2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We're commemorating the anniversary by highlighting its five rallying themes: Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura), Faith Alone (Sola Fide), Christ Alone (Solo Christo), Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), and Glory to God Alone (Soli Deo Gloria).
Our family has quite the collection of Bible storybooks, gifts from loved ones who pray for our son’s faith formation. Most of the storybooks are very good, and we enjoy working our way through the stack at bedtime. At times, though, I find myself rephrasing a line or two as I read the book aloud. I judge that some important detail has been lost trying to craft the story for children.
I struggle to find the right words, and perhaps these books do too since the Bible itself does not always read like a children’s book. Take Genesis 12 for example: the chapter starts with God speaking to Abra(ha)m. It feels like we are jumping into the middle of a conversation, like we accidentally skipped a page in the storybook. God commands Abraham to leave everything and go to the land God will show him. Then God bestows on him an extravagant blessing that extends to all peoples on earth (Gen 12:1-3). But who is this Abraham guy, anyway? Why has God chosen him? He seems to be just another name in chapter 11. What makes Abraham so special that he should be the one through whom all nations will be blessed? It seems like some important detail was left out and we need to supply it.
Some storybooks do just that with Genesis 12. Before God says anything, the narrator introduces us to Abraham. We might get details like: Abraham is a good man, or Abraham believes in God. Sounds harmless, right? This may be a nice way to set up the story, but when we read Genesis 12 like this we are in danger of missing what is so profound: Scripture never says why God chooses Abraham. There is no lost detail.
Genesis 12 helps us reflect on the principle of sola gratia, grace alone. Abraham receives undeserved favor. We are not told what distinguishes him from others members of his family. We know nothing about his character or belief. The story of Abraham does not begin with Abraham; it begins with God. God speaks first. God reveals his overwhelming desire to bless. To supply extra details would make the story less wonderful.
Sola gratia focuses our attention on what God does instead of what we do—God’s big story and not our details. In particular, sola gratia refers to the Reformation emphasis on the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ; no one is able to earn or merit salvation. Not even Abraham deserved God’s favor, even though it is tempting to justify Abraham’s election as we read the story of his life.
Maybe, like me, you have caught yourself misreading your own story, living as if you can supply your own lost details of faithfulness and righteousness. For us, confessing sola gratia means facing the hard truth that these details do not save us. In his new book, Biblical Authority after Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer says, “Grace contradicts every system of religion precisely because God’s free mercy cannot be predicted, calculated, or manipulated. Grace is especially troublesome for control freaks—sinners curved in on themselves, bent on securing their own existence and status” (p. 40).
Instead of getting lost in self-examination, God invites us to look up and see our place in the one grand story revealed in Scripture. This is ultimately a story not about us, but about God and God’s gracious initiative—a grace displayed most clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The stories of our lives do not need details like “he was a good person” or “she believed in God”; the main theme is always God’s amazing grace.
- What are your impressions of Abraham in the Bible? Or some other “saint” in Scripture? Did you feel they in any way deserved their divine appointments?
- Can you identify ways in which the church, perhaps inadvertently, tried to predict, calculate, or manipulate God’s free grace?
- In what ways have we misread our own individual stories in the shadow of deservingness rather than in the light of God’s amazing grace?
- How should recognizing God’s grace to us affect our personal lives and the way we relate to others?
In the spirit of commemoration, The Banner wishes to alert readers to an article on the same topic in the Calvin Theological Seminary's Forum (Spring 2017).
About the Author
Sarah Schreiber is assistant professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary and an associate pastor at Grace CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.