Grace, Faith, Works & Democracy

God had taken his place in the divine council in the midst of the rich and powerful (gods) on which he held judgment. “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphans, maintain the right of the lowly and destitute, rescue the weak and needy, deliver them from the hands of the wicked! You are the rich and powerful (gods), yet children of the Most High, all of you.  Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals and fall like any prince.” (Psalm 82)

We are saved by faith, not works. Does that nullify the law? No, through faith the law is upheld.  By faith we are reconciled with God, our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life. (Romans 3-5)

Faith without works is dead.  Faith is lived through works. (James)


These central themes in the early life of the church raise a lot of questions. What is faith? What law does faith uphold? How can faith be lived through works while depending on only God’s grace for salvation? The church has struggled with these questions for over two thousand years. Answers have been guided by the Spirit but hobbled by humanity’s stiff-necked reluctance. God has always been pushing up against the conditions of time, space and human inability to apprehend, much less comprehend, anything beyond the norms and conditions of the society in which they live. Normative answers by the late 15th century had become so distorted by greed, superstition and lust for power that a system of pay for salvation and bishoprics for sale corrupted the Western church and stretched the tolerance of Martin Luther and others who separated from Rome. The Protestant Reformation restored worship to emphasize grace through faith, grace the only measure of salvation, and the Bible the only source of authoritative religious law. They believed lives faithfully lived would more closely follow in the way of Jesus as the only rule of life. 

Predictably, the human ideals of what that way looked like resulted in new norms of  social life restricted by cultural and intellectual limitations of the time.  As Luther observed, that meant the church must always be in a state of reformation learning to hear God’s voice speaking in new ways, ways goading humanity ever farther in a godly direction. It was not counsel he found easy to follow himself.

It’s not something humans do very well. Reforming changes are difficult once new norms are set. But change happens anyway, and by the 20th century a movement inAmerican evangelical Protestants had codified new fundamentals of faith that opposed science, intellectualism biblical criticism, and demanded that acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior be the only and sufficient key to salvation. For them, anyone who discerned words from God differing from their strict fundamentals were misled by the devil. Today’s conservative evangelical Protestants are dominated by the demand that social norms of a mythical mid 20th century America be recognized as the only Christian way of life.

They also want to put God “back” into the public arena by making their version of conservative evangelicalism the nation’s de facto religion taught in public schools and proclaimed by prayer at public meetings and events. Moreover, they want their social norms to be the law of the land. It’s a scheme diametrically opposed to the ways of God and to over 200 years of constitutional democracy working to keep majorities and minorities from tyrannizing each other.

The narrative has drifted ever farther from  the starting place: that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but fulfill it, and we are commanded to do likewise.  But what laws and how?

Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love the lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. On these two laws hang all the laws and prophets. Everything in scripture, all religious writings, and whatever is said by religious leaders must be weighed and judged by the laws of divine love.

What does that look like, and how is it to be lived out? Jesus gave us another commandment: love one another as I love you. And how does he show his love for us?  The record is in the gospels.  They are there for our deep study and application, but as Paul confessed, we are limited by our own time and conditions of life.  We understand only dimly.  Full understanding awaits us in our new life on the other side of death. In the meantime, we are to boldly follow where Christ is leading. It is the way of peace, healing, and reconciliation.  It is the way of economic and social justice commanded by God through the prophets.  It is the way of inclusion, not exclusion, of breaking down barriers, not erecting them.  It is the way of moral confidence, but not to human puritanism.

God created the earth for humanity to live in harmony with one another and all of creation, enjoying the abundance available to all.  God did not promise perfection in this life and with good reason.  We have proven ourselves to be greedy, selfish, and lusting for power over others so God gave relatively simple laws to follow, most fully illuminated in Christ Jesus. We all walk crooked paths, go down many dead ends, and let selfishness control us. In Christ, God forgives our errors and restores us to the better way, if we let ‘him’ and as often as we let ‘him.’  It is a way of life that fundamentalism diverts into spiritual dead ends, and in America to anti-democratic authoritarian rule by the minority.

Note: This piece ends a concluding sentence or two.  Each reader can come up with her or his own.

©Steven E.Woolley

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