Sola Gratia

King Street in Boone, NC. Image by Jeremy Mikkola

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian

Click here to listen to this sermon

1 John 3:16-24

Back when was in college, I lived in a little town in western North Carolina called Boone.  It’s nestled way back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form part of the ancient and gentle Appalachians.  Once you get up into the High Country of Christmas tree and tobacco farms in the hills around Boone, let me tell you: you will meet some “interesting” people.  We had one guy named Joshua who lived in a tent in the woods and sold poetry on the street corner.  We had Satanists, Neo-nazis, drug dealers, apocalyptic conspiracy theorists, and fire-breathing preachers galore.  Don’t forget: this is the same region of the country that produced snake-handling churches.  I think there are even a few folks left in that region who (still) might not have read the memo saying that the Civil War is over.

One such “interesting” person that I had the singular privilege of knowing was a guy named Mike.  Mike was a reformed drug user who lived in a trailer way back up in the woods.  He attended a particular church that holds the unique belief that theirs is the one and only true church left on planet Earth.  All others have either forgotten or corrupted the true gospel of Christ.  They believe that strict adherence to the dogmas and morals that constitute the membership requirements for their one, true church is what could secure one’s status as “saved” in the eyes of God.

Mike himself was an intense and energetic loner who felt drawn to their form of religious belief and practice.  Their robust conviction and die-hard certainty was attractive to him.  However, Mike was a person who struggled in many ways.  He wrestled with substance abuse and mental illness.  His church, unwilling to bend their strict rules in the name of pastoral sensitivity, was constantly excommunicating him and then readmitting him to membership.  Whenever I would bump into him in public, Mike’s customary greeting was, “I got saved again!”  Mike believed that his status before God was constantly in a state of flux because of his inability to adhere to his church’s code of faith and conduct.  That inflexible code, I think, only served to increase Mike’s anxiety and make him feel alienated from the Source of life and love that could truly help him on his quest to become a better person and a more faithful Christian.

Now, I don’t think many of us are likely to find ourselves in Mike’s position.  While we too might very well wrestle with problems like addiction and mental illness, this church does not exclude or condemn people for being human.  However, we do live in a time when it is quite likely that you will encounter someone (in person, online, or on TV) who will try to send you the message that you’re not “saved” or “born again,” which is to say that you don’t count as a “real” Christian or a child of God.  Let me tell you right now that I think that’s a bunch of baloney.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I should probably take this opportunity to also tell you flat-out that I am a universalist.  What that means in theological terms is that I believe in the doctrine of universal salvation.  What it means in plain English is that I don’t believe in hell.  I find the idea of eternal punishment after death to be completely incompatible with the nature and purposes of the God of Love who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  This means that I believe everyone, everywhere, regardless of their religion or their behavior, is “saved.”  I’m going to come back to this point later, but I think it’s important that I lay it out now, just so you all know where I’m coming from and where I’m going with this.

Those who try to draw lines in the sand between us and them (i.e. the saved and the damned, the religious insiders and the secular outsiders), typically do so using one or both of the following criteria: belief and behavior.  They might say that there are certain ideas you need to accept before you’ll count as a “real” Christian in God’s eyes.  They might also say that there are certain things that you need to do if you want to be “saved.”

Folks like this have been around for a long time.  In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say they’ve been around for as long as organized religion has been part of human society.  We can definitely see their tendencies emerging within the pages of the Bible itself.

In the earliest decades of Christianity, there were two influential groups that developed within the church, each with its own ideas and ideologies.  The first group is now known as the Judaizers.  These were folks who had a very high degree of respect for Christianity’s roots in Jewish religion and culture.  So great was their love for this heritage that many of them began to insist that every new Christian should become Jewish first.  They thought this would limit the amount of cultural perversion and assimilation that might happen among Christians.  The Judaizers insisted that Christian believers of all ethnicities should make certain that they follow all 613 of God’s commandments in the Jewish Torah.  The leaders of the early church, however, decided together that the doors of the church should be flung as wide open as possible in order to welcome people from every tribe, language, people, and nation into the community of Christ.  Christianity’s honored roots may have been Jewish, they said, but its future would be international and multicultural.  You can read about the details of this conversation in chapter 15 of the book of Acts in the New Testament.  The apostle Paul confronted this controversy head-on in his Epistle to the Galatians (also in the New Testament).  He had a lot of passionate things to say about it (he was against the Judaizers).  Even though the issue seems to have died down in the later part of the first century, we can still hear echoes of that conflict in today’s reading from John’s First Epistle.  John’s words about “obey[ing] the commandments” may well have been a reference back to the controversy with the Judaizers.  With their strict emphasis on following the commandments, one can easily see how the Judaizers were the ones who said that there are certain things that people need to do in order to count as “saved” in God’s eyes.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through behavior.

The second influential group in the early Christian church was actually a collection or series of different groups that had common characteristics.  Collectively, they are now known as the Gnostics.  These were folks who came into their Christian faith from the Greco-Roman side of the equation.  They brought with them a love of philosophy and wisdom as part of their cultural heritage.  As they began to explore their newfound Christian faith, they tried their best to understand Christianity through the lens of philosophy.  Popular philosophical thought at the time saw the physical world as completely evil and the spiritual world as completely good.  The Gnostics saw Jesus as a kind of divine messenger who floated down to earth and appeared to take on human form in order to teach humanity the secret knowledge that would allow them to transcend above the realm of the physical and enter the spiritual realm, where God lives.  The early church leaders, especially the author of John’s First Epistle, were extremely uncomfortable with the idea that this world is totally evil and Jesus wasn’t a real flesh and blood human like you or me.  With their emphasis on “secret knowledge” as the source for salvation, the Gnostics were like those who insist that a person has to accept certain ideas or interpretations of scripture in order to count as a “real” Christian.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through belief.

Now John, writing as a pastor to his congregation in his First Epistle, challenges both of these false assumptions, but he spends a lot more time being concerned about the Gnostics (probably because that was the bigger issue with this congregation).

John counters these ideas with one, huge, over-arching principle that trumps both belief and behavior: Love.

John is the writer who famously wrote, “God is love.”  God’s love, given freely and unconditionally to those who neither deserve nor earn it, is the basis of all authentic Christian faith and action.  Another word for this kind of unconditional love is “grace.”  That’s what we mean when we sing, “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  The Protestant Reformers, our forbears in this church, were following in John’s footsteps when they leaned heavily on the principle of sola gratia or “grace alone” as one of the central foundations of their faith.  In theological terms, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.  In plain English, it means “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For John, the Protestant Reformers, and all of us in this church, the primary revelation of God’s love is in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus embodied love.  He lived and died for others.  He set for us an example of what love looks like and what the power of love can do in this world.

According to John, the only way to respond to this free gift of unconditional love is to give love freely and unconditionally.  When we love like Jesus, we remind ourselves and others that love is the Ground of our Being.  Love is the heartbeat at the center of the universe.  When we love like Jesus, our hearts beat in time with the cosmos.

Love is so much simpler, yet so much more difficult, than following a list of prescribed beliefs and behaviors.  We would much rather have an itemized creed to which we demanded adherence from everyone.  That’s way easier than loving.  We would much rather have a code of conduct that spelled out every possible contingency and application for each regulation.  That’s way easier than loving.

Love is a fluid and unpredictable thing.  Love keeps us creative and flexible.  Love is difficult, but it’s also so sorely needed.

You and I live in a society where dogmatism and litigiousness run rampant, but real love and community are on the decline.  Just as the Beatles found out that “money can’t buy me love,” we’re finding out that we can’t legislate it either.  It would be so much easier to simply draw our lines in the sand over belief and behavior, keeping us in and them out.

The one thing that’s lacking in this land is a sense of love and community.  People are longing to belong.

In spite of our exponentially accelerated rate of communication and information exchange in our culture, folks are feeling more isolated than ever.  This is a time when the recovery of love as our central principle for faith and action is needed more than ever.

Because of this great need in the world and the great love that is in us as the people of God, I am ordaining and commissioning you all this morning as evangelists and missionaries of love to Central New York and the North Country.  I’m not asking you to go proselytize your neighbors or try to win converts at the grocery store.  There are enough folks out there doing that already.

At best, those “missionaries” and “evangelists” are only trying to get people to “believe that” certain ideas about Jesus are true (i.e. that he is the Son of God who was born of a virgin, died on the cross, and rose from the grave).  Those pamphlets of religious literature can never really get people to “believe in” Jesus in a real way.

I can say “I believe that” about any number of facts.  I believe that I am standing in a pulpit right now.  I believe that there is a stack of paper in front of me.  I believe that I can see our organist from here.  All of those are simple statements of fact.

But to say “I believe in” takes a much more personal commitment.  I believe in this church.  I believe in you.  It’s a statement of personal trust and relationship.  It goes way farther than simply giving intellectual assent to a list of statements on a piece of paper.

Into this isolated and isolating world that knows so little of real love, I want to send you all as evangelists and missionaries of unconditional love in word and action.  Show your faith in love through loving deeds, not creeds.  Help people to believe in that love which we hold most sacred.

I commission you in the words of another, more famous, American Universalist named John Murray, who preached during the 1700s:

Go out into the highways and by-ways.  Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

4 thoughts on “Sola Gratia

  1. ED Ratazzi

    Wow! I finally understand why I don’t think much of dogmatic churches and people. I guess I too am a Universalist. Having grown up in a Catholic household with all the guilt etc, I found the Reformed doctrine of Grace Alone very comforting and slowly began to think this loving God would never sent someone to eternal damnation. There must be another way.

    Love is much harder than doctrine. Theology according ED is much more difficult than required beliefs for membership. That’s the freedom and danger of our Reformed Faith. Freedom to believe as we think right and the grave danger that we could be wrong. But I continue to read, listen and think on this impossible subject.

    Thanks for helping me with this continuous refinement of my beliefs.


  2. Cliff

    After reading your article, I can’t help wonder what you do with scripture verses like Romans 6:23 and the like? Please Advise. Cliff

    1. Thanks, Cliff. Good question.

      You’re referring to the section of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he famously declares that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

      I would absolutely agree that the wages of sin is death. I’ve seen it firsthand. My earliest experiences in ministry mostly had to do with caring for people who were in the very first stages of recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol. A friend of mine once described my job rather well when he said, “Basically, you meet people on the worst day of their life.” People showed up on the doorstep of the crisis center where I worked in the worst possible condition. Most were alone, unemployed, broke, and homeless. I watched many of them suffer through the physical symptoms of withdrawal. One guy was freshly bruised and bloody after being beaten within an inch of his life by a drug dealer to whom he owed money. Another one later hung himself in his apartment while I had to explain suicide to his five-year-old son. The body of another one was found floating face down in a frozen river on the edge of town. Believe me when I tell you that I’ve seen human brokenness. I know full well what people will do to themselves in exchange for a cheap, temporary high. It’s death. The wages of sin is death. I believe that.

      Looking at this verse exegetically, it appears in the section of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he is laying out his phenomenology of redemption. He assumes that his audience consists of people who are already in a state of grace and endeavors to describe how that is so. In other words, he’s not telling people how to get saved; he assumes that they are already saved. He’s explaining to them how and why this is the case. Furthermore, Paul is exhorting his audience to live lives of greater holiness in view of the redemption that is theirs by grace. This verse (6:23) appears at the end of the section, where he appeals to their own personal histories as examples of what happens when people allow themselves to become slaves to sin. They die. Maybe not literally and all at once, but bit by bit, the very essence and meaning of life begins to slip away. By grace, Paul says, God the Great Physician intervenes and restores us to health.

      Hence, the “death” that Paul speaks of in 6:23 refers not to future eternal punishment in the afterlife for the damned, but past self-inflicted suffering in this present life suffered by those who have been redeemed by the “free gift” of God’s grace.

      1. brotherbob

        As a Welfare worker and as a chaplain in a hospital I can only echo your thoughts. And thanks for the distinction between damnation (extinction) and past death. I believe that every day brings the hope of salvation, even to we who are dead to joy, love and salvation “now”

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