Give Us Barabbas!
Is the Reformation teaching of salvation by “grace alone” an overreaction to the works-based excesses of the 16th Century Papacy?
Is there, instead, something left of the image of God in man, even if the tiniest spark or smoldering ember, which is willing and able to either call on God’s grace or to respond to God’s grace? Could God blow his Spirit over our sparks and embers and awaken us from a spiritual coma to His offer of salvation? Some pastors and parishioners would love the possibilities that such a salvation plan would offer – imagine the sermon series, books, spiritual disciplines, etc.
I’m afraid there’s only one problem: From end to end, the Bible is adamant that as it pertains to our relationship with God, there is no spark or smoldering ember in any of us. The intentions of our hearts are evil from our youth (Gen 8:2); our human natures are enslaved to sin (John 8:34); and our human natures are hostile to God (Rom 8:7). If asked whether we want Jesus or Barabbas, our human natures corrupted by sin will always choose Barabbas.
What about free will?
Here we can make a distinction. In matters of civil righteousness, coerced by the law and restrained by societal norms, people have the liberty to a certain extent to render civil righteousness. So virtually all people, whether Christian or not, perform outward works of civil righteousness some of the time, while going in the opposite direction at other times. Some people go in one direction more of the time than other people.
But in matters pertaining to God, the human will is incapable of deciding for the Gospel; it will only reject God and the Gospel. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14) It is critical that we understand that as it pertains to God, whether as to love, obedience or even seeking Him, nothing good dwells in the natural person. (Rom 7:18) The only freedom the natural person has is to sin, and we sin voluntarily and gladly.
Why does the teaching of “grace alone” rub us the wrong way?
Grace alone is hard to swallow because it requires us to face our most sacred sins – pride, and self-righteousness. Grace alone means we’re as helpless and undeserving as the dregs of society (we are all dregs apart from Christ). There can be no comparisons with others, because we merit nothing. Grace alone means that God’s love isn’t for sale. In fact, working for God’s grace or our salvation is to reject both of them.
But salvation by grace alone is also the most freeing gift of all – it’s our true freedom in Christ, who for our salvation died and rose again, destroying the power of the accuser and removing the sting of death. The Gospel, of which “grace alone” is an integral part, is more than sufficient to overcome our natural depravity and bound wills. In the Gospel, and by baptism, Jesus unites us to himself in a death and resurrection by water and the Spirit, which creates a new being who is able to discern the things of God and learns to walk by the Holy Spirit. We will continue to sin and struggle against the evil inclinations of our natural person, but we no longer are powerless to call upon the name of our Lord for help, who has promised to hear our prayers, forgive our sins, sanctify our works, grant us eternal life, and always be with us.
Lord, preserve us in your Word!