Author and scholar H. Ray Dunning answers an elementary yet profound question affecting all people seeking God’s forgiveness and grace in their lives: Are we saved by grace?
The Apostle Paul repeatedly stresses the centrality of grace in the Divine-human relation. This theme permeates his letter to the Romans. It becomes a war cry against his Judaizing detractors in Galatians. Perhaps his declaration in Ephesians 2:8-9 summarizes the heartbeat of his experience and teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (rsv).
Oddly enough, Christians have had difficulty fully and completely committing themselves to this faith. Our human tendency (should I say our fallen human tendency) is toward the expression of a TV commercial of some years back, “I’d rather do it myself.”
We want to be able to say with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” Maybe that is why we so easily fall into the trap of seeking to add something of our own to the one prerequisite of salvation, a tendency referred to by John Wesley in his sermon Justification by Faith: “Surely the difficulty of assenting to this proposition, that ‘faith is the only condition of justification,’ must arise from not understanding it. We mean that it is the only thing without which no one is justified; the only thing that is immediately, indispensably, absolutely requisite in order to pardon.” 1
But there are also elements in the Western worldview that make it seem so plausible to do what Paul condemned in the Galatians salvo: add something to God’s gracious offer of the free gift of acceptance (Galatians 3:1-5).
How did the concept of merit get into the DNA of the Christian faith? The church in the Western world was profoundly influenced by the legal perspective that pervaded the Roman Empire. This was true of the forms of government that emerged in the early years. As church historian Paul Bassett noted: “Whether forms were borrowed or not, it was evident by Ignatius’s time [early 2nd century] that the Christian society, the church, was essentially the antitype of the Greco-Roman society.” 2
Theologically, the more pervasive influence was in the understanding of the basis and nature of the Christian life. In his History of Christian Thought, A. C. McGiffert said, “Though Paul was the greatest thinker in the early church his thought was not generally understood and his interpretation of Christianity was not widely accepted.” 3
The classic expression of this non-Pauline understanding was introduced into the stream of Western Christian thought by Tertullian (ca. a.d. 160-225). Tertullian has been characterized as the father of both the language (Latin) and the theology of the Western church, to which he gave a legal cast that they have never lost. He developed a vocabulary that became—and remains—standard in our theological discussions of the Trinity and Christology, which he incidentally interpreted legally.
But of greatest importance for the Western understanding of salvation, he introduced such terms as satisfaction and merit into the theological vocabulary. “For him the human problem is, above all, a legal debt. Just as we say that a criminal ‘owes a debt to society,’ the sinner owes a debt to God. Our problem is then that we must find the means to cover that debt—or, in theological language, to offer satisfaction to God.” 4
For Tertullian, one may earn merit and thus render satisfaction to God by repentance and good works. Furthermore, if one does more than is necessary for salvation, he or she acquires surplus merit, a concept that flowers in the Roman Catholic teaching about a Treasury of Merit that became the occasion for Martin Luther’s reaction that precipitated the Protestant Reformation. Tertullian did not develop his views into a theory of the atonement but his ideas came to fruition in the medieval theologian Anselm who formulated the classic expression of an atonement theory in which the God-man rendered satisfaction to God for the elect.
Unfortunately, although the Protestant reformers, Luther and Calvin, rejected the emphasis on works-righteousness, they retained the concept indigenous to the Western mind that God must be satisfied by a punishment of the sinner, or in their case, a surrogate who was punished in the sinner’s place.
While we do not earn God’s acceptance by our own acquired merit, the “surplus merit” of Christ is available to “pay our legal debt” and satisfy God in place of the elect. Thus we have the Protestant doctrine of satisfaction. The logical result of this perspective places one in the predicament of choosing to hold to either universalism or particular election and the reformers opted for the latter.
How much better it is to cling to dependence on the grace of God as taught by Saint Paul, for whom merit has no place. The average, well-informed Sunday School child can teach us here as he or she can usually properly define grace as the unmerited favor of God. Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees and Paul’s defense of the free grace of God against those who insisted on the necessity of observing the markers of Jewish identity in order to be saved (food laws, circumcision, Sabbath law) should help us celebrate the fact that God offers to each and all of us his merciful acceptance apart from any qualifications we might claim.
William M. Greathouse, in his New Beacon Commentary, comments on Romans 4:16 (“That is why [righteousness] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace”): “Abraham’s justification and its attendant blessings were not founded in law; they were based on his faith in God. They were not earned by effort or merit on his part, but were bestowed by God’s grace.” All of this validates the truth of New Testament theologian Alan Richardson’s conclusion that “merit is a notion which the New Testament entirely discards.” To insist on the necessity of merit, either earned or provided by a surrogate, is to turn the God of infinite grace into a Shylock who demands his “pound of flesh.”
Charles Wesley captured the mind-boggling truth that the cross was not an act of satisfaction directed toward God, but actually God himself in the person of his Son, who suffered (not was punished) on our behalf to demonstrate his love and extended grace to all who would respond in faith:
And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Of course, we should add one qualification. Although God accepts us just as we are, he does not intend to leave us that way. As Paul makes clear, God’s purpose is to transform us with the goal of restoring us to the image of God in which he originally created humankind. That is what sanctification is all about!
H. Ray Dunning is professor emeritus of theology at Trevecca Nazarene University. He has authored and edited numerous books on Christian faith and practice.
1 Standard Sermons of John Wesley, ed. Albert Outler, 2 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1964), 1:127.
2 Paul Bassett, “Western Ecclesiology to About 1700: Part I, “in The Church, ed. Melvin E. Dieter and Daniel N. Berg (Anderson, Ind.: Warner Press, 1984), 132-33.
3 A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, 2 vols. (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 1:30.
4 Justo L. González, Christian Thought Revisited (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 50. These non-biblical concepts have deeply infiltrated contemporary praise music as well as many classic gospel songs. Hymn writers have generally been more theologically sound.
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