Okay, confessed heretic that I am, I have openly admitted I have little to no faith in the biblical description of God’s grace. Such grace, in the Pauline sense of the Greek word, charis, is God’s gift of forgiveness in exchange for human faith in Christ’s broken body, shed blood and sacrificial death upon the cross. Why? Such grace is unmerited because, by rights, we have all sinned before God as evidenced by our violation of God’s righteous Law given to the Jews, and we all deserve to die for our sins. At least this is my own best interpretation of Paul’s biblical letter to the Romans. Such grace makes two rather implicit assumptions as we read about Paul’s own faith in God’s grace: 1) God’s wrath is justified according to the Law, and 2) God’s justifying grace comes to us ONLY IF, by faith, we believe Christ’s blood sacrifice is enough to fully bring closure to God’s wrath. First, there is the matter of God’s justice; then comes the matter of God’s mercy. Paul writes of this mercy using the word, charis, meaning grace..
Foundational to these two assumptions made by Paul in his own soteriology, or study of how we become atoned with the God from whom our sin separates us, is this: God is so angry with us that nothing less than a bloody death of torture on the altar of crucifixion can relieve that anger. God is so pissed off at human nature as he has created it to be that we must all suffer unless some scapegoat is provided to suffer in our stead.
Where did such a foundational understanding of justifying grace ever get started? Where in the world did we ever come to believe God is a God of wrath, and we must all “earn” his grace or else?
As best I can understand using the help of Christian anthropologists and Genesis scholars such as Alice Linsley, the Kushite people from whence the biblical Abraham came had only one pre-scientific way of explaining why bad things happened in our world: the gods must be angry. How else could the ancients have explained human illness, suffering, death, or even the forces of natural disaster? Yes, indeed the gods must be angry. Their wrath brought forth great human suffering. If you’re interested in further information about this , you may try reading Alice’s blog sometime: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2014/04/index-of-topics-at-just-genesis.html
How then, according to the ancients, could humans ever act to appease the gods? What did the young biblical Abram learn in his own family of origin about satisfying the gods’ angry demand for punishment? The answer is to be found in the ritual sacrifice of a favored animal, the outpouring of animal blood upon the ancient altars unearthed by our modern Archeologists in the area of Abram’s childhood, the Mesopotamian lands we now call Syria, Iraq and Turkey. And while this same Abram/Abraham came to be the father of monotheism upon discovery of the One we call God, he brought with him to Canaan these foundational assumptions: 1) this Holy One is justified in being angry, and 2) by use of a blood sacrifice, we can have faith this anger will end and mercy, or grace, thus be received from the Holy One.
The Hebrew word, hen, carried forth the notion that God gives grace as a favor when what we really deserve is punishment, mercy when what we really deserve is justice. Justifying grace, then is really just justice with God’s mercy attached. The Greek word, charis, that follows then connects the “saving faith” of Abraham with Moses and so on through Gamaliel with Saul/Paul. We may think in reading scripture that Abraham totally cancels out Abram, Peter cancels out Simon, and Paul cancels out Saul. But, perhaps unfortunately, human nature as God created it does not work that way. But I digress.
I no longer believe in the grace Paul wrote about through his Hebrew connection with Father Abraham. I no longer place my faith in hen as Abraham understood the term, or in charis as used by Paul. As to the question of what “saved by grace” really means, my answer is best explained using the Greek word, agape, originating with Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus did not speak of God’s grace but rather God’s agape love, unconditional love, the kind that casts out fear and that brings about God’s Kingdom of shalom. Agape is what happens from within our souls, connecting to God’s own soul or Holy Spirit, when we decide with our minds to love the people we do not like. Those who are even our enemies. In fairness to the biblical Paul, he used that term, agape, as well to connect with Jesus. “But God demonstrates his own agape for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” — Romans 5:8. It is this connection that supersedes Paul’s earlier connection with Abraham, whose faith is in God’s own charis as earned by someone else’s sacrificial death.
If you’re staying with me at all on this topic, let me now try wrapping up with this amended statement of faith on my own part, heretical as it may sound to many of you: I believe we are saved by God’s free agape and not by his earned charis. The latter term, or grace, means God must change (by the enormous power our faith has to change God’s own mind, I presume) from One of wrath to One of peace, from One of justice to One of mercy, from One of punishment to One of forgiveness, from One of taking from us to One of giving to us, from One of merited spite to One of unmerited favor. In my own mind, God was never like that in the first place so has no need to change or relent. Only the gods of those like the ancient Mesopotamian culture from which Abraham came were like that in the first place. We no longer need place our faith in such grace (or such divine grace in the hands of our own human faith). It is now, through Christ, enough to accept God’s agape love for our salvation. Agape that has always been and always will be, for everyone, free, no strings attached, no blood required, nor even any human faith required. Agape saves us from our fear of God and from our belief in God’s wrath and righteous indignation. We are, IMHO, only justified, unified, atoned, reconciled, saved by God’s unconditional love.
So am I still a heretic?