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When Law Looks Like Grace


When Law Looks Like Grace

Last week Ryan Reeves wrote a piece over at the Gospel Coalition which highlighted Luther’s concern that law can often look a lot like grace. For Luther, Reeves says,

The problem is what is required after our baptism. The church taught (rightly) that there is ongoing repentance and remorse in our life for ongoing sins. What had developed in the Middle Ages, though, was a set of beliefs that these works somehow restored the Christian to the state of grace. Sin tarnished the grace given to the believer, so works properly restored the believer to intimacy with a gracious God.

In other words, it isn’t getting in that is the issue. The medieval church agreed that our initial entrance into salvation was by God’s grace alone. The problem was that after we are in, it is up to us to work together with God to stay in. As Reeves points out, this has the effect of nullifying any assurance in the cross and confidence in its power to save to the uttermost. Because of this, despite their claim to the contrary, Luther believed that this all amounted to salvation by works. In this system, God graciously grants salvation apart from our works, but our works keep us in His grace if our motives are pure enough.

The thing is, as Reeves points out, we as Protestants are just as guilty of believing the same thing! We may not codify it into doctrine, but often times we live our lives as if our conversion was by grace but our holiness comes by our efforts to do better. Instead, scripture teaches that our salvation is by grace from start to finish. Our justification, sanctification, and our glorification are all by grace. So where do our works come in? Our good works are the fruit (or the result) of our justification.

Head on over to The Gospel Coalition and read What Does Luther Teach Us About Grace?¬†While there, check out his YouTube video for an overview of Luther’s Reformation.

If you would like to learn more about the life of Luther I’d recommend Luther, Biography of a Reformer. If you want to read about Luther’s view of justification, I’d recommend Luther On Justification. Finally, if you want to read Luther’s own words on Faith, here is a very good translation of Through Faith Alone.

8 thoughts on “When Law Looks Like Grace

  1. Ieremias

    I love how you put it near the end there. It is by grace from start to finish. At the very least it gives us the confidence that the work of Christ was enough to save us and to keep us. THAT IS grace.

  2. Christine

    I don’t get why they call this grace. I’ve already tried participating in my righteousness and it doesn’t work. I need something greater than me. I need something that never fails if I have any chance.

  3. Jeni P

    The video on his page was really good. It helped me to put things in context.

  4. Raymond Peters

    Catholic fan here. I think the article does a fair job despite his Protestant bias. What I would add is that penance isn’t just something the Church made up. It’s a sacrament so we believe it is an outward sign of an inward grace instituted by Christ himself. The beauty of this Sacrament is that it is not Satan accusing us or anyone else. In confession I accuse myself and wait to hear the words of absolution from Christ. So we believe that I am the accuser, the accused, and my own witness. The priest who hears my confession is the judge and sentencer. So when he gives me my penance I am delivered from my guilt. This is grace. I am also delivered from the eternal punishment if my sin was a mortal sin. This process reconciles me to God which is why we can call it justification. The priest doesn’t forgive my sins in the sacrament. He can’t. He’s not God. But God has arranged it in such a way that forgiveness for sins is through the ministry of priests. So the priest is just facilitating God’s forgiveness. It really is beautiful. John 20 is where Jesus instituted penance when he said, “Receive the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them. Whose sins you retain they are retained”. Before this Jesus breathed on his disciples transferring the authority to the Church.

  5. The only problem Raymond is that where you ended up from that one verse doesn’t add up. It overlooks a number of alternate interpretations that fit better with the rest of scripture. And to take one verse about authority given to a small specific group (the apostles) and create a whole system of working to stay saved is just horrible handling of the text. You wouldn’t do that with any literary work. Why not treat scripture with as much of not more respect?

  6. Raymond Peters

    I understand what you are saying Michelle. To be honest I look at other passages and wonder how this could be! But it is the teaching that was handed down from the apostles to the Church and it is the teaching of the Church therefore it is the right interpretation despite what human wisdom perceives. It is the right understanding and therefore a wonderful mystery not plain to all eyes.

    • Well Raymond that pretty much says it all. You acknowledge that scripture seems to be saying something different but allow the authority of the church to override the plain meaning and see it as a wonderful mystery. I’m all for submitting to authority but only authority that first submits to scripture instead of putting themselves on the same level. We both see the exact same thing in scripture and both agree that someone is not seeing what is there.

  7. Jacob

    Whenever we add anything to grace it ceases to be grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. If we add anything to it, and it is accepted as pleasing to God, then it is no longer umerited.

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