Sola What?: Sola Gratia & Sola Fide

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This post was edited August 4, 2014, Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

We look at two of the solae today, for I think it is important to consider them together. They truly go hand-in-hand. Also, the relationship between grace and faith, so beautifully intertwined, creates a product: works, or what we do. Works do play a role, though up front I say that role is the giving witness to the internal realities of grace and faith. We are to live out what we believe. Stopping short of discussing works, of emphasizing holy living, creates a cheap grace that inspires no response, no life-change.

That cheap grace? It is not the grace of God.

Sola gratia: grace alone

Sola fide: faith alone

Grace comes from God. Faith is our response to that God and His grace.

The clearest verse in Scripture that discusses these linked concepts is found in one of Paul’s letters: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” (Eph. 2:8) As we talked about before, a woman on her own is incapable of choosing God. Her will is bent inward, toward herself, in a selfish position. The prevenient grace of God, the grace that goes before, draws the woman to Himself, calling on that piece of her, however slight and marred, that still reflects His image.

Christ came to earth because of God’s grace (favor). “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) We have done nothing to earn or deserve this grace, this favor of God. He extends it to us because He is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and He is also just (2 Thess. 1:6). Though He has every right to, God chooses not to turn His back on humanity. He knows that we cannot and will not save ourselves, and so lovingly paid the price of redemption. His just nature is shown in this act for anyone may come to Him; race, gender, class or past erect no barrier. He is completely fair in His offer. All may walk the road paved with Christ’s blood.

Since we cannot choose God on our own, it is the Lord Himself who stirs up the desire for salvation within us, and it is He who amazingly grants the faith to take the first step on the Way. He presents us with opportunities, singular moments when the chaos is pushed away and we hear His voice clearly. In that crystalline fragility, we are enabled to respond positively and come to salvation, but we can still choose to reject Him. When we respond positively, we begin the life of faith. This faith is defined as complete confidence or trust. To have faith in God requires a recognition of the fundamentally flawed nature of humanity. Taking this beautiful gift from God leads the man to repentance and then to regeneration. He is made a new creature.

Many would stop here, insisting that the mere declaration of Christ’s Lordship is enough. But to do so is to ignore huge portions of Scripture, most notably the idea that those who love Christ will obey Him (Jn. 14:21). I can find nothing in the Bible that allows for an empty faith. This appears to be a fairly modern notion. Just sign the commitment card or pray a little prayer, and you’re good. No mention of holiness, no stressing the importance of knowing and doing God’s will.

Yet consider this:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.- James. 2:14-26 (NKJV)

It is quite clear that James is not saying that doing good things will put you in right standing with God. When Christ said, “It is finished,” (Jn. 19:30), He meant that. The sacrificial system was done. There has never been and will never be no striving to obtain favor with God. The only way righteousness comes is to repent of sin and believe that Jesus, the God-Man, died and rose again three days later, thus conquering death and sin in one glorious blow. We can neither add nor subtract from this; we contribute nothing to the work salvation. What James is doing is pointing out the ridiculousness of the mouth claiming faith in God while the life declares something altogether different.

We might think of it this way: If you are going to say that you are a Christian, you had darn well better act like one.

Now, thankfully, God is merciful! We do not become perfect all at once. We struggle with sin. We stumble, fall and create terrible messes. He gives us the strength and space to stand up and walk again. And that, I think, is the crux: Do we even want to get up? The pattern of our lives reveals what we really believe to be true. A faith that is mere words, a life that is marked by a lack of consistent growth and desire to know and love God… Well, James says it best. That kind of faith, and by extension that kind of life, is dead.

With all of this in mind, we may conclude that these two solae need to be combined and extended to best explain the concept:

“Gratia per fidem expressa opera.”

By grace, through faith, expressed in works.

Faith does not exist apart from grace, nor apart from works. Works are meaningless without grace and without faith. Grace that is not accessed through faith and lived out is grace left on the shelf. Ultimately, it is grace, and therefore God Himself, upon which our salvation rests entirely, but God does call us to responsibility. We must think, feel, speak and act out of faith.

Only those who have a very shallow understanding of the Cross will feel confident in being “covered” no matter how they live. What happened on the Cross was costly. My Savior endured significant agony on my behalf. His precious blood was spilled. Thorns were shoved into His head and nails pierced His skin. He hung, suspended by three nails, on a rough wooden cross. He could barely breathe. His skin hung in tatters from the ferocious flogging. To speak of this as being truth and then to live as if it doesn’t really matter is to mock God. He did everything to save me and to show me just how terrible my sin is.

I say this with great love: If you do not understand how horrific and significant the Cross was, and how glorious the Resurrection. if these facts of history do not move you, then I encourage you to consider whether or not you have came to salvation at all. If you think that it’s “enough” to say a few words when you’re a kid and then live however you want to, then…well, that speaks for itself. People who are in true relationship with God want to please Him, want to obey Him. He has loved us so we love Him. 

God does care what we do. Why else would Jesus have spent so much time teaching His followers how to live? Why else did the Spirit inspire the authors of the New Testament?  What we do doesn’t gain us salvation, nor does it maintain our standing of rightness before God, which is entirely based on the gracious action of Christ, but it does show where we are in our understanding and appreciation of that salvation. Do we love those who set our teeth on edge? Do we seek to provide for the needs of the destitute? Do we stand up for the orphan, the widow, the downtrodden? Do we watch what we say and are we quick to apologize when we aren’t watching?

We need to understand that our talk and walk must line up. We must be submitted to Him and willing to obey His leading, wherever it goes. Sometimes that’s a big thing, like going into the mission field. Other times it’s a seemingly small thing, like keeping silent when we’d like to scream obscenities.

Jesus did so much for us. What we will do for Him?

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

 

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Oh, Snap!

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Gentle Reader,

For the last few months the ladies Bible study group that I am part of has been examining hymns and popular Christian songs, discussing their Scriptural basis (or lack thereof) and the impact that music has on us both culturally and individually. This week one of the songs that we looked at was Family Force 5’s “Drama Queen.” The group isn’t one of my favorites, but in our bully-infested and manipulative environment, the message contained within “Drama Queen” is extremely important.

Listen, and then we’ll go on.

“You dish it out, I take it.”

We don’t know how to deal with bullies. When confronted with a manipulative person, fight or flight kicks in. We lash out or we knuckle under. Anything to get the person to stop. Sadly, neither reaction creates the necessary break in this crazy cycle. Bullies feed on our dramatic responses and they enjoy being able to use us.

We must be the ones to exit the cycle. The bully isn’t going to willingly give us a way out.

Nothing good comes from “taking” the abuse a bully dishes out. It isn’t Christ-like to be a doormat. Check the Gospels; Jesus told it like it was (and He still does). He loved people, but He had no problem at all calling them “snakes” and “hypocrites.” Now, I’m not telling you to go out and call people names. That will only add fuel to the fire, and we don’t have the kind of divine authority that Jesus does. We can, however, take Jesus’ example and use it in a beneficial way.

We can say stop. We can tell the bully that we are not going to put up with the way that they are treating us. We can tell someone in authority if necessary. We can point out if they are creating drama out of thin air and declare that we will not be part of it. This kind of strong response shows the bully that we cannot and will not be manipulated. We will not give them power in our lives. Above all, we will NOT continue to behave in such a way that shows the bully that we are willing to maintain the status quo.

On the flip side, if we have been the bully, we need to repent. God doesn’t give us a pass on how we treat people. We need to apologize to those we have hurt and do what we can to right the situation. We need to examine ourselves and look for the reasons why we choose to bully others, and, if necessary, get professional help in dealing with them.

This is not a hopeless situation we are in! The Lord is big enough, powerful enough and gracious enough to give us the courage to stop being bullied and to stop bullying others. He is ready and willing to give us the confidence that we need – a confidence that comes only from Him – to live comfortably within our own skins, recognizing that our value does not come from the opinions of others.

Bullying. Gossiping. Manipulating. Yelling. Hitting.

Don’t you know that’s whack?

My journey to faith. (15)

This Post I Don’t Want to Write

Agony

Gentle Reader,

As with all stories, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

I’ve struggled against anxiety for as long as I can remember, and most of the time anxiety has won. I can remember being six years old and flying into panic at the news of a standardized test all the first graders at my school were required to take. Convinced of failure, I couldn’t sleep the night before and broke out in head-to-toe hives. As I grew older, any conflict with a playmate or a teacher sent me spinning.  In my later teen years, I began to have panic attacks and what one ER doctor referred to as a “seizure-like episode.”

You would never know any of this about me if you weren’t directly exposed to it. Anxiety is an intense feeling, arising out of deep sensitivity – a sensitivity that I’ve achieved a Ph.d in masking. This suppression of emotions feeds into the anxiety, perpetuating the cycle and making it all the more difficult to break. I could be about to hyperventilate in terror, and, unless you knew me very, very well, you’d never even see it on my face.

This is, of course, a very simple summary of my life thus far. I’d rather not present you with the nitty-gritty, for that would take a book. What I’d really like to tell you about today is the state of my present existence.

On Good Friday of this year, I sat in the back of my church and had a panic attack, the first I’d had in at least three or four years. How on earth could a Good Friday service make me skip into flight-or-fight mode? How could the candles, the music, the Scripture reading make me feel like I was going to have a heart attack? That’s the thing with anxiety. It knows no rhyme or reason.

I was very frightened by the intensity of the attack. That evening, I unloaded on my husband for hours, not in anger, but in desperation. Something in that Good Friday service triggered a flood within me. All of the anger, the fear, the sorrow and the pain that I had tried to push down for so long came bubbling up to the surface without warning. Chris and I decided that it was important for me to see a counselor and work through some of these issues. I knew that I especially needed to learn better coping skills.

It didn’t take long for my counselor to refer me to a psychiatrist for medication. Her theory after a couple of sessions is that I was, in a sense, “born this way.” She believed that there were physical, chemical imbalances in my brain that had worsened with age and conditioning. Like the dutiful person I am, I made the appointment.

And came out with four diagnoses.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

That’s a lot to take in, and the only way I could process it was through dark humor. I told my husband, who was diagnosed with Clinical Depression four years ago and takes medication everyday, that I “won” because he’s only got one mental illness and I have four. So I started on the medication and began working through worksheets to help me think about my thoughts (do you ever do that?) and examine them to see if they were truthful or not.

As of this writing, I’ve been in counseling for two months, been on the first round of medication for almost four weeks and will probably be switched to another, have spent hours staring at the wall in a daze and haven’t wanted to do much but sleep. Then, yesterday, came another blow: My psychiatrist suggested I do some blood tests to see if my hormones were in proper balance, as they play a crucial role in anxiety and depression for women. At 4:50 p.m. on August 1, I spoke with my gynecologist by phone and was told that I needed testosterone cream (which I refer to as “man cream” and wonder if it will give me a beard so I can go make some money on the side by joining the circus – again, the dark humor) and that there is a very good chance I will need fertility drugs if I ever want to get pregnant.

I hate to be cliche, but when it rains, it pours.

Here is what I really want you to know in all of this:

1. I do not want your pity.

That is probably the worst and most insulting thing you can possibly give to someone who is walking through a valley, and I regret ever doing it to others. What someone like me needs is genuine friendship and understanding.

2. I do not need you to fix me.

I have Jesus for that. I have professionals who know and love Him. I covet your prayers and your love, but not your designs or plans.

3. Mental illness is not a lack of faith.

Go ahead and write to me about this. Tell me I need to pray more. Tell me I need to exercise more faith. Go ahead. I will then send you my journal, which contains more gut-wrenching and heartfelt prayers over the course of the last two months than in the last ten years. I can say without hesitation that my faith has never been stronger, that I have never been closer to God.

That being said, I do recognize that anxiety and depression can fuel sin or make certain temptations easier to fall to. So while I don’t need your criticism, I do need your loving questions and a community of accountability.

4. Taking medication is not a sin.

If you had diabetes, you’d probably watch your diet and take insulin shots, right? Would that be wrong, or would you justify that decision by saying that God heals in all sorts of ways? I’m so sick of the hypocrisy in the church when it comes to antidepressants. * Insert Sarcastic Tone Here * Oh, yes, not admitting to problems and not taking medication to help with the physical deficiencies in the brain will just make it all go away.

5. Get help. 

If you know that you have a problem with anxiety or depression, get help. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by refusing to do so. You’re not a special martyr for Christ by “putting the needs of others above your own.” That’s a twisted understanding of Scripture. God never says that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. If you persist in complaining about problems and refusing to do anything about them, I will very lovingly but very firmly tell you to stop talking if you won’t move forward. I stayed stuck for a long, long time. It’s pointless and, frankly, many of us do it for attention.

6. Childlessness is not a sign of rebellion. 

This last one is probably where I get most hot under the collar. I have never had a desire to be pregnant, and I wonder now if that lack has been a blessing from God. I am not devastated by the news that it may be especially difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve long had a desire to adopt, and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. Barrenness or chosen childlessness is not a sign of a curse or a sin in every case.

I’d like to conclude this post by having you read Ezra 3:8-13, with special emphasis on 12-13:

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak,  and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (NKJV)

The generation coming out of captivity was glad to have a place of worship once again, regardless of its lack of grandeur. The older generation, fewer in number and also coming out of captivity, mourned the lack – but the joy of the larger group drowned out their cries. This is where I stand today. It is plainly and painfully obvious that my life isn’t going to look like any of the lives of the women around me. There might be some who cry out in mourning because I don’t fit the mold – but my joyful embrace of these days that God has so graciously given me will drown them out.

I have surveyed the Valley of the Shadow. I know deep and searing pain. I wear tortuous fear on my back. But I walk, step by slow and deliberate step, with my Savior who lights just enough of the path for this day. I understand what it means to rejoice in suffering, for this intimacy with the King is infinitely precious to me, and I would not have it without this sorrow. He is loosening my chains and teaching me to hold tightly to truth.

And I am unapologetic.

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He-man, Hosea, Gomer and Me

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Gentle Reader,

This morning I punch at anxiety, but my jabs are weak. I’m tired of this battle. I’m ready to give up, give in, run away. Whatever it might take to silence the incessant noise of fear. Heman the Ezrahite (you had no idea that He-man was biblical, did you?) and his Psalm 88 are my good friends right now. There’s nothing like a good, fist-shaking lament when you’re feeling edgy.

There’s also nothing like a little knowledge. In Hosea 4:6, God tells the prophet that His people are being destroyed from the lack of it. What an interesting dedication to make to a man who’d had a whole lot of knowledge dropped on him via his marriage to a faithless prostitute named Gomer – he literally had to buy her out of bondage at one point.

The story of Hosea and Gomer is meant to be a portrait of God’s faithfulness toward His wayward people. This is all about knowledge; what you don’t know (or what you refuse to know) can definitely harm you in many ways. Gomer couldn’t or refused to understand that her husband loved her. She eventually left Hosea, convinced that the lies she did comprehend were better than the truth that seemed all too much. I can’t imagine that Hosea was particularly happy about her lack of love and trust. What man would be?

People are destroyed for lack of knowledge.

Hosea and Gomer both draw the reader to a long look in the face of God. He again is telling His people that He longs for them to return to Him, and what will happen if they don’t. He never leaves them in the dark about the consequences of their actions, whether for good or for ill. I ask you, what kind of God is this, the Lord who loves us so unendingly and faithfully? The Savior who suffers? The King who clearly defines the law?

Nobody else in the world is like that. Nobody else will give us chance after chance. Nobody will unceasingly work to draw our attention and affection. In a way, that shames me. God is God! By simple virtue of His existence, I should drop to my knees in awe. But, no, I need some kind of deal. Praise Him that He understands our fallen nature!

The pictures of Heman in his lament, Hosea in his prophecies and Gomer in her running all coalesce within my frantic heart to form a unique mosaic. The fist-shaking, the crying out and the faithlessness are things that God uses to quiet the soul. That may not seem to make sense, but I see in these three people our very real need to have the poison of sin and sorrow extracted from us by any means possible. And God will use any means. He has the ability and the desire to take our worst decisions and turn them around for His glory and our good.

I don’t know why, but that brings some peace to my aching chest. That slows my breathing just a little. I can close my eyes and unclench my fists. Will there be a battle today? Yes. Will I be anxious? Probably. Will I be in this place forever? Certainly not. God is here, through all the cycles of anger, repentance, fear and, finally, hitting the bottom of the pit with a thud. He extends His forever-reaching hand to me, and is ready to pull me out.

That’s the knowledge we need to keep from being destroyed. We need to know that God is utterly holy, which means He’s whole. He’s not like anyone else. He is faithful and true. Forever. He can be trusted and always knows the best way to go. He’ll never lead us up a mountain or down in a valley without holding us close through the obstacle.

Heman, Hosea, Gomer…me.

And you.

My journey to faith. (15)