Protestant State of the Union (Part I)
On October 31, 2017, Protestants around the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The occasion created an opportunity to reflect on the many notable contributions of the Protestant Reformation to world history. The many benefits of the Reformation are undeniable–literacy, religious freedom, individual rights, the value of the human conscience, vernacular worship, the five solas, and many others.1 This year, as Protestants celebrate their heritage, I propose that we also stop for a moment of critical self-examination. While our positive contributions to the history of the Christian faith have become obvious over time, we would do well to critique what Protestant Christianity has become 500 years after the efforts of the original reformers. In this way, the 500th anniversary can become not only an occasion for celebration of the past but also an opportunity to chart a new path forward for the continuation of the Reformation legacy.
“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (Jas 2:26; NRSV)
In the Protestant experience, faith is often reduced to mere intellectual assent to points of doctrine. When we baptize a new believer, we ask the person to affirm a series of theological statements or attend a set of classes that teach the basic tenets of the faith. While faith certainly consists in a belief of the heart (Rom 10:9) and an interior conviction (Heb 11:1), in a classical Protestant framework the risk is that faith remains nothing more than a private opinion and a collection of ideas about God. This type of easy faith is promoted when certain sects within Protestantism teach new believers to pray a simple sinner’s prayer in order to gain salvation and everlasting life.
True biblical faith is a conviction of the heart and mind about the unseen world that moves a person in the seen world. The patriarch Abraham exemplifies this type of faith. God speaks to him about an unseen country and an unfathomable family lineage. In response to God, Abraham believed God and it was “reckoned to him as righteousness ” (Gn 15:6; Rom 4:3).This belief of Abraham was no mere intellectual opinion. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb 12:8). Abraham’s faith in the unseen God caused him to pack up his belongings, gather together his extended family, and journey many miles toward the unknown.
At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, the book of the Bible arguably most important to the Protestant reformers, Paul explicitly states that his mission as an apostle is to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles ” (Rom 1:5). True faith is not only in the mind; true faith works in the whole human person, bringing about a life of love, obedience, and good works. The Protestant fallacy has been to create a firm divide between faith and good works, as if the two are mutually exclusive categories. The scriptures, however, teach the paradox of faith and works. True faith always bears fruit in a believer’s life; it cannot do otherwise because faith is a living, active, and dynamic reality.
When we make faith easy, conversion is nothing more than a changing of the mind and the life of faith is mere sentimentality. When John the Baptist preached his message of repentance and the coming kingdom, he implored his hearers, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance (Mt 3:8).” Faith always begins with a free response to God’s gracious initiation. All subsequent good works that come after the initial moment of faith come as a manifestation of God’s grace. Insisting that true faith results in the fruits of love and good works is no message of works righteousness. This is why Jesus separates the sheep and goats based on their works (Mt 25:31-46) and why Paul asserts that God “will repay according to each one’s deeds (Rom 2:6).” Good works flow from genuine faith, yet the gospel of easy faith minimizes the need for any tangible response to God’s grace.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.” (Titus 2:11-12)
When faith is viewed as simple intellectual belief, the gospel becomes a message of cheap grace. With minimal effort on our part, we receive the grace of God as a credit to our spiritual bank accounts. This transaction costs us nothing more than the mental assent to the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. However, this shallow sense of faith and grace results in a grace that has no power to change us or transform us.
In many Protestant churches, believers appear to glory in their sinfulness and brokenness. They are thankful to be redeemed people, yet they remain perpetually broken and sinful, and they pride themselves on this point. Each week the pastor or worship leader repeats the mantra, “We are all just broken people.” In this understanding of the gospel, God’s grace is simply the forgiveness of sin. This, though, is the gospel of the cross without the gospel of the resurrection and new life.
In the scriptures God’s grace has the power to transform people so that they are no longer simply broken sinners. Jesus tells Nicodemus that a person must be “born from above” or born again to enter God’s kingdom (Jn 3:3). Grace, for Jesus, is not simply forgiveness; it is the offer of a new and abundant life. When Jesus offers grace to the woman caught in adultery, he leaves the woman with these words of exhortation, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again (Jn 8:11).” In Romans 8, Paul insists that believers have been set free in order that they might live according to the Spirit. They are no longer bound to the futility of sin and human nature. By the power of the Spirit, Christians can transcend the flesh and live in a way that pleases God (Rom 8:1-17). Grace is always and ever the free and gracious gift of God, yet grace is so much more than mere forgiveness. As Paul teaches in his letter to Titus, grace enables us to live godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12). Jesus rose again on Easter Sunday so that he might conquer the powers of sin and death and set us free to live the way God originally created us to live.
“Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14)
When faith is easy and grace is cheap, holiness becomes entirely optional. Even more, holiness ceases to have any meaning in this understanding of the gospel. If one is saved by simple faith, has no need for good works, and remains always broken and sinful, what place is there for living a holy life? In this way of thinking about the gospel, holiness is more than irrelevant; it is, to a certain degree, antithetical to the good news of being a redeemed sinner.
Some years back I sat in a Protestant worship service where the pastor railed against congregants who saw themselves as growing in holiness and sanctification. This particular church poorly combined Calvin’s sense of predestination with Luther’s concept of the Christian as simultaneously saint and sinner. When these two ideas come together, holiness becomes either a sign of spiritual pride or works righteousness. The pastor told the whole congregation that his duty was to “tear down” anyone who thought they were more holy than someone else in the church and to remind them that we are all simply broken sinners.2 In defense of this pastor, he was trying to address the danger of spiritual pride, but his comments served to completely undermine any who would aspire toward growth, sanctification, and holiness.3
The Scriptures, by contrast, insist that Christians are to be holy. The apostle Peter invokes the words of Leviticus 19:2 and applies them to Christians: “Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct ” (1 Pet 1:15). In his second letter, Peter teaches that the gospel allows Christians to “become participants of the divine nature ” (2 Pet 1:4). The good news of the gospel is not simply that we are called righteous or holy on account of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection. The good news is that Christ’s righteousness and holiness can actually become a part of our being. This is by no means a gospel of works because it is the free gift of God’s grace and the obedience of Christ that transforms us to live holy lives. The book of Hebrews is adamant that Christians must be holy in order to see God (Heb 12:14).
A Way Forward
As Protestants in the 21st century, we need to reclaim the full biblical sense of faith that demands the twin responses of love and obedience. Too often we have been guilty of making faith overly intellectual, fearing any mention of the necessity of good works. When we do this, we reduce God’s grace to a license to sin and encourage a casual approach to Christian living. However, the scriptures teach that God’s grace possesses the power to remake us and transform us so that we can obey God and keep God’s commandments. When we recover the experience of the resurrecting power of God’s grace, we will see that holiness is not only possible through the Spirit, but it is our only appropriate response to what God has done for us.
(1) NPR even ran a story praising Martin Luther for his impact on the history of beer. You can read the full story here.
(2) The pastor actually used the expression “tear down.” As a pastor myself, I feel like my duty is to “build up” the Body of Christ. I was so thoroughly unimpressed by this church’s theology that I never visited a second time. Maybe if I had been a member of the congregation, I would have understood the pastor’s remarks in light of the congregational context. It’s possible that he was trying to legitimately address issues of pride but chose his words unwisely.
(3) This is a legitimate concern within the Neo-Calvinist church planting world. One of the leading voices of this movement, Kevin DeYoung, wrote a book The Hole in Our Holiness to address some of the concerns from the inside.