Over this past school semester, and through these beginning summer months, I have been reflecting frequently about my own upbringing in the Christian faith, and some of the strengths and weaknesses in the general message that I perceive is being communicated to Protestant Christians.
In this post, I will be making certain judgments and generalizations about the tone and attitude of mainstream evangelicals and Protestants. I can only hope that, the broad strokes that I use to describe the intellectual and theological landscape will capture some truthful kernels that bear upon the situation that the Christian finds herself in today.
In this post I will argue that because the message of God’s grace for the sinner is so closely tied historically to the identity of Protestantism, that this has resulted in the message of God’s grace being overemphasized, both in liturgy of the Protestant Church and in the message preached to the congregation. Specifically, this overemphasis has caused the necessity of personal effort and participation in the sanctification process to dwindle in the mind of the typical protestant or evangelical Christian.
Before I get too far, let me make an important clarification:
I have been brought up in and hold to the Reformed Tradition which maintains that our salvation is through God’s grace alone and that the works that we do cannot contribute to our salvation.
Put in other words, the Christian cannot and should not attempt to earn her salvation. This is most certainly true, and I do not intend to question it.
What I would like to suggest is that, at the level of the lay Christian (one without seminary/further theological training), because of the widespread trumpeting of the wonders of God’s grace (it is truly wonderful btw; no sarcastic tone here), the pulpit has failed to show where exactly good works fit in to the picture.
To be even more specific, it is really the demonization of one’s personal efforts in relation to one’s whole Christian life that I find to be very problematic. One’s personal efforts have been rightly excluded from the salvation of the Christian in Protestant thinking, but they have been wrongly excluded from the sanctification process.
To me at least, it seems that ANY suggestion that good works might play a large, significant, and essential role in some part of the Christian life is often dismissed on grounds that it might get people confused that their salvation is somehow tied to their works. And after all, we wouldn’t want to be guilty of believing in a Works-Righteousness gospel, would we?
I strongly disagree and would like propose the following:
God’s Grace through the work of Christ functions to fully and completely atone us from sin—meaning that God, instead of condemning us as the sinful human beings that we are, credits to us Christ’s Righteousness. In this, our own strivings and efforts to do good are to no avail! We must rely on God’s grace alone for our atonement.
Our sanctification is different; it does not function the same way. Once we have been saved, and our sins have been atoned by Christ’s complete work on the cross, God begins the long and difficult process of sanctifying us.
I am simply asserting that this sanctification cannot be a passive process on the part of the Christian. It should be understood as a participatory effort that requires hard work on the part of both the individual Christian and the Holy Spirit and also the larger church community (the body of Christ).
Further, when a Christian does good, in the right spirit and manner, this action should be understood as bringing them closer in relationship to God, and also furthering them on their path of sanctification.
Conversely, even though our own sin has been covered by the grace of God and is fully atoned for through Christ’s blood, we still struggle with sin in our lives. This sin, especially if held close to our heart, hinders the process of sanctification and prevents us from living a flourishing life.
Hopefully if I have been sufficiently convincing, you will take the following away from this post:
If you are a pastor, minister, or other member of the clergy (especially in the Protestant tradition), please be careful to make these distinctions clear to your congregation the next time you plan to preach on Paul’s epistles (If you agree of course). It never hurts to take a look through the book of James either 😉
For everyone else,
Your deeds and actions (good works) are meaningful in relation to your Christian life, and they are more than just evidence that you have a flourishing one; they are one of the primary tools that we can grow closer to God with.