For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)
I’ve been reminded several times in the past few weeks, that salvation is by faith through grace, and not by works. Thank you people who reminded me… but… I don’t really want to be reminded. Now, we could talk for hours about what grace is, or how it works, what it means in different parts of the Bible, but while it may be fun, it really is a semantic game. It doesn’t get to the root of the problem, and in fact, grace is often a chance to look past the problems. And when we compact Christian faith into a settling of accounts between an individual and God, grace is barely more than a mistake the bank made in my favor. Argue with my definition all you want, but if you have to nuance it and redefine it so much, then we are really talking around the problem, rather than speaking at it.
Salvation through grace is contextual, an empowering solution to a form of tyranny. To remove grace from this context, and leave it in the realm of original sin or human depravity, is to miss the critique of power implicit in the simplicity of grace. Grace becomes bourgeois, a solution to “first world problems.” Let’s put it in perspective.
Let’s say I am an SS officer under the Third Reich (I know, another Nazi reference). Maybe I’m a Nazi sympathizer, maybe I have deep reservations about what I do. Either way, I’m complicit in the oppression of thousands of people, not that the numbers matter. For me to attend worship, and settle my individual account with God, while those that I oppress also settle their individual accounts with God, by grace through faith, is to miss the point of grace altogether. Frankly, we are all complicit in some form of systemic or direct oppression, be it through an unfair economic system, through our silence against bullies, or through our overconsumption. And to simply claim a settled account and salvation in the face of these truths is an insult to grace.
In Romans and Galatians, Paul addresses (at least) two different communities on account of divisive conflicts within each group. Paul is not laying out a systematic theology that is true for all times in all places. Paul is directly addressing these conflicts, and grace, faith, works, and law, all have to be understood in the context of these conflicts. For in each case, one group is excluding another group on account of a formation of laws. And in each case, grace is a formulation by which Paul balances out the scales, so each group knows their equality before God. In each case they are to be servants of one another. Paul uses grace to level out the balance of power between conflicting sides, attacking divisive ideologies, providing a space for all. It is not simply a settling of individual accounts with God. It benefits the weaker party.
Fast forward to Luther, who grasped the power of grace to favor those oppressed by the Roman Church. For Luther, grace became a settling of individual accounts with God, but only because the masses were having to settle individual accounts with Rome. Having instead to settle individual accounts with God, they no longer were under the oppressive ideology of Rome. But this is not truth for all time–grace is not settling individual accounts anywhere, anytime. Grace functions to liberate the marginalized from the oppressed, and it must remain in this context.
Jesus too. How often did Jesus turn to the Pharisees, to Herod, to Pilate or Caesar and say, “Your sins are forgiven”? Rather, it was to the outcasts, the paralytic, the tax-collectors, to those that the “true-believers” rejected that Jesus extended such grace. Jesus challenged what it meant to be sinful and how “sin” was lorded over others. So grace and forgiveness are the solution, but the problem is not universal sin or human depravity, it is a power imbalance.
So personally, I recognize I am not marginalized, nor am I a victim of oppression. I understand myself as complicit in various forms of systemic oppression and injustice. I am far more in need of repentance and Gospel-living than I am in need of grace. That’s hard to say as a Lutheran, but I think it puts grace in its right context. And so, I am giving up grace for Lent.
But by God’s grace, I hope in the process of giving it up, I can give it out as well.