Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian
Isaiah 62:5 ...As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
After a decade of self-study in historical and systematic theology, a year of graduate study of Christian history, and another year of graduate study in the history of doctrine, a thought has crystallized in my mind: The Protestant reformation largely fixed the problems of our "wedding" with Christ, but it is not sufficient to fix the marriage. Let me explain...
All of us who have been married- whether in a good marriage or a bad marriage- know that the engagemnet and the wedding are not like the day-in, day-out life of being married to our spouses. The quality of the marriage may be a natural outgrowth of the quality of the engagement, but it is also qualitatively different. My wife is the most incredible woman on the face of the earth, and I would not trade my life with her for life with anyone else, nor would I trade her for a lifetime of incredible "first dates" with the most beautiful women on earth (of which, my wife is one!). First dates and "falling in love" have an emotional umph and excitement that is rarely, if ever, duplicated later in marriage. But this emotional "outpouring" of falling in love is later replaced by the "deep sea" of committed love in marriage. An outpouring may last for a few days at most. A deep sea will never run dry.
All of this is to say that engagement and marriage are both as similar, and as different, as the similarities and differences between when I saw my wife dressed in white for our wedding (and later on our honeymoon night!), and when I now see my wife as we wake up at 3am to feed and care for our daughter. The same two people are there. The same love bonds them together. But the experience of that love, the depth of that love, the situation of that love, and the responsibilities of that love are totally different.
How does this deal with the Reformation and historical theology? The Reformation was largely a protest against seriously defective forms of theology and practice (mainly practice) that were keeping people from knowing and loving the true God revealed in Jesus Christ. With the late-medieval corruption of the clergy, and the practice of indulgences, people were worshipping a "god" whom one could "buy off" with silver and gold, a "god" who only loved us if we could pay through the nose and earn his love. In short, they were "marrying" the wrong god, or at least "marrying" the real God for the wrong reasons.
This was the experience of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli in Northern Europe. It seems, for some reason, that this experience was blunted if not absent in Spain, Eastern Europe and the Orthodox National Churches. It would be worth studying why this is the case. It is also worth noting that the things which the Reformers crusaded against were largely popular misinterpretations of the Catholic faith. If the Catholic Church had truly followed the theology of their guiding lights- people such as Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis, and Thomas Aquinas- I wonder if there would have been a need for a Church-shattering reformation. This line of argument is well defended in the writings of Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, especially in his fictional conversation between CS Lewis, Martin Luther, and Thomas Aquinas, found at http://www.peterkreeft.com.
Nevertheless, in Northern Europe, a spiritual, doctrinal (and military) war was waged about how we come to enter into a relationship with the living God through Christ Jesus. In short, the battle was largely about the wedding, not the marriage. This battle crystallized into the five "solas" of the reformation:
First, Sola Scriptura- "Scripture Alone": Scripture is the source and norm of the Christian faith, which all other tradition and doctrinal development must be checked by. We cannot have a true knowledge of God, or what God has done for us in Christ, apart from the data we have in Scripture. Furthermore, anything else claiming to be information about God must cohere to, and logically flow from, the data found in Scripture.
This is a sure guard against clergy who were giving partial, or false, information about God-in-Christ based on their own authority. It was intended to force people to go back to Scripture and ground their relationship with God in the data found there. It is also intended to make us realize that if we are to really know God, it must be based on God's self-revelation recorded in Scripture, and not based on what we feel or what others tells us they think God is.
This is a sure part of being "married" to God: If we want to know Him, we need to base our knowledge on what He tells us about Himself.
But, somewhere the wheels came off the Scripture cart: Suddenly, Scripture was declared to be both self-interpreting and authoritative in itself. This would be like claiming the US Constitution was self-interpreting and authoritative in itself. The Constitution does not hop up on two legs, tell you how to interpret it, and go around rebuking judges who try to legislate from the bench by going around the Constitution. The Bible doesn’t do that either. The Bible requires people and communities to interpret, use, and apply it. It doesn't do it on its own. Also, it is not "plainly clear" how to interpret it apart from an historic community of interpretation. If the Bible was as self-interpreting and clear as many Protestants claim, then everyone who interprets it would come to the same basic conclusions, and there would not be over 20,000 Protestant sects today. It is the community that interprets, and it is the community that acts as the authority to decide which interpretations are in and out of bounds. The question is: what community- what Family of Faith- is most faithful to the data found in Scripture and has the best claim to be the authoritative interpreter of it. I will not answer that here.
I just want to note that Sola Scriptura is a necessary reform to get us into an initial right relationship with God. Once we are in that right relationship- after the marriage- more daunting and deep questions arise about the interpretation of Scripture that "Sola Scriptura" simply cannot answer.
Second: Soli Deo Gloria- "Glory to God alone": The glory for our salvation ultimately belongs to God and to God alone. He is the animating power and love that reaches out, finds us, and brings us to know and love him. No glory goes to us, for we are utterly and totally lost in sin without God. If it were not for God helping us desire Him and desire salvation, we would not even want it. Thus, even the desire for God is the result of God working though our environment, our society, our community, our experiences, and even our genetics, to bring us to desire him.
This is a safeguard from anyone (like the famous heretic Pelagius) saying that we desire God and can find God on our own, so that we are ultimately responsible and glorified for our own salvation. This is a recognition that however we are saved, it is the result of God using manifold means to bring us home to Him. This is essential for our "wedding" with God: we have to know that it is not because we are inherently good or lovable that God chose us, but because He makes us good and lovable. All the glory goes to Him.
But, this logic does not hold after the "wedding", after we are renewed and made new creations, regenerated, transformed, and filled with the Spirit of God. There is a qualitative difference between who we are before we are justified and enter into a relationship with God-in-Christ, and after. Before, we have nothing. We are enemies of God. After, we are children, growing as children in ability, wisdom, and love, into the fullness of Christ. After, we are co-workers, co-operators with God for the salvation of the world (cf. 1Co 3:9; 2Co 5:18-20; 1Th 3:2; Col 4:11; 3Jo 1:8). Indeed, after we are "married" to God through Christ, Christ Himself tells His faithful "well done, good and faithful servant" (cf. Mat 25:21). Granted, the only way we can work with God is if God works through us, but AFTER we are married to Him, God does not keep His glory to Himself , but helps US become transformed "from one degree of glory to another" as we become conformed to the image of Christ (2Co 3:18).
Third, Sola Gratia- "By grace alone": This is a natural and logical outgrowth of the second sola. If we are saved, it is by God's grace alone, and not anything we "add" to our salvation. Grace is to be understood in two ways: First, as a concept, grace is undeserved favor and gift, given to someone who cannot earn or deserve it. Second, as a Person, grace is the presence of the Holy Spirit, giving us the gift of grace and making us like Christ. By grace we are created, and by grace our existence is sustained. If the presence and grace of the Spirit was removed, all reality would cease to be. By grace, and nothing we can do to "merit" it, we are elected by God and adopted into God's family. By grace, we are called to know Christ, and given understanding to know who He is and what the Gospel is. We could not even understand the Gospel without the Spirit giving us grace to understand. By grace, we are made into new creations and filled with the presence of Christ when we receive Christ as our Lord. We cannot become partakers of God without God Himself entering us through the grace of the Spirit. We cannot reach up to heaven and grab God and stuff Him into our lives. He has to come graciously, freely.
Sola Gratia reminds us that our marriage with God only happens because God initiates the relationship and we respond. To somehow think that we initiate the relationship with God badly distorts who God is and who we are as His creatures. Grace, in this is initial sense, is something alien and foreign to us, which we cannot have on our own merit. But, once we are "married" to God through Christ, this once alien grace becomes a part of us, and makes us a new creation. As a new creation, this grace is no longer alien, but natural, no longer outside, but inside, no longer something we must beg for as a slave, but something that we possess as a child.
Yes, even as "new creations" we realize that the source of this grace is not from ourselves. It is sourced in the eternal God. We do not "own" it, but we do possess it on "permanent loan" from our Father. Sola Gratia may remind us of something crucial to entering into a relationship with God, but once we are in the "marriage" with God, sola gratia takes on a very different perspective.
Fourth, Solo Christo- "By Christ alone": This is an important reminder that when we are saved, it is not because of any so-called "gods" or "idols" or "messiahs" of other religions, but only through Him who is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). We are not saved through our own best efforts, or even through the efforts of anointed ministers or super-holy saints. It is only by the atonement of Christ that we are made at-one with God. For there is only one God and one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus, who gave His life as a ransom at the proper time (cf. 1Ti 2:5).
To think that we come into the presence of God, or that God enters into our lives, by any other route than through the person and work of Christ absolutely destroys our relationship with God. Jesus is God incarnate, and to know Jesus is to know God. But, no Jesus, no God. Period. End of story.
And yet, once we are "married" to God, we become vehicles through which Christ reaches out to the world. We become His Body, His hands, and His feet (cf. Rom 12; 1Co 12). God makes His appeal for reconciliation through us (2Co 5:18-20). Those who accept us accept Him (i.e. Christ) who sends us (Mat 10:40). Our role in sharing Christ with the world is so very real that the Apostle Paul, after being "married" to God for years, has the audacity to claim that "in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1:24). This is our audacity too.
Once married to God, we become agents and incarnations of Christ to bring the world to know, love, and follow Him who is our head, that is, Jesus Christ. We are not the "end" in ourselves. We are not the "savior" of anyone else. But we do know who IS the End and the Savior, and like beggars leading other beggars to food, we bring the world to Christ.
Finally, Sola Fide- "By faith alone": This is the logical outgrowth of all of the other solas. This recognizes that we cannot earn salvation by doing "good works" to merit our salvation from Christ. We can only trust in Him alone and the grace He gives us and allow Him to save us and transform us. The Apostle Paul makes it clear when it says:
"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)
However, curiously, the Apostle immediately adds:
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)
As a reversal of this, we find the same Apostle writing:
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling!" (Philippians 2:12)
Then, somewhat ironically adding:
"For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:13)
And we should not even confuse the matter by adding what James, the bishop of Jerusalem and the brother of Jesus said. But we just can't help ourselves:
"What good is it... if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? ...Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead... a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (James 2:14-24 edited)
This last passage is, ironically, the only one in Scripture in which the phrase "faith alone" is used. What are we to make of this? Faith is the necessary and only "first step" in becoming married to God. When a woman is proposed to, she does not have to work to accept that proposal. She merely has to have faith in her boyfriend and accept his offer in faith. When she is eventually wedded, she does not have to first work to earn her vows, she merely says "I do" in faith that her fiancée really means the vows he is saying. Faith remains a necessary part of a healthy relationship. We cannot love someone we do not trust. But faith just opens the door, it does not walk through it. Faith lays the foundation, it does not build the house.
To put it another way: We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. It gives birth to the thoughts, words, and deeds of a transformed life. It is like a plant. Grace is the soil of the Christian life, faith is the root, and good works are the fruit. The root does not exist for itself and stay just a root (or else it dies). It exists to create a plant. To put it yet another way, faith is a means, not an end (just as the wedding vows are not an end, but the means to join a man and a woman together for a life of love). Faith is the means to bring us to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ as a child of God. Just as a wedding is supposed to result in the entire changed lifestyle of a marriage, so also faith is supposed to result in the changed lifestyle of a child of God.
Faith and works are two sides of the same coin, but faith is primary. Faith comes first. And "sola fide" is the necessary reminder of this crucial fact.
This post is not to "hate on" or "demean" the Reformation at all. Simply to point out its limitations. The conclusion to the matter is this: The Reformation was necessary. Five centuries and the five solas have ingrained into us what is truly necessary to enter into a relationship with God. And we need the constant reminder of the five solas to remember what it means to be "saved". But, the problem with most conservative Protestant and Reformed theology (of which Evangelicalism is the foremost example) is that they confuse the wedding with the marriage. They preach and teach as if the five solas were the end-all be-all of the Christian life.
In fact, the five solas, as incredibly helpful as they are, are woefully inadequate categories to squeeze the rest of the Christian life into. The redeemed, transformed individual and communal life of those who are married to God simply requires more categories than the five solas, which are designed to describe those who are coming into a new relationship with God through Christ. To gain the insights we need for what our "marriage" should look like, we will have to look at what the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have to say. We will have to consult the experiences and theology of Pentecostals, Charismatics, Saints, and Mystics through Church history. We will have to listen cautiously to the best insights of some of our "liberal" brothers and sisters when they speak of social justice, economic liberation, and ecology. We will have to read the Bible with new eyes. Not just the eyes of those preaching salvation to a lost world, but also the eyes of those walking with God as the bride of Christ.
Thank you deeply, Reformation, for helping to fix the wedding. Now let's work on the marriage!