By Bob Hiller –
Have you ever heard that one can preach too much Gospel? Have you ever encountered phrases like “cheap grace” or “easy-believe-ism?” Perhaps you’ve heard a preacher wax on about how the Gospel of salvation by grace alone is true, but it is the “milk” for baby Christians. At some point, the sermon goes, we need to move past the baby food (in this case, the Gospel) and get to the solid food of Christian living. An over-emphasis on justification or grace alone waters down the faith and makes it too easy. We need, it is said, to graduate from the elementary teachings of justification and move into the more mature teachings on sanctification.
Now, as it turns out, I believe there is such a thing as growth in the Christian life. I think it is true that the longer the Word of God works on you, the more you mature. However, what I have become more bothered by over the years is this idea that, in order for such growth to take place, we need to get past the Gospel so we can get down to the more advanced business of Christian living, i.e. the Law. It’s not that we don’t need to hear the advanced business of the Law, of course we do; the old Adam/Eve still needs to be dealt with as we grow in our faith. But, what is troublesome is this idea that the Gospel is something we have to move beyond, that it is the elementary stuff, it is the food for babies that grow out of. I mean, do people really think that directions for Christian living are more substantive than the incarnation, bloody crucifixion, and resurrection of the second person of the triune God for sinners? The bloody substitution of Jesus for sinners is hardly the stuff of Gerber’s mashed sweet potatoes.
What also bothers me about this idea that we need to grow beyond the Gospel is the phrase I mentioned earlier: “easy-believe-ism.” Easy-believe-ism is a phrase used to describe those who think the Christian life doesn’t matter, that they can live as sinfully as they want so long as they believe in Jesus (who actually believes this remains to be seen). The attempt here is to go after those who think there is such a thing as deed-less faith. Even the demons have that sort of faith, says James (2:19). That’s all well and good. The trouble is that people tend to run too far and begin to confuse easy-believe-ism with salvation through faith alone. Many teachers will formally proclaim salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, but in practice and preaching, they will turn you to your works for your assurance before God. Sure, Jesus did enough to save you, but you’d better prove you believe it or else you may not be saved (or so the thinking goes)!
Here’s (at least part of) the problem: faith isn’t easy. I suppose one could say that salvation graciously given on account of Christ alone is “easy” because you do nothing but receive it. Maybe one could say that this makes the grace and salvation too cheap (but, as old Forde liked to say, this isn’t cheap grace, its free!). But, it seems to me that the very fact people don’t trust it to be enough and believe there is more that needs to be added simply proves the opposite of what they are arguing. That is to say, the attack on faith alone making Christianity too easy proves that it is one of the hardest things in the world to grasp and believe. There is nothing easy about faith! Looking to our own works is far easier.
Let me see if I can give an example of how faith in Christ is so hard to believe. I am a Colorado Rockies fan. This season has been about as good of a season as the Rockies have had. They were off to their best start in franchise history and, though they’ve struggled of late, they are still strong contenders for a Wild Card position in the playoffs. But, I don’t believe it will last. Though this is one of the most promising teams they’ve had in years, they always start strong. The playoffs start in October and the Rox usually bow out of contention in mid-May. They begin hot, but inevitably peter out. So, this year it has been hard to believe how well they have played for so long! I doubt it will last. I keep checking the standings, I double-check the scores, I get updates from my phone telling me how well they are playing. Without these, I just won’t believe in their success. Nearly every other experience I’ve had with a Rockies season has taught me to doubt their success. I expect them to lose. I don’t trust them.
Ok, so maybe you see where this is going. Betting all the blue chips (as Dr. Rosenbladt puts it) on the shed blood of Jesus for my salvation is the hardest thing in the world for me to do. In fact, it takes a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the Word to make it happen! Every other relationship that I have, every other experience that I’ve been through, teaches me that life is conditional, that is, it depends, at least in some part, on me. I have to work in order to get paid, my congregation didn’t hire me by grace alone. My wife didn’t marry me by grace alone (though it is pretty close…). She saw something in me which made her trust I was worthy to marry. I didn’t graduate high school without earning the grades. You get the idea. Everything in this world is wired by conditions. Nothing is graciously free, at least not forever. Even the free samples at Costco are there for those who have paid to get a membership and are given so you perform well by purchasing the food you’ve tried. I don’t trust that anything is given to me by the grace of a giver alone.
That is why I no longer really buy the idea of “easy-believe-ism.” Because belief is hard. In full honesty, I have a hard time believing that God isn’t going to condemn me for my thoughts, words, and deeds (this is not a rhetorical point, I actually struggle with this). I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop and for a theologian or pastor to come along and tell me faith alone in Jesus is not enough and until I get this or that part of my life cleaned up, I am still on the outside. I don’t have a hard time buying into that. It makes so much more sense to me that I’ve got to do at least a little something to solidify this saving relationship with God. My natural inclination is to doubt that Jesus is enough.
That is why I need a preacher. I need someone to continue to attack my doubt with the Law’s hammer and strengthen my faith with the promises of Christ. I need to hear someone tell me that the bread I’m eating and the wine I’m drinking are the body and blood for me and my forgiveness. I need to be told, again and again, that this is enough because I am ready not to believe it. I think we pastors would do well to remember that faith comes through hearing the Word of Christ, the Word of free forgiveness. We would do well to remember that downplaying that Word, or moving beyond that Word, only reinforces doubt and weakens faith. But the giving of the gracious promises of Christ crush doubt and strengthens faith. By grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone? I can’t believe it, so someone better give it to me quickly before someone feeds my doubt!