Grace and Works: Part One

I have been struck for some time with the way Christianity in modern times has dismissed the human body. Meaning that, much of the emphasis today in the preaching and teaching of the gospel is fixed on the issues of the spirit in such as way as to dismiss the importance of the believers life lived in the flesh.

The common notion is that Christ came to save the spirit of a person but not the flesh, the flesh is ‘lost’ and is expected to remain in a state of sin; for one to genuinely attempt to live sinless is dangerous. Dangerous in that if one succeeds in living righteously they will inevitably fall into pride, and pride is of course the most deadly of all sins. Therefore, it is much safer for one to hold to the doctrine of grace even to the point of excluding good works, rather than the other way around. The great German theologian, Bonhoeffer, satirically chided his own Lutheran Church saying, “to be Lutheran must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists, Calvinists and enthusiasts—and all this for the sake of grace. We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ,” and again he says, “The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works” (The Cost of Discipleship).

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that one should take the opposite and equally foolish path of holding to good works to the exclusion of grace. What I am suggesting is what Christ, the Apostles, the early Church Fathers, and much of the Church until recent times has always understood to be the case concerning one’s body in their journey of faith, i.e. the body matters. Further, I am suggesting that our understanding of grace has been whittled down over many generations to a perverse and bizarre notion that grace is a gift from God that frees us from the need to obey to Christ.

This loss of consciousness concerning the importance of our bodies in the journey of faith and the subtle perversion of the doctrine of grace, I believe, goes hand-in-hand. And they can both be traced back to a common theological error, an error that another great German theologian, Helmet Thielicke, described with the phrase, “anthropomorphic Docetism.”

Docetism was an ancient heresy that taught that Jesus was a spirit and only appeared to have a physical body. This is the same heresy that the Apostles had in mind when they said, “Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1Jn 4:3). Of course, the question of whether or not Christ had a physical body has ceased to be a serious hindrance in the preaching of the gospel. But today Docetism has been reinvented and applied to humans (hence: anthropomorphic Docetism) and accounts for the genesis of the two errors listed above.

In short, we have lost focus on obeying Christ in our flesh and have likewise recast our idea of grace to fit the new vision of salvation, that is: a purely spiritual salvation. In practical terms, we have become the ‘Church of the abstract.’ All of our righteousness, all of our obedience to God, is performed in our imagination and taken to be real. By loving our neighbors in our minds we have sufficiently fulfilled the command of our Lord. “Faith” passes from the marriage of belief and action, to simply belief. When faced with a moral decision we make a confession of faith, not an act of obedience, and continue on with whatever we had already intended to do in the first place.

What we are experiencing today is a spiritual fallout that very much answers the question Jesus put to His disciples before His departure: “When the Son of man returns, will He find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). This sweeping trend of teaching a doctrine of grace that dismisses one from taking seriously the sins committed in the flesh is, in my estimation, the most serious sign of apostasy that the Church faces today. In the next few articles we will dig deeper into this growing phenomenon discussing the importance of the body and the doctrine of grace as taught by Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church Fathers in comparison with today’s common preaching. I hope for spirited discussion, but most of all that these articles will help to reveal the great love God has for His people and the life He that has empowered us to live through Him.

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4 thoughts on “Grace and Works: Part One

  1. As I do with all your articles I have posted this one to on http://www.sozo.se
    There are numerous times I can identify myself when I love and care for my neighbour and when I suddenly stop and think, “when was the last time I talked to him or helped him with something”
    You are really up to date, brother. We need to be doers of the Word. Therefore I loved to read the book of James 🙂

  2. Thanks for the repost, Johan!

    Yah, being ever conscious of my own failings in helping others is a reality for me as well. But even if there is no one to help immediately, no alms to give, no “good works” to do, God is always leading us to resist sin, which is, of course, the simple obedience to Christ that one can always participate in. This is the good works that I find most lacking in our Churches today, and will be the focus of this series.

    By the way, have you had a chance to start the Schmemann book yet?

  3. Eric, this is very well-written. Derek Vonigas posted a link to this on Facebook and that’s what led me here. I remember you from ORU, although I don’t recall officially meeting.

    You raise some valid concerns about the teaching of radical grace. I grew up in a very strict, by-the-Book Christian household and, as a result, spent much of my Christian life under condemnation and works-righteousness. But I have come to hear some recent teaching on radical grace that has set me free. I felt like I got saved for the first time. As you can imagine, I have had a violent reaction to teaching that emphasizes works.

    I can see how some might abuse grace, but isn’t that what grace allows? If we add a ‘but’ or an ‘if’ to grace, doesn’t it cease to be grace? In my view, Christians don’t hear enough grace. At least I didn’t. Paul preached grace so radically that he often was accused of teaching licentiousness. He would counter by saying, “Do we sin so that grace may abound? Certainly not!” Why aren’t more of our Christian teachers facing this objection? I hear way more legalism than grace in modern teaching. Is it just me?

  4. Hello Gabe,

    Thanks for the post. You raise a good question that I think my latest blog post answers, but let me try to answer it here. You asked:

    “I can see how some might abuse grace, but isn’t that what grace allows?”

    By “abuse,” in the context in which you wrote it, I think you mean: isn’t it better to error on the side of, what Bonhoeffer called, ‘cheap grace’ than on the side of legalism? In other words, isn’t it better to give in to moral sin than to fall into spiritual pride over one’s own righteousness. The second part of the question goes to the heart of what I believe is a faulty understanding of grace – what does grace “allow”.

    First I am not in favor of either cheap grace, nor spiritual pride. In my understanding, neither is ‘covered’ by grace for the simple reason that grace is not essentially a covering so much as it is an empowering. Even the way we commonly use the word grace bears this out. You may hear someone say, “look at how graceful she skates” or “the bird flys so gracefully”. Only in the modern context of salvation do you hear people use the term grace in a totally passive sense. Imagine one saying, “look at the grace with which she doesn’t skate” or “the bird is so full of grace it doesn’t need to fly.” Such statements don’t even make sense. When applied to salvation, such an understanding of grace is dangerous to say the least.

    Paul of course gave his warnings to those who would, as Jude said, “turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God” (Jude 1:4), for the very reason that such a view of grace is wicked. Paul was very direct about grace, that it is the power “for obedience to the faith” (Rom 1:5), and that the labor with which he labored in the faith was not of his own abilities but of God’s grace (Rom 15:10). Paul did not have the concept of grace that it was a freedom to not obey Christ. This idea he was constantly battling against.

    What grace “allows” is for one to be a disciple of Christ. On our own it is not possible to follow Christ as He commanded. Grace is a supernatural enabling of the Spirit to follow Him.

    I encourage you to check out my second blog on this topic because I give much more detail than in this blog about the nature of grace. I look forward to further discussions with you. Cheers.

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