote, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8), Jesus Himself further assures all of us who belong to Him, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:37) Therefore, God chose us before the worlds were formed; He loves us while we were and are still sinners; because of the work of Jesus, sin is no longer imputed to us, even though we are still sinners; all of us who trust in Jesus will never be cast out from His love and presence.
Therefore, everything begins and ends in and with God! Just as God spoke the worlds into existence, He singled us out before those worlds were formed to be His very own possession, and our works had and have absolutely nothing to do with His sovereign choice of us, the criteria of which is for Him and Him alone to know!
All we are to do is to remain faithful as best we can to His call on our lives; place our lives, our imperfections, and our sins at the foot of the Cross; leave all consequences to Him, trusting “ that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)
By so doing, we enter into His rest, live an abundant life, and we are able to freely “ joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” (Romans 5:11)
So, don’t let churches, clergy, or anyone or anything else inoculate you against Christianity!
Professor Emeritus of Sociology at California State University, Chico, Rev. Dr. Jerry S. Maneker served as an ordained priest in the Congregational Catholic Church, a division of the Independent Catholic Churches International (ICCI). For many years he published a weekly column in the Sacramento Valley Mirror titled “Christianity and Society” where he dealt with a variety of social issues from a biblical and sociological perspective. He also published a blog called “A Christian Voice for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Rights” and the website Radical Christianity.