The title is one of the core beliefs of the Lutheran church. It’s often… well, alright: it’s rarely heard at all. But by those who do hear it, it’s often misunderstood to mean this:
As a sort of special present, we’re offered a deal: in exchange for belief in Jesus’ divinity and agreement to serve His interests, He’ll intercede with His father to prevent the punishment we’d otherwise receive.
This is a cosmic blackmail scheme. I can’t imagine anyone happily follows such a God—with this understanding, one must either depart the Church in pride, or stew uncomfortably on it. But there are alternate explanations. For example, here’s one based on early chapters of Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time:
Humans were built as imperfect creatures. Part of that imperfection is a tendency to do things that make us and those around us unhappy. Part of that imperfection is a bad trade-off of risk vs. long term reward. We can call the behaviors based on these imperfections sin.
With this understanding of sin, we can see why the designer of mankind might want to issue a patch. We might prefer, in the interests of ourselves and our ancestors, that he’d issued it further in the past. Why was this done only after thousands of years of human history? I’m not sure, and that’s a subject for another post. For now, consider that it might be ineffable and it might be a requirement for human society to evolve to a certain point from its origins. That’s a terrible sort of answer, and I look forward to expanding on it later.
We can call the patch justification. We are irregular and broken: we commit unjust acts. It would be nice to repair humanity and human society. Sometimes this justification is thought of as being saved from an external source of sin. Then we call it salvation. I’m going to stick with the term justification, though, to emphasize that this is about internal changes to individuals and communities being made just.
We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
That is, we cannot repair the brokenness within ourselves. We can teach our children to be better than we are, but not better enough to fix this. We can construct Utopian artificial societies… but they turn into horrors. We need help from outside the system to repair the system. That help is called grace. But maybe we can help! Maybe there’s something we can do to accept the helpful patch and assist in its application! Well, for more reasons that I won’t go into here, we can’t. This is an open debate within the Christian community. The old Lutheran dogma says grace alone, but Catholics and others will tell you that good works are required. What’s a good work? Charity, benevolence, just rule and obedient service… and belief. Belief as a requirement for salvation is part of the technical term “good work.” When Lutherans write “grace alone,” we mean that you don’t have to hold to any particular dogma to receive justification. There is no test to pass—and therefore no test to study for. Nothing humanity can do, individually or collectively, can help it receive justification.
That could be the end of the message. We could say “By grace alone we are justified.” Sometimes we do: a different Lutheran creed says simply, “Grace alone.” The creed I used in the title says a bit more, though. It tells us what the patch looks like: what change will be made to humans and to humanity in order to justify us.
We are offered (by grace) a new relationship with God. In the distant past, God spoke only to a few prophets. Even fewer spoke back. Most people did not have a meaningful relationship with God. If you were lucky, you lived in a place that knew God’s laws for how mankind should believe. But Law is a narrow channel for a relationship: most people today don’t have a relationship with their government, for example. The new relationship that is offered to us is faith.
Faith is not belief or adherence to doctrine. Faith is participation in a relationship with God. It’s not a demanded creed to which we must subscribe in order to receive the patch of justification. It is the patch of justification: a change in the relationship between God and Man, initiated and sustained by God’s unilateral action. That is, the process of justification operates through faith, not as a magic trick performed after faith.
By grace alone through faith we are justified.
Now we can understand this as a statement densely packed with technical terms:
Grace: action by God above and beyond what he committed to in prior covenants with Man.
Alone: unilateral action. When we say “by grace alone,” we mean that only grace accounts for the phenomenon described.
By: a description of initiatory mechanism: the reason why something comes to be.
Faith: participation in a relationship with God.
Through: a description of operating mechanism: the means by which something comes to be. When we say “through faith,” we mean that the described phenomenon operates by means of faith.
We: Mankind, collectively, individually, and as the communities intermediate between the individual and the species.
Justified: repaired, such that we are no longer troubled by sin.
Are: present indicative. When we say we “are justified,” we mean that the process of justification is continuous and ongoing. We have not been justified in a way that operated and then ceased, completed. We are justified each day anew by the continued operation of a faith that exists by continued operation of grace.
Sin: flaws in the operation of Man (see “We” above).